Math(s)

By Sean Carroll | August 14, 2012 3:06 pm

I feel the need to comment on a war — a war, I tell you! — that has broken out on the Twitters.

It all started when @JenLucPiquant put up a very thoughtful and important blog post at Cocktail Party Physics, about the importance of math education even for people who are not math-o-philes. Being the supportive spouse that I am, I took to Twitter to spread the word:

Sean Carroll ‏@seanmcarroll
Math is part of what makes us human. Don’t withhold it from kids just because it’s hard. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2012/08/14/make-us-do-the-math/

The irrepressible Ed Yong, being helpful, forwarded the message to his own followers:

Ed Yong ‏@edyong209
MT @seanmcarroll: Maths is part of what makes us human. Don’t withhold it from kids just because it’s hard. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2012/08/14/make-us-do-the-math/

Notice the sneaky move here. In Twitterland, “RT” stands for “retweet,” where you simply pass along someone else’s thought unmolested. “MT,” on the other hand, stands for “modified tweet,” indicating that you have also taken up the mantle of editor as well as publisher. It can be very helpful even when the original tweet was unimprovable, since you sometimes need to edit a retweet just to stay within the character limit. This was not one of those times. Ed, being from the Old Country, believes in “Maths” rather than “Math,” and felt the need to update my tweet accordingly.

Not being one to take these editorial liberties lying down, I replied:

Sean Carroll ‏@seanmcarroll
@edyong209 Really? “Maths is”?

Not to be cowed, Ed stood his ground:

Ed Yong ‏@edyong209
@seanmcarroll yep. Takes the singular. Like physics.

This naturally attracted the attention of the tiny subset of folks who care just as much about the nuances of good English usage as they do the nuances of math:

Zach Weinersmith ‏@ZachWeiner
@seanmcarroll @edyong209 Statistics = stats. Economics = econ. There is no unified system for S usage!

minutephysics ‏@minutephysics
@ZachWeiner @seanmcarroll @edyong209 Mathematics = maths… no, math… no …AHHHHHHHHHHHH

Except that, I would claim, there certainly is a unified system for S usage! At least within this very tiny sample of disciplinary labels. (The singular/plural debate is a red herring, the real question is whether there should be an “s” tacked on to “math.”) Here it is:

Is the word in question an abbreviation for a longer word?

If no: just use the word, without alteration.

If yes:

Does the word stand for more than one thing? (E.g., more than one “statistic”?)

If no, don’t stick an “s” onto the end of the abbreviation.

If yes, go right ahead and include the “s.”

“Physics” is just a word with an “s” at the end, not an abbreviation. “Econ” is an abbreviation for a singular concept, and doesn’t get an “s.” “Stats” is an abbreviation for a plural concept, and gets an “s.” Because “mathematics” is not the plural of “mathematic,” there’s no reason for its abbreviation to retain the vestigal “s.”

Or so I would argue, were I a prescriptivist rather than a descriptivist. I’m not, but I can certainly appreciate the temptation. Aren’t you glad I resist?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Words
  • http://madsoftware.blogspot.com Mike

    I am going to make a lot of people mad by saying that it annoys the hell out of me how a bunch of scientists decided that data is a count noun unlike the REST OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING PUBLIC. When you use it like a mass noun, you sound like either an idiot or a uppity academic. It’s that sort of crap that makes Joe Public think all scientists are elitist snobs.

  • http://plus.google.com/108952536790629690817/posts Phil Plait

    Each datum you present is interesting and your data are convincing.

  • http://andrewjaffe.net/blog Andrew Jaffe

    To confuse things further: “sports” (cf. “sport” in the UK, where they say “maths”)

  • Zombie

    And yet, “the Twitters”.

  • pete

    #3 Andrew – I posted on Google+ just the other day about this very discussion – maths+sport vs math+sports. (https://plus.google.com/109193002876256975385/posts/LuJNQwDusQ8)

    And I think that the compression of Economics into a singular is a non-starter. I think it’s the word form – math and econ are simple abbreviations; while one studies Statistics to avoid becoming a statistic, so the plural abbreviation is to clarify the meaning.

  • Daniel Arovas

    As Andrew Hacker warns, one in four ninth graders will drop out of school, possibly because of irreconcilable confusion between “math” and “maths”. Better to avoid the subject entirely.

  • deirdrebeth

    I think you may have broken your own logic. The original sentence: “Math is part of what makes us human.”

    Would you say:
    “Mathmatic is part of what makes us human. Don’t withhold it from kids just because it’s hard.”
    or would it be “Mathmatics is part…” If that logic is sound, then it would be “Maths…”

    (oh, and thank you for clarifying what MT was – I modify tweets all the time to make them fit and didn’t know about the RT/MT distinction.)

  • http://herosgarden.com Paul Hartzer

    “Because “mathematics” is not the plural of “mathematic,” ”

    Actually, it is. Or rather, like “statistics”, it is a plural concept; cf. “learnings”.

    mathematic
    late 14c. as singular noun, replaced by early 17c. by mathematics, from L. mathematica (pl.), from Gk. mathematike tekhne “mathematical science,” feminine singular of mathematikos (adj.) “relating to mathematics, scientific, astronomical; disposed to learn,” from mathema (gen. mathematos) “science, knowledge, mathematical knowledge; a lesson,” lit. “that which is learnt;” related to manthanein “to learn,” from PIE root *mendh- “to learn” (cf. Gk. menthere “to care,” Lith. mandras “wide-awake,” O.C.S. madru “wise, sage,” Goth. mundonsis “to look at,” Ger. munter “awake, lively”). As an adjective, 1540s, from Fr. mathématique or directly from L. mathematicus. — http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=mathematics&searchmode=none

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    yong is wrong, hands down!

  • Leonard Skinnard

    You statement that mathematics is not a plural is not backed up by dictionaries. Both Oxford and Merriam-Webster list mathematics as a plural noun, although like some other plural nouns (ethics, politics, etc.) it is usually used as a singular. So maths is correct (it IS technically a plural noun).

  • David

    If the LHC finds supersymmetry, then it can be smath.

  • David Hillis

    As someone who studies evolutionary history, I celebrate the little derived differences that develop among different local dialects of languages. All languages evolve, and when sufficiently isolated in geographical regions, they evolve in different ways. Ed Yong also tweeted recently about being upset about the pronunciation of “niche” among ecologists; American ecologists tend to use the ancestral pronunciation of this word (as it was first coined and used in English in the ecological context, by the American Grinnell, although the earlier derivation of the word into English was from French), whereas British ecologists usually pronounce it more as it would be pronounced in French. I’d say that both American and French ecologists can claim to be “correct” in some sense. The opposite pattern is true for pronunciation and even spelling of other words derived from French, such as filet/fillet, where British tend to use the ancestral English pronunciation but Americans (probably influenced by our interactions with the French in early colonial America) use the French pronunciation and spelling. Many grammatical “Americanisms” that British find funny are retained from ancestral English usage; in other cases, Americans clearly use the derived form (especially true for spellings). Although there are many exceptions, Americans tend to use more ancestral grammar and pronunciations, but more derived spellings. That means that the plays of Shakespeare are somewhat more “authentic” if performed with a modern American, rather than a modern British, accent (I’m sure that this would raise more eyebrows than “math” versus “maths”, however). In many other cases, the languages diverged as arbitrary decisions were made as new technologies developed (which explains why the British wait for the Royal Mail to deliver the post, whereas Americans wait for the Postal Service to deliver the mail). I say relax and celebrate the differences, and realize (or realise) that with languages, “correct” is defined by local usage. So I’d argue that both “math” and “maths” are correct, and one should be bilingual enough to know both languages.

  • David Hillis

    Whoops, I even created a derived spelling for Ed Yong in that last post [now corrected]…I’ve spent too much time in the United States, I guess!

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/102948797489911917810/posts William Summer

    The license plate on my car reads “MATHS”….”MATH” was already taken! I would argue that mathematics is plural, encompassing all the differing types of maths.

  • triangle

    I suggest using a non-english language and all distrating confusions will be wiped out

  • DaveH

    If you were British you would come up with a perfectly logical reason why it’s maths not math.

  • MattR

    I have always used “maths” growing up in Australia.

    Traditionally, if you abbreviate a word you either need to include a period (Dr. = Drive, St. = Street) or it should include the last letter (Dr = Doctor, St = Saint), so by this logic, the alternative would be “math.”.

    BTW, my mum’s family is Scottish-Australian and my dad is American (Devil’s Lake, ND), so I grew up with both. I don’t necessarily think one is ‘correct’; rather I think of it as an indicator of whence the speaker/writer hails which can be handy for context.

    Also, “Lego”, not “legos”. :-)

  • magetoo

    David Hillis:

    Although there are many exceptions, Americans tend to use more ancestral grammar and pronunciations, but more derived spellings. That means that the plays of Shakespeare are somewhat more “authentic” if performed with a modern American, rather than a modern British, accent.

    That would depend on what American and British accents you pick, surely? (Although if you mean RP, I wouldn’t be surprised.)

    Speaking of authentic, this might be interesting for people in the thread: Shakespeare: Original pronunciation (Open University)

    It is about how the plays would have sounded originally and how we can know it, why getting the pronunciation right brings out the dirty puns, and definitely worth ten minutes.

  • Baby Bones

    I once new a mathematician who left Canada for Britain saying math, math, math and came back after six months saying math smath smaths. Which is really vierd, because I had a lot of British math and science teachers during my school days and not one ever said maths.

    Niftier than maths is how “a number of” is used with plural nouns. As my students tell me, English is a crazy language.

  • Dr. K

    I usually don’t like arguments from authority, but hell, I actually have a PhD in linguistics, so listen to me.

    Here are the results of some fieldwork that I just conducted

    http://www.google.com/trends/?q=%22math%22,%22maths%22&geo=usa&sa=N

    http://www.google.com/trends/?q=%22math%22,%22maths%22&ctab=0&geo=gb&geor=all&date=all&sort=0

    The US uses “math” almost exclusively. The UK uses “maths” a very large percentage of the time, but there is a non-negligible residue of “math”

    This means that it is a meaningless debate. It is like arguing whether the machine that takes you to and from the higher floors of a building should be called a “lift” or an “elevator”. Perhaps more closely related is the issue of whether the word “tomato” should be pronounced /to.’ma:to/ or /to.’mei.to/. Each dialect has its own way of doing things, and that’s all there is to it. If you are American, say “math”. If you are British, say “maths”.

  • David Hillis

    Magetoo: Yes, of course, it does depend on which of many different American and British accents one considers. They are all undoubtedly derived to one extent or another, so I was speaking in broad generalities. In parts of southern Appalachia, one can hear some grammatical constructs otherwise unused in English since Elizabethan times.

    I first formally studied English in grade school in India, where British English was taught. As an adult, I’ve mostly lived in the United States, so I had to learn American English to speak with the natives (especially in rural areas, where a strange accent just earns a bewildered stare). I think, if one simply treats the two as distinct languages, then all the arguments about which is “correct” go away, and we can celebrate the differences. I’ve even manged to learn Texan, complete with the complex plural for you (all y’all).

    I enjoyed the link that you provided!

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    I’m still avoiding twitter. :-)

    However, this language debate got me wondering whether its etymology is derived from the noun corresponding to the first four letters.

  • Pieter

    I have to chime in on this important issue!

    Sean, you are making up a rule to justify your use of “math”. You are able to do so because there are only a few cases where it applies (are there any more examples besides stats and maths?).

  • Biff

    You’ll be telling me that there’s no ‘u’ in colour next :p

  • http://telescopereviewsandinfo.com/ Jake Hill

    That was funny. And to think that this whole thing started with a tweet that was meant to spread support for Math despite its difficulty. From Math to English. But if you ask me, I’d say Math would be more important than English. I mean, as long as people can communicate with each other than that’s okay. Your English doesn’t need to be perfect. Math requires certain mastery unlike English. Some of the best English-speaking people I know still make grammatical errors.

  • http://math-frolic.blogspot.com Shecky R

    It pains me to go against Ed Yong (and, the entire continent of Australia), but “Maths” is just too hard/awkward to say…

  • Pieter

    For the definitive discussion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnAg-yJ6pko (about 6 minutes in).

  • chris y

    but “Maths” is just too hard/awkward to say…

    No, not that hard. How many deaths has it caused? How many different paths would you take to avoid it?

  • AI

    See, even the name of the subject is too hard.

  • Doug Little

    For me growing up in Australia I always used maths.

  • Chris

    Apparently we need more English for scientists :-D

  • Brett

    I consider it similar to being in a company and discussing “product”. You wouldn’t say ” how’s the products? ” you would say ” How’s the product?” It’s true like Dr. K said; in america, ‘math’ became a new word while it remains an abbreviation in England. So to those who complain about the S, let’s call it even for WWII. AWW SNAP!

  • ellipsis

    if z is zed, then d is dead

  • meh

    I’m saying this with the full understanding that it will probably be deleted:

    What stupid bastard actually promotes the idea that people shouldn’t learn Algebra? Let me guess; he wears a scarf, glasses, and writes at a coffee house in New York.

  • Bill J.

    David Hillis: You may find it helpful in your dealings with Texans to also know the plural form of y’all. It is, of course, “all y’all”.

  • notovny

    In the U.S., Sport beat up Maths and took its “s.”

  • Bob Iles

    @28 “deaths & paths”
    Actually, this is a false analogy. In American English (I don’t know about British) the “th” sound usually drops & the “s” is pronounced either like “ess” or like “z,” depending on whether the “th” sound is voiceless or voiced. So “deaths” woulds sound like “dess,” “paths” like “paz,” etc. Another example is “clothes,” which we pronounce as if it were spelled “cloze.” This works with other consonant combinations as well, so that “desks” comes out like “dess.” This is very common. Another example, somewhat different, is how “think” often comes out as “hink” so “I think so” sounds like “I hink so.” This is all unconscious, of course, so we don’t even realize we do it unless we hear a recording of it.

  • http://swingthebat.net Phil P

    Isn’t Mathematics a collective noun, in that we say “mathematics is difficult” vice “mathematics are difficult”? Which would the British use, is or are? Somehow “Maths is difficult” is difficult to say.

  • Kevin

    Americans dropped the s because it scared them to think that there was more than one math. Brits added it back on because they want something else to snicker about under their breath when Americans come ’round. DONE.

  • Kaleberg

    Hillis: My favorite is how the British pronounce potpourri. In the States, it’s poe-poor-eee. In England, they tend to say pott-poor-eee. This fits with your observed pattern.

    My favorite is the way the British say things like, “There is your tax at work.” while Americans say “There are your taxes at work.” Definitely a difference, but the usual irony is the same.

  • Nattering Nabob

    Enough of this. I want more posts about the Higg boson.

  • chris y

    The M word (long form), however spelled, is derived from the Greek τά μαθηματικά. This is a plural form, but specifically a neuter plural, which in ancient Greek governed a singular form of the verb. Therefore “Maths” is pedantically correct and “Maths is” is even more pedantically correct.

    The form “Math” is, as far as I know, the accepted usage in the United States and pretty much nowhere else. As I am not a prescriptivist, I recommend that Americans carry on using it and the rest of the world should smile pityingly and pretend not to notice.

  • http://swingthebat.net Phil P

    Then again, in the UK it’s perfectly OK to “knock up your neighbor.” Here in the US, that’ll get you arrested.

  • John R Ramsden

    In view of this discussion, I wonder if the word “polymath” should really be “polymaths”, especially as the prefix “poly” means “many”.

    In that case when a polymaths joins others at a conference, they would be a group of polymathses.

  • Bob D

    The correct term for the UK is maths (singular noun), because that’s what is used.

    That’s how languages work.

    It’s not a complicated situation.

  • Bob D

    Also (@ Phil Plait) it’s correct in the UK to say kilometre with the stress on the second syllable rather than the first, because that’s what is said.

    Equally uncomplicated :)

  • IW

    If you don’t say “mathematics are my favorite subject”, then you don’t say “maths are my favorite subject”. It’s not rocket science, as I’m sure Ed Yong would agree….

  • Ray Moscow

    As a UK transplant, the usual argument I hear is that ‘maths’ are plural. However, ‘maths’ is usually used as a singular noun, and so the grammar is not consistent. Hey, it’s English: since when does it have to be consistent?

  • marcel

    Phil wrote:

    Somehow “Maths is difficult” is difficult to say.

    Well, that might be a point in favor of “maths”, unless, of course, it would discourage Barbie from even mentioning the subject at all.

    Phil P writes:

    Then again, in the UK it’s perfectly OK to “knock up your neighbor.” Here in the US, that’ll get you arrested.

    Only if she objects, and even then, the charge would be for something else than knocking her up.

    Bob Dwrites:

    The correct term for the UK is maths (singular noun) …

    Does that make London the capital of maths?

    Finally, returning to the OP, perhaps Ed Yong thinks he has a different audience than Sean and was merely translating his original tweat into the local dialect.

  • http://swingthebat.net Phil P

    Winston Churchill used to say that the UK and the US are “two nations separated by a common language.” Apparently so.

  • chris y

    Then again, in the UK it’s perfectly OK to “knock up your neighbor.” Here in the US, that’ll get you arrested.

    On the other hand, if somebody annoys you in the UK, you’d probably feel disinclined to blow them off.

  • OMF

    Who reads these twitter feeds anyway?

    Also, it’s Maths.

  • Oliver

    Ugh, descriptivists…

  • Eric Means

    I’m feeling inspired to fire off my own linguistic pet peeve after reading through the posts. The next time a clerk in a retail store points to some items and says, “this one costs a dollar, but THESE ONES cost two dollars”, I am going to reach across the counter and pop them.

    “THESE ONES”??? I hear it so !@#$% often that I think they must teach that at the University of Retail. It goes off like a klaxon announcing “I don’t need no school”.

    There. I guess I feel a bit better now.

  • Joe S

    Let’s go with Radiohead: Karma Police, arrest this man he talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge he’s like a detuned radio.

  • Ruslan

    Maybe a look into the etymology of the word would help? The word comes from the Greek verb “manthano” (sorry for not using the Greek alphabet), which means “to learn”. “Mathemata” – literally means “things that are learned.” You derive your own conclusion.

  • Toby

    ‘Physics’ is actually a plural of ‘physic’, which is an archaic term for a natural science.

    Another aspect of Brit english thay our treating singular nouns made of many individuals as plural nouns — ‘Arcade Fire are my favourite band’. I got some shocked faces from Americans the first time I used that one.

  • http://swingthebat.net Phil P

    Toby

    That is shocking. Arcade Fire are awful! ;-)

  • Curious George

    “Data” is plural. Or maybe “data” are singular.

  • Bob Iles

    @57 – Toby
    Huh! And all this time I thought that a physic was something you stuck up your ass so you could take a crap!

  • AnonymousSnowboarder

    Well, I just want to be clear that I stand on line while buying tickets and the like. Cheers to the other side of the pond ;)

  • William Wood

    All your math are belong to us.

  • Michael Turner

    Math’s problem… Not mines

  • Arvin Hill

    Way to go Sean, and other(s) – just joking. Like the way you argued your case on this one. My big pet peeve right now is so many seemingly intelligent people using English like baboons! Keep up the good work.

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    After you finish this debate you can move on to element number 13 in the periodic table, where the American and English words differ subtly.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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