Math(s)

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?

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65 Responses to Math(s)

  1. Mike says:

    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.

  2. Phil Plait says:

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

  3. Andrew Jaffe says:

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

  4. Zombie says:

    And yet, “the Twitters”.

  5. pete says:

    #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.

  6. Daniel Arovas says:

    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.

  7. deirdrebeth says:

    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.)

  8. Paul Hartzer says:

    “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

  9. Razib Khan says:

    yong is wrong, hands down!

  10. Leonard Skinnard says:

    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).

  11. David says:

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

  12. David Hillis says:

    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.

  13. David Hillis says:

    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!

  14. 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.

  15. triangle says:

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

  16. DaveH says:

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

  17. MattR says:

    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”. 🙂

  18. magetoo says:

    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.

  19. Baby Bones says:

    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.

  20. Dr. K says:

    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”.

  21. David Hillis says:

    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!

  22. 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.

  23. Pieter says:

    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?).

  24. Biff says:

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

  25. Jake Hill says:

    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.