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?

This entry was posted in Words. Bookmark the permalink.

65 Responses to Math(s)

  1. Shecky R says:

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

  2. Pieter says:

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

  3. chris y says:

    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?

  4. AI says:

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

  5. Doug Little says:

    For me growing up in Australia I always used maths.

  6. Chris says:

    Apparently we need more English for scientists 😀

  7. Brett says:

    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!

  8. ellipsis says:

    if z is zed, then d is dead

  9. meh says:

    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.

  10. Bill J. says:

    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”.

  11. notovny says:

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

  12. Bob Iles says:

    @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.

  13. Phil P says:

    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.

  14. Kevin says:

    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.

  15. Kaleberg says:

    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.

  16. Nattering Nabob says:

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

  17. chris y says:

    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.

  18. Phil P says:

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

  19. John R Ramsden says:

    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.

  20. Bob D says:

    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.

  21. Bob D says:

    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 🙂

  22. IW says:

    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….

  23. Ray Moscow says:

    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?

  24. marcel says:

    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.

  25. Phil P says:

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