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To read mathematics, you need a hyper-literal mindset, a sense of syntactical precision.
But we math fans have the unfortunate habit of bringing that precision to our dealings in English, where it can ferment into a kind of pedantry.
I wrestle with this.
Sometimes, it takes the form of mocking pedants:
Other times, I fall into pedantry myself:
Even worse, I may lapse into jokes about units of measure:
Or cough up dense hairballs like this cartoon:
This tendency poses particular challenges when the two linguistic worlds meet – when we’re trying to write about mathematics, but in plain English.
The topic demands formal precision, yet the medium demands a reader-friendly conversational rhythm.
Sometimes, when I’m discussing a topic – Weierstrass’s function, say, or Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem – I can see the mathematically experienced folks in the audience running my words through a kind of real-time fact-check.
Pursed lips means “that’s wrong.”
Grudging nod means “imprecise, but not inaccurate,” and are the highest prize available in this rigged game.