# The Persistent Pedantry of the Mathematical Mind

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.

## 7 thoughts on “The Persistent Pedantry of the Mathematical Mind”

1. Doug M says:

I like those math words that have sometimes unrelated meaning in the common vernacular.

Rational — Logical, sensible, coherent, intelligent, enlightened, prudent, able of being expressed as a ratio of integers.

Integer — from the Latin, whole, entire, pure, honest.
related words, integrate — combine to make whole.
integral — necessary

Radical — affecting the fundamental nature of something. From the Latin radish or root.

1. Hyperbolic (adjective form of both hyperbola/hyperbole)

2. Thomas says:

The contrapositive function is actually pretty close to functions (or more generally, functors), that arise in category theory.

1. Weird! I guess one of these days I’ll have to learn what a functor is

3. Spencer Moreno says:

Clever on cartoon for the “dates singular is datum”… I was about to correct it and then I realized that’s the joke… correcting the joke is pedantic itself. Almost got me, but very clever.