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:

2018.7.31 singular of 'dates'

Other times, I fall into pedantry myself:

2018.7.10 not-so-thinly veiled

Even worse, I may lapse into jokes about units of measure:

2018.7.26 hours per mile

Or cough up dense hairballs like this cartoon:

2018.7.24 contrapositive function

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. 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.

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

  3. 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.

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