The Persistent Pedantry of the Mathematical Mind

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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:

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.

4 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.

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