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”
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.
Hyperbolic (adjective form of both hyperbola/hyperbole)
The contrapositive function is actually pretty close to functions (or more generally, functors), that arise in category theory.
Weird! I guess one of these days I’ll have to learn what a functor is
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.