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.

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