The Sciences

Math(s)

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollAug 14, 2012 7:06 PM

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I feel the need to comment on a war -- a war, I tell you! -- that has broken out on the Twitters. It all started when @JenLucPiquant put up a very thoughtful and important blog post at Cocktail Party Physics, about the importance of math education even for people who are not math-o-philes. Being the supportive spouse that I am, I took to Twitter to spread the word:

Sean Carroll ‏@seanmcarroll Math is part of what makes us human. Don't withhold it from kids just because it's hard. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2012/08/14/make-us-do-the-math/

The irrepressible Ed Yong, being helpful, forwarded the message to his own followers:

Ed Yong ‏@edyong209 MT @seanmcarroll: Maths is part of what makes us human. Don't withhold it from kids just because it's hard. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2012/08/14/make-us-do-the-math/

Notice the sneaky move here. In Twitterland, "RT" stands for "retweet," where you simply pass along someone else's thought unmolested. "MT," on the other hand, stands for "modified tweet," indicating that you have also taken up the mantle of editor as well as publisher. It can be very helpful even when the original tweet was unimprovable, since you sometimes need to edit a retweet just to stay within the character limit. This was not one of those times. Ed, being from the Old Country, believes in "Maths" rather than "Math," and felt the need to update my tweet accordingly. Not being one to take these editorial liberties lying down, I replied:

Sean Carroll ‏@seanmcarroll @edyong209 Really? "Maths is"?

Not to be cowed, Ed stood his ground:

Ed Yong ‏@edyong209 @seanmcarroll yep. Takes the singular. Like physics.

This naturally attracted the attention of the tiny subset of folks who care just as much about the nuances of good English usage as they do the nuances of math:

Zach Weinersmith ‏@ZachWeiner @seanmcarroll @edyong209 Statistics = stats. Economics = econ. There is no unified system for S usage! minutephysics ‏@minutephysics @ZachWeiner @seanmcarroll @edyong209 Mathematics = maths... no, math... no ...AHHHHHHHHHHHH

Except that, I would claim, there certainly is a unified system for S usage! At least within this very tiny sample of disciplinary labels. (The singular/plural debate is a red herring, the real question is whether there should be an "s" tacked on to "math.") Here it is:

Is the word in question an abbreviation for a longer word? If no: just use the word, without alteration. If yes: Does the word stand for more than one thing? (E.g., more than one "statistic"?) If no, don't stick an "s" onto the end of the abbreviation. If yes, go right ahead and include the "s."

"Physics" is just a word with an "s" at the end, not an abbreviation. "Econ" is an abbreviation for a singular concept, and doesn't get an "s." "Stats" is an abbreviation for a plural concept, and gets an "s." Because "mathematics" is not the plural of "mathematic," there's no reason for its abbreviation to retain the vestigal "s." Or so I would argue, were I a prescriptivist rather than a descriptivist. I'm not, but I can certainly appreciate the temptation. Aren't you glad I resist?

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