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Jun 21 2013

Math or maths?

A linguist American living in the UK explains the difference. Apparently there’s a folk etymology built up that “math” is plural because “mathematics” ends with an S. But that’s not the only reason something might end with an S — there’s also the collective noun, like “linguistics”.

Interestingly, she’s gone native, saying “maths” despite knowing better, just to avoid the fight. I’m thinking now about other language patterns or other “in-group signals” that people might evince just to avoid a fight despite knowing better.

24 comments

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  1. 1
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Similarly I gather its supposed to be “folk” but I’ve always used “folks” as the collective for a group of people and also more specifically for family. (Shrug) Somehow just sounds more natural and better IMHON.

  2. 2
    nkrishna

    Interesting. “Maths” is given a prescriptivist reason for the S (S in “mathematics”), but descriptively it’s still singular (takes a singular verb). This is a case of American English being slightly more conservative than British English and “truer” to the old form. Funnily, the same is true for some aspects of the southern dialects of American English, both in pronunciation and vocabulary (e.g. “ain’t” as a contraction of “am not”–”amn’t” attested 1618), but due to historical accident, these are regarded as some of the most nonstandard forms of American English.

  3. 3
    left0ver1under

    Why worry? People are saying the same number of “S”s.

    The British say “maths and sport”. Canadians and Americans say “math and sports”.

  4. 4
    left0ver1under

    Addendum: Is mathematics really a singular or plural? I see it as a rare collective uncountable with a plural S ending, like vegetables or clothes where we use “are” and not “is”.

    My parents were British ex-pats, and I grew up with many of these. I love screwing with Americans by using terms I grew up with (“aluminium”, “I haven’t any” and not “I don’t have any”).

  5. 5
    grumpyoldfart

    It is definitely “maths”. Trust me – I know about these things.

  6. 6
    Eamon Knight

    I think Brits also tend to the company they work for as “my employers” rather than “my employer”. And in my parents’ (English born, emigrated to Canada in 1953) filing cabinet was a divider bearing the pencilled legend “INSURANCES”.

    My own usage is bit of blend of British and North American (such as using the word “bit” back there).

  7. 7
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    When I was little, I used to spell the color “grey” because I thought it looked cooler than “gray”.
    When I got tired of programming APIs not understanding, I gave that up.
     
    On the other hand, “Aluminium” feels like a word too uncanny for everyday objects.
     
    Article: Grammerist – Gray vs. Grey
     
    Article: World Wide Words – Aluminium vs. Aluminum

  8. 8
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    @StevoR #1:

    Similarly I gather its supposed to be “folk” but I’ve always used “folks” as the collective for a group of people and also more specifically for family.

    Article: Grammarphobia – Is “folks” too folksy?

  9. 9
    alanuk

    Grammarphobia? Ah! we have another example of a Greek adjective converted into a noun – in English: grammarphobis.

    Grammarnazi – clearly a Greek adjective – can be converted into a noun: grammarnazia.

    Back in the real world – mathematics should be abbreviated either:

    Math.

    or

    Math’s.

    Notice the capital letter and full stop in the first case and the use of the apostrophe in the second to denote missing letters.

  10. 10
    Data Jack

    Don’t forget the much hated “incent”. What a terrible non-word that I hear all the time.

  11. 11
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    alanuk

    You’ve an extra apostrophe, there. It’s “maths”, no apostrophe.

  12. 12
    yazikus

    Aluminium vs. Aluminum

    For several years in school I thought these were two separate elements. For real. I’d attended a school with mostly american teachers for middle school, was then home schooled briefly, and then attended a school with mostly british teachers. I still mess up a lot of spellings with “s” rather than “z”, and will occasionally ask my partner to grab me something from the boot when camping. Grey vs. gray? No clue.

  13. 13
    alanuk

    Please do not take my post too seriously. I have put the apostrophe in maths to indicate that letters are missing as in don’t.

    Of course don’t is a contraction of two words. One would not abbreviate a single word in this way.

    Likewise the use of a full stop after math is appropriate to indicate letters missing at the end. However math has become an accepted word in its own right and needs no punctuation.

    Using both marks is a complete nonsense. The initial capital is only appropriate at the start of a sentence not like the capital in Mr.

  14. 14
    Jason Thibeault

    Ahahaha. I’m with alanuk: math’s is perfect for people who think it’s plural. Another reason to make them think it’s plural.

  15. 15
    Donovan

    “Peas” was originally a collective noun, used similarly to fish, deer, or corn. This is why we have pea soup, but the much older peas porridge. It seems that “peas” became “pea” when literacy became more prevalent. The “s” was seen as indicating plural, so it was dropped to refer to the singular.

    (source: Dr. Donoghue, Professor, Harvard English Department)

  16. 16
    mildlymagnificent

    I’ve always thought of it as an occasional contraction for the disciplines that have that plural sounding -ics ending – mathematics, physics, linguistics, economics, statistics, politics – maths and stats being the only ones that have the contraction at all.

    The -y ending disciplines like chemistry, biology, history, botany, anatomy, philosophy, geography? I know a lot of people talk about ‘chem labs’ but very rarely do you see such a contraction in writing apart from as a space-saver in a timetable or directory.

  17. 17
    Robert B.

    I’ve never been outside the US, but with no excuse at all I spell it grey or gray pretty much at random. I need to consult a spell checker to figure out which one I’m supposed to think is right.

    And while I do teach math, and “maths” would be an obvious Britticism, I’m not sure I’d even notice whether someone had said “stats” or “stat” to abbreviate the subject of statistics.

  18. 18
    Eamon Knight

    “stats” or “stat” to abbreviate the subject of statistics.

    I’ve (Canadian) never heard “stat” for statistics. When I was studying such formally, I generally referred to the course as “stats” or “probs and stats” (= Probability and Statistics), or later “stochastics” (=Stochastic Processes).

  19. 19
    left0ver1under

    Eamon Knight (#18)

    I’ve (Canadian) never heard “stat” for statistics.

    Likewise, although you no doubt call it the “STAT” function on a calculator.

  20. 20
    Karen Locke

    I was a young American computer engineer when I was thrown into the company of a collection of British ex-pats. We had lots of discussions about the common language that separated us, and I learned the British meanings of such things as boot, bonnet, spanner, and rubber. (Apparently that last caused some embarrassing confusion when my friends first came to the U.S.) In that first job we had to read and write a lot of documents because we were military contractors. I soon learned to un-distinguish British and American writing styles, and focus on the content. We worked together for many years (they were far more helpful than most of their American colleagues to a young engineer) and the history still dogs me. More than occasionally I have to revise the spelling of a word because I’ve used the British equivalent… and I quit working with these guys in 1991.

  21. 21
    Sili

    A linguist American living in the UK explains the difference.

    Lynneguist from Separated by a Common Language?

  22. 22
    piscador

    ‘ve got (AmEng I have) a foot in both camps, being an American who emigrated to Australia (which is primarily BrEng for vocabulary and grammar) at the age of fifteen.

    I’m an English language teacher and I regularly have arguments discussions with colleagues about “proper” English. Thanks to Google, it’s relatively easy to find background information about the topic at issue. Some of the interesting facts I’ve found:

    -got vs. gotten: this was a particularly heated discussion. Americans use gotten, which seems to inflame British sensibilities. In fact, gotten was in common use in BrEng until a century or so ago. It’s fun to point out that Brits still use forgotten.

    - aluminum vs aluminium: the former spelling/pronunciation is the traditional one: Brits changed changed the spelling to make it consistent with the other elements.

    - from personal experience, I was rather surprised to hear Australians use the word reckon quite frequently. I assumed that it had been introduced by Hollywood westerns, but no, it’s an old English word that has fallen out of favour (favor) in the States but is still used in other English speaking countries.

  23. 23
    Jason Thibeault

    piscador: I love this comment. So much.

  24. 24
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @8. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain : cheers for that – much appreciated.

    (Another Aussie here who uses “reckon” a lot too.)

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