Math vs. Maths.

Linguist Lynne Murphy, an American living in Britain, explains the math/maths situation in this video by Brady Haran. I was getting a little tense for the first couple of minutes as she went on about the rationalizations people gave for thinking maths was somehow better, but then she made the essential point that it was just a matter of habit, and from then on it’s a brilliant exposition of how the forms developed, starting with Ancient Greek. I highly recommend watching it; it’s less than seven minutes long, and you can have the added entertainment of noticing the ways in which her native US English has been affected by the UK environment she’s been in since the year 2000. (I’m pleased to see from her faculty page, linked above, that she got her B.A. in Linguistics and Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, just down the road from my house!)


  1. Hmm. The answer to a question I’ve always wondered about. I think “maths” makes sense, too, because there are so many sorts of math. I’d better keep quiet on the subject because I come from a “math” family–but I never proceeded past Trig, whilst my kids are breezing Calculus and computer programming.

  2. You should really consider putting her blog Separated by a common language into your blogroll. She doesn’t post much any more, but there’s a wealth of older Good Stuff there. You/we have linked to it a few times over the years.

  3. Hey, whaddya mean I don’t post much anymore? I’m doing double what I was doing last year (plus guesting here and there!).

    Pffft! 🙂

  4. You should really consider putting her blog Separated by a common language into your blogroll.


  5. Thanks for this! I’m a longtime fan of Separated by a Common Language and Lynneguist (who told me that “parking ramp” is a regionalism), but hadn’t heard her speak before this video and enjoyed listening for the non-flapped /t/ before unstressed vowels. What other UK-influenced features should I have been noticing? Vowel quality?

  6. In French it can be both plural and singular. (I see that on my old terminale book it is written as math on the cover, but on the first page it is written asmathématiques.) So much for the argument about whether mathematics is one or many.

    It is also worth noting that behind Lynne Murphy a number of books can be seen. On several of them it is possible to read the word semantics. This video must therefore have been filmed in (Great) Britain.

  7. marie-lucie says

    The usual abbreviation for les mathématiques is les maths. The TLFI redirects math (found in older texts after a preposition, as in en math ‘in math’ (as in bon en math ‘good at math’) as maths ‘substantif f/minin pluriel’. Under the singular form mathématique it gives mostly instances of the adjective, and a few of the noun, noting that the latter is almost always used in the plural, while its singular use has a connotation of archaism. I think that math on the cover of the textbook (which comprises at least two tomes) is probably an abbreviation in the same vein as would be geog for géographie or hist for histoire, used by the publisher as a gimmick identifying its particular line of textbooks rather than a title, but not necessarily in usage as an actual word. The placement at the very top of the page, in a graphically defined space much too small for most words, strongly suggests this interpretation.

  8. Marie-Lucie, both maths and math can be found. More examples for math without -s:

    When it comes to physics, it is always singular in French (“la physique”, or even “la pataphysique”), unless it is used as an adjective (“sciences physiques”, physical sciences).

  9. @Siganus Sutor: The long form is “mathematics” in every variety of English that I am familiar with. The same holds for “semantics.” Without the “s,” they are adjectival forms (although “mathematic” sounds rather archaic to me; the usual word would be “mathematical).

  10. Geoffrey Pullum’s essay “Some lists of things about books” (1988; reprinted in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, 1991) includes a list of ten books entitled simply Semantics: Giuliano Bonfante (1950); Kelly Thurman (1960); Stephen Ullman (1962); F.H. George (1964); Mario Augusto Bunge (1974); Geoffrey N. Leech (1974); F. R. Palmer (1975); Anatol Rapoport (1975); John Lyons (1977); Stephen Walter, Michael Walrod, and Rodney A. Kinch (1977). I’ve only read the Leech one myself. Amazon lists several more recent ones: Frank Robert Palmer (1981); John I. Saeed (2008); Anthony Cowie (2009); Kate Kearns (2nd ed. 2011). Uriel Weinreich, William Labov and Beatrice S. Weinreich (1980) almost makes this list, but its title is (alas!) On Semantics; I found it because Amazon doesn’t have exact-title search. That also brought up a lot of books on the Semantic Web, my current professional concern (I have gone from programming to ontology).

    But what the hell, I’ll throw in Pullum’s list of book titles which aren’t grammatical constituents like noun phrases or verb phrases: If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler (Italo Calvino); Nuclear and Radiochemistry (Gerhart Friedlander et al.)[*], The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin), A Tad Overweight, But Violet Eyes To Die For (Garry Trudeau), Sometimes A Great Notion (Ken Kesey), Dancer From The Dance (Andrew Holleran), Last Seen Wearing (Colin Dexter).

    [*] This one coordinates a word with part of a word, like surface and submariners, Euclidean and hyperspace, descriptive and psycholinguistics. Pullum stars these examples, but then says they don’t sound so bad after a few. So perhaps it’s grammatical after all.

  11. Lynne Murphy is getting interviewed on The Verb about ‘The Dictionary’ versus. dictionaries tonight:

  12. J. W. Brewer says

    Lynne Murphy in the news for getting >$50K of US taxpayer money for a hopefully popular-yet-scholarly book project titled “How America Saved the English Language: The Facts and Fictions of British and American English.”

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