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shameless pleading

Math vs. Maths

Count me out.

Dear Word Detective:  I am a sometimes math teacher. Occasionally, even a mathematics teacher. As such, I follow the latest and greatest on my subject and am troubled by the increasing use of the word “maths.” I know you usually look backward to enlighten us on words, but here we see a trend unfolding forward. (And to my ears, it’s a disturbing trend.) Could you explain why “math” now needs to be plural? None of my (younger) maths (?) colleagues are as interested in words as I am and so they shrug off the question. — Bill.

Kids these days, eh? I was never very good at math until a moment in, I believe, tenth grade, when a very gifted math teacher was explaining a trigonometry problem to me. Suddenly, I got it; everything became marvelously clear and I realized with a thrill that I had finally grasped the underlying beauty and grandeur of mathematics. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I promptly forgot everything I had just learned and went on to relentlessly flunk math until they let me give up. To this day I am not allowed to play with my own checkbook.

So I admire folks who genuinely “get it” and have mastered the numerical arts of algebra, trigonometry, geometry, necromancy and so on that constitute the field of knowledge known today as “mathematics.” The word “mathematics” itself, the source of all this “maths” business, comes from the Greek “manthanein,” meaning “to learn,” which is also related to our modern English words “memory” and “mind.” When “mathematics” entered the English language from French in the 14th century (in the form “mathematic”), it actually included any field that involved numerical calculation (astronomy, physics, etc.), and the broad scope of its Greek roots lives on in the English word “polymath,” meaning a person of expertise in many fields.

“Math” as a colloquial short form of “mathematics” first appeared in print quite a while ago, in 1847, although that “math” sported a period (“It rained so that we had a math. lesson indoors.”) and was thus clearly a simple informal abbreviation. “Math” unadorned appeared by the 1870s. “Maths” is a bit newer, first appearing in print in 1911.

There is no difference, however, between “math” and “maths” apart from that “s” on the end of “maths.” Occasionally you’ll hear arguments that “maths” is more proper because it’s short for “mathematics” and thus should be plural. But although the field we call “mathematics” includes multiple disciplines (such as geometry, calculus, etc.), “mathematics” is a collective noun (as is “physics,” etc.), so it’s considered singular. You can tell that from how “mathematics” is treated grammatically: we say “My favorite subject is mathematics,” not “… are mathematics.” The form “mathematics” actually represents what was a common practice, about the time of the first appearance of “mathematic,” of using the plural form of a name of a field of study as a singular noun, as in the case of “acoustics,” “physics,” “linguistics” and many others. Terms that came into English earlier, such as “arithmetic,” didn’t get that “s.”

The only truly relevant difference between “math” and “maths” is usage. “Maths” is commonly used in Great Britain, while “math” is standard in the US. I’m afraid that your cohorts’ sudden affection for “maths,” unless they studied in Britain, may be another case of Anglophiliac posturing by Americans. It’s the same sort of affectation that leads PBS addicts to speak of “the telly” and that gave us the now-omnipresent Brit invention “gone missing” on the news. But while “gone missing” arguably fills a real gap in the American vocabulary (it certainly beats the hyper-dramatic “disappeared”), “maths” on this side of the Atlantic strikes me as silly and vaguely pathetic. But you’re right; it does seem to be spreading. One participant in an online discussion of the “math vs. maths” question I came across reported having recently heard Garrison Keillor say “Do the maths” on his radio show. If Keillor actually did say it, I’m really, really hoping that he was joking.

207 comments to Math vs. Maths

  • Adrian

    British English and American English began to diverge more than three hundred years ago, or would people rather we all went back to the spelling from the time of Shakespeare, who if you remember didn’t always spell even his name the same way? Thankfully we are not burdened with an English version of the Académie Française trying to monitor every last detail of our language. Don’t listen to the would-be English Academists from whichever side of the pond they come. Math is correct in North America. Maths is correct just about anywhere else. And if someone wants to cross borders every now and then, what’s the big problem? It’s only an abbreviation whichever way you look at it.

  • Wayne Abbott

    In defense of ‘math': the general language around a class or field of study. Think of the other courses you take in school. Do you take “Biology” or “Biologies”? Do you take “Chemistry 101″ or is the class called “Chemistries 101″? My first period class is “African History” not “African Histories”. Likewise, my daughter’s second period subject is Math, not Maths.

  • Joe

    As a another teacher of Maths from Australia, it is fantastic to hear that our American cousins are finally learning to appreciate the more elegant sound of ‘maths’ to the stunted, clinical ‘math’… now if we can only teach you how to spell correctly and call your mothers ‘mum’ instead of ‘mom’ and ‘Autumn’ instead of ‘fall’ like the rest of the English-speaking world …

  • Lloyd

    I think it all comes down to, what “grates” on one’s ears. Like listening to music that one doesn’t like. Rap, for me grates. Math, for me grates.

  • Ellis

    You do that Math?

    Which Mathematic do you want me to use?

    ….well do the Maths instead then?

    OK I’ll use all of the Mathematical formula that I know to get you your answer.

    It’s Maths

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