Insights into mathematical definitions

My general practice with has been to write about the problems students have at the point where they first start studying abstract math, with some emphasis on the languages of math. I have used my own observations of students, lexicographical work I did in the early 2000’s, and papers written by workers in math ed at the college level.

A few months ago, I finished revising and updating This took rather more than a year because among other things I had to reconstitute the files so that the html could be edited directly. During that time I just about quit reading the math ed literature. In the last few weeks I have found several articles that have changed my thinking about some things I wrote in abmath, so now I need to go back and revise some more!

In this post I will make some points about definitions that I learned from the paper by Edwards and Ward and the paper by Selden and Selden

I hope math ed people will read the final remarks.

Peculiarities of math definitions

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.” — Humpty Dumpty

A mathematical definition is fundamentally different from other sorts of definitions in two different ways. These differences are not widely appreciated by students or even by mathematicians. The differences cause students a lot of trouble.

List of properties

One of the ways in which a math definition is different from other kinds is that the definition of a math object is given by accumulation of attributes, that is, by listing properties that the object is required to have. Any object defined by the definition must have all those properties, and conversely any object with all the properties must be an example of the type of object being defined. Furthermore, there is no other criterion than the list of attributes.

Definitions in many fields, including some sciences, don’t follow this rule. Those definitions may list some properties the objects defined may have, but exceptions may be allowed. They also sometimes give prototypical examples. Dictionary definitions are generally based on observation of usage in writing and speech.

Imposed by decree

One thing that Edwards and Ward pointed out is that, unlike definitions in most other areas of knowledge, a math definition is stipulated. That means that meaning of (the name of) a math object is imposed on the reader by decree, rather than being determined by studying the way the word is used, as a lexicographer would do. Mathematicians have the liberty of defining (or redefining) a math object in any way they want, provided it is expressed as a compulsory list of attributes. (When I read the paper by Edwards and Ward, I realized that the article on math definitions did not spell that out, although it was implicit. I have recently revised it to say something about this, but it needs further work.)

An example is the fact that in the nineteenth century some mathe­maticians allowed $1$ to be a prime. Eventually they restricted the definition to exclude $1$ because including it made the statement of the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic complicated to state.

Another example is that it has become common to stipulate codomains as well as domains for functions.

Student difficulties

Giving the math definition low priority

Some beginning abstract math students don’t give the math definition the absolute dictatorial power that it has. They may depend on their understanding of some examples they have studied and actively avoid referring to the definition. Examples of this are given by Edwards and Ward.

Arbitrary bothers them

Students are bothered by definitions that seem arbitrary. This includes the fact that the definition of “prime” excludes $1$. There is of course no rule that says definitions must not seem arbitrary, but the students still need an explanation (when we can give it) about why definitions are specified in the way they are.

What do you DO with a definition?

Some students don’t realize that a definition gives a magic formula — all you have to do is say it out loud.
More generally, the definition of a kind of math object, and also each theorem about it, gives you one or more methods to deal with the type of object.

For example, $n$ is a prime by definition if $n\gt 1$ and the only positive integers that divide $n$ are $1$ and $n$. Now if you know that $p$ is a prime bigger than $10$ then you can say that $p$ is not divisible by $3$ because the definition of prime says so. (In Hogwarts you have to say it in Latin, but that is no longer true in math!) Likewise, if $n\gt10$ and $3$ divides $n$ then you can say that $n$ is not a prime by definition of prime.

The paper by Bills and Tall calls this sort of thing an operable definition.

The paper by Selden and Selden gives a more substantial example using the definition of inverse image. If $f:S\to T$ and $T’\subseteq T$, then by definition, the inverse image $f^{-1}T’$ is the set $\{s\in S\,|\,f(s)\in T’\}$. You now have a magic spell — just say it and it makes something true:

  • If you know $x\in f^{-1}T’$ then can state that $f(x)\in T’$, and all you need to justify that statement is to say “by definition of inverse image”.
  • If you know $f(x)\in T’$ then you can state that $x\in f^{-1}T’$, using the same magic spell.

Theorems can be operable, too. Wiles’ Theorem wipes out the possibility that there is an integer $n$ for which $n^{42}=365^{42}+666^{42}$. You just quote Wiles’ Theorem — you don’t have to calculate anything. It’s a spell that reveals impossibilities.

What the operability of definitions and theorems means is:

A definition or theorem is not just a static statement,it is a weapon for deducing truth.

Some students do not realize this. The students need to be told what is going on. They do not have to be discarded to become history majors just because they may not have the capability of becoming another Andrew Wiles.

Final remarks

I have a wish that more math ed people would write blog posts or informal articles (like the one by Edwards and Ward) about what that have learned about students learning math at the college level. Math ed people do write scholarly articles, but most of the articles are behind paywalls. We need accessible articles and blog posts aimed at students and others aimed at math teachers.

And feel free to steal other math ed people’s ideas (and credit them in a footnote). That’s what I have been doing in and in this blog for the last ten years.


  • Bills, L., & Tall, D. (1998). Operable definitions in advanced mathematics: The case of the least upper bound. In A. Olivier & K. Newstead (Eds.), Proceedings of the 22nd Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, Vol. 2 (pp. 104-111). Stellenbosch, South Africa: University of Stellenbosch.
  • B. S. Edwards, and M. B. Ward, Surprises from mathematics education research: Student (mis) use of mathematical definitions (2004). American Mathematical Monthly, 111, 411-424.
  • G. Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous
    . University of Chicago Press, 1990. See his discussion of concepts and prototypes.
  • J. Selden and A. Selden, Proof Construction Perspectives: Structure, Sequences of Actions, and Local Memory, Extended Abstract for KHDM Conference, Hanover, Germany, December 1-4, 2015. This paper may be downloaded from
  • A Handbook of mathematical discourse, by Charles Wells. See concept, definition, and prototype.
  • Definitions, article in (Some of the ideas in this post have now been included in this article, but it is due for another revision.)
  • Definitions in logic and mathematics in Wikipedia.
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    Very early difficulties II

    Very early difficulties II

    This is the second part of a series of posts about certain difficulties math students have in the very early stages of studying abstract math. The first post, Very early difficulties in studying abstract math, gives some background to the subject and discusses one particular difficulty: Some students do not know that it is worthwhile to try starting a proof by rewriting what is to be proved using the definitions of the terms involved.

    Math StackExchange

    The website Math StackExchange is open to any questions about math, even very easy ones. It is in contrast with Math OverFlow, which is aimed at professional mathematicians asking questions in their own field.

    Math SE contains many examples of the early difficulties discussed in this series of posts, and I recommend to math ed people (not just RUME people, since some abstract math occurs in advanced high school courses) that they might consider reading through questions on Math SE for examples of misunderstanding students have.

    There are two caveats:

    • Most questions on Math SE are at a high enough level that they don’t really concern these early difficulties.
    • Many of the questions are so confused that it is hard to pinpoint what is causing the difficulty that the questioner has.

    Connotations of English words

    The terms(s) defined in a definition are often given ordinary English words as names, and the beginner automatically associates the connotations of the meaning of the English word with the objects defined in the definition.

    Infinite cardinals

    If $A$ if a finite set, the cardinality of $A$ is simply a natural number (including $0$). If $A$ is a proper subset of another set $B$, then the cardinality of $A$ is strictly less than the cardinality of $B$.

    In the nineteenth century, mathematicians extended the definition of cardinality for infinite sets, and for the most part cardinality has the same behavior as for finite sets. For example, the cardinal numbers are well-ordered. However, for infinite sets it is possible for a set and a proper subset of the set to have the same cardinality. For example, the cardinality of the set of natural numbers is the same as the cardinality of the set of rational numbers. This phenomenon causes major cognitive dissonance.

    Question 1331680 on Math Stack Exchange shows an example of this confusion. I have also discussed the problem with cardinality in the section Cardinality.

    Morphism in category theory

    The concept of category is defined by saying there is a bunch of objects called objects (sorry bout that) and a bunch of objects called morphisms, subject to certain axioms. One requirement is that there are functions from morphisms to objects choosing a “domain” and a “codomain” of each morphism. This is spelled out in Category Theory in Wikibooks, and in any other book on category theory.

    The concepts of morphism, domain and codomain in a category are therefore defined by abstract definitions, which means that any property of morphisms and their domains and codomains that is true in every category must follow from the axioms. However, the word “morphism” and the talk about domains and codomains naturally suggests to many students that a morphism must be a function, so they immediately and incorrectly expect to evaluate it at an element of its domain, or to treat it as a function in other ways.


    If $\mathcal{C}$ is a category, its opposite category $\mathcal{C}^{op}$ is defined this way:

    • The objects of $\mathcal{C}^{op}$ are the objects of $\mathcal{C}$.
    • A morphism $f:X\to Y$ of $\mathcal{C}^{op}$ is a morphism from $Y$ to $X$ of $\mathcal{C}$ (swap the domain and codomain).

    In Question 980933 on Math SE, the questioner is saying (among other things) that in $\text{Set}^{op}$, this would imply that there has to be a morphism from a nonempty set to the empty set. This of course is true, but the questioner is worried that you can’t have a function from a nonempty set to the empty set. That is also true, but what it implies is that in $\text{Set}^{op}$, the morphism from $\{1,2,3\}$ to the empty set is not a function from $\{1,2,3\}$ to the empty set. The morphism exists, but it is not a function. This does not any any sense make the definition of $\text{Set}^{op}$ incorrect.

    Student confusion like this tends to make the teacher want to have a one foot by six foot billboard in his classroom saying


    However, even that statement causes confusion. The questioner who asked Question 1594658 essentially responded to the statement in purple prose above by assuming a morphism that is “not a function” must have two distinct values at some input!

    That questioner is still allowing the connotations of the word “morphism” to lead them to assume something that the definition of category does not give: that the morphism can evaluate elements of the domain to give elements of the codomain.

    So we need a more elaborate poster in the classroom:

    The definition of “category” makes no requirement
    that an object has elements
    or that morphisms evaluate elements.

    As was remarked long long ago, category theory is pointless.

    English words implementing logic

    There are lots of questions about logic that show that students really do not think that the definition of some particular logical construction can possibly be correct. That is why in the chapter on definitions I inserted this purple prose:

    A definition is a totalitarian dictator.

    It is often the case that you can explain why the definition is worded the way it is, and of course when you can you should. But it is also true that the student has to grovel and obey the definition no matter how weird they think it is.

    Formula and term

    In logic you learn that a formula is a statement with variables in it, for example “$\exists x((x+5)^3\gt2)$”. The expression “$(x+5)^3$” is not a formula because it is not a statement; it is a “term”. But in English, $H_2O$ is a formula, the formula for water. As a result, some students have a remarkably difficult time understanding the difference between “term” and “formula”. I think that is because those students don’t really believe that the definition must be taken seriously.

    Exclusive or

    Question 804250 in MathSE says:

    “Consider $P$ and $Q$. Let $P+Q$ denote exclusive or. Then if $P$ and $Q$ are both true or are both false then $P+Q$ is false. If one of them is true and one of them is false then $P+Q$ is true. By exclusive or I mean $P$ or $Q$ but not both. I have been trying to figure out why the truth table is the way it is. For example if $P$ is true and $Q$ is true then no matter what would it be true?”

    I believe that the questioner is really confused by the plus sign: $P+Q$ ought to be true if $P$ and $Q$ are both true because that’s what the plus sign ought to mean.

    Yes, I know this is about a symbol instead of an English word, but I think the difficulty has the same dynamics as the English-word examples I have given.

    If I have understood this difficulty correctly, it is similar to the students who want to know why $1$ is not a prime number. In that case, there is a good explanation.

    Only if

    The phrase “only if” simply does not mean the same thing in math as it does in English. In Question 17562 in MathSE, a reader asks the question, why does “$P$ only if $Q$” mean the same as “if $P$ then $Q$” instead of “if $Q$ then $P$”?

    Many answerers wasted a lot of time trying to convince us that “$P$ only if $Q$” mean the same as “if $P$ then $Q$” in ordinary English, when in fact it does not. That’s because in English, clauses involving “if” usually connote causation, which does not happen in math English.

    Consider these two pairs of examples.

    1. “I take my umbrella only if it is raining.”
    2. “If I take my umbrella, then it is raining.”
    3. “I flip that switch only if a light comes on.”
    4. “If I flip that switch, a light comes on.”

    The average non-mathematical English speaker will easily believe that (1) and (4) are true, but will balk and (2) and (3). To me, (3) means that the light coming on makes me flip the switch. (2) is more problematical, but it does (to me) have a feeling of causation going the wrong way. It is this difference that causes students to balk at the equivalence in math of “$P$ only if $Q$” and “If $P$, then $Q$”. In math, there is no such thing as causation, and the truth tables for implication force us to live with the fact that these two sentences mean the same thing.

    Henning Makholm’ answer to Question 17562 begins this way: “I don’t think there’s really anything to understand here. One simply has to learn as a fact that in mathematics jargon the words ‘only if’ invariably encode that particular meaning. It is not really forced by the everyday meanings of ‘only’ and’ if’ in isolation; it’s just how it is.” That is the best way to answer the question. (Other answerers besides Makholm said something similar.)

    I have also discussed this difficulty (and other difficulties with logic) in the abmath section on “only if“.


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    Very early difficulties in studying abstract math


    There are a some difficulties that students have at the very beginning of studying abstract math that are overwhelmingly important, not because they are difficult to explain but because too many teachers don’t even know the difficulties exist, or if they do, they think they are trivial and the students should know better without being told. These difficulties cause too many students to give up on abstract math and drop out of STEM courses altogether.

    I spent my entire career in math at Case Western Reserve University. I taught many calculus sections, some courses taken by math majors, and discrete math courses taken mostly by computing science majors. I became aware that some students who may have been A students in calculus essentially fell off a cliff when they had to do the more abstract reasoning involved in discrete math, and in the initial courses in abstract algebra, linear algebra, advanced calculus and logic.

    That experience led me to write the Handbook of Mathematical Discourse and to create the website in particular grew quite large. It does describe some of the major difficulties that caused good students to fall of the abstraction cliff, but also describes many many minor difficulties. The latter are mostly about the peculiarities of the languages of math.

    I have observed people’s use of language since I was like four or five years old. Not because I consciously wanted to — I just did. When I was a teenager I would have wanted to be a linguist if I had known what linguistics is.

    I will describe one of the major difficulties here (failure to rewrite according to the definition) with an example. I am planning future posts concerning other difficulties that occur specifically at the very beginning of studying abstract math.

    Rewrite according to the definition

    To prove that a statement
    involving some concepts is true,
    start by rewriting the statement
    using the definitions of the concepts.



    A function $f:S\to T$ is surjective if for any $t\in T$ there is an $s\in S$ for which $f(s)=t$.


    For a function $f:S\to T$, the image of $f$ is the set \[\{t\in T\,|\,\text{there is an }s\in S\text{ for which }f(s)=t\}\]


    Let $f:S\to T$ be a function between sets. Then $f$ is surjective if and only if the image of $f$ is $T$.


    If $f$ is surjective, then the statement “there is an $s\in S$ for which $f(s)=t$” is true for any $t\in T$ by definition of surjectivity. Therefore, by definition of image, the image of $f$ is $T$.

    If the image of $f$ is $T$, then the definition of image means that there is an $s\in S$ for which $f(s)=t$ for any $t\in T$. So by definition of surjective, $f$ is surjective.

    “This proof is trivial”

    The response of many mathematicians I know is that this proof is trivial and a student who can’t come up with it doesn’t belong in a university math course. I agree that the proof is trivial. I even agree that such a student is not a likely candidate for getting a Ph.D. in math. But:

    • Most math students in an American university are not going to get a Ph.D. in math. They may be going on in some STEM field or to teach high school math.
    • Some courses taken by students who are not math majors take courses in which simple proofs are required (particularly discrete math and linear algebra). Some of these students may simply be interested in math for its own sake!

    A sizeable minority of students who are taking a math course requiring proofs need to be told the most elementary facts about how to do proofs. To refuse to explain these facts is a disfavor to the mathematics community and adds to the fear and dislike of math that too many people already have.

    These remarks may not apply to students in many countries other than the USA. See When these problems occur.

    “This proof does not describe how mathematicians think”

    The proof I wrote out above does not describe how I would come up with a proof of the statement, which would go something like this: I do math largely in pictures. I envision the image of $f$ as a kind of highlighted area of the codomain of $f$. If $f$ is surjective, the highlighting covers the whole codomain. That’s what the theorem says. I wouldn’t dream of writing out the proof I gave about just to verify that it is true.

    More examples and Gyre&Gimble contain several spelled-out theorems that start by rewriting according to the definition. In these examples one then goes on to use algebraic manipulation or to quote known theorems to put the proof together.


    This post contains testable claims

    Herein, I claim that some things are true of students just beginning abstract math. The claims are based largely on my teaching experience and some statements in the math ed literature. These claims are testable.

    When these problems occur

    In the United States, the problems I describe here occur in the student’s first or second year, in university courses aimed at math majors and other STEM majors. Students typically start university at age 18, and when they start university they may not choose their major until the second year.

    In much of the rest of the world, students are more likely to have one more year in a secondary school (sixth form in England lasts two years) or go to a “college” for a year or two before entering a university, and then they get their bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four as in the USA. Not only that, when they do go to university they enter a particular program immediately — math, computing science, etc.

    These differences may mean that the abstract math cliff occurs early in a student’s university career in the USA and before the student enters university elsewhere.

    In my experience at CWRU, some math majors fall of the cliff, but the percentage of computing science students having trouble was considerably greater. On the other hand, more of them survived the discrete math course when I taught it because the discrete math course contain less abstraction and more computation than the math major courses (except linear algebra, which had a balance similar to the discrete math course — and was taken by a sizeable number of non-math majors).


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    Mathematical Information II


    This is the second post about Mathematical Information inspired by talks the AMS meeting in Seattle in January, 2016. The first post was Mathematical Information I. That post covered, among other things, types of explanations.

    In this post as in the previous one, footnotes link to talks at Seattle that inspired me to write about a topic. The speakers may not agree with what I say.

    The internet

    Math sources on the internet

    Publishing math on the internet

    • Publishing on the internet is instantaneous, in the sense that once it is written (which of course may take a long time), it can be made available on the internet immediately.
    • Publishing online is also cheap. It requires only a modest computer, an editor and LaTeX or MathJax, all of which are either free, one-time purchases, or available from your university. (These days all these items are required for publishing a math book on paper or submitting an article to a paper journal as well as for publishing on the internet.)
    • Publishing online has the advantage that taking up more space does not cost more. I believe this is widely underappreciated. You can add comments explaining how you think about some type of math object, or about false starts that you had to abandon, and so on. If you want to refer to a diagram that occurs in another place in the paper, you can simply include a copy in the current place. (It took me much too long to realize that I could do things like that in

    Online journals

    Many new online journals have appeared in the last few years. Some of them are deliberately intended as a way to avois putting papers behind a paywall. But aside from that, online journals speed up publication and reduce costs (not necessarily to zero if the journal is refereed).

    A special type of online journal is the overlay journalG. A paper published there is posted on ArXiv; the journal merely links to it. This provides a way of refereeing articles that appear on ArXiv. It seems to me that such journals could include articles that already appear on ArXiv if the referees deem them suitable.

    Types of mathematical communication

    I wrote about some types of math communication in Mathematical Information I.

    The paper Varieties of Mathematical Prose, by Atish Bagchi and me, describes other forms of communicating math not described here.

    What mathematicians would like to know

    Has this statement been proved?G

    • The internet has already made it easier to answer this query: Post it on MathOverflow or Math Stack Exchange.
    • It should be a long-term goal of the math community to construct a database of what is known. This would be a difficult, long-term project. I discussed it in my article The Mathematical Depository: A Proposal, which concentrated on how the depository should work as a system. Constructing it would require machine reading and understanding of mathematical prose, which is difficult and not something I know much about (the article gives some references).
    • An approach that would be completely different from the depository might be through a database of proved theorems that anyone could contribute to, like a wiki, but with editing to maintain consistency, avoid repetition, etc.

    Known information about a conjecture

    This information could include partial results.G An example would be Falting’s Theorem, which implies a partial result for Fermat’s Last Theorem: there is only a finite number of solutions of $x^n+y^n=z^n$ for integers $x, y, z, n$, $n\gt2$. That theorem became widely known, but many partial results never even get published.

    Strategies for proofs

    Strategies that are useful in a particular field.

    The website Tricki is developing a list of such strategies.

    It appears that Tricki should be referred to as “The Tricki”, like The Hague and The Bronx.

    Note that there are strategies that essentially work just once, to prove some important theorem. For example, Craig’s Trick, to prove that a recursively enumerable theory is recursive. But of course, who can say that it will never be useful for some other theorem? I can’t think of how, though.

    Strategies that don’t work, and whyG

    The article How to discover for yourself the solution of the cubic, by Timothy Gowers, leads you down the garden path of trying to “complete the cubic” by copying the way you solve a quadratic, and then showing conclusively that that can’t possibly work.

    Instructors should point out situations like that in class when they are relevant. A database of Methods That Work Here But Not There would be helpful, too. And, most important of all, if you run into a method that doesn’t work when you are trying to prove a theorem, when you do prove it, mention the failed method in your paper! (Remember: space is now free.)

    Examples and Counterexample

    I discovered these examples in twenty minutes on the internet.


    “Mathematical discussion is very useful and virtually unpublishable.”G But in the internet age they can take place online, and they do, in discussion lists for particular branches of math. That is not the same thing as discussing in person, but it is still useful.


    Polymath sessions are organized attempts to use a kind of crowdsourcing to study (and hopefully prove) a conjecture. The Polymath blog and the Polymath wiki provide information about ongoing efforts.


    • Videos that teach math are used all over the world now, after the spectacular success of Khan Academy.
    • Some math meetings produce videos of invited talks and make them available on You Tube. It would be wonderful if a systematic effort could be made to increase the number of such videos. I suppose part of the problem is that it requires an operator to operate the equipment. It is not impossible that filming an academic lecture could be automated, but I don’t know if anyone is doing this. It ought to be possible. After all, some computer games follow the motions of the player(s).
    • There are some documentaries explaining research-level math to the general public, but I don’t know much about them. Documentaries about other sciences seem much more common.


    The talks in Seattle

    • List of all the talks.
    • W. Timothy Gowers, How should mathe­matical knowledge be organized? Talk at the AMS Special Session on Mathe­matical Information in the Digital Age of Science, 6 January 2016.
    • Mathematical discussions, links to pages by Timothy Gowers. “Often [these pages] contain ideas that I have come across in one way or another and wish I had been told as an undergraduate.”
    • Colloquium notes

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    Around two years ago I began a systematic revision of This involved rewriting some of the articles completely, fixing many errors and bad links, and deleting some articles. It also involved changing over from using Word and MathType to writing directly in html and using MathJax. The changeover was very time consuming.

    Before I started the revision, was in alpha mode, and now it is in beta. That means it still has flaws, and I will be repairing them probably till I can’t work any more, but it is essentially in a form that approximates my original intention for the website.

    I do not intend to bring it out of beta into “final form”. I have written and published three books, two of them with Michael Barr, and I found the detailed work necessary to change it into its final form where it will stay frozen was difficult and took me away from things I want to do. I had to do it that way then (the olden days before the internet) but now I think websites that are constantly updated and have live links are far more useful to people who want to learn about some piece of math.

    My last book, the Handbook of Mathematical Discourse, was in fact published after the internet was well under way, but I was still thinking in Olden Days Paper Mode and never clearly realized that there was a better way to do things.

    In any case, the entire website (as well as Gyre&Gimble) is published under a Creative Commons license, so if someone wants to include part or all of it in another website, or in a book, and revise it while they do it, they can do so as long as they publish under the terms of the license and link to

    Previous posts about the evolution of

    Books by Michael Barr and Charles Wells

    Toposes, triples and theories

    Category theory for computing science

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    Mathematical Information I


    The January, 2016 meeting of the American Mathematical Society in Seattle included a special session on Mathe­matical Information in the Digital Age of Science. Here is a link to the list of talks in that session (you have to scroll down a ways to get to the list).

    Several talks at that session were about communi­cating math, to other mathe­maticians and to the general public. Well, that’s what I have been about for the last 20 years. Mostly.


    These posts discuss the ways we communi­cate math and (mostly in later posts) the revolution in math communication that the internet has caused. Parts of this discussion were inspired by the special session talks. When they are relevant, I include footnotes referring to the talks. Be warned that what I say about these ideas may not be the same as what the speakers had to say, but I feel I ought to give them credit for getting me to think about those concepts.

    Some caveats

    • The distinctions between different kinds of math communi­cation are inevitably fuzzy.
    • Not all kinds of communication are mentioned.
    • Several types of communication normally occur in the same document.

    Articles published in journals

    Until recently, math journals were always published on paper. Now many journals exist only on the internet. What follows is a survey of the types of articles published in journals.

    Refereed papers containing new results

    These communications typically containing proofs of (usually new) theorems. Such papers are the main way that academic mathematicians get credit for their researchG for the purpose of getting tenure (at least in the USA), although some other types of credit are noted below.

    Proofs published in refereed journals in the past were generally restricted to formal proofs, without very many comments intended to aid the reader’s under­standing. This restricted text was often enforced by the journal. In the olden days this would have been prompted by the expense of publishing on paper. I am not sure how much this restriction has relaxed in electronic journals.

    I have been writing articles for and Gyre&Gimble for many years, and it has taken me a very long time to get over unnecessarily restricting the space I use in what I write. If I introduce a diagram in an article and then want to refer to it later, I don’t have to link to it — I can copy it into the current location. If it makes sense for an informative paragraph to occur in two different articles, I can put it into both articles. And so on. Nowadays, that sort of thing doesn’t cost anything.

    Survey articles and invited addresses

    You may also get credit for an invited address to a prestigious organi­zation, or for a survey of your field, in for example the Bulletin of the AMS. Invited addresses and surveys may contain considerably more explanatory asides. This was quite noticeable in the invited talks at the AMS Seattle meeting.


    There is a whole spectrum of math books. The following list mentions some Fraunhofer lines on the spectrum, but the gamut really is as continuous as a large finite list of books could be. This list needs more examples. (This is a blog post, so it has the status of an alpha release.)

    Research books that are concise and without much explanation.

    The Bourbaki books that I have dipped into (mostly the algebra book and mostly in the 1970’s) are definitely concise and seem to strictly avoid explanation, diagrams, pictures, etc). I have heard people say they are unreadable, but I have not found them so.

    Contain helpful explanations that will make sense to people in the field but probably would be formidable to someone in a substantially different area.

    Toposes, triples and theories, by Michael Barr and Charles Wells. I am placing our book here in the spectrum because several non-category-theorists (some of them computer scientists) have remarked that it is “formidable” or other words like that.

    Intended to introduce professional mathematicians to a particular field.

    Categories for the working mathematician, by Saunders Mac Lane. I learned from this (the 1971 edition) in my early days as a category theorist, six years after getting my Ph.D. In fact, I think that this book belongs to the grad student level instead of here, but I have not heard any comments one way or another.

    Intended to introduce math graduate students to a particular field.

    There are lots of examples of good books in this area. Years ago (but well after I got my Ph.D.), I found Serge Lang’s Algebra quite useful and studied parts of it in detail.

    But for grad students? It is still used for grad students, but perhaps Nathan Jacobson’s Basic Algebra would be a better choice for a first course in algebra for first-year grad students.

    The post My early life as a mathematician discusses algebra texts in the olden days, among other things.

    Intended to explain a part of math to a general audience.

    Love and math: the heart of hidden reality. by Edward Frenkel, 2014. This is a wonderful book. After reading it, I felt that at last I had some clue as to what was going on with the Langlands Program. He assumes that the reader knows very little about math and gives hand-waving pictorial expla­nations for some of the ideas. Many of the concepts in the book were already familiar to me (not at an expert level). I doubt that someone who had had no college math courses that included some abstract math would get much out of it.

    Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature, by Marcus du Sautoy, 2009. He also produced a video on symmetry.

    My post Explaining “higher” math to beginners, describes du Sautoy’s use of terminology (among others).

    Secrets of creation: the mystery of the prime numbers (Volume 1) by Matthew Watkins (author) and Matt Tweed (Illustrator), 2015. This is the first book of a trilogy that explains the connection between the Riemann $\zeta$ function and the primes. He uses pictures and verbal descriptions, very little terminology or symbolic notation. This is the best attempt I know of at explaining deep math that might really work for non-mathe­maticians.

    My post The mystery of the prime numbers: a review describes the first book.

    Piper Harron’s Thesis

    The Equidistribution of Lattice Shapes of Rings of Integers of Cubic, Quartic, and Quintic Number Fields: an Artist’s Rendering, Ph.D. thesis by Piper Harron.

    This is a remarkable departure from the usual dry, condensed, no-useful-asides Ph.D. thesis in math. Each chapter has three main parts, Layscape (explanations for nonspecialists — not (in my opinion) for nonmathe­maticians), Mathscape (most like what goes into the usual math paper but with much more explanation) and Weedscape (irrelevant stuff which she found helpful and perhaps the reader will too). The names of these three sections vary from chapter to chapter. This seems like a great idea, and the parts I have read are well-done.

    These blog posts have useful comments about her thesis:

    Types of explanations

    Any explanation of math in any of the categories above will be of several different types. Some of them are considered here, and more will appear in Mathematical Information II.

    The paper Varieties of Mathematical Prose, by Atish Bagchi and me, provides a more fine-grained description of certain types of math communication that includes some types of explanations and also other types of communication.

    Images and metaphors


    I have written about images and metaphors in is aimed at helping students who are beginning their study of abstract math, and so the examples are mostly simple and not at a high level of abstraction. In the general literature, the images and metaphors that are written about may be much more sophisticated.

    The User’s GuideW

    Luke Wolcott edits a new journal called Enchiridion: Mathematics User’s Guides (this link allows you to download the articles in the first issue). Each article in this journal is written by a mathematician who has published a research paper in a refereed journal. The author’s article in Enchiridion provides information intended to help the reader to understand the research paper. Enchiridion and its rationale is described in more detail in the paper The User’s Guide Project: Giving Experential Context to Research Papers.

    The guidelines for writing a User’s Guide suggest writing them in four parts, and one of the parts is to introduce useful images and metaphors that helped the author. You can see how the authors’ user’s guides carry this out in the first issue of Enchiridion.

    Piper Harron’s thesis

    Piper Harron’s explanation of integrals in her thesis is a description of integrals and measures using creative metaphors that I think may raise some mathematicians’ consciousness and others’ hackles, but I doubt it would be informative to a non-mathematician. I love “funky-summing” (p. 116ff): it communicates how integration is related to real adding up a finite bunch of numbers in a liberal-artsy way, in other words via the connotations of the word “funky”, in contrast to rigorous math which depends on every word have an accumulation-of-properties definition.

    The point about “funky-summing” (in my opinion, not necessarily Harron’s) is that when you take the limit of all the Riemann sums as all meshes go to zero, you get a number which

    • Is really and truly not a sum of numbers in any way
    • Smells like a sum of numbers

    Connotations communicate metaphors. Metaphors are a major cause of grief for students beginning abstract math, but they are necessary for understanding math. Working around this paradox is probably the most important problem for math teachers.

    Informal summaries of a proofW

    The User’s Guide requires a “colloquial summary” of a paper as one of the four parts of the guide for that paper.

    • Wolcott’s colloquial summary of his paper keeps the level aimed at non-mathematicians, starting with a hand-waving explanation of what a ring is. He uses many metaphors in the process of explaining what his paper does.
    • The colloquial summary of another User’s Guide, by Cary Malkiewich, stays strictly at the general-public level. He uses a few metaphors. I liked his explanation of how mathematicians work first with examples, then finding patterns among the examples.
    • The colloquial summary of David White’s paper stays at the general-public level but uses some neat metaphors. He also has a perceptive paragraph discussing the role of category theory in math.

    The summaries I just mentioned are interesting to read. But I wonder if informal summaries aimed at math majors or early grad students might be more useful.


    The first of the four parts of the explanatory papers in Enchiridion is supposed to present the key insights and organizing principles that were useful in coming up with the proofs. Some of them do a good job with this. They are mostly very special to the work in question, but some are more general.

    This suggests that when teaching a course in some math subject you make a point of explaining the basic techniques that have turned out very useful in the subject.

    For example, a fundamental insight in group theory is:

    Study the linear representations of a group.

    That is an excellent example of a fundamental insight that applies everywhere in math:

    Find a functor that maps the math objects you are studying to objects in a different branch of math.

    The organizing principles listed in David White’s article has (naturally more specialized) insights like that.

    Proof stories

    “Proof stories” tell in sequence (more or less) how the author came up with a proof. This means describing the false starts, insights and how they came about. Piper Harron’s thesis does that all through her work.

    Some authors do more than that: their proof stories intertwine the mathe­matical events of their progress with a recount of life events, which sometimes make a mathe­matical difference and sometimes just produces a pause to let the proof stew in their brain. Luke Wolcott wrote a User’s Guide for one of his own papers, and his proof story for that paper involves personal experiences. (I recommend his User’s Guide as a model to learn from.)

    Reports of personal experiences in doing math seem to add to my grasp of the math, but I am not sure I understand why.


    The talks in Seattle

    • List of all the talks.
    • W. Timothy Gowers, How should mathe­matical knowledge be organized? Talk at the AMS Special Session on Mathe­matical Information in the Digital Age of Science, 6 January 2016.
    • Colloquium notes. Gowers gave a series of invited addresses for which these are the notes. They have many instances of describing what sorts of problems obstruct a desirable step in the proof and what can be done about it.

    • Luke Wolcott, The User’s Guide. Talk at the AMS Special Session on Mathe­matical Information in the Digital Age of Science, 6 January 2016.

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    My early life as a mathematician

    My early life as a mathematician.

    Revised 22 January 2016.

    In 1965, I received my Ph.D. at Duke University based on a dissertation about polynomials over finite fields. My advisor was Leonard Carlitz.

    In Carlitz’s algebra course, the textbook was Van der Waerden’s Algebra. It is way too old-fashioned to be used nowadays, but it did indeed present post-Noether type abstract algebra. Carlitz also had me read large chunks of Martin Weber’s Lehrbuch der Algebra, written in German in 1895 (so totally not post-Noether) and published using Fraktur. A few years ago one of my sons asked me to retype the words to some of the songs written in Fraktur in a German-American shape note book in Roman type (but still in German), which I did. This was for German teachers in the Concordia Language Villages to use with their students. I sometimes wonder if I am the last person on earth able to read Fraktur fluently.

    I learned mathematical logic from Joe Shoenfield from his dittoed notes that later became an excellent textbook. I rediscovered Craig’s Trick while working on problem he gave. That considerably strengthened my sense of self-worth.

    I accepted a job at Western Reserve University, now Case Western Reserve University, where I stayed until I retired in 1999. In the few years after 1965, I wrote several papers about finite fields. They are all summarized in the book Finite Fields, by Rudolf Lidl and Harald Niederreiter.

    I was almost immediately attracted to category theory and to computing science, both of which Carlitz hated. I did not let that stop me. (Now is the time to say, Follow The Beat of your Own Drum or some such cliché.)

    Early on, Paul Dedecker was at CWRU briefly, and from him I learned about sheaves, cribles and the like. This inspired me to take part in an algebraic geometry summer school at Bowdoin College, where I learned from lectures by David Mumford and by reading his Red Book when it was still red.

    Because one of the papers in finite fields showed that certain types of permutation polynomials formed wreath products of groups, I also pursued group theory, in particular by taking part in the finite group theory summer school at Bowdoin in 1970.

    During that time I pored over Beck’s thesis on cohomology, which with the group theory I had learned resulted in my paper Automorphisms of group extensions. That paper has the most citations of all my research papers.

    In the early days, I had several graduate students. All of them worked in group theory. One of them, Shair Ahmad, went on to produce several Ph.D. students, all in differential equations and dynamical systems.

    One thing I can brag about is that I never ever told him I hated differential equations or dynamical systems. In fact, I didn’t hate either one. There were people in the department in both fields and they made me jealous the way they could model real life phenomena with those tools. One relevant point about that is that I was a liberal arts math major from Oberlin before going to Duke and had had very few courses in any kind of science. This made me very different from most people in the department, who has B.S. undergrad degrees.

    In those days, John Isbell and Peter Hilton were in the math department at CWRU for awhile, which boosted my knowledge and interest in category theory. Hilton arranged for me to spend a year at the E.T.H. in Zürich, where I met Michael Barr. I eventually wrote two books on category theory with him. But that is getting away from Early Days, so I will stop here.

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    Names of mathematical objects

    This is a revision of the article on names.

    The name of a mathematical object is a word or phrase in math English used to identify an object. A name plays the same role that symbolic terms play in the symbolic language.

    Sources of names

    Suggestive English words

    A suggestive name is a a common English word or phrase, chosen to suggest its meaning. This means it is a type of metaphor.


    In none of these examples is
    the metaphorical meaning
    exactly suitable to be
    the mathe­matical definition.

    • “Curve”, “point”, “line”, “slope“, “circle” and many other English words are used in elementary math with precise meanings that more or less fit their everyday meanings.
    • Connected subspace (of a topological space). When you draw a picture of a connected set it looks “connected”.
    • “Set” suggests a collection of things and provides a reasonable metaphor for its mathe­matical meaning. Both the abstractmath article on sets and the Wikipedia article on sets give you insight on why this metaphor cannot be entirely accurate.
    • Random English words

      Most English words used in math are not suggestive. They are either chosen at random or were intended to suggest something but misfired in some way.


      A group is a collection of math objects with a binary operation defined on it subject to certain constraints. The binary operation is much more impor­tant than the underlying set! To many non-mathe­maticians, a “group” sounds like essentially what a mathe­matician calls a “set”.

      The concept of group was one of the earliest mathe­matical concepts des­cribed as a set-with-structure. I believe that a group was origi­nally referred to as a “group of trans­forma­tions”. May­be that phrase got shortened to “group” without anyone realizing what a disas­trous met­a­phor it caused.


      A field in the algebraic sense is a structure which is not in any way suggested by the word “field”. The German word for field in this sense is “Körper”, which means “body”. That is about as bad as “group”, and I suspect it was motivated in much the same way. The name “Körper” may be due to Dedekind. I don’t know who to blame for “field”.

      A field in the sense of an assignment of a scalar or a vector to every point in a space is a completely separate notion than that of field as an algebra. The concept was invented in the nineteenth century by physicists, but any math student is likely to see fields in this sense in several different courses.

      Perhaps the second meaning of field was suggested by contour plowing.

      The word “field” is also discussed in the Glossary.

      Person’s name

      A concept may be named after a person.


      • L’Hôpital’s Rule
      • Hausdorff space
      • Turing machine
      • Riemann surface
      • Riemannian manifold
      • Pythagorean Theorem
      • I have no idea why “Riemann” gets an ending when it is a manifold but not when it is a surface.

        Made-up name

        Some names are made up in a random way, not based on any oter language. Googol is an example.

        Named after notation


        A mathematical object may be named by the typographical symbol(s) used to denote it. This is used both formally and in on-the-fly references.  

        Some objects have standard names that are single letters (Greek or Roman), such as $e$, $i$ and $\pi$. There is much more about this in Alphabets.

        Be warned that any letter can be given another definition. $\pi$ is also used to name a projection, $i$ is commonly used as an index, and $e$ means energy in physics.


        • The multiplication in a Lie Algebra is called the “Lie bracket”. It is written “$[v,w]$”.
        • In quantum mechanics, a vector $\vec{w}$ may be notated “$|w\rangle$” and called a “ket”. Another vector $\vec{v}$ induces a linear operator on vectors that is denoted by “$\langle v|$”, which is called a “bra”. The action of $\langle v|$ on $|w\rangle$ is the inner product $\langle v|w\rangle$, which suggested the “bra” and “ket” terminology (from “bracket”). You can blame Paul Dirac for this stuff.
        • In 1985, Michael Barr and I published a book in category theory called Triples, Toposes and Theories. Immediately after that everyone in category theory started saying “monad” for what had been called “triple”. (The notation for a triple, er, monad, is of the form “$(T,\eta,\mu)$”.)
        • Synecdoche

          A synecdoche is a name of part of something that is used as a name for the whole thing.


        The Tochar­ians appear to have called a cart by their word for wheel several thousand years ago. See the blog post by Don Ringe.

        Names from other languages

        In English, many technical names are borrowed from other languages. It may be difficult to determine what the meaning in the old language has to do with the mathematical meaning.


      • Matrix. This is the Latin word for “uterus”. I suppose the analogy is with “container”.
      • Parabola. “Parabola” is a word borrowed from Greek in late Latin, meaning something like “comparison”. The parabola $y=x^2$ “compares” a number with its square: it curves upward because the area of a square grows faster than the length of its side. “Parable” is from the same word.
      • Algebra. This comes from an Arabic word meaning the art of setting joints, or more generally “restore”. It came through Spanish where it once meant “surgical procedure” but that meaning is now obsolete.

      Much of this information comes from The On-Line Etymological Dictionary. (Read its article about “sine”.) See also my articles on secant and tangent.

      I enjoy finding out about etymol­ogies, but I concede that knowing an ety­mol­ogy doesn’t help you very much in under­standing the math.

      Names made up from other languages’ roots

      A name may be a new word made out of (usually) Greek or Latin roots.


      • Homomorphism. “Homo” in Greek is a root meaning “same” and “morphism” comes from a root referring to shape.
      • Quasiconformal. “Quasi” is a Latin word meaning something like “as if”. It is a prefix mathematicians use a bunch. It usually implies a weakening of the constraints that define the word it is attached to. A map is conformal if it preserves angles in a certain sense, and it is quasiconformal then it does not preserve angles but it does take circles into ellipses in a certain restricted sense (which conformal maps also do). So it replaces a constraint by a weaker constraint.

      Mathematical names cause problems for students

      The name may suggest the wrong meaning

      This is discusses in detail in the article cognitive dissonance.

      The name may not suggest any meaning

      English is unusual among major languages in the number of technical words borrowed from other languages instead of being made up from native roots.  We have some, listed under suggestive names.  But how can you tell from looking at them what “parabola” or “homomorphism” mean?   This applies to concepts named after people, too: The fact that “Hausdorff” is German for a village near an estate doesn’t tell me what a Hausdorff space is.

      The English word “carnivore” (from Latin roots) can be translated as “Fleischfresser” in German; to a German speaker, that word means literally “meat eater”.  So a question such as “What does a carnivore eat” translates into something like, “What does a meat-eater eat?” 

      Chinese is another language that forms words in that way: see the discussion of “diagonal” in Julia Lan Dai’s blog.  (I stole the carnivore example from her blog, too.)

      The result is that many technical words in English do not suggest their meaning at all to a reader not familiar with the subject.  Of course, in the case of “carnivore” if you know Latin, French or Spanish you are likely to guess the meaning, but it is nevertheless true that English has a kind of elitist stratum of technical words that provide little or no clue to their meaning and Chinese and German do not, at least not so much. This is a problem in all technical fields, not just in math.


      There are two main reasons math students have difficulties in pronouncing technical words in math.

      Most students have little knowledge of other languages

      Forty years ago nearly all Ph.D. students had to show mastery in reading math in two foreign languages; this included pronunciation, although that was not emphasized. Today the language requirements in the USA are much weaker, and younger educated Americans are generally weak in foreign languages. As a result, graduate students pronounce foreign names in a variety of ways, some of which attract ridicule from older mathematicians.

      Example: the graduate student at a blackboard who came to the last step of a long proof and announced, “Viola!”, much to the hilarity of his listeners.

      Pronunciation of words from other languages has become unpredictable

      In English-speaking countries until the early twentieth century, the practice was to pronounce a name from another language as if it were English, following the rules of English pronunciation.

      We still pronounce many common math words this way: “Euclid” is pronounced “you-clid” and “parabola” with the second syllable rhyming with “dab”.

      But other words (mostly derived from people’s names) are pronounced using the pronunciation of the language they came from, or what the speaker thinks is the foreign pronunciation. This particularly involves pronouncing “a” as “ah”, “e” like “ay”, and “i” like “ee”.

      • Euler (oiler)
      • Fourier (foo-ree-ay)
      • Lagrange (second a pronounced “ah”)
      • Lie (lee)
      • Riemann (ree-monn)

      The older practice of pronunciation is explained by history: In 1100 AD, the rules of pronunciation of English, Ger­man and French, in particular, were remarkably similar. Over the centuries, the sound systems changed, and Eng­lish­men, for example, changed their pronunciation of “Lagrange” so that the second syllable rhymes with “range”, whereas the French changed it so that the second vowel is nasalized (and the “n” is not otherwise pronounced) and rhymes with the “a” in “father”.

      German spelling

      The German letters “ä”, “ö” and “ü” may also be spelled “ae”, “oe” and “ue” respectively. It is far better to spell “Möbius” as “Moebius” than to spell it “Mobius”.

      The German letter “ß” may be spelled “ss” and often is by the Swiss. Thus Karl Weierstrass spelled his last name “Weierstraß”. Students sometimes confuse the letter “ß” with “f” or “r”. In English language documents it is probably better to use “ss” than “ß”.

      Transliterations from Cyrillic

       The name of the Russian mathematician mot commonly spelled “Chebyshev” in English is also spelled Chebyshov, Chebishev, Chebysheff, Tschebischeff, Tschebyshev, Tschebyscheff and Tschebyschef. (Also Tschebyschew in papers written in German.) The only spelling in the list above that could be said to have some official sanction is “Chebyshev”, which is used by the Library of Congress.

      The correct spelling of his name is “Чебышев” since he was Russian and the Russian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet.

      In spite of the fact that most of the transliterations show the last vowel to be an “e”, the name in Russian is pronounced approximately “chebby-SHOFF”, accent on the last syllable.  Now, that is a ridiculous situation, and it is the transliterators who are ridiculous, not Russian spelling, which in spite of that peculiarity about the Cyrillic letter “e” is much more nearly phonetic than English spelling.

      Some other Russian names have variant spellings (Tychonov, Vinogradov) but Chebyshev probably wins the prize for the most.


    Many authors form the plural of certain technical words using endings from the language from which the words originated. Students may get these wrong, and may sometimes meet with ridicule for doing so.

    Plurals ending in a vowel

    Here are some of the common mathematical terms with vowel plurals.

    singular plural
    automaton automata
    polyhedron polyhedra
    focus foci
    locus loci
    radius radii
    formula formulae
    parabola parabolae
    • Linguists have noted that such plurals seem to be processed differently from s-plurals.  In particular, when used as adjectives, most nouns appear in the singular, but vowel-plural nouns appear in the plural: Compare “automata theory” with “group theory”.  No one says groups theory.  I used to say “automaton theory” but people looked at me funny.
    • The plurals that end in a (of Greek and Latin neuter nouns) are often not recognized as plurals and are therefore used as singulars.  That is how “data” became singular.  This does not seem to happen with my students with the -i plurals and the -ae plurals.
    • In the written literature, the -ae plural appears to be dying, but the -a and -i plurals are hanging on. The commonest -ae plural is “formulae”; other feminine Latin nouns such as “parabola” are usually used with the English plural. In the 1990-1995 issues of six American mathematics journals, I found 829 occurrences of “formulas” and 260 occurrences of “formulae”, in contrast with 17 occurrences of “parabolas” and and no occurrences of “parabolae”. (There were only three occurrences of “parabolae” after 1918.)  In contrast, there were 107 occurrences of “polyhedra” and only 14 of “polyhedrons”.
    • Plurals in s with modified roots









      Students recognize these as plurals but produce new singulars for the words as back formations. For example, one hears “matricee” and “verticee” as the singular for “matrix” and “vertex”. I have also heard “vertec”.


      It is not unfair to say that some scholars insist on using foreign plurals as a form of one-upmanship. Students and young professors need to be aware of these plurals in their own self interest.

      It appears to me that ridicule and put-down for using standard English plurals instead of foreign plurals, and for mispronouncing foreign names, is much less common than it was thirty years ago. However, I am assured by students that it still happens.

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    Recent revisions to

    For the last six months or so I have been systematically going through the files, editing them for consistency, updating them, and in some cases making major revisions.

    In the past I have usually posted revised articles here on Gyre&Gimble, but WordPress makes it difficult to simply paste the HTML into the WP editor, because the editor modifies the HTML and does things such as recognizing line breaks and extra spaces which an HTML interpreters is supposed to ignore.

    Here are two lists of articles that I have revised, with links.

    Major revisions

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    The intent of mathematical assertions

    An assertion in mathematical writing can be a claim, a definition or a constraint.  It may be difficult to determine the intent of the author.  That is discussed briefly here.

    Assertions in math texts can play many different roles.

    English sentences can state facts, ask question, give commands, and other things.  The intent of an English sentence is often obvious, but sometimes it can be unexpectedly different from what is apparent in the sentence.  For example, the statement “Could you turn the TV down?” is apparently a question expecting a yes or no answer, but in fact it may be a request. (See the Wikipedia article on speech acts.) Such things are normally understood by people who know each other, but people for whom English is a foreign language or who have a different culture have difficulties with them.

    There are some problems of this sort in math English and the symbolic language, too.  An assertion can have the intent of being a claim, a definition, or a constraint.

    Most of the time the intent of an assertion in math is obvious. But there are conventions and special formats that newcomers to abstract math may not recognize, so they misunderstand the point of the assertion. This section takes a brief look at some of the problems.


    The way I am using the words “assertion”, “claim”, and “constraint” is not standard usage in math, logic or linguistics.


    In most circumstances, you would expect that if a lecturer or author makes a math assertion, they are claiming that it is a true statement, and you would be right.

    1. “The $240$th digit of $\pi$ after the decimal point is $4$.”
    2. “If a function is differentiable, it must be continuous.”
    3. “$7\gt3$”


    • You don’t have to know whether these statements are true or not to recognize them as claims. An incorrect claim is still a claim.
    • The assertion in (a) is a statement, in this case a false one.  If it claimed the googolth digit was $4$ you would never be able to tell whether it is true or not, but it
      still would be an assertion intended as a claim.
    • The assertion in (b) uses the standard math convention that an indefinite noun phrase (such as “a widget”) in the subject of a sentence is universally quantified (see also the article about “a” in the Glossary.) In other words, “An integer divisible by $4$ must be even” claims that any integer divisible by $4$ is even. This statement is claim, and it is true.
    • (c) is a (true) claim in the symbolic language. (Note that “$3 + 4$” is not an assertion at all, much less a claim.)


    Definitions are discussed primarily in the chapter on definitionsA definition is not the same thing as a claim. 


    The definition

    “An integer is even if it is divisible by $2$”

    makes the claim

    integer is even if and only if it is
    divisible by $2$”


    (If you are surprised that the definition uses “if” but the claim uses “if and only if”, see the Glossary article on “if”.)

    Unmarked definitions

    Math texts sometimes define something without saying that it is a definition. Because of that, students may sometimes think a claim is a definition.


    Suppose that the concept of “even integer” was new to you and the book said, “A number is even if it is divisible by $4$.” Perhaps you thought that this was a definition. Later the book refers to $6$ as even and you pull your hair out wondering why. The statement is a correct claim but an incorrect definition. A good writer would write something like “Recall that a number is even if it is divisible by $2$, so that in particular it is even if it is divisible by $4$.”

    On the other hand, you may think a definition is only a claim.


    A lecturer may say “By definition, an integer is even if it is divisible by $2$”, and you write down: “An integer is even if it is divisible by $2$”. Later, you get all panicky wondering How did she know that?? (This has happened to me.)

    The confusion in the preceding example can also occur if a books says, “An integer is even if it is divisible by $2$” and you don’t know about the convention that when an author puts a word or phrase in boldface or italics it may mean that they are defining it.

    A good writer always labels definitions


    Here are two assertions that contain variables.

    • “$n$ is even.”
    • “$x\gt1$”.

    Such an assertion is a constraint (or a condition) if the intent is
    that the assertion will hold in that part of the text (the scope of the constraint). The part of the text in which it holds is usually the immediate vicinity unless the authors explicitly says it will hold in a larger part of the text such as “this chapter” or “in the rest of the book”.

    • Sometimes the wording makes it clear that the phrase is a constraint. So a statement such as “Suppose $3x^2-2x-5\geq0$” is a constraint on the possible values of $x$.
    • The statement “Suppose $n$ is even” is an explicit requirement that $n$ be even and an implicit requirement that $n$ be an integer.
    • A condition for which you are told to find the solution(s) is a constraint. For example: “Solve the equation $3x^2-2x-5=0$”. This equation is a constraint on the variable $x$. “Solving” the equation means saying explicitly which numbers make the equation true.


    The constraint may appear in parentheses after the assertion as a postcondition on an assertion.


    “$x^2\gt x\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,\,(\text{all }x\gt1)$”

    which means that if the constraint “$x\gt1$” holds, then “$x^2\gt x$” is true. In other words, for all $x\gt1$, the statement $x^2\gt x$ is true. In this statement, “$x^2\gt x$” is not a constraint, but a claim which is true when the constraint is true.

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