Tag Archives: abstract math

Introducing abstract topics

I have been busy for the past several years revising abstractmath.org (abmath). Now I believe, perhaps foolishly, that most of the articles in abmath have reached beta, so now it is time for something new.

For some time I have been considering writing introductions to topics in abstract math, some typically studied by undergraduates and some taken by scientists and engineers. The topics I have in mind to do first include group theory and category theory.

The point of these introductions is to get the student started at the very beginning of the topic, when some students give up in total confusion. They meet and fall off of what I have called the abstraction cliff, which is discussed here and also in my blog posts Very early difficulties and Very early difficulties II.

I may have stolen the phrase “abstraction cliff” from someone else.

Group theory

Group theory sets several traps for beginning students.

Multiplication table

  • A student may balk when a small finite group is defined using a set of letters in a multiplication table.
    “But you didn’t say what the letters are or what the multiplication is?”
  • Such a definition is an abstract definition, in contrast to the definition of “prime”, for example, which is stated in terms of already known entities, namely the integers.
  • The multiplication table of a group tells you exactly what the binary operation is and any set with an operation that makes such a table correct is an example of the group being defined.
  • A student who has no understanding of abstraction is going to be totally lost in this situation. It is quite possible that the professor has never even mentioned the concept of abstract definition. The professor is probably like most successful mathematicians: when they were students, they understood abstraction without having to have it explained, and possibly without even noticing they did so.


  • Cosets are a real killer. Some students at this stage are nowhere near thinking of a set as an object or a thing. The concept of applying a binary operation on a pair of sets (or any other mathematical objects with internal structure) is completely foreign to them. Did anyone ever talk to them about mathematical objects?
  • The consequence of this early difficulty is that such a student will find it hard to understand what a quotient group is, and that is one of the major concepts you get early in a group theory course.
  • The conceptual problems with multiplication of cosets is similar to those with pointwise addition of functions. Given two functions $f,g:\mathbb{R}\to\mathbb{R}$, you define $f+g$ to be the function \[(f+g)(x):=f(x)+g(x)\] Along with pointwise multiplication, this makes the space of functions $\mathbb{R}\to\mathbb{R}$ a ring with nice properties.
  • But you have to understand that each element of the ring is a function thought of as a single math object. The values of the function are properties of the function, but they are not elements of the ring. (You can include the real numbers in the ring as constant functions, but don’t confuse me with facts.)
  • Similarly the elements of the quotient group are math objects called cosets. They are not elements of the original group. (To add to the confusion, they are also blocks of a congruence.)

Isomorphic groups

  • Many books, and many professors (including me) regard two isomorphic groups as the same. I remember getting anguished questions: “But the elements of $\mathbb{Z}_2$ are equivalence classes and the elements of the group of permutations of $\{1,2\}$ are functions.”
  • I admit that regarding two isomorphic groups as the same needs to be treated carefully when, unlike $\mathbb{Z}_2$, the group has a nontrivial automorphism group. ($\mathbb{Z}_3$ is “the same as itself” in two different ways.) But you don’t have to bring that up the first time you attack that subject, any more than you have to bring up the fact that the category of sets does not have a set of objects on the first day you define categories.

Category theory

Category theory causes similar troubles. Beginning college math majors don’t usually meet it early. But category theory has begun to be used in other fields, so plenty of computer science students, people dealing with databases, and so on are suddenly trying to understand categories and failing to do so at the very start.

The G&G post A new kind of introduction to category theory constitutes an alpha draft of the first part of an article introducing category theory following the ideas of this post.

Objects and arrows are abstract

  • Every once in a while someone asks a question on Math StackExchange that shows they have no idea that an object of a category need not have elements and that morphisms need not be functions that take elements to elements.
  • One questioner understood that the claim that a morphism need not be a function meant that it might be a multivalued function.


  • That misunderstanding comes up with duality. The definition of dual category requires turning the arrows around. Even if the original morphism takes elements to elements, the opposite morphism does not have to take elements to elements. In the case of the category of sets, an arrow in $\text{Set}^{op}$ cannot take elements to elements — for example, the opposite of the function $\emptyset\to\{1,2\}$.
  • The fact that there is a concrete category equivalent to $\text{Set}^{op}$ is a red herring. It involves different sets: the function corresponding to the function just mentioned goes from a four-element set to a singleton. But in the category $\text{Set}^{op}$ as defined it is simply an arrow, not a function.

Not understanding how to use definitions

  • Some of the questioners on Math Stack Exchange ask how to prove a statement that is quite simple to prove directly from the definitions of the terms involved, but what they ask and what they are obviously trying to do is to gain an intuition in order to understand why the statement is true. This is backward — the first thing you should do is use the definition (at least in the first few days of a math class — after that you have to use theorems as well!
  • I have discussed this in the blog post Insights into mathematical definitions (which gives references to other longer discussions by math ed people). See also the abmath section Rewrite according to the definitions.

How an introduction to a math topic needs to be written

The following list shows some of the tactics I am thinking of using in the math topic introductions. It is quite likely that I will conclude that some tactics won’t work, and I am sure that tactics I haven’t mentioned here will be used.

  • The introductions should not go very far into the subject. Instead, they should bring an exhaustive and explicit discussion of how to get into the very earliest part of the topic, perhaps the definition, some examples, and a few simple theorems. I doubt that a group theory student who hasn’t mastered abstraction and what proofs are about will ever be ready to learn the Sylow theorems.
  • You can’t do examples and definitions simultaneously, but you can come close by going through an example step by step, checking each part of the definition.
  • There is a real split between students who want the definitions first
    (most of whom don’t have the abstraction problems I am trying to overcome)
    and those who really really think they need examples first (the majority)
    because they don’t understand abstraction.

  • When you introduce an axiom, give an example of how you would prove that some binary operation satisfies the axiom. For example, if the axiom is that every element of a group must have an inverse, right then and there prove that addition on the integers satisfies the axiom and disprove that multiplication on integers satisies it.
  • When the definition uses some undefined math objects, point out immediately with examples that you can’t have any intuition about them except what the axioms give you. (In contrast to definition of division of integers, where you and the student already have intuitions about the objects.)
  • Make explicit the possible problems with abstractmath.org and Gyre&Gimble) will indeed find it difficult to become mathematical researchers — but not impossible!
  • But that is not the point. All college math professors will get people who will go into theoretical computing science, and therefore need to understand category theory, or into particle physics, and need to understand groups, and so on.
  • By being clear at the earliest stages of how mathematicians actually do math, they will produce more people in other fields who actually have some grasp of what is going on with the topics they have studied in math classes, and hopefully will be willing to go back and learn some more math if some type of math rears its head in the theories of their field.
  • Besides, why do you want to alienate huge numbers of people from math, as our way of teaching in the past has done?
  • “Our” means grammar school teachers, high school teachers and college professors.


Thanks to Kevin Clift for corrections.

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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 abstractmath.org. Abstractmath.org 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

Abstractmath.org 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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Forms of proofs

Abstractmath.org is a website I have been maintaining since 2005. It is intended for people beginning the study of abstract math, often a course that requires proofs and thinking about mathematical structures. The Introduction to the website and the article Attitude explain the website in more detail.

One of the chapters in abstractmath.org covers Proofs. As everywhere in abstractmath.org, there is no attempt at complete coverage: the emphasis is on aspects that cause difficulty for abstraction-newbies. In the case of proofs, this includes sections on how proofs are written (math language is a big emphasis all over abstractmath.org). One of those sections is Forms of Proof. This post is a fairly extensive revision of that section.

More than half of the section on Proofs has already been revised (the ones entitled “abstractmath.org 2.0)”, and my current task is to finish that revision.

Normally, I post the actual article here on Gyre&Gimble, but something has changed in the operation of WordPress which causes the html processor to obey linebreaks in the input, which would make the article look chaotic.

So this time, I have to ask you to click a button to read the revised section on Forms of Proof. I apologize for the excessive effort by your finger.

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A very early satori that occurs with beginning abstract math students

In the previous post Pattern recognition and me, I wrote about how much I enjoyed sudden flashes of understanding that were caused by my recognizing a pattern (or learning about a pattern). I have had several such, shall we say, Thrills in learning about math and doing research in math. This post is about a very early thrill I had when I first started studying abstract algebra. As is my wont, I will make various pronouncements about what these mean for teaching and understanding math.


Early in any undergraduate course involving group theory, you learn about cosets.

Basic facts about cosets

  1. Every subgroup of a group generates a set of left cosets and a set of right cosets.
  2. If $H$ is a subgroup of $G$ and $a$ and $b$ are elements of $G$, then $a$ and $b$ are in the same left coset of $H$ if and only if $a^{-1}b\in H$. They are in the same right coset of $H$ if and only if $ab^{-1}\in H$.
  3. Alternative definition: $a$ and $b$ are in the same left coset of $H$ if $a=bh$ for some $h\in H$ and are in the same right coset of $H$ if $a=hb$ for some $h\in H$
  4. One of the (left or right) cosets of $H$ is $H$ itself.
  5. The relations
    $a\underset{L}\sim b$ if and only if $a^{-1}b\in H$


    $a\underset{R}\sim b$ if and only if $ab^{-1}\in H$

    are equivalence relations.

  6. It follows from (5) that each of the set of left cosets of $H$ and the set of right cosets of $H$ is a partition of $G$.
  7. By definition, $H$ is a normal subgroup of $G$ if the two sets of cosets coincide.
  8. The index of a subgroup in a group is the cardinal number of (left or right) cosets the subgroup has.

Elementary proofs in group theory

In the course, you will be asked to prove some of the interrelationships between (2) through (5) using just the definitions of group and subgroup. The teacher assigns these exercises to train the students in the elementary algebra of elements of groups.


  1. If $a=bh$ for some $h\in H$, then $b=ah’$ for some $h’\in H$. Proof: If $a=bh$, then $ah^{-1}=(bh)h^{-1}=b(hh^{-1})=b$.
  2. If $a^{-1}b\in H$, then $b=ah$ for some $h\in H$. Proof: $b=a(a^{-1}b)$.
  3. The relation “$\underset{L}\sim$” is transitive. Proof: Let $a^{-1}b\in H$ and $b^{-1}c\in H$. Then $a^{-1}c=a^{-1}bb^{-1}c$ is the product of two elements of $H$ and so is in $H$.
Miscellaneous remarks about the examples
  • Which exercises are used depends on what is taken as definition of coset.
  • In proving Exercise 2 at the board, the instructor might write “Proof: $b=a(a^{-1}b)$” on the board and the point to the expression “$a^{-1}b$” and say, “$a^{-1}b$ is in $H$!”
  • I wrote “$a^{-1}c=a^{-1}bb^{-1}c$” in Exercise 3. That will result in some brave student asking, “How on earth did you think of inserting $bb^{-1}$ like that?” The only reasonable answer is: “This is a trick that often helps in dealing with group elements, so keep it in mind.” See Rabbits.
  • That expression “$a^{-1}c=a^{-1}bb^{-1}c$” doesn’t explicitly mention that it uses associativity. That, too, might cause pointing at the board.
  • Pointing at the board is one thing you can do in a video presentation that you can’t do in a text. But in watching a video, it is harder to flip back to look at something done earlier. Flipping is easier to do if the video is short.
  • The first sentence of the proof of Exercise 3 is, “Let $a^{-1}b\in H$ and $b^{-1}c\in H$.” This uses rewrite according to the definition. One hopes that beginning group theory students already know about rewrite according to the definition. But my experience is that there will be some who don’t automatically do it.
  • in beginning abstract math courses, very few teachers
    tell students about rewrite according to the definition. Why not?

  • An excellent exercise for the students that would require more than short algebraic calculations would be:
    • Discuss which of the two definitions of left coset embedded in (2), (3), (5) and (6) is preferable.
    • Show in detail how it is equivalent to the other definition.

A theorem

In the undergraduate course, you will almost certainly be asked to prove this theorem:

A subgroup $H$ of index $2$ of a group $G$ is normal in $G$.

Proving the theorem

In trying to prove this, a student may fiddle around with the definition of left and right coset for awhile using elementary manipulations of group elements as illustrated above. Then a lightbulb appears:

In the 1980’s or earlier a well known computer scientist wrote to me that something I had written gave him a satori. I was flattered, but I had to look up “satori”.

If the subgroup has index $2$ then there are two left cosets and two right cosets. One of the left cosets and one of the right cosets must be $H$ itself. In that case the left coset must be the complement of $H$ and so must the right coset. So those two cosets must be the same set! So the $H$ is normal in $G$.

This is one of the earlier cases of sudden pattern recognition that occurs among students of abstract math. Its main attraction for me is that suddenly after a bunch of algebraic calculations (enough to determine that the cosets form a partition) you get the fact that the left cosets are the same as the right cosets by a purely conceptual observation with no computation at all.

This proof raises a question:

Why isn’t this point immediately obvious to students?

I have to admit that it was not immediately obvious to me. However, before I thought about it much someone told me how to do it. So I was denied the Thrill of figuring this out myself. Nevertheless I thought the solution was, shall we say, cute, and so had a little thrill.

A story about how the light bulb appears

In doing exercises like those above, the student has become accustomed to using algebraic manipulation to prove things about groups. They naturally start doing such calculations to prove this theorem. They presevere for awhile…

Scenario I

Some students may be in the habit of abandoning their calculations, getting up to walk around, and trying to find other points of view.

  1. They think: What else do I know besides the definitions of cosets?
  2. Well, the cosets form a partition of the group.
  3. So they draw a picture of two boxes for the left cosets and two boxes for the right cosets, marking one box in each as being the subgroup $H$.
  4. If they have a sufficiently clear picture in their head of how a partition behaves, it dawns on them that the other two boxes have to be the same.
Remarks about Scenario I
  • Not many students at the earliest level of abstract math ever take a break and walk around with the intent of having another approach come to mind. Those who do Will Go Far. Teachers should encourage this practice. I need to push this in abstractmath.org.
  • In good weather, David Hilbert would stand outside at a shelf doing math or writing it up. Every once in awhile he would stop for awhile and work in his garden. The breaks no doubt helped. So did standing up, I bet. (I don’t remember where I read this.)
  • This scenario would take place only if the students have a clear understanding of what a partition is. I suspect that often the first place they see the connection between equivalence relations and partitions is in a hasty introduction at the beginning of a group theory or abstract algebra course, so the understanding has not had long to sink in.

Scenario II

Some students continue to calculate…

  1. They might say, suppose $a$ is not in $H$. Then it is in the other left coset, namely $aH$.
  2. Now suppose $a$ is not in the “other” right coset, the one that is not $H$. But there are only two right cosets, so $a$ must be in $H$.
  3. But that contradicts the first calculation I made, so the only possibility left is that $a$ is in the right coset $Ha$. So $aH\subseteq Ha$.
  4. Aha! But then I can use the same argument the other way around, getting $Ha\subseteq aH$.
  5. So it must be that $aH=Ha$. Aha! …indeed.
Remarks about Scenario 2
  • In step (2), the student is starting a proof by contradiction. Many beginning abstract math students are not savvy enough to do this.
  • Step (4) involves recognizing that an argument has a dual. Abstractmath.org does not mention dual arguments and I can’t remember emphasizing the idea to my classes. Tsk.
  • Scenario 2 involves the student continuing algebraic calculations till the lightbulb strikes. The lightbulb could also occur in other places in the calculation.


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Improving abstractmath.org

This post discusses some ideas I have for improving abstractmath.org.

Handbook of mathematical discourse

The Handbook was kind of a false start on abmath, and is the source of much of the material in abmath. It still contains some material not in abmath, parti­cularly the citations.

By citations I mean lexicographical citations: examples of the usage from texts and scholarly articles.

I published the Handbook of mathe­ma­tical discourse in 2003. The first link below takes you to an article that describes what the Handbook does in some detail. Briefly, the Handbook surveys the use of language in math (and some other things) with an emphasis on the problems it causes students. Its collection of citations of usage could some day could be the start of an academic survey of mathematical language. But don’t expect me to do it.


The Handbook exists as a book and as two different web versions. I lost the TeX source of the Handbook a few years after I published the book, so none of the different web versions are perfect. Version 2 below is probably the most useful.

  1. Handbook of mathe­ma­tical discourse. Description.
  2. Handbook of mathe­ma­tical discourse. Hypertext version without pictures but with active internal links. Some links don’t work, but they won’t be repaired because I have lost the TeX input files.
  3. Handbook of mathe­ma­tical discourse. Paperback.
  4. Handbook of mathematical discourse. PDF version of the printed book, including illustrations and citations but without hyperlinks.
  5. Citations for the paperback version of the Handbook. (The hypertext version and the PDF version include the citations.)


Soon after the Handbook was published, I started work on abstractmath.org, which I abbreviate as abmath. It is intended specifically for people beginning to study abstract math, which means roughly post-calculus. I hope their teachers will read it, too. I had noticed when I was teaching that many students hit a big bump when faced with abstraction, and many of them never recovered. They would typically move into another field, often far away from STEM stuff.


These abmath articles give more detail about the purpose of this website and the thinking behind the way it is presented:

Presentation of abmath


Abmath is written for students of abstract math and other beginners to tell them about the obstacles they may meet up with in learning abstract math. It is not a scholarly work and is not written in the style of a scholarly work. There is more detail about its style in my rant in Attitude.

Scholarly works should not be written in the style of a scholarly work, either.


To do:

Every time I revise an article I find myself rewriting overly formal parts. Fifty years of writing research papers has taken its toll. I must say that I am not giving this informalization stuff very high priority, but I will continue doing it.

No citations

One major difference concerns the citations in the Handbook. I collected these in the late nineties by spending many hours at Jstor and looking through physical books. When I started abmath I decided that the website would be informal and aimed at students, and would contain few or no citations, simply because of the time it took to find them.

Boxouts and small screens

The Handbook had both sidebars on every page of the paper version containing a reference index to words on that page, and also on many pages boxouts with comments. It was written in TeX. I had great difficulty using TeX to control the placement of both the sidebars and especially the boxouts. Also, you couldn’t use TeX to let the text expand or contract as needed by the width of the user’s screen.

Abmath uses boxouts but not sidebars. I wrote Abmath using HTML, which allows it to be presented on large or small screens and to have extensive hyperlinks.
HTML also makes boxouts easy.

The arrival of tablets and i-pods has made it desirable to allow an abmath page to be made quite narrow while still readable. This makes boxouts hard to deal with. Also I have gotten into the habit of posting revisions to articles on Gyre&Gimble, whose editor converts boxouts into inline boxes. That can probably be avoided.

To do:

I have to decide whether to turn all boxouts into inline small-print paragraphs the was you see them in this article. That would make the situation easier for people reading small screens. But in-line small-print paragraphs are harder to associate to the location you want them to refer, in contrast to boxouts.

Abmath 2.0

For the first few years, I used Microsoft Word with MathType, but was plagued with problems described in the link below. Then I switched to writing directly in HTML. The articles of abmath labeled “abstractmath.org 2.0” are written in this new way. This makes the articles much, much easier to update. Unfortunately, Word produces HTML that is extraordinarily complicated, so transforming them into abmath 2.0 form takes a lot of effort.



Abmath does not have enough illustrations and diagrams. Gyre&Gimble has many posts with static illustrations, some of them innovative. It also has some posts with interactive demos created with Mathematica. These demos require the reader to download the CDF Player, which is free. Unfortunately, it is available only for Windows, Mac and Linux, which precludes using them on many small devices.


To do:

  • Create new illustrations where they might be useful, and mine Gyre&Gimble and other sources.
  • There are many animated GIFs out there in the math cloud. I expect many of them are licensed under Creative Commons so that I can use them.
  • I expect to experiment with converting some of the interactive CFD diagrams that are in Gyre&Gimble into animated GIFs or AVIs, which as far as I know will run on most machines. This will be a considerable improvement over static diagrams, but it is not as good as interactive diagrams, where you can have several sliders controlling different variables, move them back and forth, and so on. Look at Inverse image revisited. and “quintic with three parameters” in Demos for graph and cograph of calculus functions.

Abmath content


Abmath includes most of the ideas about language in the Handbook (rewritten and expanded) and adds a lot of new material.


  1. The languages of math. Article in abmath. Has links to the other articles about language.
  2. Syntactic and semantic thinkers. Gyre&Gimble post.
  3. Syntax trees in mathematicians’ brains. Gyre&Gimble post.
  4. A visualization of a computation in tree form.Gyre&Gimble post.
  5. Visible algebra I. Gyre&Gimble post.
  6. Algebra is a difficult foreign language. Gyre&Gimble post.
  7. Presenting binops as trees. Gyre&Gimble post.
  8. Moths to the flame of meaning. How linguistics students also have trouble with syntax.
  9. Varieties of mathematical prose, by Atish Bagchi and Charles Wells.

To do:

The language articles would greatly benefit from more illustrations. In parti­cular:

  • G&G contains several articles about using syntax trees (items 3, 4, 5 and 7 above) to understand algebraic expressions. A syntax tree makes the meaning of an algebraic expression much more transparent than the usual one-dimensional way of writing it.
  • Several items in the abmath article More about the language of math, for example the entries on parenthetic assertions and postconditions could benefit from a diagrammatic representation of the relation between phrases in a sentence and semantics (or how the phrases are spoken).
  • The articles on Names and Alphabets could benefit from providing spoken pronunciations of many words. But what am I going to do about my southern accent?
  • The boxed example of change in context as you read a proof in More about the language of math could be animated as you click through the proof. *Sigh* The prospect of animating that example makes me tired just thinking about it. That is not how grasshoppers read proofs anyway.

Understanding and doing math

Abmath discusses how we understand math and strategies for doing math in some detail. This part is based on my own observations during 35 years of teaching, as well as extensive reading of the math ed literature. The math ed literature is usually credited in footnotes.


Math objects and math structures

Understanding how to think about mathematical objects is, I believe, one of the most difficult hurdles newbies have to overcome in learning abstract math. This is one area that the math ed community has focused on in depth.

The first two links below are take you to the two places in abmath that discuss this problem. The first article has links to some of the math ed literature.


To do: Everything is a math object

An important point about math objects that needs to be brought out more is that everything in math is a math object. Obviously math structures are math objects. But the symbol “$\leq$” in the statement “$35\leq45$” denotes a math object, too. And a proof is a math object: A proof written on a blackboard during a lecture does not look like it is an instance of a rigorously defined math object, but most mathe­maticians, including me, believe that in principle such proofs can be transformed into a proof in a formal logical system. Formal logics, such as first order logic, are certainly math objects with precise mathematical definitions. Definitions, math expressions and theorems are math objects, too. This will be spelled out in a later post.

To do: Bring in modern ideas about math structure

Classically, math structures have been presented as sets with structure, with the structure being described in terms of subsets and functions. My chapter on math structures only waves a hand at this. This is a decidedly out-of-date way of doing it, now that we have category theory and type theory. I expect to post about this in order to clarify my thinking about how to introduce categorical and type-theoretical ideas without writing a whole book about it.

Particular math structures

Abmath includes discussions
of the problems students have with certain parti­cular types of structures. These sections talk mostly about how to think about these structure and some parti­cular misunder­standings students have at the most basic levels.

These articles are certainly not proper intro­ductions to the structures. Abmath in general is like that: It tells students about some aspects of math that are known to cause them trouble when they begin studying abstract math. And that is all it does.


To do:

  • I expect to write similar articles about groups, spaces and categories.
  • The idea about groups is to mention a few things that cause trouble at the very beginning, such as cosets, quotients and homomorphisms (which are all obviously related to each other), and perhaps other stumbling blocks.
  • With categories the idea is to stomp on misconceptions such as that the arrows have to be functions and to emphasize the role of categories in allowing us to define math structures in terms of their relations with other objects instead of in terms with sets.
  • I am going to have more trouble with spaces. Perhaps I will show how you can look at the $\epsilon$-$\delta$ definition of continuous functions on the reals and “discover” that they imply that inverse images of open sets are open, thus paving the way for the family-of-subsets definition of a topoogy.
  • I am not ruling out other particular structures.


This chapter covers several aspects of proofs that cause trouble for students, the logical aspects and also the way proofs are written.

It specifically does not make use of any particular symbolic language for logic and proofs. Some math students are not good at learning languages, and I didn’t see any point in introducing a specific language just to do rudimentary discussions about proofs and logic. The second link below discusses linguistic ability in connection with algebra.

I taught logic notation as part of various courses to computer engineering students and was surprised to discover how difficult some students found using (for example) $p+q$ in one course and $p\vee q$ in another. Other students breezed through different notations with total insouciance.


To do:

Much of the chapter on proofs is badly written. When I get around to upgrading it to abmath 2.0 I intend to do a thorough rewrite, which I hope will inspire ideas about how to conceptually improve it.

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Typical examples

There is a sense in which a robin is a typical bird and a penguin is not a typical bird. (See Reference 1.) Mathematical objects are like this and not like this.

A mathematical definition is simply a list of properties. If an object has all the properties, it is an example of the definition. If it doesn’t, it is not an example. So in some basic sense no example is any more typical than any other. This is in the sense of rigorous thinking described in the abstractmath chapter on images and metaphors.

In fact mathematicians are often strongly opinionated about examples: Some are typical, some are trivial, some are monstrous, some are surprising. A dihedral group is more nearly a typical finite group than a cyclic group. The real numbers on addition is not typical; it has very special properties. The monster group is the largest finite simple group; hardly typical. Its smallest faithful representation as complex matrices involves matrices that are of size 196,883. The monster group deserves its name. Nevertheless, the monster group is no more or less a group than the trivial group.

People communicating abstract math need to keep these two ideas in mind. In the rigorous sense, any group is just as much a group as any other. But when you think of an example of a group, you need to find one that is likely to provide some information. This depends on the problem. For some problems you might want to think of dihedral groups. For others, large abelian p-groups. The trivial group and the monster group are not usually good examples. This way of thinking is not merely a matter of psychology, but it probably can’t be made rigorous either. It is part of the way a mathematician thinks, and this aspect of doing math needs to be taught explicitly.

Reference 1. Lakoff, G. (1986), Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The University of Chicago Press. He calls typical examples “prototypical”.

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