Tag Archives: symbol

The most confusing notation in number theory

This is an observation in abstractmath that I think needs to be publicized more:

Two symbols used in the study of integers are notorious for their confusing similarity.

  • The expression “$m/n$” is a term denoting the number obtained by dividing $m$ by $n$. Thus “$12/3$” denotes $4$ and “$12/5$” denotes the number $2.4$.
  • The expression “$m|n$” is the assertion that “$m$ divides $n$ with no remainder”. So for example “$3|12$”, read “$3$ divides $12$” or “$12$ is a multiple of $3$”, is a true statement and “$5|12$” is a false statement.

Notice that $m/n$ is an integer if and only if $n|m$. Not only is $m/n$ a number and $n|m$ a statement, but the statement “the first one is an integer if and only if the second one is true” is correct only after the $m$ and $n$ are switched!

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More alphabets

This post is the third and last in a series of posts containing revisions of the abstractmath.org article Alphabets. The first two were:

Addition to the listings for the Greek alphabet

Sigma: $\Sigma,\,\sigma$ or ς: sĭg'mɘ. The upper case $\Sigma $ is used for indexed sums.  The lower case $\sigma$ (don't call it "oh") is used for the standard deviation and also for the sum-of-divisors function. The ς form for the lower case has not as far as I know been used in math writing, but I understood that someone is writing a paper that will use it.

Hebrew alphabet

Aleph, א is the only Hebrew letter that is widely used in math. It is the cardinality of the set of integers. A set with cardinality א is countably infinite. More generally, א is the first of the aleph numbers $א_1$, $א_2$, $א_3$, and so on.

Cardinality theorists also write about the beth (ב) numbers, and the gimel (ג) function. I am not aware of other uses of the Hebrew alphabet.

If you are thinking of using other Hebrew letters, watch out: If you type two Hebrew letters in a row in HTML they show up on the screen in reverse order. (I didn't know HTML was so clever.)

Cyrillic alphabet

The Cyrillic alphabet is used to write Russian and many other languages in that area of the world. Wikipedia says that the letter Ш, pronounced "sha", is the only Cyrillic letter used in math. I have not investigated further.

The letter is used in several different fields, to denote the Tate-Shafarevich group, the Dirac comb and the shuffle product.

It seems to me that there are a whole world of possibillities for brash young mathematicians to name mathematical objects with other Cyrillic letters. Examples:

  • Ж. Use it for a ornate construction, like the Hopf fibration or a wreath product.
  • Щ. This would be mean because it is hard to pronounce.
  • Ъ. Guaranteed to drive people crazy, since it is silent. (It does have a name, though: "Yehr".)
  • Э. Its pronunciation indicates you are unimpressed (think Fonz).
  • ю. Pronounced "you". "ю may provide a counterexample". "I do?"

Type styles

Boldface and italics

A typeface is a particular design of letters.  The typeface you are reading is Arial.  This is Times New Roman. This is Goudy. (Goudy may not render correctly on your screen if you don't have it installed.)

Typefaces typically come in several styles, such as bold (or boldface) and italic.


Arial Normal Arial italic Arial bold
Times Normal Times italic Times bold Goudy Normal Goudy italic Goudy bold

Boldface and italics are used with special meanings (conventions) in mathematics. Not every author follows these conventions.

Styles (bold, italic, etc.) of a particular typeface are supposedly called fonts.  In fact, these days “font” almost always means the same thing as “typeface”, so I  use “style” instead of “font”.


A letter denoting a vector is put in boldface by many authors.

  • “Suppose $\mathbf{v}$ be an vector in 3-space.”  Its coordinates typically would be denoted by $v_1$, $v_2$ and $v_3$.
  • You could also define it this way:  “Let $\mathbf{v}=({{v}_{1}},{{v}_{2}},{{v}_{3}})$ be a vector in 3-space.”  (See parenthetic assertion.)

It is hard to do boldface on a chalkboard, so lecturers may use $\vec{v}$ instead of $\mathbf{v}$. This is also seen in print.


The definiendum (word or phrase being defined) may be put in boldface or italics. Sometimes the boldface or italics is the only clue you have that the term is being defined. See Definitions.



“A group is Abelian if its multiplication is commutative,” or  “A group is Abelian if its multiplication is commutative.”


Italics are used for emphasis, just as in general English prose. Rarely (in my experience) boldface may be used for emphasis.

In the symbolic language

It is standard practice in printed math to put single-letter variables in italics.   Multiletter identifiers are usually upright.


Example: "$f(x)=a{{x}^{2}}+\sin x$".  Note that mathematicians would typically refer to $a$ as a “constant” or “parameter”, but in the sense we use the word “variable” here, it is a variable, and so is $f$.


On the other hand, “e” is the proper name of a specific number, and so is “i”. Neither is a variable. Nevertheless in print they are usually given in italics, as in ${{e}^{ix}}=\cos x+i\sin x$.  Some authors would write this as ${{\text{e}}^{\text{i}x}}=\cos x+\text{i}\,\sin x$.  This practice is recommended by some stylebooks for scientific writing, but I don't think it is very common in math.

Blackboard bold


Blackboard bold letters are capital Roman letters written with double vertical strokes.   They look like this:


In lectures using chalkboards, they are used to imitate boldface.

In print, the most common uses is to represent certain sets of numbers:


  • Mathe­ma­tica uses some lower case blackboard bold letters.
  • Many mathe­ma­tical writers disapprove of using blackboard bold in print.  I say the more different letter shapes that are available the better.  Also a letter in blackboard bold is easier to distinguish from ordinary upright letters than a letter in boldface is, particularly on computer screens.
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The use of fraktur in math

This post is a revision of the part of the abmath article on alphabets concerning the fraktur typeface, followed by some corrections and remarks. A revision of the section on the Greek alphabet was posted previously.


In some math subjects, a font tamily (typeface) called fraktur, formerly used for writing German, Norwegian, and some other languages, is used to name math objects.  The table below shows the upper and lower case fraktur letters. 

$A,a$: $\mathfrak{A},\mathfrak{a}$ $H,h$: $\mathfrak{H},\mathfrak{h}$ $O,o$: $\mathfrak{O},\mathfrak{o}$ $V,v$: $\mathfrak{V},\mathfrak{v}$
$B,b$: $\mathfrak{B},\mathfrak{b}$ $I,i$: $\mathfrak{I},\mathfrak{i}$ $P,p$: $\mathfrak{P},\mathfrak{p}$ $W,w$: $\mathfrak{W},\mathfrak{w}$
$C,c$: $\mathfrak{C},\mathfrak{c}$ $J,j$: $\mathfrak{J},\mathfrak{j}$ $Q,q$: $\mathfrak{Q},\mathfrak{q}$ $X,x$: $\mathfrak{X},\mathfrak{x}$
$D,d$: $\mathfrak{D},\mathfrak{d}$ $K,k$: $\mathfrak{K},\mathfrak{k}$ $R,r$: $\mathfrak{R},\mathfrak{r}$ $Y,y$: $\mathfrak{Y},\mathfrak{y}$
$E,e$: $\mathfrak{E},\mathfrak{e}$ $L,l$: $\mathfrak{L},\mathfrak{l}$ $S,s$: $\mathfrak{S},\mathfrak{s}$ $Z,z$: $\mathfrak{Z},\mathfrak{z}$
$F,f$: $\mathfrak{F},\mathfrak{f}$ $M,m$: $\mathfrak{M},\mathfrak{m}$ $T,t$: $\mathfrak{T},\mathfrak{t}$  
$G,g$: $\mathfrak{G},\mathfrak{g}$ $N,n$: $\mathfrak{N},\mathfrak{n}$ $U,u$: $\mathfrak{U},\mathfrak{u}$  
  • Many of the forms are confusing and are commonly mispronounced by younger mathematicians.  (Ancient mathematicians like me have taken German classes in college that required learning fraktur.)  In particular the uppercase $\mathfrak{A}$ looks like $U$ but in fact is an $A$, and the uppercase $\mathfrak{I}$ looks like $T$ but is actually $I$.  
  • When writing on the board, some mathematicians use a cursive form when writing objects with names that are printed in fraktur.
  • Unicode regards fraktur as a typeface (font family) rather than as a different alphabet. However, unicode does provide codes for the fraktur letters that are used in math (no umlauted letters or ß). In TeX you type "\mathfrak{a}" to get $\mathfrak{a}$.
  • In my (limited) experience, native German speakers usually call this alphabet “Altschrift” instead of “Fraktur”.  It has also been called “Gothic”, but that word is also used to mean several other quite different typefaces (black­letter, sans serif and (gasp) the alphabet actually used by the Goths.
  • I have been doing mathematical research for around fifty years. It is clear to me that mathematicians' use of and familiarity with fraktur has declined a lot during that time. But it is not extinct. I have made a hasty and limited search of Jstor and found recent websites and research articles that use it in a variety of fields. There are also a few citations in the Handbook (search for "fraktur").

    • It is used in ring theory and algebraic number theory, in particular to denote ideals.
    • It is use in Lie algebra. In particular, the Lie algebra of a Lie group $G$ is commonly denoted by $\mathfrak{g}$.
    • The cardinality of the continuum is often denoted by $\mathfrak{c}$.
    • It is used occasionally in logic to denote models and other objects.
    • I remember that in the sixties and seventies fraktur was used in algebraic geometry, but I haven't found it in recent papers.


Thanks to Fernando Gouvêa for suggestions.

Remarks about usage in abstractmath.org

The Handbook has 428 citation for usages in the mathematical research literature. After finishing that book, I started abstractmath.org and decided that I would quote the Handbook for usages when I could but would not spend any more time looking for citations myself, which is very time consuming. Instead, in abmath I have given only my opinion about usage. A systematic, well funded project for doing lexicographical research in the math literature would undoubtedly show that my remarks were sometimes incorrect and very often, perhaps even usually, incomplete.

Corrections to the post The Greek alphabet in math

Willie Wong suggested some additional pronunciations for upsilon and omega:

Upsilon: $\Upsilon ,\,\upsilon$  ŭp'sĭlŏn; (Br) ĭp'sĭlŏn. (Note: I have never heard anyone pronounce this letter, and various dictionaries suggest a ridiculous number of different pronunciations.) Rarely used in math; there are references in the Handbook.

Omega: $\Omega ,\,\omega$: ōmā'gɘ, ō'māgɘ; (Br) ōmē'gɘ, ō'mēgɘ. $\Omega$ is often used as the name of a domain in $\mathbb{R}^n$. The set of natural numbers with the usual ordering is commonly denoted by $\omega$. Both forms have many other uses in advanced math.  

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The Greek alphabet in math

This is a revision of the portion of the article Alphabets in abstractmath.org that describes the use of the Greek alphabet by mathematicians.

Every letter of the Greek alphabet except omicron is used in math. All the other lowercase forms and all those uppercase forms that are not identical with the Latin alphabet are used.

  • Many Greek letters are used as proper names of mathe­ma­tical objects, for example $\pi$. Here, I provide some usages that might be known to undergraduate math majors.  Many other usages are given in MathWorld and in Wikipedia. In both those sources, each letter has an individual entry.
  • But any mathematician will feel free to use any Greek letter with a meaning different from common usage. This includes $\pi$, which for example is often used to denote a projection.
  • Greek letters are widely used in other sciences, but I have not attempted to cover those uses here.

The letters

  • English-speaking mathematicians pronounce these letters in various ways.  There is a substantial difference between the way American mathe­maticians pronounce them and the way they are pronounced by English-speaking mathe­maticians whose background is from British Commonwealth countries. (This is indicated below by (Br).)
  • Mathematicians speaking languages other than English may pronounce these letters differently. In particular, in modern Greek, most Greek letters are pro­nounced differ­ently from the way we pronounce them; β for example is pro­nounced vēta (last vowel as in "father").
  • Newcomers to abstract math often don’t know the names of some of the letters, or mispronounce them if they do.  I have heard young mathe­maticians pronounce $\phi $ and $\psi $ in exactly the same way, and since they were writing it on the board I doubt that anyone except language geeks like me noticed that they were doing it.  Another one pronounced $\phi $ as  “fee” and $\psi $ as “fie”.

Pronunciation key

  • ăt, āte, ɘgo (ago), bĕt, ēve, pĭt, rīde, cŏt, gō, ŭp, mūte.
  • Stress is indicated by an apostrophe after the stressed syllable, for example ū'nit, ɘgō'.
  • The pronunciations given below are what mathematicians usually use. In some cases this includes pronunciations not found in dictionaries.


Alpha: $\text{A},\, \alpha$: ă'lfɘ. Used occasionally as a variable, for example for angles or ordinals. Should be kept distinct from the proportionality sign "∝".


Beta: $\text{B},\, \beta $: bā'tɘ or (Br) bē'tɘ. The Euler Beta function is a function of two variables denoted by $B$. (The capital beta looks just like a "B" but they call it “beta” anyway.)  The Dirichlet beta function is a function of one variable denoted by $\beta$.


Gamma: $\Gamma, \,\gamma$: gă'mɘ. Used for the names of variables and functions. One familiar one is the $\Gamma$ function. Don’t refer to lower case "$\gamma$" as “r”, or snooty cognoscenti may ridicule you.

Delta: $\Delta \text{,}\,\,\delta$: dĕltɘ. The Dirac delta function and the Kronecker delta are denoted by $\delta $.  $\Delta x$ denotes the change or increment in x and $\Delta f$ denotes the Laplacian of a multivariable function. Lowercase $\delta$, along with $\epsilon$, is used as standard notation in the $\epsilon\text{-}\delta$ definition of limit.

Epsilon: $\text{E},\,\epsilon$ or $\varepsilon$: ĕp'sĭlɘn, ĕp'sĭlŏn, sometimes ĕpsī'lɘn. I am not aware of anyone using both lowercase forms $\epsilon$ and $\varepsilon$ to mean different things. The letter $\epsilon $ is frequently used informally to denoted a positive real number that is thought of as being small. The symbol ∈ for elementhood is not an epsilon, but many mathematicians use an epsilon for it anyway.

Zeta: $\text{Z},\zeta$: zā'tɘ or (Br) zē'tɘ. There are many functions called “zeta functions” and they are mostly related to each other. The Riemann hypothesis concerns the Riemann $\zeta $-function.

Eta: $\text{H},\,\eta$: ā'tɘ or (Br) ē'tɘ. Don't pronounce $\eta$ as "N" or you will reveal your newbieness.

Theta: $\Theta ,\,\theta$ or $\vartheta$: thā'tɘ or (Br) thē'tɘ.  The letter $\theta $ is commonly used to denote an angle. There is also a Jacobi $\theta $-function related to the Riemann $\zeta $-function. See also Wikipedia.

Iota: $\text{I},\,\iota$: īō'tɘ. Occurs occasionally in math and in some computer languages, but it is not common.

Kappa: $\text{K},\, \kappa $: kă'pɘ. Commonly used for curvature.

Lambda: $\Lambda,\,\lambda$: lăm'dɘ. An eigenvalue of a matrix is typically denoted $\lambda $.  The $\lambda $-calculus is a language for expressing abstract programs, and that has stimulated the use of $\lambda$ to define anonymous functions. (But mathematicians usually use barred arrow notation for anonymous functions.)

Mu: $\text{M},\,\mu$: mū.  Common uses: to denote the mean of a distribution or a set of numbers, a measure, and the Möbius function. Don’t call it “u”. 

Nu: $\text{N},\,\nu$: nū.    Used occasionally in pure math,more commonly in physics (frequency or a type of neutrino).   The lowercase $\nu$ looks confusingly like the lowercase upsilon, $\upsilon$. Don't call it "v".

Xi: $\Xi,\,\xi$: zī, sī or ksē. Both the upper and the lower case are used occasionally in mathe­matics. I recommend the ksee pronunciation since it is unambiguous.

Omicron: $\text{O, o}$: ŏ'mĭcrŏn.  Not used since it looks just like the Roman letter.

Pi: $\Pi \text{,}\,\pi$: pī.  The upper case $\Pi $ is used for an indexed product.  The lower case $\pi $ is used for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, and also commonly to denote a projection function or the function that counts primes.  See default.

Rho: $\text{P},\,\rho$: rō. The lower case $\rho$ is used in spherical coordinate systems.  Do not call it pee.

Sigma: $\Sigma,\,\sigma$: sĭg'mɘ. The upper case $\Sigma $ is used for indexed sums.  The lower case $\sigma$ (don't call it "oh") is used for the standard deviation and also for the sum-of-divisors function.

Tau: $\text{T},\,\tau$ or τ: tăoo (rhymes with "cow"). The lowercase $\tau$ is used to indicate torsion, although the torsion tensor seems usually to be denoted by $T$. There are several other functions named $\tau$ as well.

Upsilon: $\Upsilon ,\,\upsilon$  ŭp'sĭlŏn. (Note: I have never heard anyone pronounce this letter, and various dictionaries suggest a ridiculous number of different pronunciations.) Rarely used in math; there are references in the Handbook.

Phi: $\Phi ,\,\phi$ or $\varphi$: fē or fī. Used for the totient function, for the “golden ratio” $\frac{1+\sqrt{5}}{2}$ (see default) and also commonly used to denote an angle.  Historically, $\phi$ is not the same as the notation $\varnothing$ for the empty set, but many mathematicians use it that way anyway, sometimes even calling the empty set “fee” or “fie”. 

Chi: $\text{X},\,\chi$: kī.  (Note that capital chi looks like $\text{X}$ and capital xi looks like $\Xi$.) Used for the ${{\chi }^{2}}$distribution in statistics, and for various math objects whose name start with “ch” (the usual transliteration of $\chi$) such as “characteristic” and “chromatic”.

Psi: $\Psi, \,\psi$; sē or sī. A few of us pronounce it as psē or psī to distinguish it from $\xi$.  $\psi$, like $\phi$, is often used to denote an angle.

Omega: $\Omega ,\,\omega$: ōmā'gɘ. $\Omega$ is often used as the name of a domain in $\mathbb{R}^n$. The set of natural numbers with the usual ordering is commonly denoted by $\omega$. Both forms have many other uses in advanced math.  

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Images and metaphors in math

About this post

This post is the new revision of the chapter on Images and Metaphors in abstractmath.org.

Images and metaphors in math

In this chapter, I say something about mental represen­tations (metaphors and images) in general, and provide examples of how metaphors and images help us understand math – and how they can confuse us.

Pay special attention to the section called two levels!  The distinction made there is vital but is often not made explicit.

Besides mental represen­tations, there are other kinds of represen­tations used in math, discussed in the chapter on represen­tations and models.

Mathe­matics is the tinkertoy of metaphor. –Ellis D. Cooper

Images and metaphors in general

We think and talk about our experiences of the world in terms of images and metaphors that are ultimately derived from immediate physical experience.  They are mental represen­tations of our experiences.

See Thinking about thought.



We know what a pyramid looks like.  But when we refer to the government’s food pyramid we are not talking about actual food piled up to make a pyramid.  We are talking about a visual image of the pyramid.    


We know by direct physical experience what it means to be warm or cold.  We use these words as metaphors
in many ways: 

  • We refer to a person as having a warm or cold personality.  This has nothing to do with their body temperature.
  • When someone is on a treasure hunt we may tell them they are “getting warm”, even if they are hunting outside in the snow.

Children don’t always sort meta­phors out correctly. Father: “We are all going to fly to Saint Paul to see your cousin Petunia.” Child: “But Dad, I don’t know how to fly!”

Other terminology

  • My use of the word “image” means mental image. In the study of literature, the word “image” is used in a more general way, to refer to an expression that evokes a mental image..
  • I use “metaphor” in the sense of conceptual metaphor. The word metaphor in literary studies is related to my use but is defined in terms of how it is expressed.
  • The metaphors mentioned above involving “warm” and “cold”
    evoke a sensory experience, and so could be called an image as well. 
  • In math education, the phrase concept image means the mental structure associated with a concept, so there may be no direct connection with sensory experience.  
  • In abstractmath.org, I use the phrase metaphors and images to talk about all our mental represen­tations, without trying for fine distinctions.

Mental represen­tations are imperfect

One basic fact about metaphors and images is that they apply only to certain aspects of the situation.

  • When someone is getting physically warm we would expect them to start sweating.
  • But if they are getting warm in a treasure hunt we don’t expect them to start sweating. 
  • We don’t expect the food pyramid to have a pharaoh buried underneath it, either.

Our brains handle these aspects of mental represen­tations easily and usually without our being conscious of them.  They are one of the primary ways we understand the world.

Images and metaphors in math

Half this game is 90% mental. –Yogi Berra

Types of represen­tations

Mathe­maticians who work with a particular kind of mathe­matical object
have mental represen­tations of that type of object that help them
understand it.  These mental represen­tations come in many forms.  Most of them fit into one of the types below, but the list shouldn’t be taken too seriously: Some represen­tations fit more that of these types, and some may not fit into any of them except awkwardly.

  • Visual
  • Notation
  • Kinetic
  • Process
  • Object

All mental represen­tations are conceptual metaphors. Metaphors are treated in detail in this chapter and in the chapter on images and metaphors for functions.  See also literalism and Proofs without dry bones on Gyre&Gimble.

Below I list some examples. Many of them refer to the arch function, the function defined by $h(t)=25-{{(t-5)}^{2}}$.

Visual image

Geometric figures

The arch function

  • You can picture the arch function in terms of its graph, which is a parabola.     This visualization suggests that the function has a single maximum point that appears to occur at $t=5$. That is an example of how metaphors can suggest (but not prove) theorems.
  • You can think of the arch function
    more physically, as like the Gateway Arch. This metaphor is suggested by the graph.

Interior of a shape

  • The interior of a closed curve or a sphere is called that because it is like the interior in the everyday sense of a bucket or a house.
  • Sometimes, the interior can be described using analytic geometry. For example, the interior of the circle $x^2+y^2=1$ is the set of points \[\{(x,y)|x^2+y^2\lt1\}\]
  • But the “interior” metaphor is imperfect: The boundary of a real-life container such as a bucket has thickness, in contrast to the boundary of a closed curve or a sphere. 
  • This observation illustrates my description of a metaphor as identifying part of one situation with part of another. One aspect is emphasized; another aspect, where they may differ, is ignored.

Real number line

  • You may think of the real
    as lying along a straight line (the real line) that extends infinitely far in both directions.  This is both visual and a metaphor (a real number “is” a place on the real line).
  • This metaphor is imperfect because you can’t draw the whole real line, but only part of it. But you can’t draw the whole graph of the curve $y=25-(t-5)^2$, either.

Continuous functions

No gaps

“Continuous functions don’t have gaps in the graph”.    This is a visual image, and it is usually OK.

  • But consider the curve defined by $y=25-(t-5)^2$ for every real $x$ except $x=1$. It is not defined at $x=1$ (and so the function is discontinuous there) but its graph looks exactly like the graph in the figure above because no matter how much you magnify it you can’t see the gap.
  • This is a typi­cal math example that teachers make up to raise your consciousness.

  • So is there a gap or not?
No lifting

“Continuous functions can be drawn without lifting the chalk.” This is true in most familiar cases (provided you draw the graph only on a finite interval). But consider the graph of the function defined by $f(0)=0$ and \[f(t)=t\sin\frac{1}{t}\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ (0\lt t\lt 0.16)\]
(see Split Definition). This curve is continuous and is infinitely long even though it is defined on a finite interval, so you can’t draw it with a chalk at all, picking up the chalk or not. Note that it has no gaps.

Keeping concepts separate by using mental “space”

I personally use visual images to remember relationships between abstract objects, as well.  For example, if I think of three groups, two of which are isomorphic (for example $\mathbb{Z}_{3}$ and $\text{Alt}_3$), I picture them as in three different places in my head with a connection between the two isomorphic ones.


Here I give some examples of thinking of math objects in terms of the notation used to name them. There is much more about notation as mathe­matical represen­tation in these sections of abmath:

Notation is both something you visualize in your head and also a physical represen­tation of the object.  In fact notation can also be thought of as a mathe­matical object in itself (common in mathe­matical logic and in theoretical computing science.)   If you think about what notation “really is” a lot,  you can easily get a headache…


  • When I think of the square root of $2$, I visualize the symbol “$\sqrt{2}$”. That is both a typographical object and a mathe­matically defined symbolic represen­tation of the square root of $2$.
  • Another symbolic represen­tation of the square root of $2$ is “$2^{1/2}$”. I personally don’t visualize that when I think of the square root of $2$, but there is nothing wrong with visualizing it that way.
  • What is dangerous is thinking that the square root of $2$ is the symbol “$\sqrt{2}$” (or “$2^{1/2}$” for that matter). The square root of $2$ is an abstract mathe­matical object given by a precise mathe­matical definition.
  • One precise defi­nition of the square root of $2$ is “the positive real number $x$ for which $x^2=2$”. Another definition is that $\sqrt{2}=\frac{1}{2}\log2$.


  • If I mention the number “two thousand, six hundred forty six” you may visualize it as “$2646$”. That is its decimal represen­tation.
  • But $2646$ also has a prime factorization, namely $2\times3^3\times7^2$.
  • It is wrong to think of this number as being the notation “$2646$”. Different notations have different values, and there is no mathe­matical reason to make “$2646$” the “genuine” represen­tation. See represen­tations and Models.
  • For example, the prime factor­ization of $2646$ tells you imme­diately that it is divisible by $49$.

When I was in high school in the 1950’s, I was taught that it was incorrect to say “two thousand, six hundred and forty six”. Being naturally rebellious I used that extra “and” in the early 1960’s in dictating some number in a telegraph mes­sage. The Western Union operator corrected me. Of course, the “and” added to the cost. (In case you are wondering, I was in the middle of a postal Diplomacy game in Graustark.)


Set notation

You can think of the set containing $1$, $3$ and $5$ and nothing else as represented by its common list notation $\{1, 3, 5\}$.  But remember that $\{5, 1,3\}$ is another notation for the same set. In other words the list notation has irrelevant features – the order in which the elements are listed in this case.


Shoot a ball straight up

  • The arch function could model the height over time of a physical object, perhaps a ball shot vertically upwards on a planet with no atmosphere.
  • The ball starts upward at time $t=0$ at elevation $0$, reaches an elevation of (for example) $16$ units at time $t=2$, and lands at $t=10$.
  • The parabola is not the path of the ball. The ball goes up and down along the $x$-axis. A point on the parabola shows it locaion on the $x$ axis at time $t$.
  • When you think about this event, you may imagine a physical event continuing over time, not just as a picture but as a feeling of going up and down.
  • This feeling of the ball going up and down is created in your mind presumably using mirror neuron. It is connected in your mind by a physical connection to the understanding of the function that has been created as connections among some of your neurons.
  • Although $h(t)$ models the height of the ball, it is not the same thing as the height of the ball.  A mathe­matical object may have a relationship in our mind to physical processes or situations, but it is distinct from them.


  1. This example involves a picture (graph of a function).  According to this report, kinetic
    understanding can also help with learning math that does not involve pictures. 
    For example, when I think of evaluating the function ${{x}^{2}}+1$ at 3, I visualize
    3 moving into the x slot and then the formula $9^2+1$ transforming
    itself into $10$. (Not all mathematicians visualize it this way.)
  2. I make the point of emphasizing the physical existence in your brain of kinetic feelings (and all other metaphors and images) to make it clear that this whole section on images and metaphors is about objects that have a physical existence; they are not abstract ideals in some imaginary ideal space not in our world. See Thinking about thought.

I remember visualizing algebra I this way even before I had ever heard of the Transformers.


It is common to think of a function as a process: you put in a number (or other object) and the process produces another number or other object. There are examples in Images and metaphors for functions.

Long division

Let’s divide $66$ by $7$ using long division. The process consists of writing down the decimal places one by one.

  1. You guess at or count on your fingers to find the largest integer $n$ for which $7n\lt66$. That integer is $9$.
  2. Write down $9.$ ($9$ followed by a decimal point).
  3. $66-9\times7=3$, so find the largest integer $n$ for which $7n\lt3\times10$, which is $4$.
  4. Adjoin $4$ to your answer, getting $9.4$
  5. $3\times10-7\times4=2$, so find the largest integer $n$ for which $7n\lt2\times10$, which is $2$.
  6. Adjoin $2$ to your answer, getting $9.42$.
  7. $2\times10-7\times2=6$, so find the largest integer for which $7n\lt6\times10$, which is $8$.
  8. Adjoin $8$ to your answer, getting $9.428$.
  9. $6\times10-7\times8=4$, so find the largest integer for which $7n\lt4\times10$, which is $5$.
  10. Adjoin $5$ to your answer, getting $9.4285$.

You can continue with the procedure to get as many decimal places as you wish of $\frac{66}{7}$.


The sequence of actions just listed is quite difficult to follow. What is difficult is not understanding what they say to do, but where did they get the numbers? So do this exercise!

Exercise worth doing:

Check that the procedure above is exactly what you do to divide $66$ by $7$ by the usual method taught in grammar school:

  • The long division process produces as many decimal places as you have stamina for. It is likely for most readers that when you do long division by hand you have done it so much that you know what to do next without having to consult a list of instructions.
  • It is a process or procedure but not what you might want to call a function. The process recursively constructs the successive integers occurring in the decimal expansion of $\frac{66}{7}$.
  • When you carry out the grammar school procedure above, you know at each step what to do next. That is why is it a process. But do you have the procedure in your head all at once?
  • Well, instructions (5) through (10) could be written in a programming language as a while loop, grouping the instructions in pairs of commands ((5) and (6), (7) and (8), and so on). However many times you go through the while loop determines the number of decimal places you get.
  • It can also be described as a formally defined recursive function $F$ for which $F(n)$ is the $n$th digit in the answer.
  • Each of the program and the recursive definition mentioned in the last two bullets are exercises worth doing.
  • Each of the answers to the exercises is then a mathematical object, and that brings us to the next type of metaphor…


A particular kind of metaphor or image for a mathematical concept is that of a mathematical object that represents the concept.


  • The number $10$ is a mathematical object. The expression “$3^2+1$” is also a mathematical object. It encapsulates the process of squaring $3$ and adding $1$, and so its value is $10$.
  • The long division process above finds the successive decimal places of a fraction of integers. A program that carries out the algorithm encapsulates the process of long division as an algorithm. The result is a mathematical object.
  • The expression “$1958$” is a mathematical object, namely the decimal represen­tation of the number $1958$. The expression
    “$7A6$” is the hexadecimal represen­tation of $1958$. Both represen­tations are mathematical objects with precise definitions.

Represen­tations as math objects is discussed primarily in represen­tations and Models. The difference between represen­tations as math objects and other kinds of mental represen­tations (images and metaphors) is primarily that a math object has a precise mathematical definition. Even so, they are also mental represen­tations.

Uses of mental represen­tations

Mental represen­tations of a concept make up what is arguably the most important part of the mathe­matician’s understanding of the concept.

  • Mental represen­tations of mathe­matical objects using metaphors and images are necessary for understanding and communicating about them (especially with types of objects that are new to us) .
  • They are necessary for seeing how the theory can be applied.
  • They are useful for coming up with proofs. (See example below.) 

Many represen­tations

 Different mental represen­tations of the same kind of object
help you understand different aspects of the object. 

Every important mathe­matical object
has many different kinds of represen­tations
and mathe­maticians typically keep
more that one of them in mind at once.

But images and metaphors are also dangerous (see below).

New concepts and old ones

We especially depend on metaphors and images to understand a math concept that is new to us .  But if we work with it for awhile, finding lots of examples, and
eventually proving theorems and providing counterexamples to conjectures, we begin to understand the concept in its own terms and the images and metaphors tend to fade away from our awareness.

Then, when someone asks us about this concept that we are now experts with, we
trundle out our old images and metaphors – and are often surprised at how difficult and misleading our listener finds them!

Some mathe­maticians retreat from images and metaphors because of this and refuse to do more than state the definition and some theorems about the concept. They are wrong to do this. That behavior encourages the attitude of many people that

  • Mathe­maticians can’t explain things.
  • Math concepts are incomprehensible or bizarre.
  • You have to have a mathe­matical mind to understand math.

In my opinion the third statement is only about 10 percent true.

All three of these statements are half-truths. There is no doubt that a lot of abstract math is hard to understand, but understanding is certainly made easier with the use of images and metaphors. 

Images and metaphors on this website

This website has many examples of useful mental represen­tations.  Usually, when a chapter discusses a particular type of mathe­matical object, say rational numbers, there will be a subhead entitled “Images and metaphors for rational numbers”.  This will suggest ways of thinking about them that many have found useful. 

Two levels of images and metaphors

Images and metaphors have to be used at two different levels, depending on your purpose. 

  • You should expect to use rich view for understanding, applications, and coming up with proofs.
  • You must limit yourself to the rigorous view when constructing and checking proofs.

Math teachers and texts typically do not make an explicit distinction between these views, and you have to learn about it by osmosis. In practice, teachers and texts do make the distinction implicitly.  They will say things
like, “You can think about this theorem as …” and later saying, “Now we give a rigorous proof of the theorem.”  Abstractmath.org makes this distinction explicit in many places throughout the site.

rich view

The kind of metaphors and images discussed in the mental represen­tations section above make math rich, colorful and intriguing to think about.  This is the rich view of math.  The rich view is vitally important.  

  • It is what makes math useful and interesting.
  • It helps us to understand the math we are working with.
  • It suggests applications.
  • It suggests approaches to proofs.

You expect the ball whose trajectory is modeled by the function h(t) above  to slow down as it rises, so the derivative of h must be smaller at t
= 4
 than it is at t = 2.  A mathe­matician might even say that that is an “informal proof” that $h'(4)<h'(2)$.  A rigorous proof is given below.

The rigorous view: inertness

When we are constructing a definition or proof we cannot
trust all those wonderful images and metaphors. 

  • Definitions must
    not use metaphors.
  • Proofs must use only logical reasoning based on definitions and
    previously proved theorems.

For the point of view of doing proofs, math
objects must be thought of as inert (or static),
like your pet rock. This means they

  • don’t move or change over time, and
  • don’t interact with other objects, even other mathe­matical objects.

(See also abstract object).

  • When
    mathe­maticians say things like, “Now we give a rigorous proof…”, part of what they mean is that they have to forget about all the color
    and excitement of the rich view and think of math objects as totally
    inert. Like, put the object under an anesthetic
    when you are proving something about it.
  • As I wrote previously, when you are trying to understand arch function $h(t)=25-{{(t-5)}^{2}}$, it helps to think of it as representing a ball thrown directly upward, or as a graph describing the height of the ball at time $t$ which bends over like an arch at the time when the ball stops going upward and begins to fall down.
  • When you proving something about it, you must be in the frame of mind that says the function (or the graph) is all laid out in front of you, unmoving. That is what the rigorous mode requires. Note that the rigorous mode is a way of thinking, not a claim about what the arch function “really is”.
  • When in rigorous mode,  a mathe­matician will
    think of $h$ as a complete mathe­matical object all at once,
    not changing over time. The
    function is the total relationship of the input values of the input parameter
    $t$ to the output values $h(t)$.  It consists of a bunch of interrelated information, but it doesn’t do anything and it doesn’t change.

Formal proof that $h'(4)<h'(2)$

Above, I gave an informal argument for this.   The rigorous way to see that $h'(4)\lt h'(2)$ for the arch function is to calculate the derivative \[h'(t)=10-2t\] and plug in 4 and 2 to get \[h'(4)=10-8=2\] which is less than $h'(2)=10-4=6$.

Note the embedded

This argument picks out particular data about the function that
prove the statement.  It says nothing about anything slowing down as $t$
increases.  It says nothing about anything at all changing.

Other examples

  • The rigorous way to say that “Integers go to infinity in both directions” is something like this:  “For every integer n there is an integer k such that k < n  and an integer m such that n < m.”
  • The rigorous way to say that continuous functions don’t have gaps in their graph is to use the $\varepsilon-\delta $ definition of continuity.
  • Conditional assertions are one important aspect of mathe­matical reasoning in which this concept of unchanging inertness clears up a lot of misunderstanding.   “If… then…” in our intuition contains an idea of causation and of one thing happening before another (see also here).  But if objects are inert they don’t cause anything and if they are unchanging then “when” is meaningless.

The rigorous view does not apply to all abstract objects, but only to mathe­matical objects.  See abstract objects for examples.

Metaphors and images are dangerous

The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.–Norbert Wiener

mental represen­tation has flaws. Each oneprovides a way of thinking about an $A$ as a kind of $B$ in some respects. But the represen­tation can have irrelevant features.  People new to the subject will be tempted to think  about $A$ as a kind of $B$ in inappropriate respects as well.  This is a form of cognitive dissonance.

 It may be that most difficulties students have with abstract math are based on not knowing which aspects of a given represen­tation are applicable in a given situation.  Indeed, on not being consciously aware that in general you must restrict the applicability of the mental pictures that come with a represen­tation.

In abstractmath.org you will sometimes see this statement:  “What is wrong with this metaphor:”  (or image, or represen­tation) to warn you about the flaws of that particular represen­tation.


The graph of the arch function $h(t)$ makes it look like the two arms going downward become so nearly vertical that the curve has vertical asymptotes
But it does not have asymptotes.  The arms going down are underneath every point of the $x$-axis. For example, there is a point on the curve underneath the point $(999,0)$, namely $(999, -988011)$.


A set is sometimes described as analogous to A container. But consider:  the integer 3 is “in” the set of all odd integers, and it is also “in” the set $\left\{ 1,\,2,\,3 \right\}$.  How could something be in two containers at once?  (More about this here.)

An analogy can be help­ful, but it isn’t the same thing as the same thing. – The Economist


Mathe­maticians think of the real numbers as constituting a line infinitely long in both directions, with each number as a point on the line. But this does not mean that you can think of the line as a row of points. See density of the real line.


We commonly think of functions as machines that turn one number into another.  But this does not mean that, given any such function, we can construct a machine (or a program) that can calculate it.  For many functions, it is not only impractical to do, it is theoretically
impossible to do it.
They are not href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recursive_function_theory#Turing_computability”>computable. In other words, the machine picture of a function does not apply to all functions.


The images and metaphors you use
to think about a mathe­matical object
are limited in how they apply.

The images and metaphors you use to think about the subject
cannot be directly used in a proof.
Only definitions and previously proved theorems can be used in a proof.

Final remarks

Mental represen­tations are physical represen­tations

It seems likely that cognitive phenomena such as images and metaphors are physically represented in the brain as collec­tions of neurons connected in specific ways.  Research on this topic is pro­ceeding rapidly.  Perhaps someday we will learn things about how we think physi­cally that actually help us learn things about math.

In any case, thinking about mathe­matical objects as physi­cally represented in your brain (not neces­sarily completely or correctly!) wipes out a lot of the dualistic talk about ideas and physical objects as
separate kinds of things.  Ideas, in partic­ular math objects, are emergent constructs in the
physical brain. 

About metaphors

The language that nature speaks is mathe­matics. The language that ordinary human beings speak is metaphor. Freeman Dyson

“Metaphor” is used in abstractmath.org to describe a type of thought configuration.  It is an implicit conceptual identification
of part of one type of situation with part of another. 

Metaphors are a fundamental way we understand the world. In particular,they are a fundamental way we understand math.

The word “metaphor”

The word “metaphor” is also used in rhetoric as the name of a type of figure of speech.  Authors often refer to metaphor in the meaning of  thought configuration as a conceptual metaphor.  Other figures of speech, such as simile and synecdoche, correspond to conceptual metaphors as well.

References for metaphors in general cognition:

Fauconnier, G. and Turner, M., The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities . Basic Books, 2008.

Lakoff, G., Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Lakoff, G. and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By
The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

References for metaphors and images in math:

Byers, W., How mathe­maticians Think.  Princeton University Press, 2007.

Lakoff, G. and R. E. Núñez, Where mathe­matics Comes
. Basic Books, 2000.

Math Stack Exchange list of explanatory images in math.

Núñez, R. E., “Do Real Numbers Really Move?”  Chapter
in 18 Unconventional Essays on the Nature of mathe­matics, Reuben Hersh,
Ed. Springer, 2006.

Charles Wells,
Handbook of mathe­matical Discourse.

Charles Wells, Conceptual blending. Post in Gyre&Gimble.

Other articles in abstractmath.org

Conceptual and computational

Functions: images and metaphors

Real numbers: images and metaphors

represen­tations and models

Sets: metaphors and images

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Variations in meaning in math

Words in a natural language may have different meanings in different social groups or different places.  Words and symbols in both mathematical English and the symbolic language vary according to specialty and, occasionally, country (see convention, default).  And words and symbols can change their meanings from place to place within the same mathematical discourse (see scope).

This article mostly provides pointers to other articles in abstractmath.org that give more details about the ideas.


A convention in mathematical discourse is notation or terminology used with a special meaning in certain contexts or in certain fields. Articles and books in a specialty do not always clue you in on these conventions.

Some conventions are nearly universal in math.

Example 1

The use of “if” to mean “if and only if” in a definition is a convention. More about this here. This is a hidden definition by cases. “Hidden” means that no one tells the students, except for Susanna Epp and me.

Example 2

Constants or parameters are conventionally denoted by a, b, … , functions by f, g, … and variables by x, y,…. More.

Example 3

Referring to a group (or other mathematical structure) and its underlying set by the same name is a convention.  This is an example of both synecdoche and context-sensitive.

Example 4

The meaning of ${{\sin }^{n}}x$ in many calculus books is:

  • The inverse sine (arcsin) if $n=-1$.
  • The mult­iplica­tive power for positive $n$; in other words, ${{\sin }^{n}}x={{(\sin x)}^{n}}$ if $n\ne -1$.

This, like Example 1, is a definition by cases. Unlike Example 1, calculus books often make it explicit. Explicit or not, this usage is an abomination.

Some conventions are pervasive among math­ematicians but different conventions hold in other subjects that use mathematics.

  • Scientists and engineers may regard a truncated decimal such as 0.252 as an approximation, but a mathematician is likely to read it as an exact rational number, namely $\frac{252}{1000}$.
  • In most computer languages a distinction is made between real numbers and integers;
    42 would be an integer but 42.0 would be a real number.  Older mathematicians may not know this.
  • Mathematicians use i to denote the imaginary unit. In electrical engineering it is commonly denoted j instead, a fact that many mathematicians are un­aware of. I first learned about it when a student asked me if i was the same as j.

Conventions may vary by country.

  • In France and possibly other countries schools may use “positive” to mean “nonnegative”, so that zero is positive. 
  • In the secondary schools in some places, the value of sin x may be computed clockwise starting at (0,1)  instead of counterclockwise starting at (1,0).  I have heard this from students. 

Conventions may vary by specialty within math.

Field” and “log” are examples. 


An interface to a computer program may have many possible choices for the user to make. In most cases, the interface will use certain choices automatically when the user doesn’t specify them.  One says the program defaults to those choices.  


  • A word processing program may default to justified paragraphs and insert mode, but allow you to pick ragged right or typeover mode.
  • I have spent a lot of time in both Minne­sota and Georgia and the remarks about skiing are based on my own observation. But these usages are not absolute. Some affluent Geor­gians may refer to snow skiing as “skiing”, for example, and this usage can result in a put-down if the hearer thinks they are talking about water skiing. One wonders where the boundary line is. Perhaps people in Kentucky are confused on the issue.

  • There is a sense in which the word “ski” defaults to snow skiing in Minnesota and to water skiing in Georgia.
  • “CSU” defaults to Cleveland State University in northern Ohio and to Colorado State University in parts of the west.

Math language behaves in this way, too.

Default usage in mathematical discourse


  • In high school, $\pi$ refers by default to the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.  Students are often quite surprised when they get to abstract math courses and discover the many other meanings of $\pi $ (see here).
  • Recently authors in the popular literature seem to think that $\phi$ (phi) defaults to the golden ratio.  In fact, a search through the research literature shows very few hits for $\phi$ meaning the golden ratio: in other words, it usually means something else. 
  • The set $\mathbb{R}$ of real numbers has many different group structures defined on it but “The group $\mathbb{R}$” essentially always means that the group operation is ordinary addition.  In other words, “$\mathbb{R}$” as a group defaults to +.  Analogous remarks apply to “the field $\mathbb{R}$”. 
  • In informal conversation among many analysts, functions are continuous by default.
  • It used to be the case that in informal conversations among topologists, “group” defaulted to Abelian group. I don’t know whether that is still true or not.


This meaning of “default” has made it into dictionaries only since around 1960 (see the Wikipedia entry). This usage does not carry a derogatory connotation.   In abstractmath.org I am using the word to mean a special type of convention that imposes a choice of parameter, so that it is a special case of both “convention” and “suppression of parameters”.


Both mathematical English and the symbolic language have a feature that is uncommon in ordinary spoken or written English:  The meaning of a phrase or a symbolic expression can be different in different parts of the discourse.   The portion of the text in which a particular meaning is in effect is called the scope of the meaning.  This is accomplished in several ways.

Explicit statement


  • “In this paper, all groups are abelian”.  This means that every instance of the word “group” or any symbol denoting a group the group is constrained to be abelian.   The scope in this case is the whole paper.   See assumption.
  • “Suppose (or “let” or “assume”) $n$ is divisible by $4$”. Before this statement, you could not assume $n$ is divisible by $4$. Now you can, until the end of the current paragraph or section.


The definition of a word, phrase or symbol sets its meaning.  If the word definition is used and the scope is not given explicitly, it is probably the whole discourse.


“Definition.  An integer is even if it is divisible by 2.”  This is marked as a definition, so it establishes the meaning of the word “even” (when applied to an integer) for the rest of the text. 


Used in modus ponens (see here) and (along with let, usually “now let…”) in proof by cases.

Example(modus ponens)

Suppose you want to prove that if an integer $n$ is divisible by $4$ then it is even. To show that it is even you must show that it is divisible by $2$. So you write:

  • “Let $n$ be divisible by $4$. That means $n=4k$ for some integer $k$. But then $n=2(2k)$, so $n$ is even by definition.”

Now if you start a new paragraph with something like “For any integer $n\ldots$” you can no longer assume $n$ is divisible by $4$.

Example (proof by cases)

Theorem: For all integers $n$, $n^2+n+1$ is odd.


  • “$n$ is even” means that $n=2s$ for some integer $s$.
  • “$n$ is odd” means that $n=2t+1$ for some integer $t$.


  • Suppose $n$ is even. Then


    so $n^2+n+1$ is odd. (See Zooming and Chunking.)

  • Now suppose $n$ is odd. Then


    So $n^2+n+1$ is odd.


The proof I just gave uses only the definition of even and odd and some high school algebra. Some simple grade-school facts about even and odd numbers are:

  • Even plus even is even.
  • Odd plus odd is even.
  • Even times even is even.
  • Odd times odd is odd.

Put these facts together and you get a nicer proof (I think anyway): $n^2+n$ is even, so when you add $1$ to it you must get an odd number.

Bound variables

A variable is bound if it is in the scope of an integral, quantifier, summation, or other binding operators.  More here.


Consider this text:

Exercise: Show that for all real numbers $x$, it is true that $x^2\geq0$. Proof: Let $x=-2$. Then $x^2=(-2)^2=4$ which is greater than $0$. End of proof.”

The problem with that text is that in the statement, “For all real numbers $x$, it is true that $x^2\geq0$”, $x$ is a bound variable. It is bound by the universal quantifier “for all” which means that $x$ can be any real number whatever. But in the next sentence, the meaning of $x$ is changed by the assumption that $x=-2$. So the statement that $x\geq0$ only applies to $-2$. As a result the proof does not cover all cases.

Many students just beginning to learn to do proofs make this mistake. Fellow students who are a little further along may be astonished that someone would write something like that paragraph and might sneer at them. But this common mistake does not deserve a sneer, it deserves an explanation. This is an example of the ratchet effect.

Variable meaning in natural language

Meanings commonly vary in natural language because of conventions and defaults. But varying in scope during a conversation seems to me uncommon.

It does occur in games. In Skat and Bridge, the meaning of “trump” changes from hand to hand. The meaning of “strike” in a baseball game changes according to context: If the current batter has already had fewer than two strikes, a foul is a strike, but not otherwise.

I have not come up with non-game examples, and anyway games are played by rules that are suspiciously like mathematical axioms. Perhaps you can think of some non-game occasions in which meaning is determined by scoping that I have overlooked.

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Algebra is a difficult foreign language

Note: This post uses MathJax.  If you see mathematical formulas with dollar signs around them, or badly formatted formulas, try refreshing the screen. Sometimes you have to do it two or three times.


In a previous post, I said that the symbolic language of mathematics is difficult to learn and that we don't teach it well. (The symbolic language includes as a subset the notation used in high school algebra, precalculus, and calculus.) I gave some examples in that post but now I want to go into more detail.  This discussion is an incomplete sketch of some aspects of the syntax of the symbolic language.  I will write one or more posts about the semantics later.

The languages of math

First, let's distinguish between mathematical English and the symbolic language of math. 

  • Mathematical English is a special register or jargon of English. It has not only its special vocabulary, like any jargon, but also used ordinary English words such as "If…then", "definition" and "let" in special ways. 
  • The symbolic language of math is a distinct, special-purpose written language which is not a dialect of the English language and can in fact be read by mathematicians with little knowledge of English.
    • It has its own symbols and rules that are quite different from spoken languages. 
    • Simple expressions can be pronounced, but complicated expressions may only be pointed to or referred to.
  • A mathematical article or book is typically written using mathematical English interspersed with expressions in the symbolic language of math.

Symbolic expressions

A symbolic noun (logicians call it a term) is an expression in the symbolic language that names a number or other mathematical object, and may carry other information as well.

  • "3" is a noun denoting the number 3.
  • "$\text{Sym}_3$" is a noun denoting the symmetric group of order 3.
  • "$2+1$" is a noun denoting the number 3.  But it contains more information than that: it describes a way of calculating 3 as a sum.
  • "$\sin^2\frac{\pi}{4}$" is a noun denoting the number $\frac{1}{2}$, and it also describes a computation that yields the number $\frac{1}{2}$.  If you understand the symbolic language and know that $\sin$ is a numerical function, you can recognize "$\sin^2\frac{\pi}{4}$" as a symbolic noun representing a number even if you don't know how to calculate it.
  • "$2+1$" and "$\sin^2\frac{\pi}{4}$" are said to be encapsulated computations.
    • The word "encapsulated" refers to the fact that to understand what the expressions mean, you must think of the computation not as a process but as an object.
    • Note that a computer program is also an object, not a process.
  • "$a+1$" and "$\sin^2\frac{\pi x}{4}$" are encapsulated computations containing variables that represent numbers. In these cases you can calculate the value of these computations if you give values to the variables.  

symbolic statement is a symbolic expression that represents a statement that is either true or false or free, meaning that it contains variables and is true or false depending on the values assigned to the variables.

  • $\pi\gt0$ is a symbolic assertion that is true.
  • $\pi\lt0$ is a symbolic assertion that it is false.  The fact that it is false does not stop it from being a symbolic assertion.
  • $x^2-5x+4\gt0$ is an assertion that is true for $x=5$ and false for $x=1$.
  • $x^2-5x+4=0$ is an assertion that is true for $x=1$ and $x=4$ and false for all other numbers $x$.
  • $x^2+2x+1=(x+1)^2$ is an assertion that is true for all numbers $x$. 

Properties of the symbolic language

The constituents of a symbolic expression are symbols for numbers, variables and other mathematical objects. In a particular expression, the symbols are arranged according to conventions that must be understood by the reader. These conventions form the syntax or grammar of symbolic expressions. 

The symbolic language has been invented piecemeal by mathematicians over the past several centuries. It is thus a natural language and like all natural languages it has irregularities and often results in ambiguous expressions. It is therefore difficult to learn and requires much practice to learn to use it well. Students learn the grammar in school and are often expected to understand it by osmosis instead of by being taught specifically.  However, it is not as difficult to learn well as a foreign language is.

In the basic symbolic language, expressions are written as strings of symbols.

  • The symbolic language gives (sometimes ambiguous) meaning to symbols placed above or below the line of symbols, so the strings are in some sense more than one dimensional but less than two-dimensional.
  • Integral notation, limit notation, and others, are two-dimensional enough to have two or three levels of symbols. 
  • Matrices are fully two-dimensional symbols, and so are commutative diagrams.
  • I will not consider graphs (in both senses) and geometric drawings in this post because I am not sure what I want to write about them.

Syntax of the language

One of the basic methods of the symbolic language is the use of constructors.  These can usually be analyzed as functions or operators, but I am thinking of "constructor" as a linguistic device for producing an expression denoting a mathematical object or assertion. Ordinary languages have constructors, too; for example "-ness" makes a noun out of a verb ("good" to "goodness") and "and" forms a grouping ("men and women").

Special symbols

The language uses special symbols both as names of specific objects and as constructors.

  • The digits "0", "1", "2" are named by special symbols.  So are some other objects: "$\emptyset$", "$\infty$".
  • Certain verbs are represented by special symbols: "$=$", "$\lt$", "$\in$", "$\subseteq$".
  • Some constructors are infixes: "$2+3$" denotes the sum of 2 and 3 and "$2-3$" denotes the difference between them.
  • Others are placed before, after, above or even below the name of an object.  Examples: $a'$, which can mean the derivative of $a$ or the name of another variable; $n!$ denotes $n$ factorial; $a^\star$ is the dual of $a$ in some contexts; $\vec{v}$ constructs a vector whose name is "$v$".
  • Letters from other alphabets may be used as names of objects, either defined in the context of a particular article, or with more nearly global meaning such as "$\pi$" (but "$\pi$" can denote a projection, too).

This is a lot of stuff for students to learn. Each symbol has its own rules of use (where you put it, which sort of expression you may it with, etc.)  And the meaning is often determined by context. For example $\pi x$ usually means $\pi$ multiplied by $x$, but in some books it can mean the function $\pi$ evaluated at $x$. (But this is a remark about semantics — more in another post.)

"Systematic" notation

  • The form "$f(x)$" is systematically used to denote the value of a function $f$ at the input $x$.  But this usage has variations that confuse beginning students:
    • "$\sin\,x$" is more common than "$\sin(x)$".
    • When the function has just been named as a letter, "$f(x)$" is more common that "$fx$" but many authors do use the latter.
  • Raising a symbol after another symbol commonly denotes exponentiation: "$x^2$" denotes $x$ times $x$.  But it is used in a different meaning in the case of tensors (and elsewhere).
  • Lowering a symbol after another symbol, as in "$x_i$"  may denote an item in a sequence.  But "$f_x$" is more likely to denote a partial derivative.
  • The integral notation is quite complicated.  The expression \[\int_a^b f(x)\,dx\] has three parameters, $a$, $b$ and $f$, and a bound variable $x$ that specifies the variable used in the formula for $f$.  Students gradually learn the significance of these facts as they work with integrals. 


Variables have deep problems concerned with their meaning (semantics). But substitution for variables causes syntactic problems that students have difficulty with as well.

  • Substituting $4$ for $x$ in the expression $3+x$ results in $3+4$. 
  • Substituting $4$ for $x$ in the expression $3x$ results in $12$, not $34$. 
  • Substituting "$y+z$" in the expression $3x$ results in $3(y+z)$, not $3y+z$.  Some of my calculus students in preforming this substitution would write $3\,\,y+z$, using a space to separate.  The rules don't allow that, but I think it is a perfectly natural mistake. 

Using expressions and writing about them

  • If I write "If $x$ is an odd integer, then $3+x$ is odd", then I am using $3+x$ in a sentence. It is a noun denoting an unspecified number which can be constructed in a specified way.
  • When I mention substituting $4$ for $x$ in "$3+x$", I am talking about the expression $3+x$.  I am not writing about a number, I am writing about a string of symbols.  This distinction causes students major difficulties and teacher hardly ever talk about it.
  • In the section on variables, I wrote "the expression $3+x$", which shows more explicitly that I am talking about it as an expression.
    • Note that quotes in novels don't mean you are talking about the expression inside the quotes, it means you are describing the act of a person saying something.
  • It is very common to write something like, "If I substitute $4$ for $x$ in $3x$ I get $3 \times 4=12$".  This is called a parenthetic assertion, and it is literally nonsense (it says I get an equation).
  • If I pronounce the sentence "We know that $x\gt0$" we pronounce "$x\gt0$" as "$x$ is greater than zero",  If I pronounce the sentence "For any $x\gt0$ there is $y\gt0$ for which $x\gt y$", then I pronounce the expression "$x\gt0$" as "$x$ greater than zero$",  This is an example of context-sensitive pronunciation
  • There is a lot more about parenthetic assertions and context-sensitive pronunciation in More about the languages of math.


I have described some aspects of the syntax of the symbolic language of math. Learning that syntax is difficult and requires a lot of practice. Students who manage to learn the syntax and semantics can go on to learn further math, but students who don't are forever blocked from many rewarding careers. I heard someone say at the MathFest in Madison that about 25% of all high school students never really understand algebra.  I have only taught college students, but some students (maybe 5%) who get into freshman calculus in college are weak enough in algebra that they cannot continue. 

I am not proposing that all aspects of the syntax (or semantics) be taught explicitly.  A lot must be learned by doing algebra, where they pick up the syntax subconsciously just as they pick up lots of other behavior-information in and out of school. But teachers should explicitly understand the structure of algebra at least in some basic way so that they can be aware of the source of many of the students' problems. 

It is likely that the widespread use of computers will allow some parts of the symbolic language of math to be replaced by other methods such as using Excel or some visual manipulation of operations as suggested in my post Mathematical and linguistic ability.  It is also likely that the symbolic language will gradually be improved to get rid of ambiguities and irregularities.  But a deliberate top-down effort to simplify notation will not succeed. Such things rarely succeed.




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Skills needed for learning languages and math

Learning a language involves a variety of skills, and so does learning math. Some skills are apparently needed for both, but others are distinct.

Learning languages and learning math

Some years ago I sat in on a second year college Spanish class. Most of the other students were ages 18-24. The students showed a wide spectrum of ability.

  • Some were quite fluent and conversed easily. Others struggled to put a sentence together.
  • Some had trouble with basic grammar, for example adjective-noun agreement (number and gender). I would not have thought second year students would do that. Some also had trouble with verbs. Spanish verbs are generally difficult, but second year students shouldn’t have trouble with using “canta” with singular subjects and “cantan” with plural ones.
  • Some had trouble reading aloud, stumbling over pronunciation, such putting the accent in the right place in real time and pronouncing some letters correctly (“ll”, “e”, intervocalic “s”). The rules for accent and pronouncing letters are very easy in Spanish, and I was surprised that second year students would have difficulty with them. But the speech of most of them sounded good to me.

I can read Spanish pretty well, but have had very little practice speaking or writing it. I comprehend some of what they say on Univision (soap operas are particularly easy, but I still miss more than half of it), but then I am hard of hearing. I used to have a reasonable ability to speak and understand street German; judging from experience I think it would come back rapidly if we went to live in a German-speaking city again. I can easily read math papers written in Spanish or in German, but I couldn’t come close to giving a math lecture in either language.

Some find learning rules of pronunciation that are different from English very hard, like the Spanish students I mentioned above. I know that some people can’t keep “ei” and “ie” straight in German, and some Russian students find it hard to get used to the Cyrillic alphabet. I find that part of language learning easy. I also find learning grammar and using it in real time fairly easy. I have more difficulty remembering vocabulary.

Learning the new sounds of a language is an entirely different problem from learning the rules of pronunciation.

Mathematical ability

Some difficulties that students have with the symbolic language of math [1] are probably the same kind of difficulties that language students have with learning another language.

When I have taught elementary logic, I usually have a scattering of students who can’t keep the symbols {\land} and {\lor} separate. (See Note [a].) Some even have the same trouble with intersection and union of sets. This is sort of like differentiating “ie” and “ei” in German, except that the latter distinction runs into cognitive dissonance [2] caused by the usual English pronunciation.

Of course, both language students and math students have immense problems with cognitive dissonance in areas other than symbol-learning. For example, many technical words in math have meanings different from ordinary English usage, such as “if”, “group”, and “category”. Language students have difficulties with “false friends” such as “Gift”, which is the German word for “poison”, and very common words such as prepositions, which can have several different translations into English depending on context — and many prepositions in other European languages look like English prepositions. (Note [b]).

On the other hand, some types of mathematical learning seem to involve problems language students don’t run into.

Substitution, for example, appears to me to cause conceptual difficulties that are not like anything in learning language. But I would like to hear examples to the contrary.

If {f(x) = x^2+3x+1}, then {f(x+1)= (x+1)^2+3(x+1)+1}. Is there anything like this in natural languages? And simplifying this to {x^4+5 x^2+5} is not like anything in natural language either — is it?

Is there anything in learning natural languages that is like thinking of an element of a set? Or like the two-level quantification involved in understanding the definition of continuity?

Is there anything in learning math that involves the same kind of difficulty as learning to pronounce a new sound in another language? (Well, making a speech sound involves moving parts of your mouth in three dimensions, and some people find visualizing 3D shapes difficult. But that seems like a stretch to me).

A proposal for investigation

Students show a wide variety of conceptual skills. Some skills seem to be required both in learning mathematics and in learning a foreign language. Others are different. Also, there is a difference between learning school math and learning abstract math at the college level (Note [c]).


  • Identify the types of concept formation that learning a foreign language and learning math have in common.
  • Determine if “being good at languages” and “being good at mathematics” are correlated at the high school level.
  • Ditto for college-level abstract math.

Undoubtedly math teachers and language teachers have written about certain specific issues of the sort I have discussed, but I think we need a systematic comparative investigation of skills involved in the tasks of learning languages and learning math.

I have made proposals for research concerning various other questions with math ed, particularly in connection with linguistics. I will install a new topic “Proposals for research” in my “List of categories” (on the left side of the screen under “Recent posts”) and mark this and other articles that contain such proposals.


[a]. That is why, in the mathematical reasoning sections of abmath, for example [3], I use the usual English wordings of mathematical assertions instead of systematically using logical symbolism. For many students, introducing symbols and then immediately using them to talk about the subtleties of meaning and usage puts a difficult burden on some of the students. (I do define the symbols in asides).

This may not be the right thing to do. If a student finds it hard to learn to use symbols easily and fluently, should they be studying math?

[b]. I once knew a teenage German who spoke pretty good English, but he could not bear to use the English possessive case. That’s because German young people (assuming I understand this correctly) hate to say things like “Das Auto meines Vaters” and instead say “Das Auto von meinem Vater”. Unfortunately this resulted in his saying in English “The car from my father”, “The girlfriend from my brother” and so on…

[c]. I have been concerned primarily with understanding the difficulties students have when starting to study abstract math after they have had calculus. I have seen many students ace calculus and flunk abstract algebra or logic. There is a wall to fall off of there. The only organization I know of concerned with this is RUME, although it is involved with college calculus as well as what comes after.


[1] The symbolic language of math.

[2] Cognitive dissonance.

[3] Conditional assertions.

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