Posts Tagged Wording

The Only Conundrum

One of the things that irritates me most when I’m reading, whether it’s a novel, a newspaper article, or a mathematics paper, is the misplaced “only.” If you write “Here we only calculate the position of two vertices” you probably mean “Here we calculate the position of only two vertices.” The word “only” is there to emphasize something, and it should be as close as possible to what you want to emphasize to be effective and to convey the desired meaning. As described in Mathematical Writing (MAA, 1989), newspaper copy editor Rosalie Stemer gives the following sequence of examples to

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Obvious Trouble

Terms such as “clearly,” “obviously,” and “it can easily be shown that” do not belong in the mathematical literature. Authors who use them (and editors who allow them) do a great disservice to their readers. Jokes about the mathematical abuse of these terms have been around for a long time, including the following translations of “clearly” and its kin: Clearly: I don’t want to write down all the “in-between” steps. Trivial: If I have to show you how to do this, you’re in the wrong class. Obviously: I hope you weren’t sleeping when we discussed this earlier, because I refuse

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The Mathematical Vocabulary Problem

The language of mathematics can throw up barriers to broad dissemination of information about mathematics. Mathematical statements are supposed to be precise, devoid of the ambiguities of ordinary speech. The language is unusually dense and relies heavily on a specialized vocabulary. The meaning and position of every word and symbol make a difference. Mathematician William Thurston once expressed the difference between reading mathematics and reading other subject matter in this way: “Mathematicians attach meaning to the exact phrasing of a sentence, much more than is conventional. The meanings of words are more precisely delimited. When I read articles or listen to speeches

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