The right way to spell math(s)


I’m not a linguist. I don’t care. Someone’s always going to call me out on this and I’m tired of wasting mental energy, so let’s solve it for the last time.

If you give a shit about countries

British English uses maths. American English uses math. Neither wants to concede because, as countries, we are so far up our own assholes that we have stupid fruitless debates about who is ‘correct’, when in reality we knew from the start we weren’t going to accept any answer we didn’t come up with.

If you give a shit about which came first

It’s widely understood that math came first, in the late 1800s. Maths was first used in British English in the early 1900s. That’s right - for once, it was the English making changes to English.

What I give a shit about

Neither. It’s all petty dumb egotistical nonsense. I don’t care who came first or who came from what country. I care about good answers you can defend without wanking off some geopolitical power or dismissing the ability to choose more modern solutions because ‘we used to do it differently’.

You could abbreviate it like hydraulics - HYD(R) (apparently; I’ve never done that). I don’t personally think many people will understand what a MAT teacher is. I do think potentially that MATH would be the sensible abbreviation under this system though - I think this fits in nicely and would look neat in tabulated data. However, math(s) is arguably a word of its own, much like phone has replaced smartphone or telephone, so let’s explore how we should treat it within that frame.

I do not think anyone is debating about how to shorten mathematic- prefixed words that do not end in -s. It seems pretty clear that, in any context where you are using mathematic or mathematical, not only would it flow better in conversation and writing to omit the -s, but it breaks consistency with pretty much all widely-obeyed abbreviation rules, which makes no sense. The real debate then, is what should mathematics abbreviate to - math for consistency with the other mathematic- prefixed words, or maths to reflect the presence of the -s suffix?

Let’s look to other abbreviated words; telephone(s) abbreviates to phone(s), advertisement(s) abbreviates to ad(s), microchip(s) abbreviates to chip(s). More colloquially, notification(s) abbreviates to notif(s), at least when I’m DMing friends and I can’t be asked to write that entire thing out.

There are two interpretations of this. Either;

  1. Plural words retain their -s suffix when abbreviated, and singular words do not gain a -s suffix when abbreviated.
  2. Words written with a -s suffix retain the -s suffix when abbreviated, and words without it do not gain it when abbreviated.

Exploring option 1; mathematics is pretty much always used as a singular, so it should never adopt the -s suffix assuming that is true. Exploring option 2; mathematics is always written with an -s suffix, so it should preserve it. If you drill down into any person’s thought process on which one is which, and it goes down the path of analysing the words themselves, you probably hear some form of either argument.

I personally do not think it is valuable to consider the plurality of mathematics, because you basically never talk about plural mathematics, and so making the choice that plurality must be represented in all occurences of the word seems pretty redundant, arbitrary and useless to me. The second option requires no contextual knowledge of plural or singular words, as it only deals with the direct construction of the words themselves, and so is a generally simpler and cleaner rule for achieving consistency. Small, self-contained rules that are understandable without requiring knowledge of usage or language details are always good in my mind; it’s what I would want if I were a foreign learner.

Therefore, it’s decided in my mind - where mathematics is the longform, maths is the most natural shortform, and where mathematic is the longform, math is the most natural shortform. Though I’m probably still going to interchange the two forms because humans weren’t designed to be perfect language machines.

I really don’t want to care about dumb opinion games like these, but if someone else decides they care about how I speak or write and I have to deal with their opinion, now they have some reading material to satisfy their spiritual search for an answer.


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