Math or Maths?

By Simon Kewin - 2 minute read

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Is “math” or “maths” the correct word to use as the shortened or colloquial form of the word mathematics? The answer is that it depends on where you are.

To North American speakers of English, the word to use is “math”, as in “I majored in math”, and “maths” would sound wrong. Speakers of British English, however, would always say “maths”, as in “I took a degree in maths”. They would never say “math”.

There are logical arguments for both spellings. The word “mathematics” can be considered as a singular and as a plural noun. Both the Oxford and the Merriam-Webster dictionaries say the word is plural – hence the s on the end – but also that it is usually used as if it was a singular noun. So, most people would say “mathematics is my best subject” and not “mathematics are my best subject”. The shortened form “maths”, then, makes sense because the word is still a plural noun and so should still have the “s” on the end. On the other hand, it could be argued, “math” makes sense because it seems wrong to remove the letters “ematic” from the middle of the word and leave the final “s”.

There are a number of other plural nouns that are used as if they were singular – for example economics, ethics, politics, gymnastics, measles and dominoes. These words, however, are not habitually shortened, making math/maths rather an unusual word.

It’s sometimes surprising how much argument and disagreement small differences such as that single letter can make. Readers in the UK, for example, sometimes get very upset if someone writes “math” rather than “maths”. No doubt the reverse is true in the US. In practice, it’s simply worth being aware of the geographical differences so that you can use the correct form of the word in your writing.

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111 Responses to “Math or Maths?”

  • Sumesh

    Being brought up in British English, I always found it a bit weird that some said Math and some said Maths.

    I’ve personally used Maths mostly, but now that I know the difference, I think it is wise to omit the ‘s’, considering, that I write mostly for an American audience (likely applies to most of us).

  • Cecily

    @Sumesh: Do you always capitalise “maths” or did you just do so to make it stand out?

    @Maeve: I don’t think “dominoes” quite fits with the examples; it is either resolutely singular or resolutely plural, but not both at the same time:

    Dominoes as a singular noun refers to the whole game, e.g. “I want to play dominoes, but I can’t find it“.

    It is also a plural noun that refers to more than one piece of that game, e.g. “Have any dominoes fallen under your chair?”

    Finally, there is a pizza context, “Let’s get a Domino’s” (although that’s not something I would ever suggest).

  • Maeve

    @Cecily
    Your countryman Simon Kewin is the author of this post.

  • Simon Kewin

    @Cecily,

    I take your point – but when you say “dominoes is a fine game”, isn’t that a plural noun being used as a singular one?

  • Sherry

    Until I subbed a story for critting, I had no idea Americans used the term ‘math’ for mathmatics. As a Scot I’ve always known it as ‘maths’.
    It’s like a ‘car park’ in the UK is a ‘parking garage’ in the States.

  • Stephen Thorn

    I first learned about “maths” from the British comedian Benny Hill. He had a poem to be read in acting class; said poem was to be written exactly as written…on a very old typewriter…on which the letter “H” was missing. Consequently the poem was “Fait , ope, and C arity” by Walter Winc ell, Professor of Czec eslovakian P ilosophy and Mat s. From his use of the word “maths” I deduced it was another of those odd differences between the two sister languages.

  • Stephen Thorn

    Pardon me — mea culpa. I should have written “said poem was to be READ exactly as written”.

  • Chris

    Would It be more accurate to distinguish it as ‘Math’ being the term in North American English (Canadian and US) and ‘Maths’ being the term in non-American English.

    With all respect, Australian, NZ, South African, and other speakers of English who aren’t British also use “Maths”….

    Apologies for being pedantic 🙂

  • Simon Kewin

    Chris,

    Yes, as I understand it that’s a pretty good summary.

  • Herb

    Sumesh on July 14, 2010 11:13 am says she writes
    ” mostly for an American audience”.

    Actually, she writes for an American readership.

  • dj

    I believe you are correct in assuming that Americans, on the whole, prefer math over maths. I am Canadian, however, and can attest to the fact that some of us prefer the latter. I make a point to do so, as do several of my friends from British Columbia. Though I grew up taking MATH classes, I decided to change my habit when I realised many of my French Canadian friends (I am a Montrealer) would use the more British MATHS. As I tend to look to French as a first resort to solving problems with English usage (the reason I favour THEATRE over the americanised THEATER, for example) I have since made the effort to change my usage.

  • Chris

    This seems very strange to me. I am British (born and brought up in England) and I did a degree in Mathematics.

    For me, it has always been “math”, and I recollect this was also the case with most of my friends on the course. It was a bit like a shibboleth – when we encountered someone calling it “maths”, it was a reasonable guess that they weren’t studying mathematics. Note that this was in the late 70’s, way before the major cultural influence of american TV.

    I am not saying either is right or wrong, merely pointing out that any attempt to say “in Britain we say….” is bound to come up with exceptions. It is a small country, but very varied in language.

  • rod sexton

    As The English language originated in England then the correct use is ‘maths’; just because the Americans want to be different does not mean we have to follow.

  • Simon Kewin

    Rod,

    I disagree with you on so many levels. But for one, I don’t at all see how “The (sic) English language originated in England”.

  • Adam

    Simon,

    Rod stated ‘The English language originated in England’. While this may be technically wrong due to Roman, Norman, Saxon and other external influences, the English language, as spoken today by The Queen, could be described as ‘Originating from England’.

    Further more, North America was initially populate by English (discovery and invasion aside), hence the war against England for Independence.

    Math is just one of numerous examples on how Americans altered the English language to suit themselves, color being another typical example.

    This may have been a concious decision by the British ex-pats or simply a development of the language as also happened in Britain, the two strains of the English language wondering off on different courses.

    So, Math or Maths?

    If you were to accept that American English is a deviated form of traditional English then it would be fair to conclude that ‘Math’ is colloquialism and technical incorrect. If you don’t accept this argument then the only conclusion could be that American English is actually a different language and ‘Math’ is correct for that language.

  • Love ya

    I’m from the Caribbean the British west indies really. So I say Maths and my girl friend who is American always gets upset when I say Maths.lol I had to look this up since she insists that I am wrong. I had a feeling it had to do with this but now I’m positive thanks.

  • graham

    “Math” sounds weird. Thank God for the atlantic ocean.

  • Jack Weyler

    Even this is a but pedantic for this thread.

    on July 14, 2010 11:13 am says she writes
    ” mostly for an American audience”.
    Actually, she writes for an American readership.
    dj on October 25, 2010 3:31 am

  • Travis

    99% sure it’s math and mathmatics/maths. Maths in place of math makes it sound plural…

    Mathematics is the study of quantity, space, structure, and change.

    Wouldn’t it be right to say:
    There are four maths a person can master.
    Each math has it’s own specialized rules.
    Do you excel in mathematics?

    When you put an “s” on something… it sounds like this to me:
    I have two computers.
    I have one computers.

  • no name

    Maths Mathematics Math…

  • Adam M O’Neill

    I don’t often agree with North American spelling but I have to agree with them on “math” over “maths”, although that would only apply for “math” as a synonym for “calculations”. As an abbreviation of “mathematics” I would still go for “maths”.

  • Shane

    @Adam:

    “If you were to accept that American English is a deviated form of traditional English…”

    As is British English. The American dialect of English and the British dialect of the same are both divergent strains of the mother tongue, which would be Elizabethan-Georgian English. The notion that just because the modern British form of English is more correct or authentic than the American form of English, simply due to the happenstance that it is the form that evolved in the same geographical location as the mother tongue, is frankly tiresome. At best it can be said to be the result of bias inevitably directed towards one’s homeland, or else a lack of contemplation. At worst, it can be said to be a form of racism or cultural snobbishness.

    Also…

    “So, Math or Maths?

    If you were to accept that American English is a deviated form of traditional English then it would be fair to conclude that ‘Math’ is colloquialism and technical incorrect. ”

    Really? “Maths” isn’t a colloquialism, but “Math” is? I was under the impression that both were colloquial, and “Mathematics” is the technical term.

    Anyway…

    I, an American, often use the British forms of words, in writing or speech, because I find them to be more euphonious than their American counterparts. However, this is not universal. There are a great many Britishisms which I find unpleasing, so I do not use them. To each their own, but please give me none of this nonsense about authenticity.

  • Maths Man

    @Shane – no doubt we are all clouded by personal bias.

    Would you ever say ‘physic’ instead of physics? To my mind it’s about the concept. And ‘math’ loses meaning for me. It constrains the idea by making it singular. Yet mathematics is about reasoning, it’s not a ‘thing’.

    Still, at least we know where each other is heading when we say math or maths in conversation. I must’ve been fourteen before I realised that “aloominum” was aluminium.

  • Rob

    Physic/physics isn’t a fair comparison. After all, the issue isn’t mathematic/mathematics. I also don’t see much point in using other words for comparison (economics, gymnastics, politics) because when *those* words are abbreviated, how many retain the ‘s’? econs? polis? gyms? (when referencing gymnastics, not buildings known as gymnasiums). I don’t think any of them would retain the ‘s’ when they’re abbreviated, and neither should mathematics.

    But then the rules for english are mostly inconsistent nonsense anyway so why bother pretending one is more right than the other? 😉

  • thewizard

    The author’s argument that the truncated “math” should have an “s” at the end because it’s plural is a terrible one. Should moose have an s at the end as well? How about fungus?

    “Math” is short for “Mathematics.” “Maths” would seem to be short for “Mathematicss.” Anyone with so limited a perspective that plural words must, by definition, end in the letter S in order to make sense needs to reevaluate their position.

  • Simon Kewin

    And yet, thewizard, every person in the UK (and elsewhere) would say “maths” and not “math”. Do we all need to reevaluate our positions?

    Moose isn’t an abbreviation. Neither is fungus (and, erm, it does have an ‘s’ at the end). I don’t follow your argument there. Perhaps you mean “fungi”? I don’t say anywhere that plurals should end in an “s”. Obviously that would be ridiculous. But the word mathematics does end in an s.

    Should an abbreviation of a plural with an “s” keep the “s”? Debatable. I’m not saying ‘”math” “should” have an “s” at the end’ : I’m clearly saying there is a difference between the US and the UK and that there are justifications for either approach.

    I won’t be reevaluating my position, sorry.

  • timlash

    Sorry, but you can’t study maths unless you’re prepared to study econs. Economics is the perfect analogy and nobody uses econs. Maths must go to foster consistency. Unfortunately, a casual reading of the interweb leads me to believe that maths is gaining ground at an alarming rate. I call on my fellow Americans to resist this most recent and dastardly British invasion!

  • Simon Kewin

    Yes, but you don’t say “Econ” do you? Perhaps you do but here in the UK, I’ve never heard anyone say “Econ” or “Econs”.

  • Joachim

    Math or Maths it doesn’t matter haha..I still love Mathematics

  • Damian

    Thank you all for the discussion and the rebutles, as you can tell I am no English student or scholar but at least I know now why both spellings can be used.

  • Grace

    Economics is shortened to Econ. just saying…

    to be honest its actually not that big a deal. its a letter.

  • Christian

    @Adam

    Further more, North America was initially populate by English (discovery and invasion aside), hence the war against England for Independence.

    How wonderfully British of you to suggest such a fallacy about the “discovery” and population of North America.

    I work with mathematical equations, therefore I am doing math. Not that I am working with mathematicals or mathematicsal equations. Also, it shouldn’t be that I am good at mathematics (math – being that I am an unruly American), because this seems to imply that you are good at all areas of mathematics/math. I would much rather see someone describe themselves as being good at algebra, or geometry, or even calculus.

    Regardless, this is nothing more than a regional language difference.

  • Greg

    @Simon Kewin
    “Yes, but you don’t say “Econ” do you?”

    Yes, it’s common for high school and college classes of Civics and Economics to be referred to in the states as “Civics and Econ” (pronounced EEE-kahn). I suspect that’s why @timlash mentioned that.

    I tend to agree with many others though – this is just another of many regional preferences. You’ll never catch me calling a truck a lorry or a shopping cart a buggy, but that’s ok and it just means we’ve all customized the language we speak to suit our needs. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s how language evolves.

  • JB

    Actually, Simon, in the US it’s very common to say that you majored in “Econ”, similar to saying you majored in “Math”. I suppose it doesn’t work as an argument, however, if it’s not used that way in the UK!

  • Racecar

    In Singapore, we are supposed to follow British English so we say Maths.

    We also say Econs to mean Economics.

    Eg: He’s majoring in Econs.

  • Ian Mills

    To Chris, your comment about “non-American English”… what does this mean?! Actually I know what it means, I understand your point, it just grates on me that our fine English language has gotten so messed up. Still, 350million Americans agree with you, I’ll do the math.
    Can I get a woop-woop (with cream, sprinkles, and a candy bar)?

    Ian, from England.

  • Michaela

    The author says:

    “On the other hand, it could be argued, “math” makes sense because it seems wrong to remove the letters “ematic” from the middle of the word and leave the final “s” ”

    Really? I’m fairly sure that when an s plural is abbreviated, it makes complete sense to include that final s to show it is a plural.

    Examples of plural abbreviations without the s:

    We all rode our bike. I like croc (i’m from down under!). I wrote my entire essay in cap. I like to drink in pub.

    Make sense? The nonsensical effect of those sentences is how ‘math’ sounds to us.

    @Thewizard:

    “The author’s argument that the truncated “math” should have an “s” at the end because it’s plural is a terrible one. Should moose have an s at the end as well? How about fungus?
    “Math” is short for “Mathematics.” “Maths” would seem to be short for “Mathematicss.” Anyone with so limited a perspective that plural words must, by definition, end in the letter S in order to make sense needs to reevaluate their position.”

    This is a bizarre conclusion to come to – Nobody is saying that plural words have to end in s, but that those that do, when abbreviated, should keep that s to show they are plural (see above examples). As for the rest of your statement, Simon Kewan covered that one for me!

    @ Travis:

    “Wouldn’t it be right to say:
    There are four maths a person can master.
    Each math has it’s own specialized rules.
    Do you excel in mathematics?”

    The word mathematic does not exist. Mathematics is a plural word but is also used for the singular. The use of math in your example makes sense as an abbreviation of mathematics as a singular term. However, were you to abbreviate the last ‘mathematics’ in your statement to math, you would render the previous use of the singular ‘math’, indistinguishable.

    But this is how most North Americans do abbreviate the word. They do not reserve it solely for examples like yours but use it across the board (we rarely see ‘mathematics’ used at all). So as a rule, although the word mathematics is used as a singular, it is a plural word and except when able to in specific examples like this one, it is correct to keep the plural s in play.

    @Adam:

    “If you were to accept that American English is a deviated form of traditional English then it would be fair to conclude that ‘Math’ is colloquialism and technical incorrect. If you don’t accept this argument then the only conclusion could be that American English is actually a different language and ‘Math’ is correct for that language.”

    Yes, these are two viable scenarios. And whichever is the case, I can accept the North Americans use of ‘math’ (However wrong it sounds to my ears!). What I can’t accept is anyone trying to argue AGAINST ‘maths’ as correct usage.

  • Patrick

    I came to this page as a result of watching a British TV show I like (I’m an American) where one character kept saying “You do the math!” and his roommate would reply “Sss! Maths!” So it appears there isn’t universal consensus even among the Brits. However, I think you’d be hard pressed to find an American who calls it “maths”.
    Language is a living thing; words are created, definitions reassigned, and words fade into disuse, and become archaic. Modern British English is no more akin to Early English than American English is, and ultimately who cares? I personally delight in the differences. I like that my English friend Ed says he’s knackered when he’s tired, and he enjoys my use of the slang “spendy” when something is expensive. To suggest that one branch of modern English is superior to another completely misses the point of how wonderfully dynamic language is, and frankly makes one sound like a pompous ass who no one would care to speak with, on either side of the pond.

  • Limskj

    I had a look here because my dad insists that I am wrong. I actually find the pronunciation of maths as ‘mats’ really wierd and I, as a consequence, use Math instead. And I am from Singapore.

  • Mark

    Yes Patrick, I agree with you that English is a living language, that constantly changes, no other language does that. That is why I love it so much. You only have to watch shows like the story of English to be fascinated by the way the language has changed over 1000’s of years.
    You just have to look at all the new words that come into being all the time, making the journey from slang to “official” words, it happens all the time.
    But in my opinion, American English is trying its best to put an end to that. By differentiating itself from the main branch of the English language, it tries to be something unique separate from the English spoken by so many people in the world. America Decides how a word should be spelt and how it should be pronounced and does it’s best to force that spelling on the rest. New learners of English don’t use an English Dictionary they use an American English Dictionary.
    To me this goes against the true meaning of English. It splits the language into two languages, one that adapts as it always does, taking words from one group and integrating them into the common language, that is why we have French, Indian, Chinese, etc in the language. The other isolates itself, accepting no new words from out of the US but forcing its words and spelling on all others.
    We lovers of English embrace new words for all places. The US has provided so many new words and they now form part of the main language as they so rightly should. What we don’t agree with is the forcing of their brand of English as the “Official” English.
    That should never happen.

  • James

    I like the way people refer to British English in order to avoid the more obvious term, “English English”. By referring to British English it makes it appear that it is just another of the group of English language variants whereas English English would suggest, accurately, that it had been the mother of them all (albeit that it too has changed with time). It’s seems like a sort of political correctness applied to language.

  • venqax

    @James: But that’s not true. English English is quite separable from Scottish English, Welsh English, etc. British English refers to the “standard” recognized in all of Britain– as if there is one– not just in some part of England. The English spoken in England today has no more claim on “seniority” than any other dialect does. There have been a whole lot of Y’s in the genetic tree of English, and what is spoken in England today is no more directly descended from what was spoken in England 500 years ago than is the English spoken now in Des Moines, Iowa or Brisbane, Australia. I know it’s hard to let go of certain notions, especially with so few left…

  • Dave

    “English English” also just sounds confusing. “British English” has a more obvious meaning.
    For what it’s worth, by the way, my 1956 Merriam-Webster dictionary refers to “British usage,” so that distinction well predates the era of political correctness.

  • futplex

    “Math” seems like an abbreviation for the WORD mathematics while “maths” seems an abbreviation for the CONCEPT of mathematics.

    There are no universally applicable rules for abbreviations. They are part of informal speech for which the only rule that counts is whether it “sounds right” at the time. Any attempt to assign a logical rule to abbreviations is going to be incorrect, or riddled with hundreds of exceptions.

    To many American ears “maths” sounds ridiculous and to many British ears “math” sounds ridiculous. Not for logical reasons so much as one or the other “sounds right.”

    As for American English being more prescriptive than other variants, there is no real basis for this belief. Do the other global English speakers not have dictionaries? On the contrary, the American language is extremely heavily influenced by many generations of immigrants. Did anyone say “all right already” (and a multitude of other such expressions so widely spread by 100 years of entertainment media that tens of millions of Anglo-Saxon descendants use them daily without any thought) before that third generation of German-Jewish New Yorkers? This tradition is no different today than at any other time. The British variety is more globally distributed but I am hard put to think of any similar way that British English has been influenced to the degree that American English has been changed by 200 years of newcomers to the US.

    In fact, it sounds more to me like the British variety was described above as the “correct” version of the language, if we agree that American English is differentiated “from the main branch of the English language”.

  • venqax

    I think this is very obvious and straightforward. Math is American, maths must be British. I’ve certainly never heard it EVER in America. So, again I must ask as I have with other supposedly vexing issues (e.g., programme vs. program, defense/defence, practice/practise) WHO exactly, is asking this question? I don’t know of any American who would see “maths” as anything but a typo. I would assume Brits are just as familiar with their own language. Am I wrong? Is it commonwealthers who have this trouble? It seems to me like asking, “Is the chief of state the President or the Queen?”. Well, it depends on what state you’re talking about, obviously. Who would be confused by this? Don’t get it.

  • Meg

    Here in Ireland we say ‘Maths’ too. Also, in French, what we call Maths is called ‘Les Maths’; obviously the s is silent, but it’s abbreviated to a plural (from ‘Les mathématiques’ I believe). Just to add that it’s not a phenomenon restricted to “British English”.

    “Maths” makes sense to me because abbreviating a plural to a singular doesn’t fit. Mathematics, though treated as a singular, isn’t referring to just one ‘thing’. The concept of Mathematics is broad and encompasses many different sub-disciplines, like Trigonometry, Statistics, Algebra etc (note that they’re all singular…). We don’t call it ‘Mathematic’ (As a noun; as an adjective it certainly is still “mathematic” or “mathematical”), so in my mind shortening it to ‘Math’ doesn’t make sense. If that paragraph in it’s self males any sense!

    To be honest, I don’t really mind Americans saying ‘Math’; it’s when Irish people say ‘Math’ that it bothers me. It sounds unnatural and very ‘American’ in a forced way. It grates on my nerves.

  • Meg

    Sorry, obviously Statistics isnt singular – but it’s abbreviated to ‘Stats’ nonetheless! 🙂

  • Dr. Paul Morton-Thurle

    I have carefully read through all the preceeding comments and all have their pros and cons. English is a living language and it is totally true to say it has moved from its German roots, with the interspertion of French Norman and Latin. However, it is The English language. Here in the UK we detest the use of American for peoples ( I use the plural as there are many races there ) within the US. What of the many other countries with the continent of America. Do they not count anymore. I digress though. To call a diverged language a sister language is an insult. The US has always strove to change history, ie, milliard now a billion, they won the war etc and surely this is surely them simply trying to put their stamp onto a borrowed language and calling it their own.

  • coren

    @Michaela – bad examples, as bike, croc, and pub are all singular shortenings of singular words – bicycle, crocodile, public house – just as bikes, crocs, and pubs are bicycles, crocodiles, and public houses. Never have I ever seen Mathematics used in a singular fashion. So the argument doesn’t stand, as we’re talking about whether to shorten a word that only exists as a plural to a singular or a plural.

    @Meg – of course, you can also have a single statistic – which would be a stat. 😉

    @All – Can anyone think of words that only exist as plurals which then get abbreviated – either as a singular or plural word? Just curious if there’s any precedent.

  • Simon Kewin

    Dr. Paul Morton-Thurle,

    Quite a lot I’d disagree with you on there. “Here in the UK we detest the use of American for peoples … within the US” – do we? News to me.

    “borrowed language” – I’m afraid I don’t even know what that means.

    I diagree with your main point too. All cultures naturally evolve their own language or linguistic variant. That happens within countries as well as between them. How is that an “insult”? Here in the UK we’ve used billion in the “American” sense for nearly forty years now …

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