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.
Other US/UK Differences
Of course, there are a lot of spelling differences between American English and British English – Colin took a look at the reasons behind this in An Englishman in New York – The Problem Of UK-US English in Freelance Writing.
But are there any other words like math/maths, where one version of English has an “s” at the end of the word, and the other doesn’t?
There is: a very popular building-bricks toy that, if you have children, you’re probably all too used to stepping on. It’s manufactured by a company called LEGO. How do you refer to a handful of those bricks?
In the US, you’d say “Please pick up your Legos.”
In the UK, you’d say, “Please pick up your Lego.” Note the lack of an “s”.
This is the reverse of the math/maths situation, where US English has the “s” tagged onto the end of the word and UK English lacks it.
So who’s right?
The correct plural, according to LEGO, is “LEGO bricks” or “LEGO sets”. (Note the capitalization, too.) So instead of saying “Pick up your Legos” you should say, “Pick up your LEGO bricks.”
Here are a couple of examples of “Lego” and “Legos” in use in different publications:
A robot that can build small models from Lego may be a breakthrough for automated manufacturing – if it can stop dropping bricks.
(BBC News – British publication)
The building blocks known as Legos have long been beloved toys. But did you know the name actually has a strategic meaning behind it?
(Huffington Post – American publication)
Further Reading About American English and British English
If you’re interested in finding out more about the differences between American English and British English, check out these resources on Daily Writing Tips:
7 British English Writing Resources, Mark Nichols – this post rounds up a bunch of style guides and copy editing handbooks that writers working for British publications should find helpful
One “L” or Two?, Maeve Maddox – there are a lot of words that can take an “ll” or an “l” depending on whether you’re writing for a UK or a US audience. Maeve lists some common ones and explains the general rule to follow.
Worshiping and Kidnapping, Maeve Maddox – should you add an extra “p” when adding an “ing” to words like “worship” and “kidnap”? It depends! Maeve outlines the issue here.
Program vs. Programme, Ali Hale – both British and American English use “program” when talking about computers, but British English uses “programme” for many other areas (e.g. a “programme of study”). This post explains the difference, and how to use “program” as a verb.
Punctuation Errors: American and British Quotation Marks, Daniel Scocco – while both American and British English use punctuation marks in a broadly similar way, there’s a key difference when it comes to punctuation and quotation marks. Daniel explains it here.