Math or Maths?

By Simon Kewin

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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.

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?

Neither!

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.

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116 Responses to “Math or Maths?”

  • Charles Higginson

    I’m late to this party, but I hope many of the posters above have acquired appropriate prescription medication. Jeez.
    A quick read of the entry on “-ics” in Fowler/Gowers’ 1965 “Modern English Usage” makes about 95 percent of the arguments above, whether pro, con, quasi-reasonable, jingoistic, idiotic, or incoherent, seem quite small.

  • Mike Applegate

    Basically, the US is the only nation to use the term ‘math’. Every other English speaking nation uses ‘Maths’. The term that I hear a lot of US people using is ‘You do the math’ but if you expressed that fully it would read ‘You do the mathematic’ which just sounds wrong. I think if the US are the ONLY people saying ‘Math’ then you’re clearly in the wrong, regardless of any convoluted explanation you try and apply to it. Besides, it’s the ‘English’ language, so whatever we say goes because it’s our language, 😝😝😝😝

  • Anonymous

    Why don’t we all just say the slightly more complicated version “mathematics” all the time, BOOM problem solved. If you disagree with me then I feel obligated to say you are lazy.

  • Potato

    Is this really what you humans waste your little your time on?
    Wow
    – A very succesful potato

  • David Crawford

    Mathematics, There is no singular in Maths. You need two numbers to do mathematics therefore its MATHS. If you have only One its COUNTING.

  • Andy

    It is “maths”! Just because you might be from North America doesn’t mean you get to bastardise proper English!

  • Trevor Butcher

    Well, I am English, and I use both math and maths. I do not care for the nationalistic hate messages: I will use the form I want to use, and not have my choices made for me like I was some kind of nation-robot fighting a robot-nation war, just because I am from one place on the globe.

    Stuff that! My language is MY language.

    I generally make my written choices based on what I think will most likely succeed with the reader, while my spoken language is whatever it is.

  • Barbara Albert

    I’d just like to say that I grew up saying math, as in “I’m not very good in math.” That said, I can see your point, those of you who argue for Maths vs Math, but don’t you agree it’s hard to say maths? When I say it, I think I have to exaggerate the word or I can’t quite hear myself saying the plural, still only hearing math. So, itbfeels wrong on my tongue. I ask myself, what is the point? Still everywhere I turn now, I’m seeing maths being used like three to one over math. It just irks me as I believe I had a good education and this thing just seems to have taken over. If I give in, and I’m not saying I will, and I don’t care who my audience is, I think I will default to saying mathematics, which, as cumbersome as it is, sounds better on my tongue than maths.

  • Richard Collett

    Boy, a lot of Anglo-snobbery here. Both math and maths is correct. Get over it. I will never use maths. It grates on the ear.

    On the hand. An American checks into a hotel in London. He asks the desk manager where the elevators are located. The manager said, “Sir, the lift is to your right.” The American said indignantly, “The elevator was invented in America, so the term is elevator.”

    The manager quip, “Sir, the language is ours, thus it is a lift.”

  • Keith

    1. There is no such word as “math” in relation to mathematics. Some Americans appear to enjoy annoying English people by attempting to bastardise the English language. They then broadcast (pollute) their misinformation via the internet, movies or books. It is disrespectful.
    Example: many people in the Philippines have been taught English incorrectly by Americanised teachers. Now, the rest of the English speaking world needs to help them learn correct English.
    2. There is no such thing as British English. It is just English. Why? It originates from England. ENGlish. ENGland. Pretty logical for a most people I would have thought. Also, because not everybody there speaks English. There are Scottish, Welsh and Irish too.
    3. Why the “S” in “maths” is there.. The abbreviation is plural and not singular. How many types of mathematics are there? Several. Examples.. Geometry, Calculus, Statistics.
    4. Why is “maths” and “mathematics” correct and other words such as “science” and “sciences” also correct? Because that is how the intricacies of the English language works.
    5. Americans often say “different” where English speakers would often say “differently”. For some unknown reason Americans omit the end of the word. Again they bastardise the English language.
    6. Americans often say “off of” instead of “off” or “from”. There is no sentence in English with “of off” in it. A very common American bastardisation and a very annoying one.
    7. Then, it becomes worse. Much worse. Americans construct a sentence with the words in the incorrect order. They really need to start calling their language American, and not English or American English. At the current rate that they are bastardising English, in a few hundred years someone using English elsewhere in the world will not be able to understand much of what an American says or writes.

  • Michael Organ

    There are some things which are important with language and some things which are not and this fits perfectly in the Not bloody important category.
    Language is wonderful but only if it able and allowed to develop naturally led by people power and not some self-appointed body who nit-pick about silly variations. I would rather leave to the French who have as good as killed their language playing this silly game.
    I accept both Math and Maths but I grew up using the latter and so it just rolls of my tongue that way. If someone picks it up I will usually just say well I’m English so that’s how we say it but if you want to say Math because I won’t allow you to impose your fascist cultural ideas on me thank you.
    There are a few things that get under my collar but this is not one of them. The annoying habit that so many in the US have of saying ‘Have a nice day’, because they don’t realise it is built into the language (Good day is fine). Anyway when someone says Good day (or g’day’s in the Antipodes which I love) it’s a politeness but most of the time when someone says ‘Have a nice day’ it’s through gritted teeth and you know bloody well they wish you anything other than a good day.
    So get over yourselves and just enjoy the ride.

  • Edward J Cunningham

    One slight comment on the difference between British and American English. There is one instance where the mother country is winning out, and that is in the spelling of “theatre.” It used to be that the British spelling ended in “re” and the American spelling ended in “er.” That has changed recently. Do a Google search on every Broadway and off-Broadway performing arts venue in New York. Each and every one of them now uses the spelling “theatre.” LIkewise, take a look at every major cinema chain based in the United States. The last time I checked, they all ended in “theatre”, including the Dolby Theatre, home of the Academy Awards. In the Washington, DC area where I live, I did a search and found only one place that used the “er” spelling, which was the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center.

    Now I’m pretty sure that my fellow Americans can give me plenty of examples of places that still use the “er” ending. Furthermore, even in newspaper articles that have noted the shift, the media has been reluctant to say definitively that “theater” is dying out, but I think this is one place where Brits can chalk things up in the “win” column.

  • 107489

    Mathematics, as a subject and a discipline. A singular topic. It’s primary usage is singular. “Maths” implies plurality, as in, ‘the whole range of disciplines involving mathematics’, in the most intuitive sense of this spelling and how it carries. In this way, ‘maths’ perhaps is more inclusive of the meanings of the word, but ‘math’ I think will always feel more natural to me. It simply says to me: the subject and discipline (in all its forms) of mathematics. Notice I would conversely say. “The subjects and disciplines of mathematics”, to include the plural format, and to me that’s stretching the meaning in an obtuse way. All of those subject(s) and discipline(s) are involving one thing: mathematics.

  • Mark McKinney

    @all (especially Dr. Paul Morton-Thurle)
    There’s no right and wrong for any given language. They are either living or dead. A dead language cannot change, therefore it becomes associated with the principals who last spoke it aloud natively. This is what acme of the Latin language and many others.

    With a living language, it’s care and upkeep are left in the hands of those in whom it has been entrusted. As there is a divide between the UK and America, it is natural that both are inheritors of the English language. Despite it’s principle origin in England, neither country has legitimate claim as the natural successor. One need only look to old English (say Shakesperian) to know the even British English is no more English than American English.

    Here’s the simple truth. There isn’t just one English language anymore. There are several. Every nation that speaks English is a microcosm unto itself. Each will grow into its own sub language in due course. Just as we know there are many Romance languages stemming from Latin, one day there will be many Anglic languages stemming from English. Consequently, both “math” and “maths” are correct. Al that’s left is to let a point remain moot and move on.

  • Mark McKinney

    To all my British cousins, I would like to single out a point of note: it was our collective ancestors who colonized the Americas. It is our language just as much as it is yours, and mere geographic bigotry is insufficient reason to lay exclusive claim to the right of origin and maintenance to the claim of entitlement. Were that to be true, then the differences between old English and modern British English are more than enough of an example to demonstrate that you yourselves have failed to preserve the language. Therefore, you do not have exclusive right to claim the language as your own, nor have you the mantle to claim sole stewardship of its progression.

  • venqax

    Years later this comes back. It seems rather obvious that this is simply a dialectical difference. Just like color/colour, traveling/travelling, center/centre, defense/defence, or even cookie/biscuit and fries/chips/crisps. Neither is even a formal word, but “slang” , FGS. You could say neither is acceptable in a serious context. BUT, to take it all back, I would question the whole idea that “mathematics” is plural. It’s A subject. The subject IS mathematics. There isn’t “a mathematic” anywhere to be found. So why WOULD there be an S on the end? (and yes, economics is “econ” in the US)

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