04 June 2008

The British are bad at maths

According to Tom Geoghegan of BBC News, "The British are uniquely happy to admit being bad at maths", citing examples such as television personalities and politicians.

Well, yeah, the British are unique in this way -- if "maths" and "math" are different things. Americans don't like admitting they're bad at maths, because they don't want to sound British. But they do seem to like admitting they're bad at math.


Anonymous said...

If one more person replies to my saying that I study math with "Oh, I was never any good at math", then I'll have to break out my good ol' American gun.

Efrique said...

"Maths" is the standard abbreviation in most of the Commonwealth, so I'd call it "Commonwealth English".

And the "bad at maths" thing is certainly not unique to Britain - it's the national sport in Australia. I don't get it.

What's funny about saying "maths" anyway? Hmm. Do you abbreviate statistics to "stat" or "stats"?

Anonymous said...

Paul Sally responds to people telling him that they were no good at math in school by saying: "Yeah, I know just how you feel; I never really learned how to read".

Anonymous said...

I'm dubious about the £9bn "cost to the economy" statistic.

Looks like it comes from this rather than some scientific paper.

Many such figures are based on large statistical assumptions.

Michael Lugo said...


you're probably thinking that refers to nine billion pounds per year; that's the usual way of citing economic numbers. The actual report says nine billion pounds since 1990, or half a billion a year.

From a quick look at the report, it seems that the figure was computed as follows: people who take A-level maths earn 10 percent more than those who didn't, which under certain assumptions about who the people who might have taken it but didn't corresponds to 136,000 pounds over the lifetime of a person (p. 6) or 3080 pounds/year (p. 18). (They seem to be assuming a working life of roughly 44 years.) The number of students who would have taken A-level maths had the proportion of students taking them remained constant is 430,700 more than the number who actually did take it. (9 billion)/(430700) = 20896, so they're saying that each of those students lost seven years worth of the 3k/year premium.

Why seven? Well, I don't know.

That particular passage has also been picked apart by Kelvin Throop; I discovered this, oddly enough, by Googling (9 billion)/(430700).

Anonymous said...

The reason that people in Britain and Australia say "maths" and not "math" is because they say "sport" and not "sports". North Americans, in contrast, typically say "math" and "sports".

Clearly, each country only has a finite number of terminating "s" characters, and they've decided to allocate them differently in different countries!

Blake Stacey said...

Yeah, commenting about people who say, "I just never got math" is a standard pastime among mathematicians who write. Just look at John Cox and Paul Lockhart and John Allen Paulos and Keith Devlin and, most recently, Jason Rosenhouse:

Like all professional mathematicians, I take it for granted that most people
will be bored and intimidated by what I do for a living. Math, after all, is the
sole academic subject about which people brag of their ineptitude. "Oh,"
says the typical well-meaning fellow making idle chit-chat at some social
gathering, "I was never any good at math." Then he smiles sheepishly, secure
in the knowledge that his innumeracy in some way reflects well on him. I have
my world-weary stock answers to such statements. I resist the temptation
to say something snide ("How were you at reading?"), or downright nasty
("Perhaps you're just dim,") and instead say, "Well, maybe you just never
had the right teacher." That typically defuses the situation nicely.

Anonymous said...

I'd say the writer doesn't know what "uniqueness" means, but he'd probably be proud of it.

Michael Lugo said...


nobody other than mathematicians uses "unique" in the "correct" way any more. (Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit here.) Perhaps this is because we more often have a reason to talk about something that there is exactly one of than most people? "Unique" in ordinary language seems to just be a stronger form of "unusual".

The OED remarks this tendency in a note, but points out that some people object to it:

2. a. That is or forms the only one of its kind; having no like or equal; standing alone in comparison with others, freq. by reason of superior excellence; unequalled, unparalleled, unrivalled.
In this sense readopted from French at the end of the 18th c. and regarded as a foreign word down to the middle of the 19th, from which date it has been in very common use, with a tendency to take the wider meaning of ‘uncommon, unusual, remarkable’.
The usage in the comparative and superlative, and with advs. as absolutely, most, quite, thoroughly, totally, etc., has been objected to as tautological.

Michael Lugo said...


that reminds me of an often-told joke about the Boston accent -- that the letter r is conserved. The Boston accent stereotypically drops r following a vowel (think "pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd", although as an erstwhile Cantabrigian I feel obliged to point out that you can't park there) -- but it also has intrusive R, which can appear between a word ending in a vowel and a following word beginning in a vowel.

Adrienne said...

My mom grew up in Warshington, DC, and lives in Tampar, now. They must have sent all the extra r's to my family.

misha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
misha said...

Unapologetic: Your comment reminded me of an old joke. Somebody asked a mathematician if he thought there was only one God. His reply was: "Yes, up to an isomorphism."

Blake Stacey said...

I recall reading about the Conservation of Rs: every time a Bostonian pahks his cah neah Hahvahd Yahd, a Texan has to drill a couple erl wells. . . .

Efrique said...

Peter: I say "sports" all the time.

But I do also say "sport". It depends on the context.

For example "cricket is a sport", but "I don't play any ball sports".

Or perhaps an example closer to what you're talking about: Kate Ellis is the current Federal Minister for Sport, but that title is commonly abbreviated as "Sports Minister".

CarlBrannen said...

I'm relieved to know that "maths" is not bad English, but in fact is good British. I had assumed that it was yet another sad case of the public loosing their ability to use words, well, uh, losely.

As far as the meaning of unique, when my dad had to prove understanding of a foreign language (to get a PhD in Maths), he chose French. Accordingly, he was given a mathematics paper written in French and a French professor to hear his translation. When he translated "unique" as "unique" the French professor, not being familiar with math usage, flunked him. (But he did get his degree eventually.)

Anonymous said...

Math sucks.

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