Mathematical English: Powers


Non-native speakers often struggle when they have to speak about powers. For example, the correct expression used for 10^3 is “ten to the power of three“, although it is common to instead use the shorter form “ten to the three“. Similarly, x^7 is “x to the (power of) seven“. The exponents 2 and 3 (can you think of other examples?) have special names: x^2 is “x squared“, x^3 is “x cubed“. A confusing yet common mistake is to say “ten to three” (which refers to the time of day 2:50) instead of “ten to the three“. If the exponent is negative, for example 10^{-3}, the correct expression is “10 to the (power of) minus three“, but not “10 to the (power of) negative three“. Finally, the correct form for e^x is either “exponential function of x” or, much shorter, “e to the (power of) x“.

Five common mistakes at the APS March Meeting 2014

This year’s March Meeting is coming to an end, and after a week full of talks I created a list of the five common mistakes I came across (in no particular order), and which I have written about before. Enjoy!

1. How to pronounce interaction

2. There is no ü sound in the English language

3. phenomena vs. phenomenon

4. How to pronounce matrix

5. How to pronounce Dirac, honeycomb, and ribbon

Do you care for feedback?

Since a substantial part of the material covered in this blog comes from my encounters with scientific papers and talks, I am wondering how many of you would actually like to get feedback regarding potential shortcomings regarding their English skills.

I have never been a fan of public practise talks, simply because I think that a scientific presentation should reflect the ideas and the style of the author. (That does not mean that others won’t benefit from such talks.) In particular, for most of the questions raised in such practise talks, there is typically no right or wrong answer. While some would prefer for slide A to come before slide B, others will have the opposite preference.

The situation is quite different when it comes to language matters. While not every dispute can be settled, for example as a result of different pronunciations in British and American English, there are correct and incorrect words and pronunciations. Nevertheless, I have never witnessed a situation where language was addressed in a group seminar or practise talk (see also here).

I would appreciate hearing from readers who are interested in feedback. For example, I’d be happy to send comments by email, or to discuss them privately, as far as my spare time allows. With the big spring conferences coming up, I might even happen to attend your talk and take notes.

Mathematical English: How to pronounce Gaussian


As you may remember from school, the bell-shaped curve that plays a key role in statistics, often referred to as a normal distribution, is also called a Gaussian. I have noticed that there is a lot of confusion and variation regarding the pronunciation of the word Gaussian, in particular among German native speakers. The reason is that Gaussian is related to name of the great German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss (the German spelling is Gauß).

The pronunciation of Gaussian becomes rather obvious if we first consider the pronunciation of Gauss. In German and English, Gauss is pronounced as [gaʊs], and hence rhymes with house. In English, a common incorrect pronunciation is [gɔːs], with the “au” pronounced as in other English words like authentic or cause. (“au” is very often pronounced as [ɔː] in English; my fellow Austrians are hereby reminded that this includes the word Austria.) Evidence for this pronunciation of Gauss can be found in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, as well as here. Note that gauss is also used as a unit to measure the strength of magnetic fields.

According to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, the correct pronunciation of Gaussian is [gaʊsiən]. That means that Gaussian is pronounced like Gauss, plus the ending “-ian”, which is also found in words such as Austrian or Indian. Some common incorrect pronunciations of Gaussian are [gɔːsiən] (see discussion above), [gaʊ(s)ʃiən] and [gaʊ(s)ʃn] (some people pronounce it with s and ʃ, others only with ʃ). The last two variants are most likely related to German expressions such as Gaußsche Verteilung (Gaussian distribution). However, whereas “ss” can be pronounced either as [s] or as [ʃ] in words such as issue, this is apparently not the case for Gaussian.

You may also be interested in how to pronounce fractions and powers.

Mathematical English: Series

math-seriesHere are two common mistakes related to series.

1) A series is called a series but not a row (a false friend related to the German word Reihe).

2) A function is expanded in (or as) a series. German native speakers often make the mistake of saying “to develop [a function] in a series” (the corresponding German expression is “[eine Funktion] in eine Reihe entwickeln“).