Can you really count to five?


I’m quite sure that even people who are not very confident about their English in general would not hesitate to claim that they can of course count to five. However, if you take pronunciation into consideration, this is not be true for many of them. (This post was inspired by an announcement I recently heard on a train in which five was pronounced incorrectly.)

Let’s stick to tradition and start at the beginning.

1 – one

Most people get this one right but there are in fact two possible pronunciations: [wʌn] and [wɒn] (used by 70% and 30% of British English speakers, respectively, see the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary). To hear the different o sounds, click here and here.

2 – two

The pronunciation of two is straight-forward, namely [tuː], identical to the word too.

3 – three

This is where it’s getting tricky. The th is a major challenge for many nonnative speakers, as explained in detail in this post. Listen to the correct pronunciation [θriː] here.

4 – four

After the difficult number three, four is quite easy in comparison. The pronunciation is [fɔː(r)] (the r is for American English), identical to that of the strong form of for.

5 – five

Congratulations if you have made it so far, but there is one more obstacle to overcome. Unbeknown to virtually all German-speaking people, the v in five is not pronounced like the letter f at the beginning but like the v in seven. Hence, the correct pronunciation of five is [faɪv]. In fact, v in English is never pronounced as f, but there is a single word for which f is pronounced as v. If you want to know which word, read this post.


Monotonic/monotone vs. monotonous

At a physics conference I attended last week in Berlin, I came across yet another example of tricky distinctions to master. Several  speakers confused the words monotonic or monotone with monotonous. While these words can be used interchangeably in some situations, only monotonic and monotone are correct in a mathematical context.

You can check the exact meaning using, for example, the Oxford online dictionary. For monotonous, you’ll find:

“never changing and therefore boring”

as well the ssynonyms dull and repetitious. Although you may also consider a monotonic function to be boring, this is not what you usually want to express in discussing your results. Instead, monotonic has a specific mathematical meaning. For example, the picture below shows a function that is monotonic (non-decreasing in this case).path4143

The fact that monotonic/monotone and monotonous translate to the same German word (monoton) does not exactly help. This is why we were taught in school that you cannot just take any possible translation from the dictionary but have to consider context. For example, entering monoton into the popular online dictionary  produces monotonous, monotone, and monotonic (among other choices), with monotone and monotonic being clearly marked as mathematical expressions.

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.