Math or Maths?


George Bernard Shaw once noted that "England and America are two countries separated by a common language," or perhaps it was Oscar Wilde, or maybe Winston Churchill. At any rate, we find examples of this linguistic divergence in many areas. Automobile terminology seems particularly prone to differences:

  • In the United States we say fender, in the United Kingdom they say wing.
  • In the U.S. hood, in the U.K. bonnet.
  • U.S. wrench, U.K. spanner
  • trunk, boot
  • gas, petrol
  • trailer, caravan
  • truck, lorry
  • parking lot, car park

And such differences aren't limited to cars:

  • attorney, barrister
  • cookie, biscuit
  • eraser, rubber
  • subway, tube

Since SAS Curriculum Pathways went global, we have found that mathematics terminology follows this same pattern. A few years ago our good friend at the University of Plymouth, David Kaplan, shared this list.

U.S. English U.K. English
math maths
to factor; factoring to factorise; factorising
parentheses brackets
systems of equations simultaneous equations
radical surd
slope gradient
trapezoid trapezium
right triangle right-angled triangle
Law of Sines Sine Rule
Law of Cosines Cosine Rule
counter-clockwise anti-clockwise
scientific notation standard index form
dilation enlargement
repeating decimal recurring decimal


Now some of these differences seem fairly innocuous. For example, parentheses and brackets are certainly interchangeable. Whether you consider sines to be governed by a rule or a law will probably not throw off your calculations. And trapezium actually sounds much more fun than trapezoid.

However, a few of these examples do give a bit of pause. Where exactly did surd come from?

So what do you think, math or maths?



About Author

Ralph Moore

Ralph Moore coordinates and conducts professional development for Curriculum Pathways. He works with schools and organizations around the country and has presented at conferences for organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. A former army officer and social studies teacher, he spent 10 years on the Curriculum Pathways humanities team creating new digital curriculum products.


  1. Rick Wicklin

    The Wiktionary give the entymology of surd as coming from the Latin word surdus, which means “deaf,” or, in mathematics, "deaf to reason", i.e. irrational.

    Interestingly, there are some mathematical typesetting programs that use "surd" as the command to insert the square-root symbol. Must have been written or influenced by the Brits.

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