Mathematical Swearing

If I ever get the chance to teach a proof writing course, I might try introducing the concept of mathematical swear words. I would penalize work that uses these words and keep a personal “swear jar” for when I use them myself with a class incentive for calling me out.  The basic premise of this idea is that in the same way that maturity is required to know when to use swear words appropriately, mathematical maturity is required to know when to use mathematical swear words appropriately. My list of words and terms isn’t very large so far and all fall in the same category. These swear words include: obvious, trivial (when used in a non-technical way), straightforward, and clear. Unlike swear words which fall into several categories (such as vulgar, obscene, blasphemous, offensive), all these mathematical swear words fall into one category: imprecision. In fact, in proof writing, that seems to be the main sin.

The analogy feels appropriate, especially since most students will pick up bad writing habits from textbooks (and if they’re not cautious, by the teachers) and it makes clear that though these words have a place in mathematical writing, it is (1) necessary to understand the context of when to use them and (2) best to use them sparingly. Both ideas translate well from this analogy.

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About minimalrho
Unemployed guy with a PhD in math.

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