11 Commonly Misspelled Words in Matheamtics

July 30, 2015 at 8:57 am 5 comments

No, this isn’t meant to be another stupid post about how ppolee can raed setecnnes wehn the ltetres of ecah wrod are scamrbeld. But if you were paying attention, you may have noticed that the word mathematics was misspelled in the title.

In an ironic twist of fate, the word that I misspell most often is MATHEAMTICS. Sort of. It’s not that I misspell it as much as I mistype it. For unobvious reasons, I tend to transpose the M and A in the third syllable. And statistically speaking, it stands to reason that I’d screw it up often — it’s a word I type frequently.

Spelling is important, as authors Robert Magnan and Mary Lou Santovec claim in their e-book 1001 Commonly Misspelled Words. Spelling is so very important, in fact, they’ve taken great care in writing a description of their book for Amazon. Here’s an excerpt:

1001 Words - Description

It seems that Magnan and Santovec should increase their list to 1003 words and add memory and correct (misspelled as “memeory” and “corret” in the excerpt above). And then at the end of the paragraph, it seems they’re trying to make a joke by spelling knowledgeable incorrectly but then correcting the spelling between the dashes; yet both instances are spelled the same — correctly, in fact — which I suspect was autocorrect fixing the deliberate misspelling before this blurb went to print.

One has to wonder if these mistakes were intentional, to keep the reader on her toes and emphasize how important spelling is. Sort of like the deliberate mistake in this proof that 1 = 2:

\textrm{Assume that } a = b\textrm{. Then,} \\ \\    \begin{array}{rcl}    a^2 & = & ab \\    a^2 - b^2 & = & ab - b^2 \\    (a+b)(a-b) & = & b(a-b) \\    a + b & = & b \\    b + b & = & b \\    2b & = & b \\    2 & = & 1 \\    \end{array}

(For the infinitely geeky, there’s this follow-up, posted by Anders Kaseorg on Quora:

Suppose there are n proofs that 1 = 2. From this we derive that there are n + 1 – 1 = n + 2 – 1 = n + 1 proofs that 1 = 2. Therefore, by induction, there are infinitely many proofs that 1 = 2.)

But, I digress. My purpose in writing this post was to provide a list of hints for how to spell the most frequently misspelled math words. As it turns out, many of the math words that you’d think would be hard to spell — words with several syllables or lots of letters, like parabola or triangle or differentiation — are actually spelled exactly like they sound. Most of the really hard-to-spell math words are the names of mathematicians, like de Moivre, Poincaré, Weierstrauss, Euler, and Euclid.

The following are math words pulled from a variety of lists of commonly misspelled words.

forth/fourth/forty : there’s a u in the ordinal number, but not in the multiple of 10. To help you remember the difference, keep in mind that 40 is the largest number that, when spelled out, has all its letters in alphabetical order — and that won’t be the case if a u is included.

twelfth : there’s a little “elf” in twelfth, even if you incorrectly say “twelth” without the f.

ninth / ninety : fifth and fifty are parallel, in that both change v to f and drop the e. Sadly, ninth and ninety aren’t. Sorry, I don’t have any tips for remembering this one… except maybe that it’s on this list, which will help you remember that they’re spelled differently.

existence : one i, three e‘s, no a‘s.

height : the three dimensions are length, width, and height, not heighth, regardless of how my father pronounced it. There’s no h at the end.

independent : ants live in colonies, which isn’t very independent. That’ll help you remember that independent ends in –ent, not –ant.

neighbor : the ei takes on a long a sound, despite the i before e rule, and then there’s a silent gh. Yeah, lots of opportunities for goofing up this one. No one would fault you for spelling it nayber.

operator : when AT&T introduced the 1-800-OPERATOR promotion in the mid-1980’s, it was a disaster. The majority of would-be callers spelled operator with an e instead of an o in the last syllable.

perseverance : perhaps less mathy than the other words on this list, but Common Core includes it in Math Practice 1. There’s an a in the last syllable, and there’s no r before the v.

principal/principle : remember that Al wants to collect interest on his principal investment, but Lee likes the pigeonhole principle.

similar : another one that doesn’t have –er at the end.

[Update 8/3/2015: From the twitterverse, we have these additions to the list.

perpendicular : two e‘s, one i, not the other way ’round. @redbucwildcats

mensuration : not hard to spell, necessarily, but hard to pronounce. @pstni

angle : not angel. @mathsjem

frustum : frustrated has two r‘s, but frustum only one, thank you very much. @mathsjem

parallel : one r, two a‘s, three l‘s. @mathsjem

correlation : only double r‘s. @mathsjem]

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. xander  |  July 30, 2015 at 10:32 am

    When I first came home with the “i before e” rule as a young person, my mother quickly responded with an entire memorized list of exceptions from when *she* was a child: “I before E; except after c; and when sounded as ‘ay’ as in neighbor and weigh; and neither weird foreigner seizes leisures at their heights.”

    Don’t think about it for too long—it sticks in your head. :\

    • 2. venneblock  |  August 4, 2015 at 3:25 pm

      Dumbest. Rule. Ever.

      • 3. xander  |  August 4, 2015 at 3:30 pm

        I cannot disagree.

  • 4. Kimberley Girard  |  July 30, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    I would add the math word “tessellations” to the list. Even at math conferences I’ve seen it spelled with a single l.

    • 5. venneblock  |  August 4, 2015 at 3:29 pm

      Absolutely. Great addition! Similarly, I always goof up accommodate (even though it’s not a math word) — never sure if it’s two c‘s, two m‘s, or both.


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About MJ4MF

The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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