Sign up ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In the U.S. I would study math. In Britain, I would study maths. What gives?

share|improve this question
I would hazard a guess that it has something to do with the word mathematic_s_ but I don't know. –  Matt E. Эллен Feb 8 '11 at 22:15
The real question is why math(s) is different but stats is the same. –  Peter Taylor Feb 8 '11 at 23:57
@Peter Taylor: The Americans smartly figured out that math is so much easier to pronounce! –  Jimi Oke Feb 9 '11 at 3:22
In Greek, máthēma means learning, study, science. In Latin, mathematica is a plural noun, but can be used as a singular noun. Use whichever you like, my vote is for mathematics. –  Earthling Jun 7 '11 at 15:51
@Peter Taylor: The reason for the difference is that statistics are plural, but mathematics is singular. –  Peter Shor Jun 8 '11 at 10:35

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

There's a lot of debate about which is right (!), but not much about why there's a difference - good question.

I found this:

The word Mathematics was first used in English in 1581, coming from the Latin word Mathematica. Since the -a suffix in Latin denotes a plural, the word was automatically pluralised when translated to English, even though the word itself is always used as a singular.

The abbreviation "Math" came first. The first recorded usage is in 1891. The British abbreviation "Maths" is not recorded until 1911. Based on this it seems reasonable to assume that either both countries developed the abbreviation separately or the British picked up the American abbreviation but then chose to pluralise it.

Unfortunately this information is unattributed, but it's the only theory I can dig up. In full here:

share|improve this answer
It may be worth noting that physics and metaphysics were both also reproduced as plurals from their original Greek words; it seems neater to me that the abbreviation retains the plurality - but then I'm British ;) –  gpr Feb 8 '11 at 23:07
Google NGram shows "math" in use from the 1700s, and much more common than "maths" since their earliest records;… –  Dour High Arch Feb 9 '11 at 5:23
@Dour High Arch - great stats! Good to get some actual data instead of random assertions from the interweb :) –  gpr Feb 9 '11 at 6:04
Curiously the stats for "physic" versus "physics" show quite different trends… possibly because they aren't exact synonyms. –  Massif Feb 9 '11 at 12:11
@Massif - physic is an old word for "medicine", both in the sense of the art or discipline ("the art of physic") and in the sense of the actual stuff that the physician prescribes (including a toxic seed, Jatropha curcas, called the "physic nut.") At least in the few minutes I gave it, I only found one case where "physic" was used synonymously with "physics": a bad translation from Swedish. I wonder why "physic" has disappeared - is it the possibility of confusion, perhaps? –  MT_Head Jun 7 '11 at 16:22

Seems to me, mathematics is plural in form but used as a singular. The Brits abbreviation is essentially a reduplicated plural which in my mind is redundant and doesn't make much sense considering how both Americans and Brits use it (that is, "math is fun, maths is fun" and not "math are fun, maths are fun").

The abbreviation should at least have a verbal agreement and because its use is singular, it should be used with a singular verb without a reduplicated plural.

share|improve this answer
Ironically, neuter plural nouns in Ancient Greek (which is what mathematica is) would use a singular form of the verb, so you could say it's appropriate ;) It's a bit of a stretch of the imagination though... –  gpr Jun 23 '13 at 14:26

The subject (singular) 'mathematics' incorporates many different types of calculations and equations etc. (plural), and therefore the correct abbreviation is 'maths'. However the word 'math' would be okay if used as an abbreviation for 'mathematical' (singular). An example would be "my math may be wrong", where the person means "my mathematical calculation may be wrong".

It's really quite simple but the American approach does have a certain elegance to it, they've taken proper English and dispensed with the somewhat unnecessary letters that really have no meaning, such as 'silent' letters like the u in colour or harbour. We Brits can hardly complain though because for some bizarre reason, there's no u in the number forty, which really ought to mean that a structure is similar to a fort (fortress)!

share|improve this answer
But you refer to "science class," not "sciences class," even though science also incorporates different types of calculations and equations. –  Nicole Feb 20 at 15:45

Math or Maths are shortenings of "mathematics". As mathematics is a plural it is generally held that the abbreviation should be a plural (except in the US). Thus "maths"

Although "math" is widely adopted It isn't correct.

share|improve this answer
[citation needed] –  Dour High Arch Feb 9 '11 at 5:30
"Mathematics is hard" or "mathematics are hard"? Since it is the former, clearly mathematics is not a plural. –  Kosmonaut Feb 9 '11 at 13:24
You'd better take that up with Apple's dictionary re: plural noun: –  Tom Ravenscroft Feb 9 '11 at 13:37
Discrete, Continuous, Multivariate, Constructive, Combinatorial - alas - Mathematics are hard. –  Xantix Sep 12 '12 at 7:14

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.