Is it common for an English speaking person to understand the word "integer" (i.e. the whole numbers ..., -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, ...)?

Or should I not use that word outside the domain of mathematics or computer science.

4 Answers 4


I don't think you can assume integer is a term known outside the mathematics and computer science communities. Would my mother know what an integer is? No. I would use "whole number" to describe it, which I believe is better understood.

  • 3
    Not sure if it's precise, but this page (mathsisfun.com/whole-numbers.html) states that Whole number is specific to numbers greater than or equal to zero, while integer includes negative numbers. In math was taught about integers and whole numbers and their differences in grade school. So most people have known this at one time, although I'm sure most people don't remember. Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_number) states that it is ambiguous.
    – Kibbee
    Jun 15, 2011 at 12:48
  • 4
    @Kibbee, I think mathworld.wolfram.com/WholeNumber.html is more authoritative (it stills states that the name is ambiguous).
    – Unreason
    Jun 15, 2011 at 13:15
  • In American elementary schools (or at least the one I went to) we were taught that whole numbers were numbers that were not fractions...At that point we hadn't been introduced to the concept of negative numbers. "Integers" were introduced with negative numbers. I'm not sure if that was intentional, but when I think of whole numbers, I definitely think of nonnegative integers. But I'm a math major, so I just use "integer" anyway. Much more precise. :P
    – kitukwfyer
    Jun 15, 2011 at 21:10

If you look at ngram search between 1900 and 2000 of words integer, rose and fun:

enter image description here

you will find integer least common, but still referenced >1M times and yes vast majority of the books will be from mathematic and computer science, but I would say that such a concept that is thought in primary school falls under general knowledge and is common.

EDIT: While checking some of smackfu findings I stumbled over the article where an author has no problem in admitting that integer is not in his general knowledge. So, maybe I jumped to conclusion that it is really common.

On the other hand - searching New York Times find ~160 posts and articles using the word (here are the results for integer, it does not include results for integers).

  • Maybe I'm being dense, but I don't understand why you've used the words "Rose" and "Fun" to compare against. Can you explain?
    – Andy F
    Jun 15, 2011 at 10:53
  • @Andy F, ngrams give pretty meaningless numbers; I used rose and fun as examples of common words for comparison (as some sort of baseline)
    – Unreason
    Jun 15, 2011 at 10:54
  • ngrams take a lot of factors to consider, for example see (pertinent to subject) this ngrams.googlelabs.com/… and this ngrams.googlelabs.com/…
    – Unreason
    Jun 15, 2011 at 10:55
  • @Unreason I don't understand your choice of 'baseline' either. Those words are just not relevant to the question.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Jun 15, 2011 at 11:39
  • 1
    @Unreason You can be more selective with a full corpus search interface like this: corpus.byu.edu/coca
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Jun 15, 2011 at 12:43

Education is very much widespread today, and Mathematics are an integral part of this education.

The idea of "integers" would therefore be quite well known, and generally understood.

  • I agree: we learned about integers in 5th or 6th grade at the lartest. Both my kids did too.
    – horatio
    Jun 15, 2011 at 13:54
  • but the question is, when do we forget?
    – rest_day
    Jun 15, 2011 at 17:36

My normal test is whether a large daily newspaper will use the term without giving a definition on first use. Looking back through archives will also tell you if a word has become accepted as commonly known over time. Unfortunately a newspaper will almost never have the need to use "integer" or synonyms, and I only found one decent cite in the NYTimes archive from 1981: "This has to do with determining how many ways a whole number, or integer, can be written as a sum."

On the other hand, you could also use the same lack of results to argue that a newspaper will never use the word integer outside of a math context.

  • How did you search? I get many more results query.nytimes.com/search/… (although it includes blog articles from the site, too)
    – Unreason
    Jun 15, 2011 at 14:45
  • I searched for "integer" not "integers". Looks like the NYTimes search doesn't do auto-stemming, so these are completely separate results. Jun 15, 2011 at 15:51
  • integer query.nytimes.com/search/… also returns ~80 results
    – Unreason
    Jun 15, 2011 at 16:13

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