I've seen some people using the word sum as a substitute for the word problem, in a mathematical context even though the problem does not explicitly involve the addition operation.

For example, We discussed Huygen's Principle in the last class. I believe all of you checked out the sums related to that.

Is this usage okay?

  • 2
    "The sums" in this context means "the computations / derivations" -- mathematical manipulations of some kind. e.g. I did the sums and it turns out that.... But it doesn't mean "problem" in a general sense. Feb 1, 2016 at 19:52
  • Can you point to a dictionary definition that supports the interpretation of sum that you want people to recognize as your intended meaning in the example you give? If so, please do.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 2, 2016 at 6:37
  • 1
    I would consider it to be sloppy/anachronistic (in the US), if the equation was not limited to summation or integrals. "Sum" was used in the sense of a general math problem 100 years ago, but not extensively in the past 50.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 7, 2016 at 3:48

2 Answers 2


As Peter Shor pointed out, there are definitions of sum in the online Oxford Dictionary that do cover math problems not explicitly involving addition, so this is acceptable usage.

  • This is a British usage, so you need to look in a British dictionary to find it. For example, this usage is given here but not here. Feb 1, 2016 at 15:46
  • None of the definitions there pertain to academic problems that aren't mathematical or arithmetic in nature, though, unless I've missed something obvious? Feb 1, 2016 at 15:47
  • The OP is asking about problems that are mathematical in nature, but don't look like 10385 + 3729 + 58392. Read the question more carefully. Feb 1, 2016 at 15:48
  • Having looked more closely into what Huygen's Principle actually is, you're right. Mind if I edit my answer or would I be as well just deleting it? Feb 1, 2016 at 15:49
  • Go ahead and edit it. Feb 1, 2016 at 15:50

sum may refer to the integral of something as well, seeing as when a curve is positive, the integral is the sum of infinitesimally slim squares below the curve adding up to the area below the curve.

While sums may indeed be used occasionally to refer to calculations in a broader sense, I should shy away from such usages: It dilutes the accuracy with which one might express oneself about mathematics.

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