I'm teaching math to undergrads. The classes are taught in English, which is a second language for me.

In the middle of one class I've stumbled upon an unexpected problem: the inability to distinguish between "sign" and "sine". Sometimes it's evident from the context. Sometimes not. For example, if I'm saying to student "You forgot a /saɪn/ here", it can both mean "a sine (of x)" or "a (minus) sign".

Is there a way to make a clear distinction between these two homophones in spoken language, or should I just try my best to build unambiguous phrases?

  • 1
    Sometimes I spell the word immediately after pronouncing it, "sign s-i-g-n." And sometimes I say "trig sine" or "sign positive or negative." I suppose that the immediate purpose would also be served if you pronounced the trig function sin like the crime against G-d, a sin, although that would make you uncool in the math world. – Chaim Sep 19 '17 at 14:29
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    Why not provide the context (as you do in this question) when speaking to your student. Don't say "you forgot a sign/sine here", say "you forgot a minus sign". – Skooba Sep 19 '17 at 14:33
  • Pronounce sine like sin; i.e, use a lax vowel, not a diphthong. For one thing, it's what nativespeaking math students often do, since it's always sin x and never sine x or sine (x). Likewise, log x, cos x, cosh x, tan x, cot x, are all to be pronounced as one likes, as long as everybody knows there's another pronunciation that English speakers can also use. Think of it as a math accent. Incidentally, sinh x is "sinch x". – John Lawler Sep 19 '17 at 14:39
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    @JohnLawler - Er, not in the UK. When I was taught sin, cos and tan, I was taught that sin is always pronounced "sine". I was also taught that sinh is pronounced "shine". These pronunciations have been consistent across different teachers/lecturers at both my secondary school and my university. – AndyT Sep 19 '17 at 16:02
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    @JohnLawler I"ve never heard the pronunciation "sin" for the trig functino, but I have often heard the pronunciation "sinch" for the hyperbolic sine. So my experience is midway between yours and AndyT's. – Andreas Blass Sep 19 '17 at 23:57

As a math major, my teachers, colleagues, and I nearly always say "algebraic sign" to distinguish from the more likely "sine" in our speech.

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