Scientific English as a Foreign Language
Lesson of July 24, 1998
Writing Mathematics

Let's continue this week with more tips about writing mathematics. Boldface type indicates the preferred style.

• Please don't begin a sentence with a variable. Doesn't "a is greater than b." look odd to you? When I read it, I am confused because I think that "a" is the article "a", not a variable. I would choose to write "The variable a is greater than b." It helps to italicize the variables.

• Words should be interspersed with formulas to give a smoother flow. I much prefer "If x < 2, then y > 5." to "If x < 2, y > 5."

• Complicated or important formulae should stand out from the text. Trying to read P = Ka^3/R - sqrt(3PiwKa^3/2) - PiRw in the middle of a paragraph is much more difficult than reading it below

P = Ka^3/R - sqrt(3PiwKa^3/2) - PiRw.              (1)

• When referring back to an earlier equation, it's useful to include an additional clue to the reader as to which equation you mean, in addition to the equation number. For example, I want to talk now about Eq.1. You're lucky, Eq.1 is just above this paragraph. But had I referred to Eq.1. several pages later, it would be of immense value to the reader to write "The expression for P, Eq.1, is used to plot Fig.X."

• If in doubt, be consistent. There's no Academy of English to dictate exactly what is right and wrong. We therefore have enormous flexibility as writers, but also uncertainty. A publication looks sloppy if in one place you type "x-axis" and then later "x axis". It's better to be consistent than right.

The wireless telegraph is not difficult to understand.
The ordinary telegraph is like a long cat.
You pull the tail in New York, and it meows in Los Angeles.
The wireless is the same, only without the cat.

-A. Einstein

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Created July 24, 1998, by Nancy Burnham and Fred Hutson.