If you are good at math, you are not good at English, right? And Math + English = undatable nerd, right?. Wrong! says Danica McKellar (the actress who played Winnie Cooper on "The Wonder Years" and later appeared in the 2002-03 season of West Wing - The Complete Series"), whose three books on math prove those equations and "if, then" conditionals to be less than congruent with reality.


Or should that be < congruent? Both the syntax of English sentences and of mathmatic equations have inherent structure that is necessary for them to make sense. The arrangement "street crossed the he" and "9 - 3 x 6 = 36" are nonsensical, but "He crossed the street" and "(9 - 3) x 6 = 36" are comprehensible. Both English grammar and math are systems with rules that create understandable communication.


Danica McKellar knows that, and she also knows that math, like grammar, is one of those things that frighten some people. Some people harbor memories of being corrected, being instructed, being marked wrong, often by overzealous instructors or somewhat cruel punishing teachers. Some people just think that knowlege of grammar and math is obscure, nerdish . . . uncool.


Regardless of judgmental attitudes toward knowledge acquisition, it's fun to look at how math uses symbols that can be expressed in prose—in English words—and many English words can be expressed as symbols. Think of "less than" and <, "more than" and >. Think of how many sentences that use the verb "to be" can be seen as equations. One can say, "I am Stanley" and basically, "I" equals "Stanley." Think of "I am an astronaut" and how "I" equals "astronaut."


The parallels between syntax and math pretty much end there, but the idea of "is" as "equals" is a fascinating one. And Danica's point that knowledge of the symbolic system that underlies our understanding of the quantifiable world, that knowing math is important, is much the same as mine: understanding the grammar of how we write and talk about the world is important, very important indeed.


Math is a map, a set of symbols and rules for their relationships that describe the world, and so is grammar. Understanding how we work with those maps—and how we create them—is key to understanding how we relate to the world.


Math rocks! and Grammar rocks! Algebra is hot, as Danica points out, and grammar is too.


Which is your favorite, math or grammar? Let us know!



Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.


0 Kudos
by Fricka on ‎08-10-2010 09:43 AM

Too bad this book wasn't around when I was in Jr. High! My Math teacher was a man who knew how to cater to the mathematically gifted, but who couldn't explain how to work a problem to students who were struggling.(guess which group I was in?) I think there's a lot of irony in the fact that this book is written by a female, when we've all been pretty much brainwashed to believe that math is for men, grammar and verbal usage for women. If we didn't have all this cultural/gender bias attached to these subjects, I wonder how much more the two subjects would be seen as congruent, not opposing subjects.

One final gripe: I wish the math people would drop the so-called "word problems". You know, like " A train going 70 miles an hour leaves the station at 3:00. Bill is driving from home at 30 miles an hour. Who is wearing the blue shirt at the end"? These are NOT "word" problems, they are some kind of amalgamation of math and strange logic.

by on ‎08-10-2010 11:13 AM

A train going 70 miles an hour leaves the station at 3:00. Bill is driving from home at 30 miles an hour. Who is wearing the blue shirt at the end"?


The train!

by Fricka on ‎08-10-2010 11:55 AM

Good one, Kathy! :-)

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎08-10-2010 10:29 PM

LOL - I love that. We should do a book of absurd algebra word problems and Dada-esque answers!

by on ‎08-11-2010 01:51 PM

Sounds good, Ellen....actually, the train was wearing the blue shirt...for a short period of time.  The Saga of The Blue Shirt


On his way home from work, Bill drove across the train tracks just as it was passing the intersection....the train hit the side of Bills car, causing his shirt to fly off.  He had a habit of not buttoning his shirt during the summer months, as his air conditioning is malfunctioning.   Anyway, the shirt flew out the window, and landed across the cow catcher..that thing on the front of the train, which deflects cows on the tracks.  So, there you have it!  For the moment.


Bill escaped by the skin of his teeth, but arriving home without his shirt.  His wife was a little miffed, not because of the left rear bumper missing, but because the blue shirt was a wedding gift. 


About ten miles down the road, a cow was lamely hobbling along side the train tracks, wearing a blue shirt.


The End...sort of....What do you think happened, next? 

When the train is going 70 miles per hour, Bill's car is going 30mph, and the cow is going 1mph.  How fast do you think the shirt was going, when it lands on the cow?

by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎08-11-2010 03:10 PM

I'll say Chemistry - it's both math and grammar! :smileyhappy:

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