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.