Is this (mathoverflow or meta) a reasonable place to ask nuanced questions about how the mathematical community interprets mathematical terms and how they are used in common questions? For example: is it "ok" to ask for the "roots of an equation", or does the term "root" only apply to the zeros of a function? So "find the roots of $f(x)=g(x)$" is not a well-posed question, whereas "find the roots of $f-g$" is, i.e. functions have "roots" equations have "solutions".

I know I can ask math.stackexchange, but in general, I don't feel like the answers given there are representative of expert opinion. In the case of my above example, the task is clear in either case. I am wondering if the professional community would (more-or-less) unanimously decide that one is "correct" and the other is "incorrect". More apropos to the question at hand, I am asking, if asking this question on this platform is within the platform's scope, or should it be asked elsewhere?

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    $\begingroup$ I think that the question on roots would be closed, but my eccentric opinion is that only polynomials have roots, other functions have zeros, and equations have solutions. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 15 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ Why are people downvoting this question? This (asking if this question is acceptable on MO) is inarguably on topic on meta, irrespective of what you think about the question's suitability to MO proper. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ Downvoting on Meta usually means just disagreement $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 17 at 7:00

2 Answers 2


I don't feel like the answers given there are representative of expert opinion.

This may be the case in your experience, but there are professional mathematicians, academics, lecturers etc who are on Math.SE. If a student asked a question about terminology from a course, then I would expect that it should be asked over there, not here. And I would expect that the experienced mathematicians there could answer and also vote appropriately. If the terminology was something like "I want mathematical intuition as to why Grothendieck used this particular French word to name this property", then MathOverflow might be ok.

But then see also https://hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/5860/why-are-%C3%A9tale-morphisms-called-%C3%A9tale, which is (roughly) asking for the history of a particular word chosen by Grothendieck. Questions around names/terminology of high-school or undergraduate level concepts, are something I'm finding it hard to fit into MathOverflow's purview.

If one is looking for a purely grammatical explanation of how a word might be used correctly (for instance a poor example is like how data is used by some as a mass singular noun, and by others as a plural), then an English language stackexchange site might help; depending on the technicality, https://ell.stackexchange.com/ or https://english.stackexchange.com/, it would be best to check on their meta sites before asking.


Original comment: I'd say it's a little hard to tell in advance how the community will react. It could depend on the level of nuance. In the example, "roots of $f(x) = g(x)$" isn't standard mathematical English I don't think; at the same time, I think few people would misunderstand and most wouldn't even comment on the language. (A good friend of mine often says, "Broken English is the language of science.") Anyway, would this question remain open on MO? Looks borderline to me.

Added later: I actually think it might have a better chance of success over at the English Language site, because the level of mathematics involved is low enough that many people could answer. MathOverflow is much better suited to questions that would be of interest to professional mathematicians. Judging by the downvotes on the question here, it looks likely to be closed if asked on MO Main.

  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps by looking at the questions tagged mathematics+terminology - or simply just mathematics - one might find out whether some questions similar to this one have been asked on English Language & Usage in the past. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 18 at 12:09
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    $\begingroup$ No, users of the English language site won't know what a root or a zero is. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 18 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrésE.Caicedo I find that preposterous -- not a single user there has any acquaintance with mathematics? In any case, a glance at the list of questions linked to by Martin shows that questions of mathematics terminology arise from time to time there. $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble Mod
    Commented Jun 18 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ Australians know what a root is, but it's NSFW. quora.com/What-do-Australians-mean-when-they-say-for-a-root $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 18 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Todd xkcd.com/2501 $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 18 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ Really, Andrés? You think no one one with a mathematical background ever weighs in on English language usage? Or are you just having me on? $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble Mod
    Commented Jun 19 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Todd you ask a question asking for experts in the stated field, not just hoping that someone who's an expert in a different field happens to participate there as a hobby (or as an expert, sure). What I've seen is mathematicians weighing wrongly on matters of grammar and usage in their usual arrogant way, and not being corrected since no experts on both areas were present. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 19 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrésE.Caicedo Okay, but now you're turning this around, from nobody there knows anything about roots, which I find absurd, to mathematicians can't be counted on to offer expert advice on language usage. Listen, the question itself isn't exactly abstruse, you don't need a math PhD to answer it, and I think it won't fly at MO. I gave my own opinion about usage. Do you disagree with my first paragraph? You want to say something useful yourself to help out poor OP? $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble Mod
    Commented Jun 19 at 1:29
  • $\begingroup$ No @Todd, you seem to have it well figured out. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 19 at 1:49
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    $\begingroup$ It is interesting to note that Peter Shor, the inventor of Shor's algorithm in quantum computing, currently ranks 10th in total reputation on English Language & Usage. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 20 at 14:16

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