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Today a user left the following comment:

[...] I don't think this is really an English question... there's a Math Stack, you know. :)

The question is about how to explain A = -log(X) in words. It currently has five upvotes, no close votes, and multiple answers. So the question seems to be doing okay over here, although we could still close it if we wanted. And we do have similar questions that are currently open; in fact, we have a whole mathematics tag.

But we've also closed questions related to mathematics and language. For example, on another question, a user wrote:

This question appears to be off-topic because it is about technical terminology in a purely technical context. It would be best asked on Mathematics.

And the community agreed that question was off-topic.

What sorts of mathematics questions would we like to have on-topic here?

Would it be better if we closed some of them as off-topic? Or perhaps we could migrate questions to one of the math SE sites where they could get answers from the mathematics community?

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    I find some technical language questions are difficult to amswer without some background in the field. While we can say what's grammatical, we might not be able to say what is commonly used or we might miss a nuance that's important to the meaning. I think it's very dependant on the level of sophistication of the concept the learner is trying to communicate or understand whether we would migrate a question. – ColleenV May 19 '15 at 23:12
  • @ColleenV: I'd agree; we can reasonably assume that the users of ELL have at least a decent understanding of basic arithmetic, even up to, say, high-school geometry/trigonometry, but past that would probably be better suited to Math: even though doubtless there's some overlap, the voting is not going to reflect any reliable expertise in evaluating who's genuinely knowledgeable and who's just making stuff up. – Nathan Tuggy May 21 '15 at 5:49
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    Even stranger is that this question has 10 upvotes, and isn't considered too technical. I think it is far more technical then the one you linked. – James May 23 '15 at 7:47
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    I occasionally contribute to math.SE but I emphatically do not speak for that commnity. I've a feeling, however, they wouldn't be too impressed if their site were flooded with questions about pronunciation and reading aloud, which is really more of a language-thing. math.SE is primarily about doing maths rather than reading maths. They do have a pronunciation tag over there, math.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/pronunciation, but you'll notice a lot of those questions are closed. – Au101 May 25 '15 at 2:52
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I think any math question is on topic as long as it's not about math, but about learning English.

Reading aloud

Most of our math questions are about how to read a mathematical expression aloud. This topic is filled with tricky things like casual vs. formal ways to say the same thing and British and American differences. The question about how to say A = -log(X) brought up a lot of that complexity, including the ambiguity of "negative logarithm", the high formality of "additive inverse", and the English tendency to make a phrase that "violates" grammar in order to serve a frequently occurring need, but only within a certain context. The resulting page is quite a useful resource for any ESL learner who's run into the conflicting usages surrounding "negative logarithms". This term comes up in basic chemistry more often than in pure math, actually. Many mathematicians would give the wrong answer, and indeed some did. I'd say that this question was definitely on topic for ELL.

Translating terminology

In the question that was judged off-topic, the questioner knew the notation but not the word for "piecewise definition". This question might sound like "What do you call a compound consisting only of hydrogen and carbon? [a hydrocarbon]", which is a chemistry question. However, the questioner was asking for the English word for it, and even offered an English calque of the term from his native language. The concept is from elementary algebra. We usually allow questions of the form "What do you call this in English?" I think it was on topic and should not have been closed.

Can’t make a general rule

I wouldn't want to pre-legislate that math questions on ELL must only be about reading aloud, or any other specific thing. Better to handle it case-by-case. I've known plenty of people who know math very well but are surprisingly clueless about the grammar of talking and writing about math. I think it's wonderful that ELL provides non-native speakers a way to ask about the peculiarities of "math in English". Many of our frequent contributors are actually pretty knowledgeable in math as well as the difficulties of learning English, and can give an informed answer.

To illustrate how quirky math questions that are really English questions can be, here's a question that's not about reading aloud, but about what the verb "exist" agrees with in constructs like "There exist ai such that…" The subject there appears to be singular but is actually plural because of the conventions for talking about groups of things distinguished by a subscript. A tempting answer is to think that "exist" in that sentence is subjunctive, but it's not. I'd say that question was definitely on topic, even though the answer is not common knowledge among fluent English speakers. It's very hard for an English learner (even a native) to figure out without help, and mathematicians are often very unhelpful about explaining it. But it's exactly the kind of question where the expertise of ELL answerers can be most helpful.

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As a pronunciation question about math, I think this sort of question sits in a gray area, and is acceptable in either place.

Where is it best suited? I think that depends on what the O.P. is trying to figure out.

If the O.P. is thinking:

I know how I'd say this in my native tongue, but I'm not sure how I would say it in English

then I have no problem with an English learner getting that help from ELL.

On the other hand, if the O.P. is thinking:

I'm pretty sure I know how to say this in English, but I'm presenting at the International Conference on Probability Theory next month, and I want to make sure I'm saying this
the way other mathematicians would say it

then it would probably be better suited for math.SE.

In other words: is the O.P. asking how the man on the street is likely to pronounce this equation? Or how it would be presented in the lecture halls of an engineering school?

Unfortunately, we don't always get a lot of background about why the O.P. is asking the question, or what level of information is being sought. When that information is absent, I tend to shy away from migrating, figuring that we'll let the O.P. ask where they are most comfortable asking, so long as the question is not blatently off-topic.


One footnote: I don't have any problem with someone leaving a comment making a newer user aware of other pertinent Stack Exchange sites. However, before suggesting migration, it's a good idea to visit the help center of the related site, and see how well the question would fit over there. In the case of math.SE, their help center says the site welcomes questions about:

  • Understanding mathematical concepts and theorems
  • Hints on mathematical problems
  • History and development of mathematics
  • Solving mathematical puzzles
  • Software that mathematicians use

There's nothing in that list about pronouncing equations in English, so I think it's just as likely a regular at math.SE would suggest the question be migrated to one of the English forums. We want to be careful not to send a user on a wild goose chase, especially when there's a chance that this may ultimately be the best place to ask the question.

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    Related meta discussion: meta.math.stackexchange.com/q/19103 – snailplane May 23 '15 at 6:36
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    @snailboat I think it's OK to have overlapping topics. Ask here, and you get an answer for people learning English—with stuff like explanations of the relevant grammatical principles, or how the mathematical convention is different from the usual grammar. Ask there, and you get an answer focused on the math. BTW, notice that many of math.SE's reading-aloud questions concern unusual notations (beyond elementary algebra and calculus, anyway). For example, this is one that would be unlikely on ELL. If that were asked here, we should probably migrate it. – Ben Kovitz May 24 '15 at 23:25

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