Of numbers and numerals and the usage of ‘will’ and ‘would’


AS a yearender English grammar lesson, I’m sharing my answers to these three interesting questions asked in Jose Carillo’s English Forum by member Justine Aragones:

1. Is the use of “maths” instead of “mathematics” grammatically acceptable in “Maths is an essential tool for success”?

2. How does “numeral” differ from “number”? When do we need to use them in a sentence?

3. When a title begins with the preposition “of” as in “Of Mathematics,” “Of Studies,” or “Of Mice and Men,” what does it want to tell the readers?

My thoughts on Justine’s three questions:

1. The word “maths” for mathematics is chiefly British usage, so it’s not only grammatically acceptable but also semantically airtight for, say, a UK career guidance counselor to tell you that “Maths is an essential tool for success” even if the logic of that advice may not be entirely defensible. But if the counselor saying that is a certified American from the continental US, or perhaps a Filipino math major who took advanced studies there, you can be 99.99% sure that that usage of “maths” is a mere affectation or just a lingering side effect of watching too many movies about British school life.

Just keep in mind that in American English, the standard used in the Philippines, the undisputed usage is the whole word “mathematics” or the abbreviated “math” (no suffix “-s,” no period).

2. A number is an abstract count of things or an imaginary representation of how many there are of those things, while a numeral is the way people express that number—that count—in writing. For instance, a count of five things can be expressed as “5” in the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, as “V” in the Roman numeral system, as “0101” in the binary numeral system, and as “lima” in the Tagalog language.

For an adequately broad intercultural context for the usage of “number” and “numeral,” here’s an excerpt from an old essay of mine, “The Tree of Life” (http://tinyurl.com/ksqcjcv): “…I simply cannot conceive of the modern computer built from Chinese script or from the Roman numeral system, with which no stable building taller than the Roman Coliseum could be built because the system simply could not multiply and divide numbers properly.”

3. One of the denotations of the preposition “of” is “relating to” or “about.” This is the sense when “of” is used as lead word in the titles Of Mathematics, Of Studies, and Of Mice and Men. By some literary alchemy, using “of” instead of “relating to” or “about” makes such titles more engaging and momentous. How drab and commonplace those titles would sound if phrased instead as Relating to Mathematics, Relating to Studies, or About Mice and Men! Indeed, in literary prose, the choice of preposition can sometimes make a big world of difference in reader interest and readability.

* * *

Here’s another interesting question, this time from Forum member Baklis:

“Which usage is correct: ‘Will you marry me?’ or ‘Would you marry me?’ ”?

My reply to Baklis:

The choice between the modals “will” and “would” depends on the level of confidence and trust between speaker and listener and on their relative social stations, age, or rank. When confidence and trust is high between social coequals, the default usage is “will”; in contrast, when the person being addressed is higher in social or organizational rank or significantly older than the speaker, the most socially appropriate usage is “would.”

Now, in a marriage proposal, the interaction is presumably between male and female coequals whose confidence and trust in each other is high, so the normative usage is “will”: “Gemma, will you marry me?” It’s an unduly fearful, timorous suitor who’d ask, “Gemma, would you marry me?” If he does and Gemma accepts, she likely welcomes the prospect of having a henpecked husband.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.



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