Mathematical English


You don’t have to love both math and English to appreciate mathematical English.

Though it may help if you at least like one or the other. 🙂

Mathematical English can be fun all on its own, but can also be helpful in a couple of ways:

  • Use it to help get math lovers interested in English.
  • Use it to help get language lovers interested in math.
  • Integrating math and English may help use both sides of the brain together—a valuable word problems skill.

Here are a few entertaining activities where mathematics and language intertwine:

(1) Victor Borge’s inflationary language: The concept here is to add one to any number used in ordinary speech or writing. For example, “forever” would become “fivever” and “tension” would become “elevension.” You can find video footage of this on YouTube, for example, or more information about Victor Borge at

Here are a few examples:

  • Twice upon a time, a big bad wolf nine four little pigs.
  • Five the life of me, I can’t understand three-halves of that lecture.
  • How ofeleven can two fiveget where two’s keys are?

(2) Mathematical word games combine math and English in a fun way.

Here are some examples:

  • Anagrams involve permuting letters to form new words, as in “listen” and “silent.”
  • In cryptograms, each letter is replaced by a different letter to make a secret code.
  • Scrabble assigns a numerical value to every letter and players try to form words from the letters to make the highest possible score.

Such games combine mathematical thinking or logic with language skills.

(3) Poetic verse that involves numbers:

  • William Shakespeare used iambic pentameter when writing plays or sonnets, which follow a mathematical pattern (rhythm).
  • Japanese Haiku is a short form of poetry following the mathematical pattern 5-7-5.

(4) Chemical words combine chemistry’s periodic table with word scrambles.

For example, the chemical word ThInK is composed of the symbols for thorium (Th), indium (In), and potassium (K).

Most words, like ‘quiz’ or ‘test,’ can’t be made just from symbols of the periodic table, but it turns out that there are thousands of chemical words.

My favorite chemical word is ScAtTeRbRaIn, which combines 6 elements that all have 2-letter symbols to make a 12-letter chemical word.

There is such a thing as a chemical anagram, too, as in VErBOSe and OBVErSe (but note that the word ‘obvserve,’ which is an anagram for ‘verbose’ and ‘obverse,’ isn’t a chemical word at all, as there is no way to make it end with -VE using symbols from the periodic table).

Some chemical words can also be made more than one way. For example, compare GeNiUS with GeNIUS—one has Nickel (Ni), the other has nitrogen (N) and iodine (I).

Here are a few chemical words that relate to math and science:

  • AlGeBRa
  • PHYSiCs
  • ThErMoDyNAmICs

A fun way to make chemical anagrams is with VErBAl ReAcTiONS (the name of this game is made of chemical words). That is, you put the ‘ingredients’ on one side of what looks like a chemical reaction and the chemical word on the other.

Here are a couple of VErBAl ReAcTiONS:

  • 2 C + N + 2 I + P → P I C N I C
  • 2 C + U + 2 S + Es → S U C C Es S

(If you like these puzzles, you might check out author Carolyn Kivett, my mom, who coauthored some puzzle books with me—she did most of the hard work.)

Chris McMullen, author of the Improve Your Math Fluency series of workbooks