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Following the closure of my question here, I would like to know in what cases asking questions about how to read mathematical notation aloud are off-topic.

In the comments to my question, I mentioned several other questions about similar topics, but which received different treatment. For example, consider the question How can I read this mathematical sentence aloud in English?

I believe that the fact I asked a question about Russian, rather than English, may have led to this outcome. For example, if I had asked, "Does one say $(n+1)$st or $(n+1)$th?" I believe the fact that the question has a mathematical component to it would have been recognized, in that it is related to the practice of mathematics. It is hard to believe that questions specifically about the language used in mathematics can be off-topic.

EDIT: Here is another example that is no less (or more) tangentially related to mathematics than was my question. How is $e^x$ read aloud?

EDIT: Here are some more examples that could just as easily be argued to be about language.

How does one pronounce $a \odot b$?

How to pronounce "tableaux"?

How do you pronounce (partial) derivatives?

How do you pronounce the inverse of the $\in$ relation? How do you say $G\ni x$?

Pronouncing $A\triangle B$

How would I pronounce the symbol $[E:F]$?

How to pronounce the partition relation

How is "Hessian" pronounced?

How do you pronounce $\mathbb{R}^2, \dots, \mathbb{R}^n$

how do you read: "$\lim (n-1)/(n-2) = 1$"

How do you read the symbol "$\in$"?

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think questions asked 4,5 years ago (when Math.SE was basically just created) really count as precedent. $\endgroup$ – Grigory M Jan 5 '15 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ The other two I linked to were from 2014. I see they've just been voted down. $\endgroup$ – user204305 Jan 5 '15 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ Here is another question about how language is used in mathematics (though not specifically about formulas). math.stackexchange.com/questions/365280/… $\endgroup$ – user204305 Jan 5 '15 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ Points to consider: this website is in English, a significant percentage of users are English speakers, and almost every mathematician alive needs to at least read English. The same can't really be said for Russian. It's unfortunate and a bit unfair, but you will probably have better luck on the Russian SE site russian.stackexchange.com. As for my personal opinion, I think your question and all the questions you linked are off-topic (no amount of mathematical expertise will make you able to answer these question, which is what this website should be about). $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jan 5 '15 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ As for your last link, IMHO Michael's question about (proof-writing) is much more mathematical then any of questions about reading sentences aloud. $\endgroup$ – Grigory M Jan 5 '15 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi I don't consider that conclusive or relevant. There are many questions on this site that are addressed only to a subset of readers. I think the likelihood of getting an accurate answer on this site is higher than on the Russian one. This would be even more true if the mathematics were more advanced, in which case it would be hopeless to ask it on a language site. And yes, it is about mathematical expertise, in the sense that you must be familiar with the way mathematics is practiced. Only someone who has listened to a lot of mathematics can reliably answer these questions. $\endgroup$ – user204305 Jan 5 '15 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ I'm sympathetic to your problem, but you have to be realistic... Your question has already been put on-hold, so the likelihood of getting an answer has been drastically reduced. It's also not guaranteed at all that one of the few users who speak Russian (I don't have statistics, but I don't think the number is extremely high) will see it. On the other hand, on Russian.SE you will have much better chances to get an answer; it's not unlikely that the people who can answer your question also frequent it (as an example, I go on French.SE often)... $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jan 5 '15 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ Personally, I do not think math.SE should be a site to simply ask maths questions. Rather, it is a site to ask mathematical questions. It is the difference between an undergrad and a postgrad - a undergrad wants help with the maths, while a postgrad wants help with being a mathematician. Questions about finding papers or wondering how to "plan" a long proof. Cont... $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jan 5 '15 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ ...inued I believe that your style of question fits the latter category - it is a question that is best answered by a mathematician, and it is an important question (in the sense that being good at communicating your mathematics is almost as important as the actual mathematics!). The only issue is that it is not about English. So, personally, I do not know what I feel about it. However, I believe that the Russian/English issue is the only issue. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jan 5 '15 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ As for on-topic-ness, I hope you can see the difference between "How to prove this series is convergent?" and "How do I spell this sentence that contains mathematics?". One is purely mathematical in nature, in the other mathematics relevance is more tangential than anything... $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jan 5 '15 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ I see the difference between those. However, many questions on this site are not specifically about a mathematical question, but are nonetheless accepted because it is clear mathematicians are the people in the best position to answer them. Some, like mine, are rejected for seemingly arbitrary reasons. I do not accept your assertion that I would be more likely to get an answer on the Russian SE, particularly if the mathematics were more advanced. $\endgroup$ – user204305 Jan 5 '15 at 10:26
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    $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi How do you square your last comment, about things being only tangentially related to mathematics, with your support for this question: math.stackexchange.com/questions/760185/… "@people who closed: The fact that there exists a tag "pronunciation" with upvoted, non-closed questions lets me think that this question is on-topic." Surely that is even more tangential than what I was asking, wouldn't you say? $\endgroup$ – user204305 Jan 5 '15 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ @user204305 Maybe my views on the subject changed in the past eight months? Between then and now, I've realized that there is just too much volume on MSE to be inclusive of everything and anything. See this for example. But seriously, did you go looking in my history to find a contradicting comment...? $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Jan 6 '15 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ No, I was looking through things tagged pronunciation or that came up as related. But since you comment on a lot of things, it's not surprising that your name came up. I was surprised though to see you defending a diametrically opposite, and even more extreme position than I am. $\endgroup$ – user204305 Jan 6 '15 at 8:28
  • $\begingroup$ My question is also about pronunciation, so it could be added to the list of pronunciation questions: math.stackexchange.com/q/1330159/116238 . Because of your question and the answer below, I feel mine should be reopened. $\endgroup$ – Erik Dec 21 '15 at 21:20
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Since nobody else has given this answer, I will put it here.

Questions about mathematical symbols, terms and expressions are on-topic (subject of course to general restrictions such as being clear, etc.) This includes questions about how to read a formula aloud. This is consistent with the examples listed in the OP, which show a high degree of tolerance for these questions in practice.

Questions about how to read a formula aloud are not really any more about language than if a person asks how to write something. (E.g., "What symbol do you use here?") The difference is that it is a question about the spoken language of mathematics rather than the written one, and the spoken one is less commonly asked about.

A question about how to read a formula aloud is not by its nature primarily opinion-based. It may simply be asking for the most common ways of saying something, rather than a qualitative judgment about which ways are best. Most such questions will be asking for an answer that reports a factual situation. For example, just as I can ask "What written symbols are in use to denote proper inclusion of sets?" I can also ask "How do you read them?" Neither question is more opinion-based than the other, neither one more or less about mathematics. While there may be a higher degree of variation in spoken usage than written, that does not place the spoken language of mathematics outside the realm of objective discourse.

For cases where there is potentially a higher degree of subjectivity involved, such as where someone asks what's best, I won't take a position, as it can be argued that an answer could still be formulated in such a way as to be based on facts. (For example, "Knuth wrote that it's better to say it this way.") But that is not what this question is mainly about.

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    $\begingroup$ Nicely expressed; I'm in whole-hearted agreement. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jan 6 '15 at 17:17
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I would like to add that the ability to communicate is as important to the field of mathematics as the ability to perform technically. How many of us have had students mired in a notational morass, essentially trying to outsmart themselves? How many of us have had problems asking a question because we didn't know the right vocabulary to use? Indeed, the history of math is riddled with examples where specialists in one field held the solution to a problem that specialists in another field sought, but it was years before this was realized, simply because the two fields did not speak a common mathematical language!

Mathematical communication is not only written, but spoken. We give or attend lectures, we sit or present seminars and colloquia, and so forth. To say that asking about proper ways to speak (or write) about math is not a mathematical question simply because the question could belong to a different domain is, in my opinion, a silly notion.

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    $\begingroup$ (Re: 'history of math is riddled with examples (...) simply because the two fields did not speak a common mathematical language' etc) — a very nice speech indeed. But quite unrelated to questions about pronunciation... $\endgroup$ – Grigory M Jan 6 '15 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ @GrigoryM Probably true in today's era, but let us not forget that notation was not always standardized, and the way you read math aloud could have very well been done in a way so as to leave the listener completely at a loss. I recall vaguely at least one story about a mathematician whose ideas were quite advanced for his time, but due partly to his lack of access to formal education and his non-traditional presentation, he was taken for a fool. For the life of me I cannot remember who it was. $\endgroup$ – Emily Jan 6 '15 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ Who hasn't winced at an undergrad talking about "Ooooooler"? $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jan 7 '15 at 9:36
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    $\begingroup$ @user1729: More often 'Youler' in my experience. And let's not forget 'Coutchy'! $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jan 9 '15 at 19:56
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user204305: many questions on this site are not specifically about a mathematical question, but are nonetheless accepted because it is clear mathematicians are the people in the best position to answer them

I strongly disagree with POV that any questions for which 'mathematicians are the people in the best position to answer them' are (or should be) on-topic on Math.SE.

Some of such questions should be posted, say, on Academia.SE or MathEducators.SE. Some questions (like... say, questions about best chalk to use) are on-topic on none of SE sites.

But Math.SE is for mathematical questions (not 'questions that mathematicians have' — cf. SO vs Programmers.SE) that can be answered (not just discussed). (Admittedly sometimes there are exceptions — and certainly there are oversights — I have voted to close some of the questions you've mentioned.)

Your question is both not a mathematical question and doesn't have a precise answer (all variants of reading you list are used in real life, choosing between them is a matter of style).


P.S. Dear user204305, indeed for some reason I've assumed you to be a native speaker [of Russian]. While finding answer to your question is easy for a native speaker living in Russia it might be quite hard otherwise. Yet — no offence meant but — I still believe such questions to be off-topic here on Math.SE

So... I've tried to answer that particular question in comments — but if it's not quite answered your question or you need to ask something else about mathematical Russian — please feel free to write me an email — or maybe better yet write a post on Russian.SE and send me a link — I'll try to answer (obligatory disclaimer: I'm not an expert — just a native speaker of Russian with some mathematical background).

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  • $\begingroup$ So why is "How do you read $e^x$?" a mathematical question, but not "How do you read $= 2n$"? The former question also had many valid answers. $\endgroup$ – user204305 Jan 5 '15 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ P.S. The other question of yours despite also being about reading math. formulas can, IMHO, stay open. $\endgroup$ – Grigory M Jan 5 '15 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ @user204305 I have voted to close 'how do you read $e^x$' $\endgroup$ – Grigory M Jan 5 '15 at 12:34
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    $\begingroup$ This kind of approach seems more concerned with having a rule to enforce than having Math SE be a place where questions of interest to mathematicians can be asked and answered. $\endgroup$ – user204305 Jan 5 '15 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, since its creation Math.SE have not been intended to be a general forum for mathematicians — the whole point of SE model is in being much more focused. $\endgroup$ – Grigory M Jan 5 '15 at 12:40
  • $\begingroup$ My question was much more capable of receiving a direct, objective answer than many on this site. The answer you gave was in fact entirely satisfactory, and it took two lines. $\endgroup$ – user204305 Jan 5 '15 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ Also, I'd like to clarify that Russian is not my native language. So before asking the question I had no way of knowing that I was listing variants that differ only as a matter of style, rather than, say, one thing that was possible and the other impossible. Answering that both were common was a perfectly acceptable and objective answer to my question. Furthermore, how do you distinguish this from a request for a good book on some topic, which seems even more opinion-based? $\endgroup$ – user204305 Jan 5 '15 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ Related to your chalk comment: Where to buy premium white chalk in the U.S., like they have at RIMS?. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jan 5 '15 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ @user1729 there are various similar questions that got closed on MO (true, also some more that are open). It was amply discussed here that exceptions are possible for any number of reasons (and MO is big on that), yet this does not imply then an exception needs to be made all the time. $\endgroup$ – quid Jan 6 '15 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ @quid Indeed, and I was not trying to refute the comment. The link was meant to be humorous, not serious. Of course asking "what is the best type of chalk?" is a poor question (as everyone knows the answer is Crayola!), and the example I link to is too old for precedent (May 2010). Perhaps, however, my comment was serious in the sense that it is possible to ask a decent (subjective!) question on a seemingly silly subject. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jan 6 '15 at 11:27
  • $\begingroup$ @user1729 thank you for the clarification. But, one more point as this is not the first time this comes up, that posts contains more than one question. And, the question/fact that made this work is not at all subjective. Namely, it is the question paraphrased "What is this chalk used at RIMS?" $\endgroup$ – quid Jan 6 '15 at 11:32
  • $\begingroup$ @quid I was meaning whether a question is good or not is subjective, not that any question (specific or otherwise) is subjective. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jan 6 '15 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ @user1729 sorry, I read this completely the wrong way then. $\endgroup$ – quid Jan 6 '15 at 11:47
  • $\begingroup$ @GrigoryM Спасибо за предложение и за вашу помощь. Все-таки надеюсь, что в будущем не будет так трудно получить ответы на сравнительно простые вопросы на этом сайте. Я читаю математические тексты на русском языке и не умею читать только уравнения. У меня будут возникать похожие вопросы и про немецкий язык. $\endgroup$ – user204305 Jan 6 '15 at 20:07

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