Today, I've edited the question in this thread, and apparently I did wrong. The question was asking to "solve an (indefinite) integral", which I replaced by "compute an (indefinite) integral". Obviously some people did not agree with that, to begin with the OP.

Disclaimer: I'm not a native English speaker, so by no means I feel like I can have any authority in this matter. So I am seeking advice and insight from experienced people. Also, I did not post this question on ELL.SE because it is clearly context dependent. And the context is mathematics.

My reason: in French, absolutely nobody would say "solve an integral". People most often use "compute", and about as often "evaluate". Moreover, I've already seen someone edit a question in this direction here on MSE. So I concluded, apparently too fast, that it was the same in English and that it was ok to edit.

Question: so typically, copying/pasting from a well-established French usage, I compute or evaluate an integral/derivative/limit, while I solve a question/problem/equation. What is the correct English usage? Thank you very much in advance for your input.

Statistics: a Google search returns the following number of links

1- solve integrals: 36 500 000.

2- compute integrals: 94 800 000.

3- evaluate integrals: 17 700 000.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm sure Michael Hardy here has a few choice words on this matter... $\endgroup$ – J. M. ain't a mathematician Apr 11 '13 at 3:05
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    $\begingroup$ @J.M. I keep waiting for Michael Hardy's input... $\endgroup$ – Julien Apr 13 '13 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ I could see "calculate integral" as being another common usage. $\endgroup$ – Todd Wilcox Apr 17 '13 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ @ToddWilcox Oh, yes. That's a good one. I don't know why I did not mention it... $\endgroup$ – Julien Apr 17 '13 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ As a minor aside, "compute" and especially "calculate" have (to me, as a native speaker) a connotation that suggests a definite integral, while "solve" suggests finding an antiderivative. $\endgroup$ – camccann Apr 22 '13 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ @camccann Interesting, thanks. $\endgroup$ – Julien Apr 22 '13 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ @julien: Now that I think about it, though, that may just be a reflection of my computer science background and a tendency to see numerical vs. symbolic evaluation as very different things. :] $\endgroup$ – camccann Apr 22 '13 at 15:56

It sounds to me like the usages of these words in English and French are pretty similar. I think it's ungrammatical in English to say "Solve this integral," although it's something I'd expect students to say all the time and not something I'd ever bother correcting. But you certainly can say "Solve the following problem" if the problem consists of evaluating an integral. So it's also okay to say "How do I solve this?" since "this" could refer to the problem of computing the integral not the integral itself.

  • $\begingroup$ Ok, thanks. It was more the title I was aiming at. I agree the body was ok. I think the asker really means "solve this integral "when he/she writes: "solve $\int f(x)dx$". And I think that's actually what the OP had in mind. But I dont't think I will ever correct that again... $\endgroup$ – Julien Apr 11 '13 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ Well, I'd suggest to at least correct it if you are making other edits anyway ... $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 14 '13 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ Just another thought: if you want to be as polite as possible, always precede the words "solve", "compute", "evaluate", "show", "prove", "calculate", etc., with the words "how do I", to keep the verb from being imperative. E.g., "How do I solve this differential equation?" is much better than "Solve this differential equation." $\endgroup$ – Todd Wilcox Apr 17 '13 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ @ToddWilcox Right. Note that I have never asked a question in these commanding terms. If we want to start editing this kind of order questions, there is some work to do! $\endgroup$ – Julien Apr 17 '13 at 19:49

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