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“minus” and “negative”

December 24th, 2008


In the past I have commented on the QI forums that the difference between “negative” and “minus” was a good one and worth keeping*. I didn’t mean it to come across as self-congratulatory psuedo-intellectualism, though I’m aware that this is how it might have come across.

Listening to Stephen Fry’s ‘podgram’ on language, it appears that Mr Fry does not agree that pointing out the difference between “less” and “fewer” is worthwhile. To him, sadly, I am a pedant, attempting to impose a sort of lingustic-conservativism on the world.

Frustratingly, I agree with the majority of what Mr Fry discusses in his podgram; which is that language is a rapidly changing thing, and that what is aberrant in one generation will become established in another. Obliquely he suggests that language is ‘evolving’ though I am scared off that word having read John Gray‘s Straw Dogs, and I think rightly so. The problem with calling something ‘evolving’ is that it somehow implies progress, and I do not think that this is the case for language all of the time.

My reason for believing that “minus” and “negative” should be more clearly demarcated in language is really for its utility in mathematics classrooms, and it is there where I believe the demarcation should be expressed and preserved. There are two separate concepts here: one an operation over two numbers to express (as a directed number) the difference between the two numbers; the other to express the direction of a number, ie whether postive or negative. They are difficult ideas, to be teased out. We tease them out poorly, and need to improve. They would be teased out more successfully if their use wasn’t so interchangeable.

If I am right, then the interchangability of “minus 5” and “negative 5” should not be considered part of the great evolution of language. Wittgenstein is right to an extent, when he claimed that the limits of my language are the limits of my world, and if I lose the ability to use two words for two separate concepts, I lose the ability to differentiate the concepts.

I do not wish to be a pedant, but I think that linguistic conservativism is the bathwater to a good many conceptual babies whose protection is worthwhile.