The Writing Center

The Mathematics of Writing

by Anthony


If you’re reading this article, then it means you want to actively improve your writing, which likely means that writing is not your primary field, interest, or occupation. Luckily, we are going to explore a way of looking at writing that you may never have considered before and which may apply more directly to your field, interests, or occupation. If you struggle with thinking in terms of language and words, then keep reading to see how you can apply other ways of thinking to language/grammar/writing in general. There is always more than one way!


In this particular article, we look at writing in terms of numbers and mathematics. This is a strange concept for most people, but after you get the general idea, you can mold this to fit your own understanding of writing and mathematics—especially if your understanding of mathematics is more advanced than mine, which it likely is. This is not meant to be prescriptive or an end-all be-all for matching writing with mathematics. Rather, this is just one unusual, creative way to look at the two together. That said, let’s go over some basic writing principles and see how we can parallel them with mathematics.


As always, you want to follow the rules of proper English grammar (assuming that is the language you’re writing in). In a way, this is similar to solving an equation. If you have the equation “3y + 4 = 10”, then as a mathematician you know the variable, y, must be 2 because (3x2) + 4 = 10. For me, grammar is oddly similar. If we know what we’re trying to say (for example, “Liliana’s hair was as dark as obsidian”), then we know we need certain parts of speech (i.e., certain words or parts of the sentence) to make the grammar make sense and to make the sentence say what we want. In other words, we need certain components of this word-equation to make it equal the solution we want. In this case, we need: A subject (Liliana), a verb (was), a couple prepositions (as), an adjective (black), and an object (obsidian) to compare the subject to.


What if we were missing one of these parts of speech (or components of the equation), such as the verb? The sentence would be: “Liliana’s hair as dark as obsidian.” This doesn’t sound terrible, but it’s missing a key component of a complete sentence—the verb! It would almost be like rewriting our original equation (“3y + 4 = 10”) to something totally different and impossible to solve, such as “3y + 9 = 10” (for you mathematicians, y could be .3 repeating, but then we would have .9 repeating, which is not quite equal to 1). In this new equation, it doesn’t matter what the variable y is because, no matter what it is, the equation will not come out to equal exactly 10. We will never be able to say exactly what we want (“Liliana’s hair was as dark as obsidian”) if we don’t write out the components of the equation (i.e., use the grammar) properly. Think about that for a second: Changing a component of your equation, whether in writing or in mathematics, will alter the outcome (or the solution).


What if we removed some other part of speech, such as the preposition? Again, we would have something totally different: “Liliana’s hair was dark obsidian.” That’s actually really cool! Instead of a simile (comparing two things using the words “like” or “as”), we have a stunning metaphor. Grammatically, this works—but logically, the sentence says something different, so the solution to the equation would be different. If we compare this to our original equation, then you can think of it looking something like “3y + 4 = 19” rather than “3y + 4 = 10”. What we’re trying to say (i.e., the solution to our equation) is different, so the components of our equation have to change. In this case, the variable y would logically be 5 rather than 2—because (3x5) + 4 = 19. And all of that happens just by removing the prepositions!


Again, the examples provided in this article are not all-inclusive or even generally accepted among the writing community—they are the author’s own ideas, and they stem more from his personal experiences and thought processes than anything else. If none of this makes sense, then perhaps you tend more toward language and various forms of learning other than mathematics and abstraction. That’s fine! If this article did make sense to you, then try to find your own way(s) of thinking about writing in terms of mathematics. As stated earlier, there is always more than one way to think constructively about writing!

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