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1 + 1 = A Window... On the Polysemy of symbols



This paper illustrates how mathematical symbols can have different, but related, meanings depending on the context in which they are used. In other words, it illustrates how mathematical symbols are polysemous. In particular, it explores how even basic symbols, such as ‘+’ and ‘1’, may carry with them meaning in ‘new’ contexts that is inconsistent with their use in ‘familiar’ contexts. This article illustrates that knowledge of mathematics includes learning a meaning of a symbol, learning more than one meaning, and learning how to choose the contextually supported meaning of that symbol.
Ami Mamolo, Ph.D.
Tie a tie
Milk for milk
In mathematics, a word may be polysemous if its
mathematical meaning is different from its everyday,
familiar meaning (Durkin and Shire, 1991), or if it has
two related, but different, mathematical meanings
(Zazkis, 1998).
E.g., Continuity, function
E.g, Quotient, divisor
Tie a tie
Milk for milk
In a mathematical discourse, symbols such as +, =, and
1, may also be considered ‘words’
Gray and Tall (1994) advocated for flexible
interpretation of symbols such as 5+4 as processes or
concepts, i.e. procepts.
“This ambiguous use of symbolism is at the root of
powerful mathematical thinking” (p.125).
Byers (2007) suggested ambiguity in mathematics is
“an essential characteristic of the conceptual
development of the subject” and “opens the door to
new ideas, new insights, deeper understanding” (p.78).
Durkin and Shire (1991) suggested that enriched
learning may ensue from monitoring, confronting and
exploiting to advantage’ ambiguity
A flexible interpretation of a symbol can go beyond
process-concept duality to include other ambiguities
relating to the diverse meanings of that symbol, which
in turn may also be the source of powerful
mathematical thinking and learning.
This presentation will explore cases of ambiguity
connected to the context-dependent definitions of
symbols, that is, the polysemy of symbols. Specifically,
polysemy of ‘+’
Meaning in context of natural
Cardinality of a set containing a
single element
Cardinality of a set containing exactly
two elements
Cardinality of the union set
Binary operation over the set of
natural numbers
Building on the idea of addition as a domain-dependent
binary operation, there are cases where extended meanings
of ‘a + b’ contribute to results that are inconsistent with the
Modular arithmetic with base 3
+3as addition over the set {0, 1, 2}
Transfinite arithmetic
+as addition over the class of cardinal numbers
The symbol +Nwill be used to represent addition over the set
of natural numbers, +Zas addition over the set of integers
Symbol Meaning in context of Z3
Congruence class of 1 modulo 3:
-5, -2, 1, 4, 7, …}
Congruence class of 2 modulo 3:
-4, -1, 2, 5, 8,…}
Congruence class of (1+2) modulo 3:
-3, 0, 3, …}
Binary operation over set {0, 1, 2};
addition modulo 3
Dummit and Foote (1999) define the sum of
congruence classes by outlining its computation:
1+2 (modulo 3), is computed by taking any
representative integer in the set {… -5, -2, 1, 4, 7, …} and
any representative integer in the set {… -4, -1, 2, 5, 8,…},
and summing them in the ‘usual integer way’.
E.g. 1 +
= (1 +
Z2) modulo 3
= (1 +
Z5) modulo 3
= (
-2 +Z -1) modulo 3
As with words, the extended meaning of a symbol can
be interpreted as a metaphoric use of the symbol, and
thus may evoke prior knowledge or experience that is
incompatible with the broadened use.
Pimm (1987) notes that “the required mental shifts
involved [in extending meaning] can be extreme, and
are often accompanied by great distress, particularly if
pupils are unaware that the difficulties they are
experiencing are not an inherent problem with the
idea itself” (p.107) but instead are a consequence of
inappropriately carrying over meaning.
Transfinite arithmetic may be thought of as an
extension of natural number arithmetic
its addends represent cardinalities of finite or infinite
a sum is defined as the cardinality of the union of two
disjoint sets
Transfinite arithmetic poses many challenges for
learners, not the least of which involves appreciating
the idea of ‘infinity’ in terms of cardinalities of sets
(i.e. the transfinite numbers 0, 1, 2, …).
In resonance with Pimm’s (1987) observation regarding
negative and complex numbers, the concept of a transfinite
number “involves a metaphoric broadening of the notion
of number itself” (p.107).
A generic example: the sum 0+ 1
It’s the cardinality associated with the union set N{β},
where β is not in N.
The addends are elements of the (generalised) class of
cardinals, which includes transfinite cardinals.
Between the sets N{β} and N there exists a bijection, which,
in line with the definition (Cantor, 1915), guarantees that the
two sets have the same cardinality that is, 0+ 1 = 0.
Meaning in context of transfinite
Cardinality of the set with a single
element; class element
Cardinality of
N; transfinite number;
1 + 0
of the set Nβ; equal to 0
Binary operation over the class of
transfinite numbers
0= 0+ υ, for any υ N, and 0+ 0= 0.
Whereas with ‘+Nadding two numbers always results
in a new (distinct) number, with ‘+there exist non-
unique sums.
A consequence: indeterminate differences.
Since 0= 0+ υ, for any υ , then 0-0has no unique
The familiar notion that ‘anything minus itself is zero
does not extend to transfinite subtraction.
Mason, Kniseley, and Kendall in research on literacy
suggest that knowledge of language includes “learning
a meaning of a word, learning more than one
meaning, and learning how to choose the contextually
supported meaning” (1979, p.64).
Similarly, knowledge of mathematics includes
learning a meaning of a symbol,
learning more than one meaning, and
learning how to choose the contextually supported
meaning of that symbol.
Mason et al. (1979) suggest students “will choose a
common meaning [of a word], violating the context,
when they know one meaning very well” (p.63).
To what degree do analogous observations apply as
students begin to learn ‘+’ in new contexts?
Attending to the polysemy of symbols, as a learner, for
a learner, or as a researcher, may expose confusion or
inappropriate associations that could otherwise go
Echoing Pimms (1987) advice :
“If … certain conceptual extensions in mathematics [are]
not made abundantly clear to pupils, then specific
meanings and observations about the original setting,
whether intuitive or consciously formulated, will be
carried over to the new setting where they are often
inappropriate or incorrect” (p.107).
How to tease out influence of polysemy on student
Could explicit attention help avoid difficulties?
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