Mathematical notation

Mathematical notation consists of using symbols for representing operations, unspecified numbers, relations and any other mathematical objects, and assembling them into expressions and formulas. Mathematical notation is widely used in mathematics, science, and engineering for representing complex concepts and properties in a concise, unambiguous and accurate way.

For example, Einstein's equation is the quantitative representation in mathematical notation of the mass–energy equivalence.

Mathematical notation was first introduced by François Viète at the end of the 16th century, and largely expanded during the 17th and 18th century by René Descartes, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and overall Leonhard Euler.


The use of many symbols is the basis of mathematical notation. They play a similar role as words in natural languages. They may play different roles in mathematical notation similarly as verbs, adjective and nouns play different roles in a sentence.

Letters as symbolsEdit

Letters are typically used for naming—in mathematical jargon, one says representingmathematical objects. This is typically the Latin and Greek alphabets that are used, but some letters of Hebrew alphabet   are sometimes used. Uppercase and lowercase letters are considered as different symbols. For Latin alphabet, different typefaces provide also different symbols. For example,   and   could theoretically appear in the same mathematical text with six different meanings. Normally, roman upright typeface is not used for symbols, except for symbols that are formed of several letters, such as the symbol " " of the sine function.

In order to have more symbols, and for allowing related mathematical objects to be represented by related symbols, diacritics, subscripts and superscripts are often used. For example,   may denote the Fourier transform of the derivative of a function called  

Other symbolsEdit

Symbols are not only used for naming mathematical objects. They can be used for operations   for relations   for logical connectives   for quantifiers   and for other purposes.

Some symbols are similar to Latin or Greek letters, some are obtained by deforming letters, some are traditional typographic symbols, but many have been specially designed for mathematics.


An expression is a finite combination of symbols that is well-formed according to rules that depend on the context. In general, an expression denotes or names a mathematical object, and plays therefore in the language of mathematics the role of a noun phrase in the natural language.

An expression contains often some operators, and may therefore be evaluated by the action of the operators in it. For example,   is an expression in which the operator   can be evaluated for giving the result   So,   and   are two different expressions that represent the same number. This is the meaning of the equality  

A more complicated example is given by the expression  that can be evaluated to   Although the resulting expression contains the operators of division, subtraction and exponentiation, it cannot be evaluated further because a and b denote unspecified numbers.



It is believed that a notation to represent numbers was first developed at least 50,000 years ago[1]—early mathematical ideas such as finger counting[2] have also been represented by collections of rocks, sticks, bone, clay, stone, wood carvings, and knotted ropes. The tally stick is a way of counting dating back to the Upper Paleolithic. Perhaps the oldest known mathematical texts are those of ancient Sumer. The Census Quipu of the Andes and the Ishango Bone from Africa both used the tally mark method of accounting for numerical concepts.

The concept of zero and the introduction of a notation for it are important developments in early mathematics, which predates for centuries the concept of zero as a number. It was used as a placeholder by the Babylonians and Greek Egyptians, and then as an integer by the Mayans, Indians and Arabs (see the history of zero).

Modern notationEdit

Until the 16th century, mathematics was essentially rhetorical, in the sense that everything but explicit numbers was expressed in words. However, some authors such as Diophantus used some symbols as abbreviations.

The first systematic use of formulas, and, in particular the use of symbols (variables) for unspecified numbers is generally attributed to François Viète (16th century). However, he used different symbols than those that are now standard.

Later, René Descartes (17th century) introduced the modern notation for variables and equations; in particular, the use of   for unknown quantities and   for known ones (constants). He introduced also the notation i and the term "imaginary" for the imaginary unit.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the standardization of mathematical notation as used today. Leonhard Euler was responsible for many of the notations currently in use: the functional notation   e for the base of the natural logarithm,   for summation, etc. He also popularized the use of π for the Archimedes constant (proposed by William Jones, based on an earlier notation of William Oughtred).

Since then many new notations have been introduced, often specific to a particular area of mathematics. Some notations are named after their inventors, such as Leibniz's notation, Legendre symbol, Einstein's summation convention, etc.


General typesetting systems are generally not well-suited for mathematical notation. One of the reasons is that, in mathematical notation, the symbols are often arranged in two dimensional figures such as in


TeX is a mathematically oriented typesetting system that was created in 1978 by Donald Knuth. It is widely used in mathematics, through its extension called LaTeX, and is a de facto standard. (The above expression is written in LaTeX.)

More recently, another approach for mathematical typesetting is provided by MathML. However, it is not well-supported in web browsers, which is its primary target.

An unusual display of π allowed by TeX (European style, with a comma as a decimal separator)

Non-Latin-based mathematical notationEdit

Modern Arabic mathematical notation is based mostly on the Arabic alphabet and is used widely in the Arab world, especially in pre-tertiary education.

(Western notation uses Arabic numerals, but the Arabic notation also replaces Latin letters and related symbols with Arabic script.)

In addition to Arabic notation, mathematics also makes use of Greek alphabets to denote a wide variety of mathematical objects and variables. In some occasions, certain Hebrew alphabets are also used (such as in the context of infinite cardinals).

Some mathematical notations are mostly diagrammatic, and so are almost entirely script independent. Examples are Penrose graphical notation and Coxeter–Dynkin diagrams.

Braille-based mathematical notations used by blind people include Nemeth Braille and GS8 Braille.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ An Introduction to the History of Mathematics (6th Edition) by Howard Eves (1990) p.9
  2. ^ Georges Ifrah notes that humans learned to count on their hands. Ifrah shows, for example, a picture of Boethius (who lived 480–524 or 525) reckoning on his fingers in Ifrah 2000, p. 48.


  • Florian Cajori, A History of Mathematical Notations (1929), 2 volumes. ISBN 0-486-67766-4
  • Ifrah, Georges (2000), The Universal History of Numbers: From prehistory to the invention of the computer., John Wiley and Sons, p. 48, ISBN 0-471-39340-1. Translated from the French by David Bellos, E.F. Harding, Sophie Wood and Ian Monk. Ifrah supports his thesis by quoting idiomatic phrases from languages across the entire world.
  • Mazur, Joseph (2014), Enlightening Symbols: A Short History of Mathematical Notation and Its Hidden Powers. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-15463-3

External linksEdit