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Ambiguously Defined Mathematical Termsat the High School Level

This page attempts to show some of the ambiguities in defining some of the mathematical termsthat might be encountered at the high school level. A number of these issues may seem quitetrivial, and some are the result of consulting out-of-date texts. But many of these issues have ledto disputed answers in mathematics competitions. Contributions and suggestions are welcome.

AMPLITUDE OF A CURVE.

Mathematics Dictionary

by Glenn James and Robert C. James(1949) defines

amplitude of a curve

as "the greatest numerical value of the ordinates of a periodic curve." However, the third edition of this dictionary (1968) has the definition "half thedifference between the greatest and the least values of the ordinates of a periodic curve." Themore recent definition seems generally to be in use today.

ARCSECANT AND ARCCOSECANT, RANGE OF.

Some textbooks give the range of theArcsecant function to be [0, ] except for /2. However, by defining Arcsec

x

to be Arccos (1/

x

),/2 can be included in the range.Other textbooks give the range of the Arcsecant function to be [0, /2) U [, 3/2).Some textbooks give the range of the Arccosecant function to be [-/2, 0) U (0, /2). However, by defining Arccsc

x

to be Arcsin (1/

x

), 0 can be included in the range.Other textbooks give the range of the Arccosecant function to be (0, /2] U (pi, 3/2].

B

ILLION, TRILLION, etc.

There are two systems for naming large numbers. For example, inthe American system a billion is 10

9

, whereas in a system formerly used in Britain, a billion is10

12

and a milliard is 10

9

.

CHARACTERISTIC AND MANTISSA.

These terms have less significance now thatlogarithmic tables are no longer used. Older textbooks would write the logarithm of 0.56 as.7482 - 1 and identify .7482 as the mantissa and -1 as the characteristic. Since nowadays acalculator gives the logarithm of 0.56 as -0.2518 and modern dictionaries define thecharacteristic and mantissa as the integer and decimal parts of a logarithm respectively, it wouldseem that a requirement to identify the characteristic or mantissa of the logarithm of a number between 0 and 1 is ambiguous.

CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT SERIES.

According to the third edition of

A

Treatise on

A

lgebra

(1892), an oscillating series is called "divergent by Cauchy, Bertrand, Laurent, andothers." In 1893 in

A

Treatise on the Theory of Functions,

James Harkness and Frank Morleywrite: "Strictly speaking, an oscillating series is distinct from a divergent series, but it is usual tospeak of non-convergent series as divergent." In 1898 in

Introduction to the theory of analytic functions

by Harkness and Morley a footnote says, "Most English text-books regard oscillatingseries as not divergent." The 1968 third edition of

Mathematics Dictionary

by James and James

defines a divergent series as: "A sequence which does not converge. It might either be properlydivergent, or oscillate ..." This seems to be a generally accepted definition today.

COUNTA

B

LE

has a mathematical definition that is very different from its meaning in other contexts. For example,

Integrated Mathematics,

2nd ed., Course I defines an infinite set as onewhose elements "cannot be counted." But in mathematics a countable set can be countablyinfinite.

CRITICAL POINT.

C

alculus and

A

nalytic Geometry

by Sherman K. Stein and AnthonyBarcellos (1992) defines a critical number as a number for which the derivative is zero, and thecritical point as the corresponding point, and has the following remark: "Some texts define acritical number as a number where the derivative is 0 or else is not defined. Since we emphasizedifferentiable functions, a critical number is a number where the derivative is 0." Some textbooksinclude endpoints as critical points. For example,

C

alculus

(1991) by Gilbert Strang has: "Themaximum always occurs at a stationary point (where df/dx=0) or a rough point (no derivative) or an endpoint of the domain. These are the three types of critical points. All maxima and minimaoccur at critical points!"

CURVATURE OF A FUNCTION.

According to Roman Arce, "Sometimes it's defined asequivalent of its second derivative and other times as the inverse of the radius of a circle that fitsthe curve (the osculating circle), the relation is 1/

R

=

f

'' (

x

)/(1+

f

' (

x

))

3/2

so the two definitions are proportional but not equal and some times it's used without specifying if they mean 1/

R

or

f

''(

x

)."

DEGENERATE CONIC SECTIONS.

The degenerate conic sections are normally consideredto be a point, a line, and a pair of lines. True or false: "

x

2

/

a

2

+

y

2

/

b

2

= 0 is an ellipse." It is a point, but it is also a degenerate ellipse.

Mathematics Dictionary

by James and James, both in the 1949and 1968 editions, calls this a

point ellipse.

Various web pages say that a degenerate ellipse is a circle or a parabola. Steve Wilson, Professor of Mathematics at Johnson County Community College, writes, "Personally, I could consider circles and parabolas as special or limiting cases, but not as degenerates."

DOMAIN OF A FUNCTION.

H

eath

A

lgebra 2

by Larson, Kanold, and Stiff (1998) says thedomain of

k

(

x

) = sqrt (

x

- 7) is all real numbers greater than or equal to 7. The book defines the

domain, or input, of a function

as "the

x

-values of a function

y

=

f

(

x

)." Is 0 in the domain of ?Steve Wilson, Professor of Mathematics at Johnson County Community College, writes,"Concerning domain, I would say that zero was not in the domain of . However, zerowould be in the domain of sqrt(

x

2

(

x

- 1) ), an almost equivalent function. I take this position because the domain of the product function

fg

should only be the intersection of the domain of

f

with the domain of

g

(e.g., see Larson & Hostetler's

C

ollege

A

lgebra,

2nd edition, 1989).Unfortunately, some newer textbooks will ignore the domain issue, but I didn't find any that tooka different view. I would be interested to know if any other textbook does differ."

IMAGINARY NUM

B

ER.

There are two modern meanings of the term

imaginary number.

In

Merriam-Webster's

C

ollegiate Dictionary,

10th ed., an imaginary number is a number of theform

a

+

bi

where

b

is not equal to 0. In

C

alculus and

A

nalytic Geometry

(1992) by Stein andBarcellos, "a complex number that lies on the

y

axis is called

imaginary.

"Steve Wilson, referring to the 1968 Third edition of

Mathematics Dictionary

by James andJames, writes:JJ3's discussion of imaginary numbers is interesting. Under complex numbers, they say "Anynumber, real or imaginary, of the form

a

+

bi

, where

a

and

b

are real numbers and

i

2

= -1. Calledimaginary numbers when

b

is not equal to 0, and pure imaginary when

a

= 0 and

b

is not equal to0 (although complex numbers are not imaginary in the usual sense)." If that parentheticalcomment had not been made, their position would have been clear. Most current college algebratexts appear to agree with JJ3, although some will avoid the term "imaginary number" altogether,and Gustafson & Frisk's "College Algebra", 8th ed., 2004, agrees with Stein & Barcellos.

IMAGINARY PART.

According to

Merriam-Webster's

C

ollegiate Dictionary,

11th ed., theimaginary part of 2 + 3

i

is 3

i.

However, according to the definition found on several web sites,the imaginary part is 3. Roman Arce points out that the function Im[] of Mathematica 3.0 gives3.

INCREASING/DECREASING FUNCTION.

In Stein and Barcellos (1992), "a function

f

issaid to be

increasing

if whenever

x

1

<

x

2

, one has

f

(

x

1

) <

f

(

x

2

)." The definition in Ellis and Gulick(1986) requires only that

f

(

x

1

) is less than or equal to

f

(

x

2

). The latter text used

strictly increasing

to describe the other situation.

INFLECTION POINT.

Some texts require that a tangent line exist at an inflection point, butother texts do not.

INVERSE TRIGONOMETRIC FUNCTIONS, RANGE OF.

P

recalculus With Limits:

A

Graphing

A

pproach,

3rd. edition, by Larson, Hostetler, and Edwards has: "In Example 4, if youhad set the calculator to

degree

mode, the display would have been in degrees rather than inradians. This convention is peculiar to calculators. By definition, the values of inversetrigonometric functions are always in

radians.

" Other textbooks, however, allow degrees.

ISOSCELES TRIANGLE.

Older definitions specified that an isosceles triangle has exactly twocongruent sides, as, for example, a 1570 translation of Euclid: "Isosceles, is a triangle, whichhath onely two sides equall." Many texts define an isosceles triangle as a triangle having twosides equal; such a definition could perhaps be interpreted either way.

H

eath Geometry:

A

n Integrated

A

pproach

(1998) has: "An

isosceles triangle

has at least two congruent sides."

LIMIT, EXISTENCE OF.

Some texts say carefully that, although we write lim

f

(

x

) = oo, thelimit

does not e

x

ist.

Ellis and Gulick (1986) says that "

f

has an infinite limit at

a

" although it alsohas "Caution: If

f

has an infinite limit at

a,

then

f does not

have a limit at

a

in the sense of Definition 2.1."

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