Vagueness in mathematics talk

Rowland, Timothy (1996). Vagueness in mathematics talk. PhD thesis The Open University.



The Cockcroft Report claimed that "mathematics provides a means of communication which is powerful, concise and unambiguous". Such precision in language may be a conventional aim of mathematics, particularly when communicated in writing. Nonetheless, as this thesis demonstrates, vagueness is commonplace when people talk about mathematics.

In this thesis, I examine the circumstances in which vagueness arises in mathematics talk, and consider the practical purposes which speakers achieve by means of vague utterances in this context. The empirical database, which is considered in Chapters 4 to 7, consists almost entirely of transcripts of mathematical conversations between adult interviewers (including myself) and one or two children. The data were collected from clinical interviews focused on a small number of tasks, and from fragments of teaching. For the most part, the pupils involved in the study were aged between 9 and 12, although the age-range in Chapter 7 extends from 4 to 25.

I draw on a number of approaches to discourse associated with 'pragmatics' -a field of linguistics - to analyse the motives and communicative effectiveness of speakers who deploy vagueness in mathematics talk. I claim that, for these speakers, vagueness fulfills a number of purposes, especially 'shielding', i. e. self-protection against accusation of being wrong. Another purpose is to give approximate information; sometimes to achieve shielding, but also to provide the level of detail that is deemed to be appropriate in a given situation. A different purpose, associated with a particular form of vagueness (of reference), is to compensate for lexical gaps in pursuit of effective communication of concepts and ideas. I show, in particular, how speakers use the pronouns 'it' and 'you' in mathematics talk to communicate concepts and generalisations.

Some consideration is given to the intentions of 'expert speakers of mathematics when they deploy vague language. Their purposes include some of those identified for novices. Teachers also use vagueness as a means of indirectness in addressing pupils; this strategy is associated with the redress of 'face threatening acts'. My thesis is that vagueness can be viewed and presented, not as a disabling feature of language, but as a subtle and versatile device which speakers can and do deploy to make mathematical assertions with as much precision, accuracy or as much confidence as they judge is warranted by both the content and the circumstances of their utterances.

I report on the validation and generalisation of my findings by an Informal Research Group of school teachers, who transcribed and analysed their own classroom interactions using the methods I had developed.

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