An issue I don’t see discussed very often is how mathematical notation (e.g. =, +, -…) translates into spoken grammar. But in my day job as an instructional designer, I ran into an interesting sentence with an equation which my English grammar machine stop and say “Huh”?

The problem area was how to translate the equal sign. Normally, in a simple expression such as “2+3 = 5” or “A = l * w” (Area formula for a rectangle), the equals sign can be translated as “is equal to” or “equals” (a little raising into V position?). In any case, it is normally the generic present tense.

However, what happens if a sentence somehow introduces a different tense? The sentence I was working with introduced a conditional in the following scenario.:

The area formula for rectangles is A=l*w. Had the figure been a triangle,

then A=1/2 b*h.

This didn’t work well for me because it translated to “Had the figure been a triangle, **then A equals 1/2 b*h”**, and in my grammar, I expect the result clause headed by “then” to use the conditional form (i.e. “then A **would equal** 1/2 b*h”).

Interestingly my solution was to introduce another verb to carry the conditional tense:

The area formula for rectangles is A=l*w. Had the figure been a triangle,

then the formula would beA=1/2 b*h.

The phrase “the formula would be” introduces the noun “formula” which, indicates to watch for an equation, and then the conditional “would be”. Now the equal sign is no longer the “main verb”, but an embedded verb which can participate in a copula structure (i.e. the formula is A = 1/2 b*h). My grammar does allow present tense once the conditional has been introduced (here the present indicates “simultaneous with” rather than “right now”).

The original sentence (written by another person) leads me to ask several questions on how it got written in the first place. Does the author also have a tense condition like I do or does the author allow present tense in result clauses? Alternatively, is this a construction that’s a sign of math instructor jargon, or was it something inserted without reading how it would sound (it happens).

Some interesting questions to ponder: