In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

Sometimes, just every once in a blue moon, something in mathematics doesn’t appear right to students at first glance. For example, take the common notation

What does this symbol mean? Sadly, it depends on the context.

Sometimes, it means a point in the Cartesian plane whose first coordinate is and whose second coordinate is .

Other times, it could mean the set , or the interval between and that does not contain the endpoints.

You’d think that, by now, mathematicians would’ve figure out a way to not denote these two completely different things with the same symbol. Indeed, I’ve seen textbooks that use to denote the open interval between and to avoid this duplication; however, this notation hasn’t been widely adopted by the mathematical community.

So here’s my quip when something like this comes up. Sometimes, a young child will come crying to her parents to complain about the injustices in the world, and the child may be right. But all the parent can say is, “Sorry, sweetheart, but sometimes life isn’t fair.” And I’ll act this out, talking to an imaginary child as I look down to the floor.

To complete the quip, I’ll then turn to my class and conclude, “Sorry, sometimes life isn’t fair.” It doesn’t make much sense, but we’re stuck with it.

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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