How many of the people who use the phrase "off on a tangent" actually know what a tangent is? (I hear you thinking, "I don't know and I don't care," but humor me here for a moment.)
I'm deep into work on the book I'm co-writing with Dr. Faith Wallace--Mathematical Literacy in the Middle and Secondary Grades. Soon, I will be able to tell you scuttlebutt about the nonfiction and educational publishing world. Oh, the opportunities for making sausage simply abound...
At the moment, we're working on a chapter that looks at the interface between mathematics and language. If you've ever worked a word problem--"Johnny has 7 apples, but Suzie took one away. Sam gave him three more. It takes six apples to make a pie. Does Johnny have enough?"--then you've walked that math/language boundary.
The words "took" and "gave" really don't sound like math words, but in that context, they tell you to subtract or add in order to solve the problem. Most people, including lifelong math-haters, can solve Johnny's apple problem in their heads. What Faith and I are hoping to do in this chapter is help teachers recognize regular old words that can signal to a reader that a little math is coming their way...painlessly.
The cool thing about this project is that Faith is an academic and a trained teacher. I just play with words all day, then I send them out for people to enjoy. Because my education is in math and science, there are a whole lot of those painless math words buried in my work. Right now, I have assembled a list of words that appear in the prologue and first chapter of Artifacts, and I'm writing a chapter that takes teachers on a tour through those words.
"More" and "less" tell you something about quantity. Even the simplest word in the language, "a," tells you that you're dealing with just one thing. Prepositions are all about geometry--"over," "under," "around," "through," "by"--they all give you information about an object's location. That's geometry.
And so is "tangent," which to mathematicians is a line that touches a curve but doesn't cross it. That's not such a hard thing to imagine. Think of an upside-down bowl. Now imagine balancing a pencil on top of it. Voila! A tangent.
And you thought we were only going to talk about literary mysteries. No, here at "It's Like Making Sausage...", we will occasionally tackle the mysteries of the universe. Only the best for you, my readers...