Can You ID All of These Mathematical Symbols? Are You Up to the Challenge?

By: Jacqueline Samaroo
Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

Sometimes in mathematics, numbers aren’t enough. Do you know the basic symbols that mathematicians use as a second language? It’s going to take some serious smarts to guess them all, and if you succeed, we’re sending you off to Harvard to hang out with the ghost of John Nash. Symbols in all branches of mathematics are used to express formulas. That’s just common knowledge. What you might not know is that many symbols are synonymous with a concept, and many of these concepts are entirely arbitrary and were created as a result of the vast history of mathematics! So, on that note, do you know what the heck “≡" means? The real answer just might surprise you. If your curiosity isn’t piqued yet, let’s get it rolling. Basic symbols are widely used in math, and these are learned in first-year calculus. There’s a whole subset of symbols that are based on equality, or “=“. These symbols are derived from or similar to the equal sign. There are then symbols that point left and right, brackets, other non-letter symbols, and don’t even get us started on letter symbols! (And their modifiers, Latin letters, and even Hebrew and Greek letters. We’re not kidding) So, there you go. Now that your mind is ripe and your heart is pounding, let’s throw the mathematical symbols quiz your way and see if everything adds up. Smarty pants!

In addition, the terms "augend" and "addend" are used for the numbers being added. The augend is the first number, while the addend is the second one. Most often, however, addend is used for both. The term "sum" is used for the result of addition.

The division symbol of a line with two dots (one above and one below) is known as an obelus (plural: obeluses or obeli). In division, the terms "dividend", "divisor" and "quotient" represent the number being divided, how much it is being divided by and the result, respectively.

It takes at least two factors to make a product. Factors are the numbers that are multiplied and product is the result. The terms “multiplicand” and “multiplier” are also used to show which number is being multiplied (the multiplicand) and how many times (the multiplier).

The term “not equal” indicates that the two amounts being considered are never the same. The terms “greater than” and “less than” are more specific ways to show that the two amounts are not equal. For the possibility that they may be equal at some point, the terms “less than or equal to” and “greater than or equal to” are used.

Numbers in a subtraction have particular names. They are minuend (the number that is to be subtracted from); subtrahend (the number subtracted); and difference (the result of subtracting). So, minuend − subtrahend = difference.

The “greater than” and “less than” signs should really be thought of as a single sign which changes meaning based on its orientation. The sign always opens up to the side that is more and points to the side that is less.

The horizontal division line, or fraction bar, is sometimes called a vinculum (although this is not strictly accurate). When a slant line is used between two numbers to show division, that line is referred to as a solidus.

The equal sign (written as a pair of horizontal lines) was invented by Welsh physician and mathematician Robert Recorde in 1557. Even into the 18th century, a pair of parallel vertical lines was also in use to indicate “equals.”

The term “less than” is used to refer to quantities (for example, 6 is less than 7). The term “lesser than,” however, is used to refer to quality, meaning one thing is inferior to the other.

Brackets come in several forms and have various uses in Mathematics. The types of brackets include parentheses or "round brackets" ( ); "square brackets" or "box brackets" [ ]; braces or "curly brackets" { }; and "angle brackets" < >.

The decimal point is used to separate a number into its whole and fractional parts. While a point is used in many countries, in some countries a comma is used instead (for example: 23.58 would be written 23,58). There are also countries where an apostrophe is used instead of a point (23’58).

“Less than” and “greater than” are true inequalities in that the two things being compared by them are never equal. While we often refer to “less than or equal to” and “greater than or equal to” as inequalities, they are not, in the strict sense of the word.

The calculation and use of square roots can be traced to several different ancient civilizations. The use of the modern square root symbol, however, is first recorded in print in the 16th century.

The caret (or inverted v) symbol is very useful when showing exponents in printed form. Exponents are typically written in superscript beside the base. The caret allows both the base and exponent to be placed on the same line with the number after the caret being the exponent.

Both “less than or equal to” and “greater than or equal to” contain a combination of two symbols. They are the inequality sign (either < or >) and the equal sign (=). In some cases, the lower line is slanted to match the inequality, while in other cases it is left flat.

Bakers use the percent as a way to compare the amount of each ingredient to the amount of flour in a recipe. So, a recipe with 50% sugar does not mean sugar makes up half of the amount of ingredients but that the amount of sugar used is half the amount of flour used.

The number being used in repeated multiplication is known as the base. The number of times it is used is called the power, exponent or index (plural: indices). Powers of 2, 3 and -1 have the special names of square, cube and reciprocal, respectively.

Although often used interchangeably with the term “brackets,” parentheses are regarded as actually meaning round brackets. That is, as opposed to square, curly or other types of brackets.

Ancient mathematicians have long known and worked with cube roots. There is evidence of the calculation of cube roots by the Babylonians from as far back as 1800 BCE.

The word “angle” refers to the amount of turn between two lines (or rays) that share a common end point. The lines are sometimes called the arms of the angle while the common end point is the vertex.

The use of 360 as the total number of degrees in a full rotation (a circle) has been traced back to several ancient civilizations. It is thought to be linked to their use of a base sixty, sexagesimal, system.

A simple definition of a spherical angle is that it is the angle formed by two intersecting great circles on a sphere. More precisely, however, it is the angle formed by the planes that contain the great circles.

If you select any two points on the circumference of a circle, they will divide the circumference into two arcs. When the two points are directly opposite each other, the arcs are equal in length. Otherwise, they are a major (longer) arc and minor (shorter) arc.

Line segments are generally identified by capital letters that name their end points. In coordinate geometry, however, this is taken a step further and the coordinates of the end points are considered necessary for identifying a line segment.

There are many different ways to measure the size of an angle. By far, the two most frequently used measurements are the degree and the radian.

Parallel lines go in the same direction, are always the same distance apart and never meet. The same is true for parallel curves and parallel planes.

Perpendicular lines meet at a right angle, that is, 90 degrees. While a small arc is normally drawn to shown the angle made by two lines, for perpendicular lines, the angle is denoted by a small box.

A ray is a part of line that has a starting point (represented by a dot). The ray goes on into infinity, without end. Interestingly, the name given to the starting point of a ray is “end point”.

A right angle, also called a quarter turn, measures exactly 90 degrees. Triangles that include a right angle are called right triangles.

Pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, is an irrational number. It has a never-ending number of digits which go on with no perceivable pattern. It has been calculated to over 2 quadrillion digits.

Both uppercase and lowercase sigma have several meanings in Mathematics. Uppercase sigma is most commonly used to show summation, while lower case sigma is best known to mean standard deviation.

For two objects to be congruent they must be the same size and shape. That means one would fit perfectly over the other even if it needs to be flipped or rotated to do so.

In Mathematics classes, finding derivatives of functions is often taught first and then finding the integrals is introduced as the reverse operation. The stylish “S” symbol for integral conveys the idea of finding a sum.

A vector is an object that has a magnitude and direction. Vectors are not only useful in solving math equations, they are also used in various science disciplines such as physics and engineering.

Uppercase delta is most commonly used in Mathematics to show a change in a value. A river delta, in nature, is so named because of its triangular shape which resembles the letter.

The imaginary unit is defined as the square root of negative one (-1). Technically, it is the only imaginary number and it forms a complex number when multiplied by a real number (e.g. 5i).

Leonhard Euler (pronounced “oiler”) was an 18th century Swiss mathematician, astronomer, engineer, logician and physicist. Euler's number is just one of the many concepts named after him.

The symbol for the closed surface integral is made up of a single closed loop and two integral symbols. It is related to the closed line integral, which has a single integral symbol, and the closed volume integral, which has three.

The Laplace transform was discovered by Pierre-Simon Laplace, a 19th century French scholar. His work in mathematical physics and astronomy led to his often being referred to as the French Newton.

Epsilon is the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet. Most persons who study Mathematics may associate lowercase epsilon with set theory, meaning “is a member of” or “is an element of."

The double integral is a form of multiple integration. It is generally unaffected by the order of integration of the two variables.

The tilde is often written to mean “approximately” but has wider usage in several areas of Mathematics, including statistics. Outside of Mathematics, the tilde has a wide range of uses, such as changing a letter’s pronunciation in some languages.

Theoretical physicist Paul Dirac introduced this function. Hence it is sometimes called the Dirac delta function or Dirac’s delta function. In the strictest terms, however, the delta function is not a true function but more of a distribution.

While the operation is called both nabla and del, the symbol is simply the nabla. It is the Greek word for a type of harp of that shape.

While all vectors have a magnitude (length) and direction, unit vectors are special in that they have a length of 1. A unit vector is normally named be a common letter with a ^ placed over the letter.

Although, by definition, a line has no width, this is not how it is in practice. Even the thinnest line you draw, will have a thickness – no matter how minute!

One type of lemniscate is also known as the Lemniscate of Bernoulli. It is usually used to represent infinity.

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