17 February 2016

♫ You say zero, I say nought ♫

I received hundreds of responses to my latest post about mistakes. One comment that I found particularly interesting was about the use of incorrect vocabulary to express the number 0. This made me wonder what's acceptable and what isn't.

First, I think we should try to avoid saying 'oh', because that's a letter, not a number. However, we should bear in mind that 'oh' is commonly used as a number. I think many of us probably start 'oh seven ...' when we give our mobile phone number. 'Oh' is used in telling the time with the 24 clock too eg 16:05 is said as 'sixteen oh five'. 'James Bond double oh seven' is another example. But although it's acceptable in conversation, 'oh' shouldn't be used for the number 0 in a maths classroom.

I use the word zero quite often, for example I tell my students to make a quadratic equation 'equal to zero'. I'd say 50 as 'five to the power of zero', and so on. I wouldn't say nought in these cases, though there's nothing wrong with saying nought.

I do sometimes use the word nought instead of zero. For example I would say the number 0.64 as 'nought point six four'.

Although there is a perception that zero is the 'best' way to say the number 0, I'm convinced that the word nought is still widely used in the UK, particularly in numbers with decimals. I did a Twitter poll to check what maths teachers say. Twitter polls are of limited use because they provide no information about who has responded (ie what continent they are from), but the results are still of interest:
'Something else' included a) people who just say 'point five' and (b) people who say 'half' (yes yes, we all know it's a half! I wasn't asking about the maths! In hindsight, I should have used a different decimal in my question to avoid this response).

The large number of responses for 'nought point five' confirmed that the word 'nought' is still widely used, at least in the UK.  A few tweets from North America suggested that it's rarely used there.

If you're wondering about the spelling of the word nought, this extract from Wikipedia 'Names for the number 0 in English' might be of interest:
The words "nought" and "naught" are spelling variants... There is a distinction in British English between the two, but it is not one that is universally recognized. This distinction is that "nought" is primarily used in a literal arithmetic sense, where the number 0 is straightforwardly meant, whereas "naught" is used in poetical and rhetorical senses, where "nothing" could equally well be substituted... Whilst British English makes this distinction, in United States English, the spelling "naught" is preferred for both the literal and rhetorical/poetic senses. 
In summary, I think it's fine to use the words zero and nought interchangeably in the maths classroom, as long as your students know what you're referring to. Do you agree?

♫ You say zero, I say nought
Let's call the whole thing off ♫

Further reading: BBC 4 In Our Time Debate: Zero


  1. If you're happy to say "oh seven ... " in a mobile phone number, then most people's landline must be "oh eye ...".

  2. Oh for numbers that start 087 zero for numbers 540062 within and naught for decimals that start 0.9

  3. You forgot to mention 'noughts and crosses'.

  4. Which is grammarly correct: 'naught point naught three grams' or 'naught point zero grams'?

  5. And don't forget 'nowt' in northern England (Lancashire, anyway) to mean nothing rather than zero. I've never spelt nought as naught, but I wonder if 'naught' used to have a 'nowt' pronunciation... I suspect 'naught' spellers are reflecting naughty which has the 'nought ' sound. They're all rooted in the same spoken English meaning which is now known as 'nothing'.