What does a tilde (~) in front of a number mean to a non-mathy person?
September 12, 2017 11:55 AM   Subscribe

If you don't normally identify as a science/math/engineering type, how would your interpret the meaning of a tilde symbol in front of a number in a friend's text message?

For years, I've added a tilde (i.e., twiddle or ~) in front of a number to mean "approximately" whenever using a small keyboard. I was recently surprised to learn that at least one of my closest friends has no idea what that means and thought I was just randomly adding nonsense punctuation half the time I wrote a number.

In math and related fields, a tilde usually means "approximately." More specifically, it often means, "approximately, but with even less precision than a double-tilde (≈) sign." I've been using it as shorthand when using tiny keyboards since acquiring a second hand palm pilot as a teenager. I'm curious if most people would understand what "I'll be there ~4" or "there are ~1000 protesters gathered by the fountain" means without any additional explanation.
posted by eotvos to Writing & Language (51 answers total)
Yup, "approximately"
posted by tristeza at 11:57 AM on September 12, 2017 [26 favorites]

Yes, I have always used that to mean "approximately" as well, despite not being a mathy person.
posted by coppermoss at 11:57 AM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am as far from a math person as they come and I always interpret it as "approximately."
posted by anderjen at 11:58 AM on September 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

I know that to mean 'approximately'. I am not a math-y person at all, but I'm a stickler to details, so I probably saw it once and researched its meaning.
posted by hydra77 at 11:59 AM on September 12, 2017

posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:03 PM on September 12, 2017

~, like this?

approximately is correct
posted by Clementines4ever at 12:04 PM on September 12, 2017

in a txt.. could mean something else, in my opinion
posted by Clementines4ever at 12:04 PM on September 12, 2017

Same. "Approximately."
posted by functionequalsform at 12:08 PM on September 12, 2017

posted by DarlingBri at 12:12 PM on September 12, 2017 [13 favorites]

I'm not a math person at all, and I've never had any question that this meant "approximately".
posted by kevinbelt at 12:14 PM on September 12, 2017

Yeah, I also know it as approximately. Though the time case in your question would be novel for me, and I would have to think about if that's what you really meant for a second.

But I'm not sure the average MeFi maps to the average other person — lots of nerds or nerd-adjacent folks here! If your friend doesn't understand it it's likely many others don't understand it.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:14 PM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm the polar opposite of a mathy/sciencey/techy person and I think it means "approximately."
posted by HotToddy at 12:16 PM on September 12, 2017

Nthing approximately and I'm not remotely in a maths/science field.
posted by badmoonrising at 12:17 PM on September 12, 2017

I use the single tilde to mean "approximately" in texts, just like you.

I've never heard that particular single-tilde/double-tilde distinction before and can't find any authoritative reference for it.

I probably picked it up while studying mathematics years ago. Mathematicians tend to use tildes (and double tildes and a variety of similar symbols) to mean various equality-like things with the exact meaning depending heavily on context.
posted by floppyroofing at 12:20 PM on September 12, 2017

I like to use tildes a ~lot~ in casual online communication.

If used as a prefix, with no "closing" tilde, I still mean approximately, as in your example. I also will use it with things that aren't numbers that I'm still approximating, as in, "I can't believe I already need to start working on my ~Christmas gift projects." ( because I don't do xmas myself and almost nobody I gift things to celebrates it either but it is still an excuse for presents)

If I use it like in my first sentence, with a tilde before AND after a word or phrase, and especially if used in excess, I mean it to convey a sense of fascetious emphasis. As in, silly emphasis. I like to imagine that the tildes are me making noodly arms when I say a word. Examples:

Omg I'm so ~~~hungry~~~ feed meeeee ~seven pizzas
Hey did u no im a ~young lady~ according to the weird dude in the grocery store alley
It's ~your~ turn to clean up the cat puke, mwuahahaha

I never use tildes to mean anything other than approximately in serious or otherwise important textual things.
posted by Mizu at 12:24 PM on September 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

Just to be the contrary one in the bunch: um, sorry but no, I'd never heard/seen it before this. I'd probably have guessed you meant 'approximately' from the context, but that's all it'd be for me, a guess. (Personally I'm more into using the three-character +/- combo to mean 'about' or 'give or take'.)
posted by easily confused at 12:37 PM on September 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am 100% NOT a math/science/engineering person and I know that ~ means approximately. How I learned this, I do not know.
posted by cooker girl at 12:37 PM on September 12, 2017

I am so not a math person, and I have always understood that as "approximately."

Your friend is weird.
posted by rpfields at 12:40 PM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I learned this to mean approximately back before texting circa 1975 in middle school math.
posted by AugustWest at 12:42 PM on September 12, 2017

Yes, approximately. Use it all. the. time.
posted by AwkwardPause at 12:45 PM on September 12, 2017

No math background, and in fact I used to fall asleep during math class in high school pretty regularly, to the great amusement of my classmates. I understand and use it to mean approximately.
posted by rodlymight at 12:50 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

You've got an answer. Occasionally you also see, outside of mathy circles (where you see it all the time), this symbol: ≈ which is like two stacked tildes or perhaps a wavy equals-sign. It means "is equivalent to" and it's basically like ~; however ≈ is more certain or more equal than ~.

In short: ∴ ~ < ≈
posted by Sunburnt at 12:51 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yep, "approximately." I am no math person, but I hung out with many nerdy people in college, which was the early 80s, and we were all busy inventing internet shorthand...so YMMV.
posted by clone boulevard at 12:58 PM on September 12, 2017

I had no idea! (Data: approx ~50 years old, 20 years post-secondary education) and just used it correctly for the first time! I would have guessed from context but didn't know it had an actual definition.
posted by saucysault at 1:20 PM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was about to ask this same question because I just stopped myself from using "~" in a text to mean "approximately" because I worried that I had somehow made up the meaning of "approximately" for that symbol, because I have no idea why I know it means that. (So take that to say, not a math person.) I use it all the time in my written notes.
posted by lazuli at 1:28 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

This thread really needs a derail into what is up with your friend. Young adult? Non-US?
posted by intermod at 1:31 PM on September 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

36, usa and use the tilde approximation punctuation. Double tilde is new
posted by Jacen at 1:38 PM on September 12, 2017

I was taught in elementary school that the tilde means approximately. I am also curious whether your friend is from the US.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:39 PM on September 12, 2017

I...oops. Thanks to the OED I have been using it for decades to indicate the duplication of a word. Am having people over for beer; would you like to come over for ~ ?

Strangely nobody has ever questioned what I meant by it or told me I was doing it wrong; I guess enough other people my age have looked at dictionaries enough times...

I would not be surprised to see it where an area code I already knew should have been, but that's the only thing that comes to mind in this context.

(Literature, not maths, nerd)
posted by kmennie at 2:22 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I use it for "approximately", but I have had people tell me that they didn't know what it meant, or they thought I fat-fingered the $ character and meant "dollars" which can really change the underlying meaning, depending on what you're saying.

People with a finance background don't seem to use ~ as "approximate", they (in my experience) just write "abt." or "approx." or round up/down and use a greater than or less than sign. I have slowly hewn to this usage in that environment.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:49 PM on September 12, 2017

In the context you use it (as a prefix), I'd interpret as 'approximately', but I have seen it used other ways in informal text conversations. Most recently, I've seen it used in place of a period to indicate a less abrupt, more sing-song ending to a sentence. E.g.: Instead of "Hi." (too abrupt), "Hi!" (too loud and still pretty abrupt) or "Hi" (too disinterested/bored), one would use "Hi~".
posted by Aleyn at 2:50 PM on September 12, 2017

I wouldn't have had the foggiest. Your friend is normal, you are weird.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:02 PM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am "old", completely not mathy, and interpret it as "approximately" also. I myself also use it to mean that.
posted by gudrun at 3:10 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Non-US, non-mathsy, never seen it used like that, wouldn't have known that it had a literal interpretation. (I might have guessed if pushed that it meant "around" because it looks a bit like someone waving a vague hand but I feel that's coincidental)
posted by billiebee at 3:44 PM on September 12, 2017

If it's ~name or ~/ (in context) then it's *NIXy path specification for a $HOME directory. Otherwise, approximately...

And it's "Hi..." not "Hi~", for the flow. get off my lawn.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:55 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Non-math person, US, 43, the tilde has always meant approximately to me.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:47 PM on September 12, 2017

Never seen a tilde for approximately. I always use+/- or even better a ± which is the term for an uncertainty in physics, e.g. The answer is 324 ± 2.
posted by mulcahy at 5:02 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

The last math class I took was ~30 years ago and I don't work in a technical field, and I use it (and interpret it to mean) "approximately."
posted by rtha at 5:03 PM on September 12, 2017

Approximately. Unless it's bitwise NOT, but context is usually enough to distinguish between the two uses.
posted by one for the books at 5:20 PM on September 12, 2017

Completely non-math (but generally overeducated) person, have always known that it means approximately. I have never seen a double tilde prior to OP's post.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 5:27 PM on September 12, 2017

I use the tilde this way and had no idea it was a math thing, is how non-mathy I am. Located in the U.S.
posted by moira at 5:28 PM on September 12, 2017

Non-US person here - everyone I know understands this to mean 'approximately', why to people think this has something to do with the US?
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:51 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

To me, it means "'approximately', but I'm too lazy to figure out how to type ≈". Am a developer; am not remotely mathy.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:42 PM on September 12, 2017

Non US-born, totally non-mathy person. Yea it means "approximately." I'm sure I learned it in school.

In Asia primarily, I've also seen it used in phone numbers like "(555) 555-1000~1005" to mean that someone can be reached at any number between the numbers before and after the tilde, inclusively.
posted by gemmy at 8:30 PM on September 12, 2017

I am a mathish person and I only use tilde to mean approximately in mathy contexts. I almost never use it in casual text-based conversations.
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:49 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was schooled in French speaking Africa and the tilde sign was used in math class to mean approximately. Everyone understands is as such and it looks pretty universal to me.

Maybe your friend is just a bit... uncultivated.
posted by Kwadeng at 10:47 PM on September 12, 2017

"Approximately," definitely. Learned it in about 7th grade (so before going into any serious STEM-y stuff) and found it useful ever since. People I use it with seem to understand it. Unless maybe your friend is from a different culture, it sounds like they just missed learning this one for a long time. It happens; just this year I finally learned that Indian Pipes are a plant, rather than a fungus as I had always mistakenly believed.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:45 AM on September 13, 2017

US, non-mathy, more than half a century old. I don't remember when or where I learned it, but I did and I use it.
posted by Room 641-A at 5:39 AM on September 13, 2017

Math-y person, also use the single tilde in text messages to mean "approximately".
posted by Stephanie Duy at 7:36 AM on September 13, 2017

Yes, approximately, or as I actually think of in my head, "ish"
posted by Aubergine at 3:45 PM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks, all! Hard to pick best answers, since all are unique and equally thoughtful. I'm glad to know both that I'm not crazy and that my friend is not entirely alone.
posted by eotvos at 9:04 AM on September 15, 2017

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