Mathematics notation changes slowly over time, generally for the better. I can’t think of an instance that I think was a step backward.
Gauss introduced the notation [x] for the greatest integer less than or equal to x in 1808. The notation was standard until relatively recently, though some authors used the same notation to mean the integer part of x. The two definitions agree if x is positive, but not if x is negative.
Not only is there an ambiguity between the two meanings of [x], it’s not immediately obvious that there is an ambiguity since we naturally think first of positive numbers. This leads to latent errors, such as software that works fine until the first person gives something a negative input.
In 1962 Kenneth Iverson introduced the notation ⌊x⌋ (“floor of x“) and ⌈x⌉ (“ceiling of x“) in his book A Programming Language, the book that introduced APL. According to Concrete Mathematics, Iverson
found that typesetters could handle the symbols by shaving off the tops and bottoms of ‘[‘ and ‘]’.
This slight modification of the existing notation made things much clearer. The notation [x] is not mnemonic, but clearly ⌊x⌋ means to move down and ⌈x⌉ means to move up.
Before Iverson introduced his ceiling function, there wasn’t a standard notation for the smallest integer greater than or equal to x. If you did need to refer to what we now call the ceiling function, it was awkward to do so. And if there was a symmetry in some operation between rounding down and rounding up, the symmetry was obscured by asymmetric notation.
My impression is that ⌊x⌋ became more common than [x] somewhere around 1990, maybe earlier in computer science and later in mathematics.
Iverson and APL
Iverson’s introduction of the floor and ceiling functions was brilliant. The notation is mnemonic, and it filled what in retrospect was a gaping hole. In hindsight, it’s obvious that if you have a notation for what we now call floor, you should also have a notation for what we now call ceiling.
Iverson also introduced the indicator function notation, putting a Boolean expression in brackets to denote the function that is 1 when the expression is true and 0 when the expression is false. Like his floor and ceiling notation, the indicator function notation is brilliant. I give an example of this notation in action here.
I had a small consulting project once where my main contribution was to introduce indicator function notation. That simple change in notation made it clear how to untangle a complicated calculation.
Since two of Iverson’s notations were so simple and useful, might there be more? He introduced a lot of new notations in his programming language APL, and so it makes sense to mine APL for more notations that might be useful. But at least in my experience, that hasn’t paid off.
I’ve tried to read Iverson’s lecture Notation as a Tool of Thought several times, and every time I’ve given up in frustration. Judging by which notations have been widely adopted, the consensus seems to be that the floor, ceiling, and indicator function notations were the only ones worth stealing from APL.