Category Archives: subtraction

A minus times a minus is a plus -Are you sure you know why?

What exactly are negative numbers?
A reference , from Wikipedia:
In A.D. 1759, Francis Maseres, an English mathematician, wrote that negative numbers “darken the very whole doctrines of the equations and make dark of the things which are in their nature excessively obvious and simple”.
He came to the conclusion that negative numbers were nonsensical.[25]

A minus times a minus is a plus
Two minuses make a plus
Dividing by a negative, especially a negative fraction !!!!
(10 – 2) x (7 – 3) = 10 x 7 – 2 x 7 + 10 x -3 + 2 x 3, really? How do we know?
Or we use “the area model”, or some hand waving with the number line.

It’s time for some clear thinking about this stuff.

Mathematically speaking, the only place that requires troublesome calculations with negative numbers is in algebra, either in evaluation or in rearrangement, but what about the real world ?
Where in the real world does one encounter negative x negative ?
I found two situations, in electricity and in mechanics:

1: “volts x amps = watts”, as it it popularly remembered really means “voltage drop x current flowing = power”
It is sensible to choose a measurement system (scale) for each of these so that a current flowing from a higher to a lower potential point is treated as positive, as is the voltage drop.

Part of simple circuit A———–[resistors etc in here]————–B
Choosing point A, at potential a, as the reference, and point B, at potential b, as the “other” point, then the potential drop from A to B is a – b
If b<a then a current flows from A to B, and its value is positive, just as a – b is positive
If b>a then a current flows from B to A, and its value is negative, just as a – b is negative

In each case the formula for power, voltage drop x current flowing = power, must yield an unsigned number, as negative power is a nonsense. Power is an “amount”.
So when dealing with reality minus times minus is plus (in this case nosign at all).

The mechanics example is about the formula “force times distance = work done”
You can fill in the details.

Now let’s do multiplication on the number line, or to be more precise, two number lines:
Draw two number lines, different directions, starting together at the zero. The scales do not have to be the same.
To multiply 2 by three (3 times 2):
1: Draw a line from the 1 on line A to the 2 on line B
2: Draw a line from the 3 on line A parallel to the first line.
3: It meets line B at the point 6
4: Done: 3 times 2 is 6
numberlines mult pospos
Number line A holds the multipliers, number line B holds the numbers being multiplied.

To multiply a negative number by a positive number we need a pair of signed number lines, crossing at their zero points.

So to multiply -2 by 3 (3 times -2) we do the same as above, but the number being multiplied is now -2, so 1 on line A is joined to -2 on line B

numberlines mult posneg
The diagram below is for -2 times 3. Wow, it ends in the same place.
numberlines mult posneg

Finally, and you can see where this is going, we do -2 times -3.

Join the 1 on line A to the -3 on line B, and then the parallel to this line passing through the -2 on line A:

numberlines mult negneg

and as hoped for, this line passes through the point 6 on the number line B.

Does this “prove” the general case? Only in the proverbial sense. The reason is that we do not have a proper definition of signed numbers. (There is one).

Incidentally, the numbering on the scales above is very poor. The positive numbers are NOT NOT NOT the same things as the unsigned numbers 1, 1.986, 234.5 etc

Each of them should have a + in front, but mathematicians are Lazy. More on this another day.

Problem for you: Show that (a-b)(c-d) = ac – bc – ad + bd without using anything to do with “negative numbers”


Reference direction for current
Since the current in a wire or component can flow in either direction, when a variable I is defined to represent
that current, the direction representing positive current must be specified, usually by an arrow on the circuit
schematic diagram. This is called the reference direction of current I. If the current flows in the opposite
direction, the variable I has a negative value.

Yahoo Answers: Reference direction for potential difference
Best Answer: Potential difference can be negative. It depends on which direction you measure the voltage – e.g.
which way round you connect a voltmeter. (if this is the best answer, I hate to think of what the worst answer is)


Filed under algebra, arithmetic, definitions, education, geometrical, math, meaning, negative numbers, Number systems, operations, subtraction, teaching, Uncategorized

Gross misuse of + and – and x and the one that’s not on my keyboard

Arithmetic is the art of processing numbers.
In ordinary language these words are verbs which have a direct object and an indirect object.

“Add the OIL to the EGG YOLKS one drop at a time”.
“To find the net return subtract the COSTS from the GROSS INCOME”.

In math things have got confused.
We can say “add 3 to 4″or we can say “add 3 and 4”.
We can say “multiply 3 by 4” or we can say “multiply 3 and 4”.
At least we don’t have that choice with subtract or divide.

The direct + indirect form actually means something with the words used,
but when I see “add 3 and 4” my little brain says “add to what?”.

There are perfectly good ways of saying “add, or multiply, 3 and 4” which do not force meanings and usages onto words that never asked for them.
“Find the sum of 3 and 4” and “Find the product of 3 and 4” are using the correct mathematical words, which have moved on from “add” and “multiply”, and incorporate the two commutative laws.

If we were to view operations with numbers as actions, so that an operation such as “add” has a number attached to it, eg “add 7”, then meaningful arithmetical statements can be made, like

“start with 3 and then add 5 and then add 8 and then subtract 4 and then add 1”

which with the introduction of the symbols “+” and “-“, used as in the statement above allows the symbolic expression 3+5+8-4+1 to have a completely unambiguous meaning. It uses the “evaluate from left to right” convention of algebra, and does not rely on any notion of “binary operation” or “properties of operations”.

If we want to view “+” as a binary operation, with two inputs then, yes, we can ascribe meaning to “3+4”, but not in horrors such as the following (found in the CCSSM document):

To add 2 + 6 + 4, the second two numbers can be added to make a ten,
so 2 + 6 + 4 = 2 + 10 = 12. (Associative property of addition.)

If + is a binary operation, which are the two inputs for the first occurrence of + and which are the inputs for the second occurrence of + ?
The combination of symbols 2 + 6 + 4 has NO MEANING in the world of binary operations.

See A. N. Whitehead in “Introduction to Mathematics” 1911.
here are the relevant pages:
whitehead numbers 1
whitehead numbers 2a
whitehead numbers 2b
whitehead numbers 3a
whitehead numbers 3b

And here are two more delights from the CCSSM document
subtract 10 – 8
add 3/10 + 4/100 = 34/100

In addition I would happily replace the term “algebraic thinking” in grades 1-5 by”muddled thinking”.


Filed under arithmetic, big brother, Common Core, language in math, operations, subtraction, teaching

Subtraction and the “standard” algorithm

CCSSM talks about “the standard algorithm” but doesn’t define it – Oh, how naughty, done on purpose I suspect, since there are varieties even of the  “American Standard Algorithm”. Besides, if it is not defined it cannot be tested (one hopes!). I checked some internet teaching stuff on it, and as presented it won’t work on for example 403 – 227 without modification.

Anyway, I was thinking about subtraction the other day (really, have you nothing better to think about?), and concluded that subtraction is easiest if the first number ends in all 9’s or the second number ends in all 0’s. So, fix it then, I thought, change the problem, and here are the results

.Two simple algorithms for subtraction

I am quite sure that some of you can extract the general rule in each case, and see that it works the same in all positions.

While I am going on about this I would like an answer to the following-

“If I understand subtraction, and can explain the ideas to another, and I learn the standard algorithm and how to apply it, and I have faith in it based on experience, WHY THE HELL DO I HAVE TO BE ABLE TO EXPLAIN IT?”

I guess this post counts as a rant!

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Filed under arithmetic, math, operations, subtraction, teaching