Associated Topics || Dr. Math Home || Search Dr. Math

### Order of Numbers in Subtraction and Division

```
Date: 11/09/1999 at 10:04:48
From: Julia
Subject: Adding or multiplying numbers

You can add or multiply numbers in any order, but you cannot switch
order to divide or subtract. Why?
```

```
Date: 11/09/1999 at 12:43:51
From: Doctor Peterson
Subject: Re: Adding or multiplying numbers

Hi, Julia.

The difference is that in addition and multiplication, the two numbers
you are working with do the same thing, while in subtraction and
division they do opposite things.

In addition, each number tells you how far to move (to the right) on
the number line:

4           2
+-------------->o------>o
--+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+--     4 + 2 = 6
0                       6

2           4
+------>o-------------->o
--+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+--     2 + 4 = 6
0                       6

In multiplication, each number can be thought of as one side of a
rectangle:

4
+---+---+---+---+
|   |   |   |   |
2 +---+---+---+---+     2 x 4 = 8
|   |   |   |   |
+---+---+---+---+

2
+---+---+
|   |   |
+---+---+
|   |   |
4 +---+---+             4 x 2 = 8
|   |   |
+---+---+
|   |   |
+---+---+

But when you subtract, you are using one number to move right from
zero to the starting place, and the other to move left:

4
+-------------->o
o<------o
--+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+--     4 - 2 = 2
0       2

2
+------>o
o<--------------o
--+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+--     2 - 4 = -2
-2       0

If you're familiar with negative numbers, subtracting is the same as
adding the opposite of the subtrahend:

4 - 2 = 4 + -2 = 2

2 - 4 = 2 + -4 = -2

Only one of the numbers is negated, so the order matters. When you
switch the two numbers, the result is negated.

Similarly, division is the same as multiplying by the reciprocal:

4 / 2 = 4 x 1/2 = 2

2 / 4 = 2 x 1/4 = 1/2

When you switch the numbers, the result is inverted.

Now, all of this shows that there is a way to apply the commutative
property to subtraction and division: just rewrite each as addition or
multiplication. For example, I can safely rearrange

2 - 3 + 5
to
2 + 5 - 3

by thinking of it as

2 + -3 + 5 = 2 + 5 + -3

and dragging the minus sign along when I move the 3.

Similarly, I can do this with division:

2 / 6 * 3 = 2 * 3 / 6

dragging the division with the 6, because it really means

2 * 1/6 * 3 = 2 * 3 * 1/6

That's probably a lot more than you wanted to hear, but I think it
should help.

- Doctor Peterson, The Math Forum
http://mathforum.org/dr.math/
```
Associated Topics:
Elementary Division
Elementary Subtraction

Search the Dr. Math Library:

 Find items containing (put spaces between keywords):   Click only once for faster results: [ Choose "whole words" when searching for a word like age.] all keywords, in any order at least one, that exact phrase parts of words whole words

Submit your own question to Dr. Math
Math Forum Home || Math Library || Quick Reference || Math Forum Search