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Negative numbers: addition and subtraction FAQ

Frequently asked questions about adding and subtracting negative numbers

When and where did people start using negative numbers?

There is no definitive answer to when and where people started using negative numbers, as different cultures may have developed or encountered them independently, and the historical evidence is often fragmentary, ambiguous, or contested. However, here are some possible milestones in the history of negative numbers.
The earliest known use of negative numbers in a mathematical context is probably in the Chinese text Jiuzhang Suanshu (Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art), which dates from the 1st or 2nd century CE, and contains problems involving debts and surpluses that are represented by black and red counting rods, respectively. The text also includes rules for manipulating positive and negative numbers, such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing them, and finding their square roots.
The Indian mathematician Brahmagupta (7th century CE) was one of the first to explicitly treat negative numbers as valid numbers in their own right, and to give rules for their arithmetic, including the product of two negative numbers being positive. He also used negative numbers to represent solutions to quadratic equations, and to denote the direction of motion of celestial bodies. However, he did not accept negative numbers as coefficients in equations, and considered zero and negative numbers as non-numbers or voids in some contexts.

How can we use a number line to add and subtract negative numbers?

The number line is a really helpful visual tool for working with negative numbers. Whenever we add a negative number, we move left on the number line, and whenever we add a positive number, we move right. For subtraction, we move in the opposite direction! Then the sum or difference is the final number we reach on the number line.
We can also subtract by finding both numbers on the number line. Then the distance between those numbers is the absolute value of the difference. For example, if we have the expression 7(9), we see that 7 and 9 are 2 units apart on the number line. So |7(9)|=2.

Why do we sometimes put parentheses around negative numbers when we add or subtract?

We put parentheses around negative numbers when we add or subtract to help us avoid making mistakes.
For example, if we want to subtract 2 from 5, we can write it as 5(2). By putting parentheses around the 2, we can see more clearly that we are subtracting a negative number, not just subtracting 2.
This can be especially helpful when we are dealing with multiple negative numbers in one equation. For example, if we want to subtract 2 from 7, we can write it as 7(2). Again, the parentheses help us see that we are subtracting a negative number, which will actually make our answer larger.
So, in short, parentheses can help us avoid mistakes and make equations clearer.

How do the properties of addition apply with negatives?

Addition is really flexible. The commutative property says that we can add numbers in any order and get the same sum. So we can pick which numbers fit together the easiest. The associative property says that we can group the addends in any way and get the same sum.
The commutative property did not work with subtraction.
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That meant we got stuck when we wanted to simplify expressions with subtraction like 8a+2b5a.
One great thing about working with negatives is that we can rewrite all subtraction as addition of the opposite. Now that we're using just addition, we can commute the terms!
8a+2b5a=8a+2b+(5a)=8a+(5a)+2b=13a+2b
The key was that the negative symbol moved along with the terms.
Rewriting subtraction as addition of the opposite lets us use the associative property, too. Instead of needing to add and subtract from left to right, we can use whichever groups make the sum easier.
517+1728=5+(17)+17+(2)+(8)=5+((17)+17)+((2)+(8))=5+0+(10)=5
With practice, we can do the step of rewriting as addition mentally instead of on paper, but make sure that's okay in your class first.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user samol tekle
    does the history of negative numbers help me pass my class?
    and btw who else is here because thair mother forced them to do extra math?
    (42 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Abdulloh
      The history of negative numbers dates back to a thousand years ago when mathematicians from the Indian subcontinent started using them. Europeans later showed interest in negative numbers but were very reluctant to embrace them. Egyptians were also dismissive of negative and at some point, they regarded negative number as being ridiculous1. Although the first set of rules for dealing with negative numbers was stated in the 7th century by the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta2.

      Regarding your question about whether the history of negative numbers can help you pass your class, it depends on what you are studying. If you are studying the history of mathematics or the development of mathematical concepts, then it could be helpful. However, if you are studying how to solve equations involving negative numbers, then it might not be as helpful.

      I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.
      (21 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ethan
    it dosent make sense
    (19 votes)
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  • blobby blue style avatar for user John Zhang
    Guys just DONT GIVE UP ok? for a Chinese person I’d tell you that we are learning these before seventh grade! I think Khan academy have explained it very meticulous. actually it’s not so hard understanding these.
    (21 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user ivygraham9
    I am starting 7th grade, but this stuff sounds alot like what i did in 6th grade.
    (15 votes)
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  • mr pants orange style avatar for user Jonah
    what does the history of negative numbers have to do with doing the MATH
    (10 votes)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Katrina Lancellotti
    i'm in 12th grade but am going to start tutoring kids younger than me and this is super easy to understand if anybody needs help
    (11 votes)
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  • piceratops tree style avatar for user eileeny
    why is this so confusing
    (6 votes)
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    • marcimus pink style avatar for user gngu0484
      I mean do you want a simplified version? I just made one, well I hope it’s easier to understand.

      Here:
      The first paragraph isn’t as important if you just want to understand the math concept and not the background. Plus it seems pretty simple to understand, so I won’t explain it.
      The second paragraph explains why we use a number line. Basically the number line is used as a visual to make adding negative numbers easier.
      The third paragraph explains why we put parentheses around the negative numbers. We put parentheses around the negative numbers when they are next to the equation symbol to help not confuse the person solving the equation. I mean I would get confused if I saw this +- right next to each other. But, just basically ignore the parentheses.
      The fourth paragraph:
      Commutative Property is when you can change the order of the numbers while adding or multiplying and get the same sum or product.
      Example: 5+4=9 -> 4+5=9 (addition)
      Example: 6x4=24 -> 4x6= 24 (multiplication)
      Associative Property is when you can group numbers together in any way ONLY if it is all multiplying or it is all adding.
      Example: (3+5) +1=9 -> 3+(5+1)=9 (addition)
      Example: (4x3)x2=24 -> 4x(3x2)=24 (multiplying)
      The commutative property does not work with subtraction, but when you work with negatives, you can rewrite subtraction as addition of the opposite. (Remember, when you rewrite subtraction as addition, don’t rewrite the negative signs from the negative numbers, only rewrite from the subtraction signs!) Now that it is addition, you can use the commutative property when you have the equation shown in the paragraph. (it takes too much work to write the example here) Also when you rewrite subtraction as addition, it also allows you to use the associative property which I explained earlier. Hope this helped!
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user AlecJ18
    I don't get this
    (6 votes)
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  • aqualine seed style avatar for user zoegarland02
    why this so long
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Mia E
    is khan academy good
    (6 votes)
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