My Little 2021 Mathematics A-to-Z: Subtraction


Iva Sallay was once again a kind friend to my writing efforts here. Sallay, who runs the Find the Factors recreational mathematics puzzle site, saw a topic gives a compelling theme to this year’s A-to-Z.

Subtraction.

Subtraction is the inverse of addition.

So thanks for reading along as the Little 2021 Mathematics A-to-Z enters its final stage. Next week I hope to be back with something for my third letter ‘A’ of the sequence.

All right, I can be a little more clear. By the inverse I mean subtraction is the name the name we give to adding the additive inverse of something. It’s what lets addition be a group action. That is, we write a - b to mean we find whatever number, added to b, gives us 0. Then we add that to a. We do this pretty often, so it’s convenient to have a name for it. The word “subtraction” appears in English from about 1400. It grew from the Latin for “taking away”. By about 1425 the word has its mathematical meaning. I imagine this wasn’t too radical a linguistic evolution.

All right, so some other thoughts. What’s so interesting about subtraction that it’s worth a name? We don’t have a particular word for reversing, say, a permutation. But don’t go very far in school not thinking about inverting an addition. Must come down to subtraction’s practical use in finding differences between things. Often in figuring out change. Debts at least. Nobody needs the inverse of a permutation unless they’re putting a deck of cards back in order.

Subtraction has other roles, though. Not so much in mathematics, but in teaching us how to learn about mathematics. For example, subtraction gives us a good reason to notice zero. Zero, the additive identity, is implicit to addition. But if you’re learning addition, and you think of it as “put these two piles of things together into one larger pile”? What good does an empty pile do you there? It’s easy to not notice there’s a concept there. But subtraction, taking stuff away from a pile? You can imagine taking everything away, and wanting a word for that. This isn’t the only way to notice zero is worth some attention. It’s a good way, though.

There’s more, though. Learning subtraction teaches us limits of what we can do, mathematically. We can add 3 to 7 or, if it’s more convenient, 7 to 3. But we learn from the start that while we can subtract 3 from 7, there’s no subtracting 7 from 3. This is true when we’re learning arithmetic and numbers are all positive. Some time later we ask, what happens if we go ahead and do this anyway? And figure out a number that makes sense as the answer to “what do you get subtracting 7 from 3”? This introduces us to the negative numbers. It’s a richer idea of what it is to have numbers. We can start to see addition and subtraction as expressions of the same operation.

Linus: 'Lucy, how much is six from four?' Lucy: 'Six from four?! You can't subtract six from four ... you can't subtract a bigger number from a smaller number.' Linus: 'YOU CAN IF YOU'RE STUPID!'
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts for the 27th of August, 1957. The amazing thing is you can if you’re smart, too. We can ask whether it’s good teaching to start instructions with something that’s not true, and then revealing what’s not true about it. My hunch is there is, because this provides the lesson that, even for something as “objective” as mathematics, the way we construct things is a convention. That we can change our tools as we want to do new things.

But we also notice they’re not quite the same. As mentioned, addition can be done in any order. If I need to do 7 + 4 + 3 + 6 I can decide I’d rather do 4 + 6 + 7 + 3 and make that 10 + 10 before getting to 20. This all simplifies my calculating. If I need to do 7 – 4 – 3 – 6 I get into a lot of trouble if I simplify my work by writing 4 – 6 – 7 – 3 instead. Even if I decide I’d rather take the 3 – 6 and turn that into a negative 3 first, I’ve made a mess of things.

The first property this teaches us to notice we call “commutativity”. Most mathematical operations don’t have that. But a lot of the ones we find useful do. The second property this points out is “associativity”, which more of the operations we find useful have. It’s not essential that someone learning how to calculate know this is a way to categorize mathematics operations. (I’ve read that before the New Math educational reforms of the 1960s, American elementary school mathematics textbooks never mentioned commutativity or associativity.) But I suspect it is essential that someone learning mathematics learn the things you can do come in families.

So let me mention division, the inverse of multiplication. (And that my chosen theme won’t let me get to in sequence.) Like subtraction, division refuses to be commutative or associative. Subtraction prompts us to treat the negative numbers as something useful. In parallel, division prompts us to accept fractions as numbers. (We accepted fractions as numbers long before we accepted negative numbers, mind. Anyone with a pie and three friends has an interest in “one-quarter” that they may not have with “negative four”.) When we start learning about numbers raised to powers, or exponentials, we have questions ready to ask. How do the operations behave? Do they encourage us to find other kinds of number?

And we also think of how to patch up subtraction’s problems. If we want subtraction to be a kind of addition, we have to get precise about what that little subtraction sign means. What we’ve settled on is that a - b is shorthand for a + (-b) , where -b is the additive inverse of b .

Once we do that all subtraction’s problems with commutativity and associativity go away. 7 – 4 – 3 – 6 becomes 7 + (-4) + (-3) + (-6), and that we can shuffle around however convenient. Say, to 7 + (-3) + (-4) + (-6), then to 7 + (-3) + (-10), then to 4 + (-10), and so -6. Thus do we domesticate a useful, wild operation like subtraction.

Any individual subtraction has one right answer. There are many ways to get there, though. I had learned, for example, to do a problem such as 738 minus 451 by subtracting one column of numbers at a time. Right to left, so, subtracting 8 minus 1, and then 3 minus 5, and after the borrowing then 6 minus 4. I remember several elementary school textbooks explaining borrowing as unwrapping rolls of dimes. It was a model well-suited to me.

We don’t need to, though. We can go from the left to the right, doing 7 minus 4 first and 8 minus 1 last. We can go through and figure out all the possible carries before doing any work. There’s a slick method called partial differences which skips all the carrying. But it demands writing out several more intermediate terms. This uses more paper, but if there isn’t a paper shortage, so what?

There are more ways to calculate. If we turn things over to a computer, we’re likely to do subtraction using a complements technique. When I say computer you likely think electronic computer, or did right up to the adjective there. But mechanical computers were a thing too. Blaise Pascal’s computing device of the 1650s used nines’ complements to subtract on the gears that did addition. Explaining the trick would take me farther afield than I want to go now. But, you know how, like, 6 plus 3 is 9? So you can turn a subtraction of 6 into an addition of 3. Or a subtraction of 3 into an addition of 6. Plus some bookkeeping.

A digital computer is likely to use ones’ complements, representing every number as a string of 0’s and 1’s. This has great speed advantages. The complement of 0 is 1 and vice-versa, and it’s very quick for a computer to swap between 0 and 1. Subtraction by complements is different and, to my eye, takes more steps. But they might be steps you do better.

One more thought subtraction gives us, though. In a previous paragraph I wrote out 7 – 4, and also wrote 7 + (-4). We use the symbol – for two things. Do those two uses of – mean the same thing? You may think I’m being fussy here. After all, the value of -4 is the same as the value of 0 – 4. And even a fussy mathematician says whichever of “minus four” and “negative four” better fits the meter of the sentence. But our friends in the philosophy department would agree this is a fair question. Are we collapsing two related ideas together by using the same symbol for them?

My inclination is to say that the – of -4 is different from the – in 0 – 4, though. The – in -4 is a unary operation: it means “give me the inverse of the number on the right”. The – in 0 – 4 is a binary operation: it means “subtract the number on the right from the number on the left”. So I would say these are different things sharing a symbol. Unfortunately our friends in the philosophy department can’t answer the question for us. The university laid them off four years ago, part of society’s realignment away from questions like “how can we recognize when a thing is true?” and towards “how can we teach proto-laborers to use Excel macros?”. We have to use subtraction to expand our thinking on our own.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

11 thoughts on “My Little 2021 Mathematics A-to-Z: Subtraction”

      1. Oh, it’s nothing to apologize for! It’s the kind of thing that’s on lots of our minds, I’m sure, and if anything it’s reassuring to know other people are thinking the same.

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        1. I appreciate both your comments, and apologize for being late in responding. It’s just caused me to realize that I haven’t been handling my stress as well as I might. And while I am, I think, being fair in what I am angry about, I can be more judicious about how I express it.

          Liked by 1 person

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