I am made aware that a section of Twitter argues about how to evaluate an expression. There may be more than one of these going around, but the expression I’ve seen is:

Many people feel that the challenge is knowing the order of operations. This is reasonable. That is, that to evaluate arithmetic, you evaluate terms inside parentheses first. Then terms within exponentials. Then multiplication and division. Then addition and subtraction. This is often abbreviated as PEMDAS, and made into a mnemonic like “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”.

That is fine as far as it goes. Many people likely start by adding the 1 and 2 within the parentheses, and that’s fair. Then they get:

Putting two quantities next to one another, as the 2 and the (3) are, means to multiply them. And then comes the disagreement: does this mean take and multiply that by 3, in which case the answer is 9? Or does it mean take 6 divided by , in which case the answer is 1?

And there is the trick. Depending on which way you choose to parse these instructions you get different answers. But you don’t get to *do* that, not and have arithmetic. So the answer is that this expression has no answer. The phrasing is ambiguous and can’t be resolved.

I’m aware there are people who reject this answer. They picked up along the line somewhere a rule like “do multiplication and division from left to right”. And a similar rule for addition and subtraction. This is wrong, but understandable. The left-to-right “rule” is a decent heuristic, a guide to how to attack a problem too big to do at once. The rule works because multiplication-and-division associates. The quantity a-times-b, multiplied by c, has to be the same number as the quantity a multiplied by the quantity b-times-c. The rule also works for addition-and-subtraction because addition associates too. The quantity a-plus-b, plus the quantity c, has to be the same as the quantity a plus the quantity b-plus-c.

This left-to-right “rule”, though, just helps you evaluate a meaningful expression. It would be just as valid to do all the multiplications-and-divisions from right-to-left. If you get different values working left-to-right from right-to-left, you have a meaningless expression.

But you also start to see why mathematicians tend to avoid the symbol. We understand, for example, to mean . Carry that out and then there’s no ambiguity about

I understand the desire to fix an ambiguity. Believe me. I’m a know-it-all; I only like ambiguities that enable logic-based jokes. (“Would you like ice cream or cake?” “Yes.”) But the rules that could remove the ambiguity in also remove associativity from multiplication. Once you do that, you’re not doing arithmetic anymore. Resist the urge.

(And the mnemonic is a bit dangerous. We can *say* division has the same priority as multiplication, but we also say “multiplication” first. I bet you can construct an ambiguous expression which would mislead someone who learned Please Excuse Dear Miss Sally Andrews.)

And now a qualifier: computer languages will often impose doing a calculation in some order. Usually left-to-right. The microchips doing the work need to have *some* instructions. Spotting all possible ambiguous phrasings ahead of time is a challenge. But we accept our computers doing not-quite-actual-arithmetic. They’re able to do not-quite-actual-arithmetic much faster and more reliably than we can. This makes the compromise worthwhile. We need to remember the difference between what the computer does and the calculation we intend.

And another qualifier: it is possible to do interesting mathematics with operations that aren’t associative. But if you are it’s in your research as a person with a postgraduate degree in mathematics. It’s possible it might fit in social media, but I would be surprised. It won’t draw great public attention, anyway.