45
$\begingroup$

Sometimes equation and formula are used interchangeably, but I was wondering if there is a difference.

For example, suppose we can calculate a car's fuel efficiency as:

mpg = distance traveled in miles / the fuel used in a gallon

Is that an equation or formula?

$\endgroup$
2
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ According to mathsisfun.com/algebra/equation-formula.html, a formula shows a relationship between 2 or more variables, while an equation doesn't necessarily. $\endgroup$
    – endolith
    Aug 11, 2014 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ I was told by my guide that a very simple expression (for an unknown in terms of known) is better called an equation rather than a formula. I am noting this down here as I didn't see such a distinction based on the complexity of the expression in any of the answers. $\endgroup$ Jun 28, 2019 at 5:31

13 Answers 13

36
$\begingroup$

An equation is any expression with an equals sign, so your example is by definition an equation. Equations appear frequently in mathematics because mathematicians love to use equal signs.

A formula is a set of instructions for creating a desired result. Non-mathematical examples include such things as chemical formulas (two H and one O make H2O), or the formula for Coca-Cola (which is just a list of ingredients). You can argue that these examples are not equations, in the sense that hydrogen and oxygen are not "equal" to water, yet you can use them to make water.

Mathematicians have long since realized that when it comes to numbers, certain formulas can be expressed most succinctly as equations. For example, the Pythagorean Theorem $a^2+b^2=c^2$ can be thought of as a formula for finding the length of the side of a right triangle, but it turns out that such a length is always equal to a combination of the other two lengths, so we can express the formula as an equation. The key idea is that the equation captures not just the ingredients of the formula, but also the relationship between the different ingredients.

In your case, "mpg = distance/gallons" is best understood as "a formula in the form of an equation", which means that in this instance the two words are interchangeable.

$\endgroup$
3
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ There is also the technical meaning of "formula" as a well-formed arrangement of lexical pieces of a formal language, which I think is possibly more to the point here. In which case equations are a special case of formula. $\endgroup$ Feb 27, 2014 at 22:21
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Can you give an example of a formula without an equals sign? $\endgroup$
    – ksoo
    Apr 9, 2014 at 13:15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ So tl;dr formula = algorithm? $\endgroup$
    – MarcusJ
    Jan 9, 2017 at 18:15
14
$\begingroup$

An equation is meant to be solved, that is, there are some unknowns. A formula is meant to be evaluated, that is, you replace all variables in it with values and get the value of the formula.

Your example is a formula for mpg. But it can become an equation if mpg and one of the other value is given and the remaining value is sought.

$\endgroup$
9
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ So, is $y=3x+1$ the "formula for a line in the plane" or an equation for a line in the plane? $\endgroup$ May 10, 2011 at 2:22
  • $\begingroup$ And if you treat a formula as an equation, solving for one variable to express in terms of other variables, then you have a new formula... $\endgroup$ May 10, 2011 at 2:22
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @lhf: Suffice it to say, I don't think I agree with your dichotomy. $\endgroup$ May 10, 2011 at 2:25
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Better to ask this at the "english stack exchange". I think there are really sensical members there... $\endgroup$ May 10, 2011 at 9:24
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Alexander, so a formula is like a dead equation? :-) $\endgroup$
    – lhf
    May 10, 2011 at 12:02
6
$\begingroup$

I'd say an equation is anything with an equals sign in it; a formula is an equation of the form $A={\rm\ stuff}$ where $A$ does not appear among the stuff on the right side.

$\endgroup$
1
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think the second one is a bit different. I think formula is an useful equation or kind of. $\endgroup$
    – Sawarnik
    Jan 28, 2014 at 11:10
5
$\begingroup$

Please down vote me if you wish - but I would say these words are really synonyms to each other. They both express that there is some underlying relation between some mathematical expressions.

$\endgroup$
6
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Synonyms? $ax^2+bx+c=0$ is a quadratic equation; $x={-b\pm\sqrt{b^2-4ac}\over2a}$ is the quadratic formula. $\endgroup$ May 10, 2011 at 13:28
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ By your definition, Gerry, the quadratic equation is a formula for zero. $\endgroup$
    – Greg L
    Jun 12, 2012 at 4:35
  • $\begingroup$ No downvote. I think that over time the distinction is lost. My math teacher, 35 years ago stated "formulas are used in chemistry, in math we have equations". To this day, the word 'formula' in math seems wrong, but I'd accept it's used commonly. $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2013 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeTaxpayer Thanks. Your teacher was right, but that does not exclude formulas in mathematics. I myself use both words. $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2013 at 17:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JoeTaxpayer I my opinion we can use both things as long as we understand each other. $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2013 at 22:00
2
$\begingroup$

A formula is an equation that shows the relationship between two or more quantities. It would be the rule or instructions that is use to show the relationship between two or more quantities.

An equation is a problem displayed with numerals or symbols with an equals (=) sign included somewhere; usually near the end of the equation. Unless, it is a ratio or division.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

You solve an equation, while you evaluate a formula.

By the way, an equation that holds whatever the values of the variables is an identity.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

$e=mc^2$ and $f=ma$ are "equations", not normally called "formulas". You wouldn't say the "force formula", but the "force equation". They can have an infinite number of solutions. so i'd say the terms are interchangeable too.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Force

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

A simple answer comes from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zwbq6yc/revision/1

For your convenience a succinct explanation from the link is:

A formula:

  1. shows the relationship between two or more variables (e.g. $\frac{9}{5}^{\circ}C + 32 =^{\circ}F$)
  2. is a calculation for a specific purpose (e.g. the conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit)
  3. is always true, subject to certain conditions, no matter the inputs.

An equation:

  1. will usually have only one variable, though it may appear more than once
  2. will be correct only for certain values (e.g. $2x = 10$ is only true for $x = 5$)
  3. is not always true.

Though I suggest you look at expressions and identities too.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

An equation is a relationship that defines a restriction. for instance: $ area >= 2*depth*ratio $

In a formula, the equal sign actually means an assignment ($ \leftarrow $): e.g. $ f(x,y) \leftarrow x^2+y^2 $

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

TL;DR I'd say it really depends on the context.


what i remember in highschool/2ndary school/secondary school:

We were given problems like

Given length and area of a rectangle, find its width.

(Not exactly rectangle. that's of course more primary/grade school. Can be rectangular prism or whatever.)

The 'formula' is $A =wl$.

The 'equation' is what you get when you plug in the given values for $A$ and $l$. So if you have $A=10$ and $l=7$, then the equation is $10=7w$.

At the time, I thought it was very nitpicky/subjective/conventional/contextual. Now, I still do but I have the 10,000+ rep and bachelor's and master's degrees to bitch about it.

According to my 2ndary school teachers, what you provided is a formula...but that's in the context of filling in the blanks of equation and formula in school.

Conclusion: I'd say it really depends on the context. If you define equation as a statement with an equal sign, then every formula with an equal sign is an equation... Btw it seems on wiki that there are no inequalities that are formulas.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formula

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

An equation is a statement that connects two expressions with an $=$ sign and asserts their equality.

An identity is an equation that holds for every possible variable tuple:

  • $(x+y)^2\equiv x^2+y^2+2xy$

A conditional equation holds for some variable tuple(s):

  • $x^2+ky^2=1\quad$ (the parameter $k$ is an arbitrary constant, varying to generate a family of equations)

  • $2x^2+3x-5=0\quad$ (in the context of equation-solving, $x$ is an unknown)

  • in particular, in a formula (informally: function), each input tuple returns an output called the subject:

    $A=\pi r^2h$

An inconsistent equation holds for no variable tuple:

  • $|2x|=x-1$
$\endgroup$
0
0
$\begingroup$

In a formula all the variables can be arbitrarily chosen. An equation admits only particular values of non-constant variable/s.

$\endgroup$
-1
$\begingroup$

One way to answer this question has been developed in the first and second courses of U.S. high school algebra.

In the fist course, the following definitions are formally stated in the glossary.

equation: A statement formed by placing an equals sign between two numerical or variable expressions.

For example, $11-7=4$, $5x-1=9$, and $y+2=2+y$ are all equations because they all satisfy the given definition.

The following definition for a formula is also found formally stated in the glossary:

formula: An equation that states a rule about a relationship.

Here are two useful formulas: $A=lw$, the formula for the area of a rectangle; $P=2l+2w$, the formula for the perimeter of a rectangle.

While at the beginning of the the second course, the following sentence summarizes that the relationship is between two or more variables:

A formula is an equation that states a relationship between two or more variables.

$\endgroup$
0

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.