6
$\begingroup$

Why do we multiply/divide first, and then add/subtract later?

I mean, what I'm curious about is that is this a universal rule, or a man-decided rule? Also how would you decide on which to operate first?

For example, if we were to be visited by aliens, would they be using the same math? Would they also multiply first, add later?

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ It was person-decided. I use parentheses to avoid potential ambiguity. $\endgroup$ – André Nicolas Mar 29 '14 at 20:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ All of maths is 'how man decided'. Unless you take a foolish Platonic view of mathematics. As alas so many do. $\endgroup$ – Frank Mar 29 '14 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Frank Not quite. While creating mathematics one should take care that no contradictions are produced. For example one can not just make up some arbitrary distributive law for addition and multiplication. The rule that "multiplication comes first" indeed is a choice as "addition comes first" would also have no weird consequences. $\endgroup$ – Dirk Mar 29 '14 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ It is an arbitrary choice, there actually are programming languages (J, for example) where operators all have the same precedence $\endgroup$ – Alessandro Codenotti Mar 29 '14 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Dirk And who decides what a contradiction is? Another man-made decision. $\endgroup$ – Frank Mar 30 '14 at 14:24
6
$\begingroup$

This is just a notational convention to allow one of the expressions $$(a+b)\cdot c\qquad a+(b\cdot c) $$be written without parentheses. One could have chosen the other (or to always require parentheses), but think how complicated it would make writing e.g. polynomials (unless written as product of linear factors). The same considereation holds for why $a-b-c$ stands for $(a-b)-c$ and not for $a-(b-c)$. Alternatively, one might introdue a prefix ore postfix (instead of infix) notation, aka. (reverse) Polish notation, i.e. $ab+c\cdot$ or $\cdot +abc$ vs. $abc\cdot+$ or $+a\cdot bc$.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ On the other hand, the other convention might make it easier to write polynomials expanded after Horner's method, so who knows what we have lost because of it? We might have a whole body of technique for dealing with Horner-expanded polynomials that doesn't exist at present. $\endgroup$ – MJD Mar 29 '14 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ @MJD: Horner's method alternates addition and multiplication, so wouldn't it require the same number of parentheses either way? $\endgroup$ – Rahul Mar 29 '14 at 21:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Rahul: If our goal were to make Horner-expanded polynomials easy to write, we could make it the convention that everything has the same precedence and is simply evaluated left to right (as we do for addition and subtraction). $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Mar 29 '14 at 21:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Rahul You're right; it was an ill-considered comment. $\endgroup$ – MJD Mar 29 '14 at 21:54
0
$\begingroup$

The order of operations were "man-made". If there were no such thing as "Order of Operations", an expression like $3+4\times 7+2^2\div 4$ can have many different answers. One could add $3+4=7$, then times $7$ to get $49$, then plus $2^2$ to get $53$, and finally divide by $4$ to get $\dfrac{53}{4}$. But if we follow the order of operations, we would get a different answer. $$3+4\times 7+2^2\div 4=3+4\times 7+1=3+28+1=32$$ To avoid these different answers, we created the Order of Operations so that each expression has only one answer.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

Complementary to what others said, the order of operations is also a natural consequence of rewriting expressions to avoid ambiguity.

For example, $3\times 4+1$. If this were all addition, there’d be no problem, because addition is commutative and associative. To rewrite this with only addition: $4+4+4+1$, so you’re essentially evaluating the multiplication first to make it unambiguous. Same is true for exponents and other hyperoperations like tetration. And without choosing a set order multiplication and addition would lose associativity and commutativity, eg sometimes $3\times 4+1\neq 4\times 3+1$ (which would surely lead to problems in defining other functions elsewhere). It’s completely a choice, but does make things clearer and simpler, and as others have pointed out tends to be more useful.

$\endgroup$

protected by Community Mar 2 '18 at 21:59

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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