Subtraction with Negative Numbers: A Comprehensive Guide with Examples

Subtracting negative numbers might initially seem challenging, but with a solid grasp of the underlying concepts, the process becomes intuitive. Let’s embark on a journey to understand subtraction involving negative numbers, aided by practical examples.

Foundational Understanding

Negative numbers are integral to the number system. They’re numbers less than zero and are usually represented on the left side of a number line. A primary characteristic of negative numbers is that they have a minus (-) sign before them.

Subtraction with Negative Numbers

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The Concept of Additive Inverse

Before diving into subtraction, it’s crucial to understand the idea of the additive inverse. Every number has an opposite called its additive inverse. When a number and its additive inverse are added together, the result is zero. For instance, the additive inverse of 5 is -5 because 5 + (-5) = 0.

Subtraction as Adding the Additive Inverse

One fundamental principle to remember is that subtraction is equivalent to adding the additive inverse. Thus, a – b is the same as a + (-b).

Subtracting Negative Numbers: Basic Principles

a. Subtracting a Negative from a Positive:

a – (-b) = a + b


Consider 5 – (-3). Here, you’re subtracting -3 from 5.

According to our principle: 5 – (-3) = 5 + 3 = 8.

b. Subtracting a Positive from a Negative:

-a – b = -a + (-b)


For -7 – 4:

This translates to -7 + (-4) = -11.

c. Subtracting Two Negative Numbers:

-a – (-b) = -a + b


With -6 – (-4):

This becomes -6 + 4 = -2.

Visualizing with the Number Line

a. Subtracting a Negative from a Positive:

Starting at 5 on the number line and subtracting -3 means you’ll move 3 units to the right (since subtracting a negative is like adding its positive counterpart). You’ll land on 8.

b. Subtracting a Positive from a Negative:

Starting at -7 and subtracting 4, you’ll move 4 units to the left and land on -11.

c. Subtracting Two Negative Numbers:

From -6, subtracting -4 means you’ll move 4 units to the right, ending at -2.

Applications and Real-Life Scenarios

a. Financial Transactions:

Imagine having a debt (negative balance) of $500. If a friend returns $200 they owed you, you’re essentially subtracting a negative from a negative: -500 – (-200) = -500 + 200 = -300. You’d still owe $300.

b. Altitude and Depth:

Consider being 5 meters below sea level (represented as -5 meters). If you dive another 3 meters down, you’re going 3 meters deeper into the negative: -5 – 3 = -8. You’d be at an altitude of -8 meters.

c. Temperature Changes:

Suppose the temperature is -10°C and drops by another 5°C. The new temperature would be -10 – 5 = -15°C.

Common Misconceptions

  • Two Negatives Make a Positive: While this is true for multiplication, subtraction operates differently. It’s essential to remember that subtracting a negative effectively means you’re adding its positive counterpart.
  • Overuse of the Number Line: While a number line is a handy tool, relying solely on it can be limiting. Understanding the underlying principles provides a more holistic grasp.
Subtraction with Negative Numbers

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Practice Problems

1. 7 – (-9) = ?

2. -12 – 5 = ?

3. -6 – (-4) = ?


1. 16

2. -17

3. -2


Subtraction involving negative numbers, though initially counterintuitive, becomes straightforward once the foundational concepts are clear. By understanding the additive inverse and the principle that subtracting is like adding the opposite, we can tackle a myriad of problems involving negative numbers. Whether it’s financial calculations, tracking altitude, or noting temperature changes, mastering subtraction with negatives is an invaluable skill in both academia and daily life.

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