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Order of Operations

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Order of Operations

What if you had a mathematical expression with multiple operations like 17 - 4 \div 2 + 3 \times 5 ? How could you find its value? After completing this Concept, you'll be able to use the order of operations to evaluate expressions like this one.

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CK-12 Foundation: 0104S Evaluate Algebraic Expressions with Grouping Symbols

Guidance

Look at and evaluate the following expression:

 2 + 4 \times 7 - 1 = ?

How many different ways can we interpret this problem, and how many different answers could someone possibly find for it?

The simplest way to evaluate the expression is simply to start at the left and work your way across:

& 2 + 4 \times 7 - 1\\&= 6 \times 7 - 1\\&= 42 - 1\\&= 41

This is the answer you would get if you entered the expression into an ordinary calculator. But if you entered the expression into a scientific calculator or a graphing calculator you would probably get 29 as the answer.

In mathematics, the order in which we perform the various operations (such as adding, multiplying, etc.) is important. In the expression above, the operation of multiplication takes precedence over addition , so we evaluate it first. Let’s re-write the expression, but put the multiplication in brackets to show that it is to be evaluated first.

2 + (4 \times 7) - 1 = ?

First evaluate the brackets: 4 \times 7 = 28 . Our expression becomes:

 2 + (28) - 1 = ?

When we have only addition and subtraction, we start at the left and work across:

& 2 + 28 - 1\\&= 30 - 1\\ &= 29

Algebra students often use the word “PEMDAS” to help remember the order in which we evaluate the mathematical expressions: P arentheses, E xponents, M ultiplication, D ivision, A ddition and S ubtraction.

Order of Operations

  1. Evaluate expressions within P arentheses (also all brackets [ \ ] and braces { }) first.
  2. Evaluate all E xponents (terms such as 3^2 or x^3 ) next.
  3. M ultiplication and D ivision is next - work from left to right completing both multiplication and division in the order that they appear.
  4. Finally, evaluate A ddition and S ubtraction - work from left to right completing both addition and subtraction in the order that they appear.

The first step in the order of operations is called parentheses , but we include all grouping symbols in this step—not just parentheses ( ) , but also square brackets [ \ ] and curly braces { }.

Example A

Evaluate the following:

a) 4 - 7 - 11 + 2

b) 4 - (7 - 11) + 2

c) 4 - [7 - (11 + 2)]

Each of these expressions has the same numbers and the same mathematical operations, in the same order. The placement of the various grouping symbols means, however, that we must evaluate everything in a different order each time. Let's look at how we evaluate each of these examples.

a) This expression doesn't have parentheses, exponents, multiplication, or division. PEMDAS states that we treat addition and subtraction as they appear, starting at the left and working right (it’s NOT addition then subtraction).

4 - 7 - 11 + 2 & =  -3 - 11 + 2\\&= -14 + 2\\&= -12

b) This expression has parentheses, so we first evaluate 7 - 11= -4 . Remember that when we subtract a negative it is equivalent to adding a positive:

4 - (7 - 11) + 2 & = 4 - (-4) + 2\\&= 8 + 2\\&= 10

c) An expression can contain any number of sets of parentheses. Sometimes expressions will have sets of parentheses inside other sets of parentheses. When faced with nested parentheses , start at the innermost parentheses and work outward.

Brackets may also be used to group expressions which already contain parentheses. This expression has both brackets and parentheses. We start with the innermost group: 11 + 2 = 13 . Then we complete the operation in the brackets.

 4 - [7 - (11 + 2)] &= 4 - [7 - (13)]\\&= 4 - [-6]\\&= 10

Example B

Evaluate the following:

a) 3 \times 5 - 7 \div 2

b) 3 \times (5 - 7) \div 2

a) There are no grouping symbols. PEMDAS dictates that we multiply and divide first, working from left to right: 3 \times 5 = 15 and 7 \div 2 = 3.5 . (NOTE: It’s not multiplication then division.) Next we subtract:

3 \times 5 - 7 \div 2 &= 15 - 3.5\\&= 11.5

b) First, we evaluate the expression inside the parentheses: 5 - 7 = -2 . Then work from left to right:

 3 \times (5 - 7) \div 2 &= 3 \times (-2) \div 2\\ &= (-6) \div 2\\&= -3

We can also use the order of operations to simplify an expression that has variables in it, after we substitute specific values for those variables.

Example C

Use the order of operations to evaluate the following:

a) 2 - (3x + 2) when x = 2

b) 3y^2 + 2y + 1 when y = -3

a) The first step is to substitute the value for x into the expression. We can put it in parentheses to clarify the resulting expression.

2 - (3(2) + 2)

(Note: 3(2) is the same as 3 \times 2 .)

Follow PEMDAS - first parentheses. Inside parentheses follow PEMDAS again.

2 - (3 \times 2 + 2) & = 2 - (6 + 2) \qquad \text{Inside the parentheses, we multiply first.}\\2 - 8 & = -6 \qquad \qquad \quad \ \text{Next we add inside the parentheses, and finally we subtract.}

b) The first step is to substitute the value for y into the expression.

3 \times (-3)^2 + 2 \times (-3)+1

Follow PEMDAS : we cannot simplify the expressions in parentheses, so exponents come next.

& 3 \times (-3)^2 + 2 \times (-3) + 1 \qquad \text{Evaluate exponents:} \ (-3)^2 = 9\\& = 3 \times 9 + 2 \times (-3) + 1 \qquad \ \ \text{Evaluate multiplication:} \ 3 \times 9 = 27; \ 2 \times -3 = -6\\& = 27 + (-6) + 1 \qquad \qquad \quad \ \ \text{Add and subtract in order from left to right.}\\& = 27 - 6 + 1\\& = 22

In part (b) we left the parentheses around the negative numbers to clarify the problem. They did not affect the order of operations, but they did help avoid confusion when we were multiplying negative numbers.

Graphing Calculators

A graphing calculator is a very useful tool in evaluating algebraic expressions. Like a scientific calculator, a graphing calculator follows PEMDAS . In this section we will explain two ways of evaluating expressions with the graphing calculator.

Example D

Evaluate \left [ 3(x^2 - 1)^2 - x^4 + 12 \right ] + 5x^3 - 1 when x = -3 .

Method 1: Substitute for the variable first. Then evaluate the numerical expression with the calculator.

Substitute the value x = -3 into the expression.

\left [3((-3)^2 - 1)^2 - (-3)^4 + 12 \right ] + 5(-3)^3 - 1

Input this in the calculator just as it is and press [ENTER] . (Note: use \land to enter exponents)

The answer is -13.

Method 2: Input the original expression in the calculator first and then evaluate.

First, store the value x = -3 in the calculator. Type -3 [STO] x (The letter x can be entered using the x- [VAR] button or [ALPHA] + [STO] ). Then type the original expression in the calculator and press [ENTER] .

The answer is -13.

The second method is better because you can easily evaluate the same expression for any value you want. For example, let’s evaluate the same expression using the values x = 2 and x = \frac { 2 } { 3 } .

For x = 2 , store the value of x in the calculator: 2 [STO] x . Press [2nd] [ENTER] twice to get the previous expression you typed in on the screen without having to enter it again. Press [ENTER] to evaluate the expression.

The answer is 62.

For x = \frac { 2 } { 3 } , store the value of x in the calculator:  \frac { 2 } { 3 } [STO] x . Press [2nd] [ENTER] twice to get the expression on the screen without having to enter it again. Press [ENTER] to evaluate.

The answer is 13.21, or  \frac { 1070 } { 81 } in fraction form.

Note: On graphing calculators there is a difference between the minus sign and the negative sign. When we stored the value negative three, we needed to use the negative sign which is to the left of the [ENTER] button on the calculator. On the other hand, to perform the subtraction operation in the expression we used the minus sign. The minus sign is right above the plus sign on the right.

Watch this video for help with the Examples above.

CK-12 Foundation: Evaluate with Grouping Symbols

Vocabulary

  • Algebra students often use the word “PEMDAS” to help remember the order in which we evaluate the mathematical expressions: P arentheses, E xponents, M ultiplication, D ivision, A ddition and S ubtraction.

Order of Operations

  1. Evaluate expressions within P arentheses (also all brackets [ \ ] and braces { }) first.
  2. Evaluate all E xponents (terms such as 3^2 or x^3 ) next.
  3. M ultiplication and D ivision is next - work from left to right completing both multiplication and division in the order that they appear.
  4. Finally, evaluate A ddition and S ubtraction - work from left to right completing both addition and subtraction in the order that they appear.
  • The first step in the order of operations is called parentheses , but we include all grouping symbols in this step—not just parentheses ( ) , but also square brackets [ \ ] and curly braces { }.
  • Sometimes expressions will have sets of parentheses inside other sets of parentheses. These are called nested parentheses.

Guided Practice

Use the order of operations to evaluate the following:

a) (3 \times 5) - (7 \div 2)

b)  2 - (t - 7)^2 \times (u^3 - v) when t = 19, \ u = 4, and v = 2

Solutions:

a) First, we evaluate the expressions inside parentheses: 3 \times 5 = 15 and 7 \div 2 = 3.5 . Then work from left to right:

 (3 \times 5) - (7 \div 2) &= 15 - 3.5\\&= 11.5

Note that adding parentheses didn’t change the expression in part c, but did make it easier to read. Parentheses can be used to change the order of operations in an expression, but they can also be used simply to make it easier to understand.

b) The first step is to substitute the values for t, \ u, and v into the expression.

2 - (19 - 7)^2 \times (4^3 - 2)

Follow PEMDAS :

& 2 - (19 - 7)^2 \times (4^3 - 2) \qquad \text{Evaluate parentheses:} \ (19 - 7) = 12; \ (4^3 - 2) = (64 - 2) = 62\\& = 2 - 12^2 \times 62 \qquad \qquad \quad \ \text{Evaluate exponents:} \ 12^2 = 144\\& = 2 - 144 \times 62 \qquad \qquad \quad \ \text{Multiply:} \ 144 \times 62 = 8928\\& = 2 - 8928 \qquad \qquad \qquad \quad \text{Subtract.}\\& = -8926

Part (b) in the last example shows another interesting point. When we have an expression inside the parentheses, we use PEMDAS to determine the order in which we evaluate the contents.

Practice

  1. Evaluate the following expressions involving variables.
    1. 2y^2 when x = 1 and y = 5
    2. 3x^2 + 2x + 1 when x = 5
  2. Use the order of operations to evaluate the following expressions.
    1. 2 + 7 \times 11 - 12 \div 3
  3. Evaluate the following expressions involving variables.
    1. (y^2 - x)^2 when x = 2 and y = 1

For 4-6, use the order of operations to evaluate the following expressions.

  1. 8 - (19 - (2 + 5) - 7)
  2. (3 + 7) \div (7 - 12)
  3. (4 - 1)^2 + 3^2 \cdot 2

For 7-10, insert parentheses in each expression to make a true equation.

  1. 5 - 2 \times 6 - 5 + 2 = 5
  2. 12 \div 4 + 10 - 3 \times 3 + 7 = 11
  3. 22 - 32 - 5 \times 3 - 5 = 30
  4. 12 - 8 - 4 \times 5 = -8

For 11-12, evaluate each expression using a graphing calculator.

  1. x^2 + 2x - xy when x = 250 and y = -120
  2. (xy - y^4)^2 when x = 0.02 and y = -0.025

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