13.5: Combinations
What if you were ordering an ice cream sundae? You can pick three ice cream flavors from 12 total flavors to make it. How many combinations of ice cream do you have to choose from? After completing this Concept, you'll be able to calculate combinations like this one using a formula.
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CK12 Foundation: Combinations
Guidance
In the previous lesson we looked at situations where the order of an arrangement is important. For example, when looking at 3digit numbers, the number 123 is very different from the number 312, even though it contains the same 3 digits. But in some situations, the order is not important – for example, when looking at cards in a hand of poker, or choosing toppings to put on a pizza. In these situations, when order is not important, we are looking at combinations of items. For example, if you are a poker player you might want to know the probability of being dealt four aces in a hand of five cards. You don’t care in which order you receive the ace cards – only the fact that you have four of them is important.
Counting Combinations
Just as with permutations, it’s sometimes easiest to calculate combinations by listing all the possibilities available, and counting them. The only difference is, when we list one combination, we automatically exclude a larger number of permutations. For example a poker hand that is (ace, ace, ace, ace, king
Example A
Anne wishes to knit herself a striped sweater. She has 4 colors of yarn available; red, blue, green and yellow. How many different combinations of two colors does she have to choose from?
Solution
When we just choose color pairs, there will be fewer combinations than we would have if we were counting permutations as in the previous lesson. For example red and blue is equivalent to blue and red, and we should only count one as a unique pairing. We start by listing the color pairs but we will also write down equivalent pairings at the same time. This will help prevent us from repeating combinations:
Pairing  Equivalent pairings (do not count) 

Red & blue  blue & red 
Red & green  green & red 
Red & yellow  yellow & red 
Green & blue  blue & green 
Green & yellow  yellow & green 
Yellow & blue  blue & yellow 
So there are 6 distinct combinations. There are also 6 “repeat” pairings – for every pair of colors we choose there is 1 combination but 2 permutations. Anne can choose from six distinct color pairs for her sweater.
Example B
Triominoes Pizza Company specializes in 3topping pizzas. If the available toppings are cheese, pepperoni, mushroom, pineapple and olives, how many different 3topping combinations can customers choose from?
Solution
We’ll start by making a table and list first choice, second choice and third choice:




cheese  pepperoni  mushroom 
cheese  pepperoni  pineapple 
cheese  pepperoni  olives 
cheese  mushroom  pineapple 
cheese  mushroom  olives 
cheese  pineapple  olives 
pepperoni  mushroom  pineapple 
pepperoni  mushroom  olives 
pepperoni  pineapple  olives 
mushroom  pineapple  olives 
Note that as we progress through the choices for first topping, the number of combinations we have for the second and third toppings get fewer. This is because some combinations have already been used, in a different order.
By counting the table entries we see that there are 10 possibilities for a 3topping pizza.
Determining Combinations by Looking at Permutations
You can see that there are always fewer combinations than permutations in a given situation – but you should also see that knowing which combinations have already been used is important to avoid counting combinations twice. One combination can give rise to several permutations of the same objects.
Another way to calculate combinations is this: If we know how many permutations there are in a system and how many permutations there are for each combination, then we can divide the number of permutations by the number of permutations for each combination to get the number of combinations.
To illustrate this, look again at the Triominoes Pizza menu. If we were to look at permutations of toppings, we could quickly calculate that there are
So for every different combination there are 6 distinct permutations. Since we have a formula for counting permutations, we can use it to find out how many total permutations there are and simply divide that number by 6:
Find Combinations Using a Formula
If you look back at examples 1 and 2 you can see that the number of permutations is a simple multiple of the number of combinations. In example 1 there are two times as many permutations as combinations. In example 2 there are six times as many permutations as combinations. One question you might be asking is: “How do I know how the number of combinations is related to the number of permutations?”
A more important question might be “where did the numbers two and six come from?” If you think carefully you should realize that any time you’ve chosen 2 objects, there are only 2 ways of ordering them, while if you’ve chosen 3 objects there are 3! ways of ordering them (6 ways). Similarly, if you choose 7 objects, there will be 7! ways of arranging them. We can make use of this fact when calculating combinations. The number of combinations is the number of permutations divided by the number of ways of arranging the items you choose. If you choose
In other words, the number of combinations is equal to the number of permutations divided by
Example C
Andrew is packing for a vacation. He owns twelve shirts and wants to pack five of them. How many combinations of shirts does he have to choose from?
Solution
Since the order he packs his shirts in is not important, we are looking at a combination. He is choosing five shirts from a total of twelve:
Choosing 5 from 12:
Watch this video for help with the Examples above.
CK12 Foundation: Combinations
Vocabulary
 A combination is when we are choosing
r ordered items from a group ofn items, where the order chosen does not matter. The number of combinations is given by the formula:
Guided Practice
At Summerfield High School, the student council has 8 students, 3 of whom are needed to be on the prom committee. How many ways can the prom committee be chosen?
Solution:
There are:
56 ways to chosen the prom committee.
Practice
For 14, how many combinations are possible in the following situations?
 Buying a hotdog with two of the following toppings: ketchup, mustard, chili, cheese, & pickles.
 Choosing 5 CDs from a selection of 8.
 Selecting 3 games from a box containing Scrabble, Twister, Connect4, Snap & Mousetrap.
 What do you notice about the answers to parts a and c? How might this be explained by the formula for finding numbers of combinations?
For 514, evaluate the following:

3C1 
7C1 
6C2 
8C8 
9C3 
9C6 
7C3 
17C4 
30C11 
10C0
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Here you'll learn another method of calculating the number of ways in which objects can be arranged, one in which the order of the objects does not matter, called a combination. You'll also use factorial notation in a formula to find the number of combinations.