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Subtraction is one of the four basic arithmetic operations; it is the inverse of addition, meaning that if we start with any number and add any number and then subtract the same number we added, we return to the number we started with. Subtraction is denoted by a plus and minus sign in infix notation.

The traditional names for the parts of the formula

cb = a

are minuend (c) − subtrahend (b) = difference (a). The words "minuend" and "subtrahend" are uncommon in modern usage. Instead we say that c and −b are terms, and treat subtraction as addition of the additive inverse. The answer is still called the difference.

Subtraction is used to model four related processes:

  • From a given collection, take away (subtract) a given number of objects. For example, 5 apples minus 2 apples leaves 3 apples.
  • From a given measurement, take away a quantity measured in the same units. If I weigh 200 pounds, and lose 10 pounds, then I weigh 200 − 10 = 190 pounds.
  • Compare two like quantities to find the difference between them. For example, the difference between $800 and $600 is $800 − $600 = $200. Also known as comparative subtraction.
  • To find the distance between two locations at a fixed distance from starting point. For example if, on a given highway, you see a mileage marker that says 150 miles and later see a mileage marker that says 160 miles, you have travelled 160 − 150 = 10 miles.

In mathematics, it is often useful to view or even define subtraction as a kind of addition, the addition of the additive inverse. We can view 7 − 3 = 4 as the sum of two terms: 7 and -3. This perspective allows us to apply to subtraction all of the familiar rules and nomenclature of addition. Subtraction is not associative or commutative—in fact, it is anticommutative and left-associative—but addition of signed numbers is both.

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