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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 minus sign in infix notation.

The traditional names for the parts of the formula

are minuend (c) − subtrahend (b) = difference (a). The words "minuend" and "subtrahend" are uncommon in modern usage.[1] 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:

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.


Basic subtraction: integers

Imagine a line segment of length b with the left end labeled a and the right end labeled c. Starting from a, it takes b steps to the right to reach c. This movement to the right is modeled mathematically by addition:

From c, it takes b steps to the left to get back to a. This movement to the left is modeled by subtraction:

Now, imagine a line segment labeled with the numbers 1, 2, and 3. From position 3, it takes no steps to the left to stay at 3, so 3 − 0 = 3. It takes 2 steps to the left to get to position 1, so 3 − 2 = 1. This picture is inadequate to describe what would happen after going 3 steps to the left of position 3. To represent such an operation, the line must be extended.

To subtract arbitrary natural numbers, one begins with a line containing every natural number (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, ...). From 3, it takes 3 steps to the left to get to 0, so 3 − 3 = 0. But 3 − 4 is still invalid since it again leaves the line. The natural numbers are not a useful context for subtraction.

The solution is to consider the integer number line (…, −3, −2, −1, 0, 1, 2, 3, …). From 3, it takes 4 steps to the left to get to −1:

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