topic badge

1.02 Addition and subtraction of integers


Adding and subtracting integers

Now that we are familiar with locating integers on the number line, we can think about how to use the number line to add and subtract with integers.


When we were adding and subtracting whole numbers, the result was always another whole number. In particular, the result of a subtraction was always greater than or equal to zero. If we imagine the expression $5-3=2$53=2 to represent taking $3$3 apples from a pile of $5$5 apples, then it doesn’t make much sense to ask how many apples are left after performing the subtraction $3-5$35.

It turns out that apple arithmetic is fine for whole numbers, but it is not good enough if we want to make full use of the integers, which include positive and negative numbers. To understand the addition and subtraction of integers we can instead use the arithmetic of arrows on the number line or integer chips (yellow for positive and red for negative). This will give us a way to move back and forth along the number line, and to make sense of expressions like $3-5$35.

Arrows on the number line - addition

To begin, we can imagine that for every integer on the number line there is a corresponding arrow going from $0$0 to that integer. For a number line with the positive direction to the right, the positive integers have arrows that point to the right, and the negative integers have arrows that point to the left.

The addition of integers can be represented by adding their arrows on the number line. When we combine the lengths and directions of two arrows, we get a third arrow whose length and direction corresponds to an integer.

The image below shows how $6+2=8$6+2=8 is represented using the addition of arrows on the number line. Can you see how the order of addition does not affect the result?

The arrows are added tip to tail.


What if we want to add a negative integer? We use the same approach, the only difference being that the arrows are pointing in different directions. The image below shows that $4+\left(-9\right)=-5$4+(9)=5, which is the same result that we get from $\left(-9\right)+4$(9)+4.

The tip of arrow $4$4 connects to the tail of arrow $-9$9.


The examples above show how we can combine positive and negative integers using addition to produce any other integer we like.


Arrows on the number line - subtraction

Let's go back to our example of $3-5$35, this is actually the same as $3+\left(-5\right)=-2$3+(5)=2, as shown below. In other words, subtracting $5$5 is the same as adding the opposite of $5$5.

The opposite of $5$5 is $-5$5. When we add the $-5$5 arrow to the $3$3 arrow we get $-2$2.


Finally, we can use the idea that subtracting a number is the same as adding its opposite to make sense of the expression $7-\left(-2\right)$7(2). Taking away $-2$2 is the same as adding the opposite of $-2$2, which we can write as $7+\left(-\left(-2\right)\right)$7+((2)). Now, this number $\left(-\left(-2\right)\right)$((2)) is “the opposite of the opposite of $2$2”, which we know is just $2$2. So we have $7-\left(-2\right)=7+2$7(2)=7+2, which gives $9$9 from our now familiar addition of arrows.

Subtracting an integer is the same as adding its opposite. The opposite of $-2$2 is $2$2.


Use the applet below to explore how to add and subtract integers on the number line. What kind of arrows add together to give $0$0? What is the result of adding $0$0 to any other integer?


Addition and subtraction using integer chips

Another way to think about integer addition and subtraction is through integer chips. Each yellow chip represents $+1$+1 and each red chip represents $-1$1. So if we have one yellow and one red chip, they will cancel out to give $0$0.

Use this applet below to explore how to use integer chips to add or subtract integers.

Set-up an expression using the sliders and drop down, then click "Start" to begin the animation, when you have read the text click "Next" to see the next action.

Credit: John Ulbright


Using adjacent signs

We have seen that any way we might want to move back or forth along the number line can be expressed as a sum of integers. Subtraction is just a particular kind of addition.

However, the concept of subtraction is still useful; in many cases it can make more sense to take away an integer rather than add its opposite. So it is common to see expressions involving the addition of a negative integer rewritten as the subtraction of a positive integer. This process is called combining adjacent signs.


Combining adjacent signs

For a number line with the positive direction to the right, we find the following results.

  • Adding a positive integer means we move to the right:
    $3+\left(+5\right)$3+(+5) $=$= $8$8 $=$= $3+5$3+5
  • Adding a negative integer means we move to the left:
    $3+\left(-5\right)$3+(5) $=$= $-2$2 $=$= $3-5$35
  • Subtracting a positive integer means we move to the left:
    $3-\left(+5\right)$3(+5) $=$= $-2$2 $=$= $3-5$35
  • Subtracting a negative integer means we move to the right:
    $3-\left(-5\right)$3(5) $=$= $8$8 $=$= $3+5$3+5


In an expression like $3+\left(-5\right)$3+(5), the $+$+ and $-$ are adjacent signs which are combined into one subtraction operation to give $3-5$35. This is a common way to simplify expressions. However, notice that these adjacent signs have different meanings. The first tells us the operation (either addition or subtraction), while the second tells us the sign of the integer (either positive or negative).

With this in mind, an expression like $3-\left(-5\right)$3(5) would best be read as "$3$3 subtract negative $5$5", or "$3$3 take away negative $5$5", or even "$3$3 minus negative $5$5". We would like to avoid reading it as "$3$3 minus minus $5$5", since "minus" is an operation, not the sign of the integer $-5$5.


Worked examples

Question 1

Find the value of $11+\left(-6\right)$11+(6).

Think: Adding a negative integer to $11$11 means we will move to the left on the number line from $11$11.

Do: The integer $11$11 is eleven units to the right of $0$0. From here we want to move $6$6 units to the left.

The integer we end up at is $5$5. This means that $11+\left(-6\right)=5$11+(6)=5.

Reflect: As an alternative approach, we could have first combined the adjacent signs to simplify the expression. This would make $11+\left(-6\right)=11-6$11+(6)=116. Counting down $6$6 units from $11$11 gives $5$5, as expected.


Question 2

Find the value of $-8+2-\left(-7\right)$8+2(7).

Think: This expression has three integers, but our approach will be no different from dealing with two integers. First we can combine the adjacent signs, then use the number line to evaluate the resulting expression.

Do: Subtracting a number is the same as adding the opposite of that number. So we can combine the adjacent signs by writing

$-8+2-\left(-7\right)$8+2(7) $=$= $-8+2+\left(-\left(-7\right)\right)$8+2+((7))

Adding the opposite of $-7$7

  $=$= $-8+2+7$8+2+7

The opposite of the opposite of an integer is that same integer


Now we have a much simpler addition. We can evaluate this expression by moving left to right, in the same direction that we read a sentence. So we can first evaluate $-8+2$8+2, then add $7$7 to the result.

The number line below shows that $-8+2=-6$8+2=6.

Now we want to evaluate $-6+7$6+7. Counting up $7$7 units from $-6$6 gets us to $1$1. The whole evaluation can be performed on one number line, as shown below.

Reflect: The order of addition does not matter, so we could have started by summing the last two integers, then adding the result to the first integer. Here is the evaluation in steps:

$-8+2-\left(-7\right)$8+2(7) $=$= $-8+2+7$8+2+7

Combining adjacent signs

  $=$= $-8+9$8+9

Performing $2+7$2+7 first

  $=$= $1$1

Performing the final sum

Can you think of other ways we could rearrange the expression to make the evaluation easier?


Practice questions

Question 3

Find the value of $-7+15$7+15.

Question 4

Find the value of $2-\left(-3\right)$2(3).

Question 5

Find the value of $-12+16+\left(-18\right)$12+16+(18).




Apply and extend previous understandings of addition and subtraction to add and subtract rational numbers; represent addition and subtraction on a horizontal or vertical number line diagram.


Describe situations in which opposite quantities combine to make 0.


Understand p q as the number located a distance |q| from p, in the positive or negative direction depending on whether q is positive or negative. Show that a number and its opposite have a sum of 0 (are additive inverses). Interpret sums of rational numbers by describing real-world contexts.


Understand subtraction of rational numbers as adding the additive inverse, p - q = p (-q). Show that the distance between two rational numbers on the number line is the absolute value of their difference, and apply this principle in real-world contexts.

What is Mathspace

About Mathspace