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This thermometer is indicating a negative temperature (−4 °F).

A negative number is a real number that is less than zero. Such numbers are often used to represent the amount of a loss or absence. For example, a debt that is owed may be thought of as a negative asset, or a decrease in some quantity may be thought of as a negative increase. Negative numbers are used to describe values on a scale that goes below zero, such as the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales for temperature.

Negative numbers are usually written with a minus sign in front. For example, −3 represents a negative quantity with a magnitude of three, and is pronounced "minus three" or "negative three". To help tell the difference between a subtraction operation and a negative number, occasionally the negative sign is placed slightly higher than the minus sign (as a superscript). Conversely, a number that is greater than zero is called positive; zero is usually thought of as neither positive nor negative.[1] The positivity of a number may be emphasized by placing a plus sign before it, e.g. +3. In general, the negativity or positivity of a number is referred to as its sign.

In mathematics, every real number other than zero is either positive or negative. The positive whole numbers are referred to as natural numbers, while the positive and negative whole numbers (together with zero) are referred to as integers.

In bookkeeping, amounts owed are often represented by red numbers, or a number in parentheses, as an alternative notation to represent negative numbers.

Negative numbers appeared for the first time in history in the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art, which in its present form dates from the period of the Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220), but may well contain much older material.[2] Indian mathematicians developed consistent and correct rules on the use of negative numbers. Prior to the concept of negative numbers, negative solutions to problems were considered "false" and equations requiring negative solutions were described as absurd.[3]


As the result of subtraction[edit]

Negative numbers can be thought of as resulting from the subtraction of a larger number from a smaller. For example, negative three is the result of subtracting three from zero:

0 − 3  =  −3.

In general, the subtraction of a larger number from a smaller yields a negative result, with the magnitude of the result being the difference between the two numbers. For example,

5 − 8  =  −3

since 8 − 5 = 3.

The number line[edit]

Main article: Number line

The relationship between negative numbers, positive numbers, and zero is often expressed in the form of a number line:

The number line

Numbers appearing farther to the right on this line are greater, while numbers appearing farther to the left are less. Thus zero appears in the middle, with the positive numbers to the right and the negative numbers to the left.

Note that a negative number with greater magnitude is considered less. For example, even though (positive) 8 is greater than (positive) 5, written

8 > 5

negative 8 is considered to be less than negative 5:

−8 < −5.

(Because, for example, if you have £-8 you have less than if you have £-5.) Therefore, any negative number is less than any positive number, so

−8 < 5  and −5 < 8.

Signed numbers[edit]

Main article: Sign (mathematics)

In the context of negative numbers, a number that is greater than zero is referred to as positive. Thus every real number other than zero is either positive or negative, while zero itself is not considered to have a sign. Positive numbers are sometimes written with a plus sign in front, e.g. +3 denotes a positive three.

Because zero is neither positive nor negative, the term nonnegative is sometimes used to refer to a number that is either positive or zero, while nonpositive is used to refer to a number that is either negative or zero. Zero is a neutral number.

Everyday uses of negative numbers[edit]



  • Temperatures which are colder than 0 °C or 0 °F.
  • Latitudes south of the equator and longitudes west of the prime meridian.
  • Topographical features of the earth’s surface are given a height above sea level, which can be negative (e.g. The surface elevation of The Dead Sea).
  • Electrical circuits. When a battery is connected in reverse polarity, the voltage applied is said to be the opposite of its rated voltage. For example a 6(V) battery connected in reverse applies a voltage of −6(V).
  • Ions have a positive or negative electrical charge.
  • Impedance of an AM broadcast tower used in multi-tower directional antenna arrays can have a positive or negative impedance.



  • The numbering of storeys in a building below the ground floor.
  • When playing an audio file on a portable media player, such as an iPod, the screen display may show the time remaining as a negative number, which increases up to zero at the same rate as the time already played increases from zero.
  • Television game shows:
    • Participants on QI often finish with a negative points score.
    • Teams on University Challenge have a negative score if their first answers are incorrect and interrupt the question.
    • Jeopardy! has a negative money score – contestants play for an amount of money and any incorrect answer that costs them more than what they have now can result in a negative score.
    • The Price Is Right pricing game Buy or Sell, if any money is lost and is more than the amount currently in the bank, it also incurs a negative score.
  • The change in support for a political party between elections, known as swing.
  • In video games, a negative number indicates loss of life, damage, a score penalty, or consumption of a resource, depending on the genre of the simulation.
  • Employees with flexible working hours may have a negative balance on their timesheet if they’ve worked fewer total hours than contracted to that point. Employees may be able to take more than their annual holiday allowance in a year, and carry forward a negative balance to the next year.

Arithmetic involving negative numbers[edit]

The minus sign "−" signifies the operator for both the binary (two-operand) operation of subtraction (as in y − z) and the unary (one-operand) operation of negation (as in −x, or twice in −(−x)). A special case of unary negation occurs when it operates on a positive number, in which case the result is a negative number (as in −5).

The ambiguity of the "−" symbol does not generally lead to ambiguity in arithmetical expressions, because the order of operations makes only one interpretation or the other possible for each "−". However, it can lead to confusion and be difficult for a person to understand an expression when operator symbols appear adjacent to one another. A solution can be to parenthesize the unary "−" along with its operand.

For example, the expression 7 + −5 may be clearer if written 7 + (−5) (even though they mean exactly the same thing formally). The subtraction expression 7–5 is a different expression that doesn't represent the same operations, but it evaluates to the same result.

Sometimes in elementary schools a number may be prefixed by a superscript minus sign or plus sign to explicitly distinguish negative and positive numbers as in[9]

2 + 5  gives 7.


A visual representation of the addition of positive and negative numbers. Larger balls represent numbers with greater magnitude.

Addition of two negative numbers is very similar to addition of two positive numbers. For example,

(−3) + (−5)  =  −8.

The idea is that two debts can be combined into a single debt of greater magnitude.

When adding together a mixture of positive and negative numbers, one can think of the negative numbers as positive quantities being subtracted. For example:

8 + (−3)  =  8 − 3  =  5  and (−2) + 7  =  7 − 2  =  5.

In the first example, a credit of 8 is combined with a debt of 3, which yields a total credit of 5. If the negative number has greater magnitude, then the result is negative:

(−8) + 3  =  3 − 8  =  −5  and 2 + (−7)  =  2 − 7  =  −5.

Here the credit is less than the debt, so the net result is a debt.


As discussed above, it is possible for the subtraction of two non-negative numbers to yield a negative answer:

5 − 8  =  −3

In general, subtraction of a positive number is the same thing as addition of a negative. Thus

5 − 8  =  5 + (−8)  =  −3


(−3) − 5  =  (−3) + (−5)  =  −8

On the other hand, subtracting a negative number is the same as adding a positive. (The idea is that losing a debt is the same thing as gaining a credit.) Thus

3 − (−5)  =  3 + 5  =  8


(−5) − (−8)  =  (−5) + 8  =  3.


When multiplying numbers, the magnitude of the product is always just the product of the two magnitudes. The sign of the product is determined by the following rules:

  • The product of one positive number and one negative number is negative.
  • The product of two negative numbers is positive.


(−2) × 3  =  −6


(−2) × (−3)  =  6.

The reason behind the first example is simple: adding three −2's together yields −6:

(−2) × 3  =  (−2) + (−2) + (−2)  =  −6.

The reasoning behind the second example is more complicated. The idea again is that losing a debt is the same thing as gaining a credit. In this case, losing two debts of three each is the same as gaining a credit of six:

(−2 debts ) × (−3 each)  =  +6 credit.

The convention that a product of two negative numbers is positive is also necessary for multiplication to follow the distributive law. In this case, we know that

(−2) × (−3)  +  2 × (−3)  =  (−2 + 2) × (−3)  =  0 × (−3)  =  0.

Since 2 × (−3) = −6, the product (−2) × (−3) must equal 6.

These rules lead to another (equivalent) rule—the sign of any product a × b depends on the sign of a as follows:

  • if a is positive, then the sign of a × b is the same as the sign of b, and
  • if a is negative, then the sign of a × b is the opposite of the sign of b.

The justification for why the product of two negative numbers is a positive number can be observed in the analysis of complex numbers.


The sign rules for division are the same as for multiplication. For example,

8 ÷ (−2)  =  −4,
(−8) ÷ 2  =  −4,


(−8) ÷ (−2)  =  4.

If dividend and divisor have the same sign, the result is always positive.


Main article: Negation (algebra)

The negative version of a positive number is referred to as its negation. For example, −3 is the negation of the positive number 3. The sum of a number and its negation is equal to zero:

3 + −3  =  0.

That is, the negation of a positive number is the additive inverse of the number.

Using algebra, we may write this principle as an algebraic identity:

x + −x  =  0.

This identity holds for any positive number x. It can be made to hold for all real numbers by extending the definition of negation to include zero and negative numbers. Specifically:

  • The negation of 0 is 0, and
  • The negation of a negative number is the corresponding positive number.

For example, the negation of −3 is +3. In general,

−(−x)  =  x.

The absolute value of a number is the non-negative number with the same magnitude. For example, the absolute value of −3 and the absolute value of 3 are both equal to 3, and the absolute value of 0 is 0.

Formal construction of negative integers[edit]

In a similar manner to rational numbers, we can extend the natural numbers N to the integers Z by defining integers as an ordered pair of natural numbers (a, b). We can extend addition and multiplication to these pairs with the following rules:

(a, b) + (c, d) = (a + c, b + d)
(a, b) × (c, d) = (a × c + b × d, a × d + b × c)

We define an equivalence relation ~ upon these pairs with the following rule:

(a, b) ~ (c, d) if and only if a + d = b + c.

This equivalence relation is compatible with the addition and multiplication defined above, and we may define Z to be the quotient set N²/~, i.e. we identify two pairs (a, b) and (c, d) if they are equivalent in the above sense. Note that Z, equipped with these operations of addition and multiplication, is a ring, and is in fact, the prototypical example of a ring.

We can also define a total order on Z by writing

(a, b) ≤ (c, d) if and only if a + db + c.

This will lead to an additive zero of the form (a, a), an additive inverse of (a, b) of the form (b, a), a multiplicative unit of the form (a + 1, a), and a definition of subtraction

(a, b) − (c, d) = (a + d, b + c).

This construction is a special case of the Grothendieck construction.


The negative of a number is unique, as is shown by the following proof.

Let x be a number and let y be its negative. Suppose y′ is another negative of x. By an axiom of the real number system

x + y \prime = 0,
 x + y\,\, = 0.

And so, x + y′ = x + y. Using the law of cancellation for addition, it is seen that y′ = y. Thus y is equal to any other negative of x. That is, y is the unique negative of x.


For a long time, negative solutions to problems were considered "false". In Hellenistic Egypt, the Greek mathematician Diophantus in the third century A.D. referred to an equation that was equivalent to 4x + 20 = 0 (which has a negative solution) in Arithmetica, saying that the equation was absurd.

Negative numbers appear for the first time in history in the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art (Jiu zhang suan-shu), which in its present form dates from the period of the Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220), but may well contain much older material.[2] The Nine Chapters used red counting rods to denote positive coefficients and black rods for negative.[10] This system is the exact opposite of contemporary printing of positive and negative numbers in the fields of banking, accounting, and commerce, wherein red numbers denote negative values and black numbers signify positive values. The Chinese were also able to solve simultaneous equations involving negative numbers.

The ancient Indian Bakhshali Manuscript, which Pearce Ian claimed was written some time between 200 BC. and AD 300,[11] while George Gheverghese Joseph dates it to about AD 400 and no later than the early 7th century,[12] carried out calculations with negative numbers, using "+" as a negative sign.[13]

During the 7th century AD, negative numbers were used in India to represent debts. The Indian mathematician Brahmagupta, in Brahma-Sphuta-Siddhanta (written in A.D. 628), discussed the use of negative numbers to produce the general form quadratic formula that remains in use today. He also found negative solutions of quadratic equations and gave rules regarding operations involving negative numbers and zero, such as "A debt cut off from nothingness becomes a credit; a credit cut off from nothingness becomes a debt. " He called positive numbers "fortunes," zero "a cipher," and negative numbers "debts."[14][15]

In the 9th and 10th century AD, Islamic mathematicians were familiar with negative numbers from the works of Indian mathematicians, but the recognition and use of negative numbers during this period remained timid.[16] Al-Khwarizmi in his Al-jabr wa'l-muqabala (from which we get the word "algebra") did not use negative numbers or negative coefficients, although al-Karaji wrote in his al-Fakhrī that "negative quantities must be counted as terms".[16] The first and only known medieval Islamic text that uses negative numbers is A Book on What Is Necessary from the Science of Arithmetic for Scribes and Businessmen by Abū al-Wafā' al-Būzjānī.[17]

However, by the 12th century AD, al-Karaji's successors were to state the general rules of signs, or as al-Samaw'al writes:

the product of a negative number — al-nāqiṣ — by a positive number — al-zāʾid — is negative, and by a negative number is positive. If we subtract a negative number from a higher negative number, the remainder is their negative difference. The difference remains positive if we subtract a negative number from a lower negative number. If we subtract a negative number from a positive number, the remainder is their positive sum. If we subtract a positive number from an empty power (martaba khāliyya), the remainder is the same negative, and if we subtract a negative number from an empty power, the remainder is the same positive number.[16]

In the 12th century AD in India, Bhāskara II gave negative roots for quadratic equations but rejected them because they were inappropriate in the context of the problem. He stated that a negative value is "in this case not to be taken, for it is inadequate; people do not approve of negative roots."

European mathematicians, for the most part, resisted the concept of negative numbers until the 17th century, although Fibonacci allowed negative solutions in financial problems where they could be interpreted as debits (chapter 13 of Liber Abaci, AD 1202) and later as losses (in Flos).

In the 15th century, Nicolas Chuquet, a Frenchman, used negative numbers as exponents and referred to them as “absurd numbers.”[citation needed]

In A.D. 1759, Francis Maseres, an English mathematician, wrote that negative numbers "darken the very whole doctrines of the equations and make dark of the things which are in their nature excessively obvious and simple". He came to the conclusion that negative numbers were nonsensical.[18]

In the 18th century it was common practice to ignore any negative results derived from equations, on the assumption that they were meaningless.[19]

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was the first mathematician to systematically employ negative numbers as part of a coherent mathematical system, the infinitesimal calculus. Calculus made negative numbers necessary and their dismissal as "absurd numbers" quickly faded.[citation needed]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ The convention that zero is neither positive nor negative is not universal. For example, in the French convention, zero is considered to be both positive and negative. The French words positif and négatif mean the same as English "positive or zero" and "negative or zero" respectively.
  2. ^ a b Struik, page 32–33. "In these matrices we find negative numbers, which appear here for the first time in history."
  3. ^ Diophantus, Arithmetica.
  4. ^ BBC website
  5. ^ Elitefeet
  6. ^ BBC article
  7. ^ Article in The Independent
  8. ^ BBC article
  9. ^ Grant P. Wiggins; Jay McTighe (2005). Understanding by design. ACSD Publications. p. 210. ISBN 1-4166-0035-3. 
  10. ^ Temple, Robert. (1986). The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention. With a forward by Joseph Needham. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc. ISBN 0-671-62028-2. Page 141.
  11. ^ Pearce, Ian (May 2002). "The Bakhshali manuscript". The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive. Retrieved 2007-07-24. 
  12. ^ Teresi, Dick. (2002). Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science–from the Babylonians to the Mayas. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-83718-8. Page 65–66.
  13. ^ Teresi, Dick. (2002). Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science–from the Babylonians to the Mayas. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-83718-8. Page 65.
  14. ^ Colva M. Roney-Dougal, Lecturer in Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews, stated this on the BBC Radio 4 programme "In Our Time," on 9 March 2006.
  15. ^ Knowledge Transfer and Perceptions of the Passage of Time, ICEE-2002 Keynote Address by Colin Adamson-Macedo. "Referring again to Brahmagupta's great work, all the necessary rules for algebra, including the 'rule of signs', were stipulated, but in a form which used the language and imagery of commerce and the market place. Thus 'dhana' (= fortunes) is used to represent positive numbers, whereas 'rina' (= debts) were negative".
  16. ^ a b c Rashed, R. (1994-06-30). The Development of Arabic Mathematics: Between Arithmetic and Algebra. Springer. pp. 36–37. ISBN 9780792325659. 
  17. ^ Hashemipour, Behnaz (2007). "Būzjānī: Abū al‐Wafāʾ Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Yaḥyā al‐Būzjānī". In Thomas Hockey et al. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. New York: Springer. pp. 188–9. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0.  (PDF version)
  18. ^ Maseres, Francis (1758). "A dissertation on the use of the negative sign in algebra: containing a demonstration of the rules usually given concerning it; and shewing how quadratic and cubic equations may be explained, without the consideration of negative roots. To which is added, as an appendix, Mr. Machin's Quadrature of the Circle". Quoting from Maseres' work: If any single quantity is marked either with the sign + or the sign − without affecting some other quantity, the mark will have no meaning or significance, thus if it be said that the square of −5, or the product of −5 into −5, is equal to +25, such an assertion must either signify no more than 5 times 5 is equal to 25 without any regard for the signs, or it must be mere nonsense or unintelligible jargon. 
  19. ^ Martinez, Alberto A. (2006). Negative Math: How Mathematical Rules Can Be Positively Bent. Princeton University Press.  a history of controversies on negative numbers, mainly from the 1600s until the early 1900s.


  • Bourbaki, Nicolas (1998). Elements of the History of Mathematics. Berlin, Heidelberg, and New York: Springer-Verlag. ISBN 3-540-64767-8.
  • Struik, Dirk J. (1987). A Concise History of Mathematics. New York: Dover Publications.

External links[edit]

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Business Insider

Business Insider
Mon, 28 Jul 2014 10:02:18 -0700

It could even be a negative number." "A low second quarter real GDP number will kill the conviction that the first quarter drop was only an anomaly and it will spawn agonizing reappraisals for the rest of the year. It could put the Fed on hold at least ...
Tue, 29 Jul 2014 17:23:23 -0700

The negative number points to a sharp economic downturn in April-June and a pullback from a 6.7% surge in the first quarter. Japan is set to release gross domestic product data for the second quarter on Aug. 13. The second-quarter setback was widely ...
Insurance News Net
Mon, 28 Jul 2014 08:22:30 -0700

Often overlooked is that the fact that, for every year the U.S. Government (or state and local governments) operates at a deficit, that negative number carries into the next year and must be funded again, alongside of the current year's deficit - all ...

Corporate Counsel (registration)

Corporate Counsel (registration)
Tue, 22 Jul 2014 13:48:45 -0700

He said he wasn't sure why the negative number was so large. “I do think complexity of the regulatory landscape has increased and made compliance more difficult,” he suggested. Consero, which offers seminars for senior executives, conducted the survey ...


Fri, 25 Jul 2014 05:55:23 -0700

German IFO business climate index was the only negative number, decreasing for third month in a row in July. In the US however, things were not that good with Core CPI printing 0.1% and a setback also in the Manufacturing PMI and New home sales, yet ...
Market Realist
Thu, 24 Jul 2014 09:48:14 -0700

A zero value for the index means the economy is growing at its historical trend. A positive number means it's growing above trend. And a negative number means it's growing below trend. The index itself can be volatile, as you can see from the following ...
Thu, 24 Jul 2014 14:22:30 -0700

Last night's game between the Giants and Phillies was interrupted by a rain delay in the 4th inning that lasted nearly an hour. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a good time to just abandon watching the game altogether, but Madison ...


Mon, 21 Jul 2014 02:11:18 -0700

For Obama and Biden, the two current occupants of a White House that has struggled with low approval ratings for months, that negative number among independents was highest — 51 percent and 45 percent, respectively. Hillary Clinton was a negative for ...

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