# Sunday Morning Greek Blog

## April 28, 2023

### 8 ÷ 2(2 + 2) = 1: Why PEMDAS Alone Is Not Enough

I recognize this is off-topic for my blog, but I love math. And I also discovered that Greek grammar has some features of math properties or laws, so it’s only mostly off-topic.

## Introduction

I know this is a Greek language blog, but math uses Greek characters sometimes, so there’s at least a tenuous connection. And all truth is God’s truth, even in Mathematics, for which God created the principles, properties, and laws. Being a former high school math teacher myself, I was disappointed at the lack of knowledge of fundamental laws and properties in math that led to many people thinking Expression 1 did not equal 1 in certain viral social media threads. In an effort to restore some truth to people’s mathematical knowledge, I present the following proof that the answer to Expression 1 is ALWAYS AND FOREVER 1.

Expression 1

8 ÷ 2(2 + 2)

## Conventions vs. Laws

Many people in the social media chains trying to tackle this problem were claiming that following the order of operations they learned in and impressively remembered from grade school was the correct way to approach the problem:

Parentheses

Exponents

Multiplication/Division LTR

This order is commonly known in American math as PEMDAS and recalled by the sentence “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.” I do not deny the importance of PEMDAS, but the reality of the problem is, any basic math problem like this can only have one correct answer. It’s not and never a matter of personal interpretation. Otherwise, the foundations of mathematics would crumble into oblivion, and not even Common Core could save us (not that it ever did anyone any good). This is math; it doesn’t care about and is never affected by your feelings about it.

PEMDAS is only a tool for organizing the operations in the problem, but by itself, it is not sufficient to solve the problem correctly. In fact, PEMDAS isn’t a mathematical law at all. It is merely an agreed-upon convention to work “linear” math problems. Math does have many laws or properties that come into play and must be considered in the PEMDAS process, and PEMDAS is subservient to these laws. Nothing about the correct solution I’m about to show you violates PEMDAS, provided you correctly interpret the forms of the individual expressions within the larger expression and how the various laws and principles apply.

If you think back to your primary school math lessons, you may have a vague memory of a set of laws about the relationships of numbers in certain types of expressions. For example, the Associative Properties of addition and multiplication say that no matter how you group the numbers in their respective equations, the sum (addition) or product (multiplication) will always be the same. The Commutative Properties for these two operations are similar; the order of the order or arrangement of the elements in an expression does not affect the value of either expression. These Associative Properties are represented in Expressions 2 and 3, while the Commutative Properties are in 4 and 5:

Expression 2: Associative Property of Addition:

(a + b) + c = a + (b + c)

Expression 3: Associative Property of Multiplication:

(a * b) * c = a * (b * c)

Expression 4: Commutative Property of Addition

a + b = b + a

Expression 5: Commutative Property of Multiplication.

ab = ba

The expressions on either side of the equal sign in the respective equations above reveal another principle of math, that of identical expressions. They look different, but regardless of the values assigned to each variable, they will always be equal. This is also called an identity.

The other important thing to know is that PEMDAS, unlike the Associative and Commutative Properties, is not a law! It is merely a convention for solving a problem that is subject to these laws. PEMDAS does NOT usurp these laws. This is where people are getting tripped up on solving Expression 1 or similar expressions for that matter. I will demonstrate how the correct application of these laws within the framework of PEMDAS will ALWAYS yield the answer of 1, NOT 16 or some other number.

## Solving the Expression

One other law must be brought to the fore to solve this expression: the Distributive Property. This is slightly different from the other four laws, in that it involves both addition and multiplication, and it establishes a common equation form that must be worked the same way every time it is found within an equation. Wolfram Research is considered one of the premier math knowledge platforms in the world, so I will draw on their examples of the Distributive Property to make my point. If anyone wants to challenge me on my conclusions drawn from this source, you’ll have to do better than a cheesy homework help Web site. The Wolfram Web sites have two different ways of writing the Distributive formula. BOTH equations are identical expressions and should be solved the same way every time regardless of where they fall in an equation.

Expression 6: Distributive with intervening multiplication operator

a * (b + c) = ab + ac (and of course, if you’re using all real numbers, combine like terms).,

Expression 7: Distributive without intervening multiplication operator

a(b + c) =ab + ac (and of course, if you’re using all real numbers, combine like terms).

Whether the expression has the multiplication operator or not, you would treat both as an expression to be solved BEFORE leaving the P step in PEMDAS. The actions UPON the parenthetical result must be completed BEFORE leaving the P step.

For purposes of demonstration later on, we can also apply the Commutative Property of Multiplication to the Distributive property form. We have two “factors” (the a and the (b + c)), so we can rearrange them and still have the same result. In the case of the current form, if we put the a term to the left as written in Expression 7 above, this form of the expression is said to be left distributive (i.e., the a multiplies through from left to right). If the a term is to the right of the parentheses, then the form is called right distributive. See Expression 8 below. The right distributive form of the expression is an identical expression to the left distributive form. I will use this to demonstrate that PEMDAS is not consistent if you don’t first solve the expression in distributive property form.

Expression 8

(b + c)a = ba + ca (and combine like terms if using all real numbers).

Are you with me so far? Maybe you see where I’m going with this? The expression to the right of the division sign must be processed as and simplified to an individual, inseparable term, because it is in the form of a Distributive Property expression. It has parentheses after all, so it must be dealt with before being divided into 8. So here’s the explanation of solving the equation as written:

Expression 9

(2 + 2)2 = 2(2 + 2) = (2 * 2 + 2 * 2) = (4 + 4) = (8)

This then leaves you with the final expression (Expression 10) to be solved:

Expression 10

8 ÷ (8) = 1

QED

## Why the Answer Is NEVER 16 or Any Other Number

I am going to offer several proofs or citations that demonstrate why PEMDAS is not sufficient by itself to solve this problem. The first citation comes from a 1935 textbook for advanced algebra. 7 Here is what the authors say:

“If the multiplication of two or more numbers is indicated, as in 4m or 5a2, without any symbol of multiplication, it is customary to think of the multiplication as already performed.

Thus 4m2 ÷ 2m = 4m2/2m, not (4m2/2)m.”

This equation (original to the authors’ text) has the same basic form of Expression 1, with the only difference being all real numbers are used in Expression 1. I’m guessing that all of you agree that the expression to the immediate right of the equal sign in the example above is the correct way to interpret the expression on the Left. And of course, the expression on the right simplifies down to simply 2m. The other form, which you get if you do strict PEMDAS without any other consideration, simplifies to 2m3. You all know the 2m is correct, right? That’s the way we all learned how to process variables with coefficients. So if m = 2, we should expect an answer of 4, not 16. 4(4) ÷ 2(2) = 16 ÷ 4 = 4. If you do it the strict PEMDAS only way, then you get 4(4)/2 * 2 = 16/2 * 2 = 16. Wrong answer, therefore the wrong method to solve.

Let’s make the expression in question look a little more like the example I just gave, and remember, that is from an advanced algebra book written by a couple math professors from Columbia U and the U of Southern California. For the expression in question, let m = (2 + 2) and substitute it into the expression, giving us Expression 11.

Expression 11

8 ÷ 2m

You Sixteeners should see right away the error of your PEMDAS-only ways. We don’t break the coefficient away from the variable, so we wouldn’t break it away from what we substitute into the variable. It works both ways. Just like the problem from the textbook, we can clearly see that the answer to “simplified” expression is not 4m, but 4/m. Since we let m = (2 + 2), 4/(2 + 2) = 4/4 = 1. QED.

If that historical example isn’t enough to convince you that PEMDAS alone isn’t correct, consider the following based on my discussion of right- and left-distributive above. As the original equation is written, I’ve already thoroughly demonstrated that the part of the main expression right of the division sign must be treated as an inseparable expression. But for the sake of argument, let’s consider the contention that PEMDAS alone applies without calling on the Distributive Property. As many Sixteeners have demonstrated, this works out to (8/2) * (2 + 2), or 16. However, if we substitute the right-distributive form of the expression in question for the left distributive form, we get Expression 12. Remember, whether right or left, the two expressions are considered equal, or identical.

Expression 12

8 ÷ (2 + 2)2

Expression 12 is, by definition, identical to Expression 1, so we should expect the same answer, right? However, if you apply the PEMDAS-only method on this form of the equation, you get (8/4) * 2, or 4. This PROVES that PEMDAS alone is not sufficient to solve the whole expression, because you get different answers for identical expressions! That is logically impossible in a first-order math equation with real numbers. NOTE: Because I demonstrated that the expressions are themselves equal or identical before solving them, you can’t turn around and say they’re not identical because they get different answers with PEMDAS-only. Distributive property is a law; PEMDAS is a convention. Law trumps convention.

QED

Most basic calculators don’t typically recognize the Distributive Property from what I’ve seen. In fact, if you read the manuals of most scientific calculators, you’ll find them admitting that you may need to use parentheses to force it to act according to the laws of mathematics in some instances. So don’t trust your calculators. In fact, I’m willing to bet whoever submitted that problem in the first place most likely knew that about calculators and is rolling on the floor laughing their butts off that many were fooled by the calculator, thus resulting in the social media melee over the problem.

## A Comparison to Greek

My opinions are my own, but my well-reasoned conclusions are indisputable!

Scott

PEMDAS is shortsighted. It ignores mathematical properties (that is, laws), which take precedence over order of operations like PEMDAS (an accepted convention, not a law or property). I would suggest the “P” in PEMDAS should not only stand for Properties first, but secondarily for Parentheses. Properties are to PEMDAS what the U.S. Code is to subregulatory guidance in legislative speak. Subregulatory guidance has no authority without the force of law behind it. PEMDAS has no power without the force of mathematical properties behind it.

If you use strictly PEMDAS without recognizing the Distributive Property, you wind up with the following, as the sixteeners are interpreting this:

8 ÷ 2(2+2)

Becomes

8 ÷ 2(4)

Becomes

8 ÷ 2 * 4

But let’s not stop there. This becomes, using the multiplicative inverse to change from division to multiplication:

(8 * 1/2) * 4

And applying the Associative property of multiplication, this becomes

8 * (1/2 * 4)

Substituting back in the original parenthetical expression

8 * (1/2 * (2+2))

Look at what happens to the last half of the equation: You’re now dividing (2+2) by 2 when the syntax of the original expression clearly indicates they should be multiplied together using the Distributive Property. The sixteeners have fundamentally changed the syntax of the original expression, which is a violation of the whole process of solving the equation. That’s why 16 is incorrect!

You can’t simply dismiss the Distributive Property here. A property is a law of math that essentially requires no proof. It is superior to and has precedence over PEMDAS, which is not a property at all and, to my knowledge, has never been proven to account for all things could be going on in an expression. That’s why Property should come before parentheses in PEMDAS.

## Why You Can’t Trust Graphing Calculators

Look at how Wolfram Alpha handles the basic form of the expression in question as we gradually add information. All images grabbed from Wolfram Alpha on 5/14/23 around 10:30 pm CST). NOTE: I have an acknowledged request to Wolfram Alpha to investigate why the following is happening.

Now provide the values for x, a, b.

Substitute in 8 for x.

Add parentheses with the substitution; same result; solution is 1.

Then put in the 2+2 directly. Solution again is 1. Note that it’s NOT (8/a) * (2+2)

But when I directly enter a value for a, the logic changes.

And the expression as written behaves similarly.

So clearly PEMDAS by itself is not sufficient to process the problem, because you can see that even some of the best graphing calculators don’t process the basic form of the equation consistently. Arguments from your graphing calculator don’t cut it for me. Those are just AI. This is a real demonstration of faulty logic in certain formats. You can’t have two different answers to the same expression. The answer 1 is right; 16 is wrong.

## Still Not Convinced? (Added weekend of 5/20/23)

What happens to the way you solve the problem if you change the 2 to a negative sign?

8 ÷ -(2 + 2)

Because the negative sign implies that what is inside the parentheses is multiplied by-1, would you PEMDAS-only proponents then have (8 ÷ -1) x (2 + 2) = -32? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Even the Sixteeners have to admit that the problem should be read as 8 ÷ -4 = -2, thus proving my point that what is outside a parenthetical expression (in this case, -1) and multiplied by implication must be solved first to fully deal with the parentheses.

Or how about if the problem is 6 ÷ 3!? The expression 3! represents an implied multiplication relationship, just as 2(2+2) is. So if it’s implied multiplication, is it then deconstructed to 3*2*1 or 1*2*3? Do you see the problem if you deconstruct it like that? Which order?!? According to the logic of the Sixteeners, it should be. But of course that’s silly. You wouldn’t break up the factorial, just as you shouldn’t break up the two factors of 2(2+2) and make one a divisor.

## Making It Real

Here are a few examples of how applying PEMDAS-only to real-world formulas could potentially be disastrous. I posted the following examples on a Facebook post dedicated to one of the viral equations and got no end of criticism for proving PEMDAS wasn’t relevant to solving the problems, because the values now had units of measurement applied, which automatically groups the expressions without the need to resort to extra parentheses or brackets. (I cleaned this up a bit because of the limitations of responding on an iPhone that doesn’t have ready access to the obelus symbol that I’ve found.)

What is the context of the equation? Is it a velocity formula, where v= d/t with d = 36 miles and t = 6(2 + 2 + 2) hours = 36 hours? Then v = 1 mile/hour. Going 36 miles in 36 hours does NOT yield a velocity of 36 miles/hour!

Is it a density formula, where D = m/V with m = 36 kg and V = 6(2 + 2 + 2) cubic cm = 36 cubic cm? Then the answer is 1 kg/cubic cm. Who says the obelus doesn’t have grouping powers!

Johnny, Freddy, Rita, Ginger, Gary, and Nancy each have two apples, two oranges, and two bananas to share with their classmates. The class has 36 people including themselves and the teacher. How many pieces of fruit may each person have? 36 classmates ÷ 6(2 + 2 + 2) classmates*pieces of fruit/classmate) = 36 classmates / 36 pieces of fruit = 1 classmate for every 1 piece of fruit. It’s not 36 pieces of fruit for each classmate!

The resulting equations are PEMDAS-naive, proving that PEMDAS is not always necessary to solve these types of expressions.

 Reitz, H. L. & Crathorne, A. R. College Algebra, Third Ed. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1929, pp. 4–5.

 Ibid., p. 18

 If the parenthetical part of the expression has an exponent, you would follow PEMDAS process the exponent before distributing the a through the result (e.g., a(b + c)2 = a(b2 + 2bc + c2) à ab2 + 2abc + ac2.

 See the definition at Distributive — from the MathWorld Classroom (wolfram.com) (accessed 04/27/23), where Wolfram also indicates the concept is part of 5th grade math standards in California. The fact that it is a 5th grade standard may explain why the multiplication sign is used.

 See a more detailed description at distributive – Wolfram|Alpha (wolframalpha.com) (accessed 04/28/23). This more detailed description includes both expressions, with and without the multiplication sign.

 Op. Cit., Wolfram|Alpha.

 Hawkes, Herbert E., Luby, William A., and Touton, Frank C. Second-Year Algebra, Enlarged Edition. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1935, p. 19.