Advanced Algebra: Algebraic Inequalities – II

If you’re studying advanced algebra with us, the topic of algebraic inequalities will certainly come up. Be sure to start with Part One before viewing this video, which is Part Two of our discussion.

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Multiple Algebraic Inequalities

In this video, we’ll talk about a few more ideas related to inequalities. First of all, supposed that more than one inequality is given in a problem. What are we allowed to do with two separate inequalities? So combining inequalities, if we have two equations, first of all a = b and b = c, we can certainly combine them to get a = c technically that’s called the transitive property of equality.

Much in the same way if we know that r is less than s and s is less than t we can deduce that r is less than s is less than t, and then therefore r is less than t. So, that is also a transitive property. Notice that in order for the combination to work, the common term s has to be greater than one term and less than the other term and that’s very, very important.

If the same term is greater than both other terms, or less than both other terms, we cannot draw any conclusion. If c is less than f and d is also less than f, we know that c and d are both less than f, but we don’t know how they compare to each other. So for example if f is a 100, then c and d are both numbers less than 100, but there’s nothing telling us which one is bigger than the other.

Adding Inequalities

The second issue, adding inequalities. Recall that we’re allowed to add or subtract any two equations. Turns out equations are very easy in this regard.

With inequalities, we need to be more careful. Suppose we have two inequalities, a is less than b and c is less than d. What sorts of addition and subtraction are allowed?

First of all, we can add inequalities with the same direction. In other words, with the inequalities pointing in the same direction. So if a is greater than b and c is greater than d, then we can just add them together. A + c has to be greater than b + d. And that sort of makes sense that if we add the two big things, its gonna be greater than the sum of the two small things.

For example, 5 is greater than 2 and 11 is greater than 8, those are two true inequalities. We can add them when the directions are the same. So when we add, of course, we get another true statement, 16 is greater than 10. We do not necessarily get anything sensible if we add inequalities that do not have the same direction.

So for example, these two inequalities now we flip one around so they have opposite direction. Adding these, well, what happens we get 13 on both sides and in fact that’s not an inequality at all, that’s in fact an equation. And if we pick different initial values we could produce a sum that would either be greater than, less then or equal to.

And so it means that there’s no general rule. When you start adding inequalities where the sign is pointing in opposite directions, basically, you get mathematical nonsense. There’s no way to predict what you’re going to get. So in this case, for subtracting inequalities, we cannot subtract inequalities with the same direction.

So here are bunch of inequalities, these are valid inequalities all lined up to the inequalities in the same direction. Notice that if we subtract we could get a less than sign, an equal sign or, a greater than sign. If we subtract inequalities with the same direction we could get any of those signs. So again, it’s pure mathematical nonsense.

If you subtract two inequalities with the same direction there’s no way to predict what kind of relationship will result. But, in this case, we can subtract inequalities that have opposite directions. So, if a is greater than b and c is greater than d, we have no way to compare the size of a- c to the size of b- d.

algebraic inequalities, student - magoosh

Image by Neirfy

If we do big minus big and small minus small, well, it’s hard to say how that’s gonna compare. But we can turn the latter around, make it d- c, and then we can subtract, a- d is greater than b- c. In other words, big minus small is always gonna be greater than small minus big.

So this works. Think about this statement. If a is greater than b, and d is less than c, then a- d is greater than b- c. Let’s do a numerical examples, suppose a = 20, b = 15, c = 12 and d = 10. Clearly, 20 is greater than 15, clearly 10 is less than 12 and when we subtract, we get 10 is greater than 3.

So notice that the resultant inequality follows the direction of the initial inequality, the one from which we subtract. So that sets the tone. That first one from which we subtract, we subtract from that something in the opposite direction. And the result, the difference, will be the same as the original.

Multiplication and Division of Algebraic Inequalities

There are no rules for multiplication and division of inequalities. Again, it always results in mathematical nonsense, you cannot do it.

You might think that if a were greater than b and c were greater than d it would always lead to a x times c is greater than b times d. Why wouldn’t it be that big times big is always greater than small times small? If we could guarantee that all the numbers are positive then that would work.

But consider this example, -10 is clearly less than +2 and -8 is clearly less than +3. But if we multiply, we get -8 times -10 and negative times negative gives us positive 80 which is greater that 6, 2 times 3 which is 6. So this is an example where multiplying the two quote, unquote smaller numbers, the negative numbers gives a very positive, a very large product.

algebraic inequalities, multiplication - magoosh

Image by carmen2011

And so that’s why there are no rules whatsoever for multiplication and division of inequalities. It is definitely true that any positive number is greater than any negative number. Now that might be an obvious statement, but this can be a useful shortcut in certain circumstances.

If we know that a number is negative, we don’t need to calculate its exact value. We know for a fact that just by the fact that it’s negative, it is always less than any positive number. Also keep in mind that adding any positive number always makes a number bigger. So for example, x + 10 has to be bigger than x. And in fact, any positive number can even be a fraction x + two-fifths has to be greater than x.

But in the same way, subtracting any positive or adding any negative makes a number smaller always. So x has to be greater than x- 3, subtracting 3 necessarily makes anything smaller.

Practice Problem

Here’s a practice problem. Pause the video and then we’ll talk about this. This is a very test-like problem in particular. It’s a test-like problem because it’s designed with some traps that would punish people who think very naively about numbers.

Who think that all numbers are the numbers that they can count on their fingers, they forget about other kinds of numbers. So first of all, that first statement is legitimately true. If we add 2, it doesn’t matter whether the number is positive or negative or fraction. It doesn’t matter if we add 2 we make it bigger. So that is always greater than x, and because I has to be included in the answer, we can eliminate answer D, because that one doesn’t include I.

Okay, what about 2x? Is 2x always greater than x? Now, if you’re thinking about positive numbers, this is where you could run into a problem. Because, of course, if you double any positive number, it gets bigger. 6 is bigger than 3, 20 is bigger than 10, that sort of thing. The problem is when we get to negative numbers.

If I have -10 and double that, that’s -20, -10 is greater than -20. One way to think about that, which is better, would you rather be $10 in debt or $20 in debt? You’re much better off financially if you’re $10 in debt rather than $20 in debt.

And so that’s one way to think about it, -10 is definitely greater than -20. So with negative numbers, that just doesn’t work. So II is not always true and so that means we can eliminate any of the answers that include II. And so now we’re just down to A and C. Finally, x squared.

Now this is particularly tricky because, of course, with most positive numbers you square it and it gets bigger. And with negative numbers you square a negative it becomes positive. So, of course, that’s bigger also because any positive is bigger than a negative. So it might look like gee, we’re all set. Well first of all, notice that there are couple numbers that we squared them like 1 and 0.

We square 1, we get 1, if we square 0, we get 0. Well, that’s not an inequality, that’s an equality. 1 squared equals 1, it’s not greater than 1. And also, think about the decimal between 1 and 0. If we square one-half, we get one-fourth, and one-fourth is less than one-half. When we square fractions, they get smaller.

And so that means, that this final one is not always true and so we can eliminate the other answers, and just by process of elimination the only one that works is answer choice A.


In summary, we can combine inequalities if the common term is less than one and greater than the other. We can combine everything in the same direction.

So, a is less than b, b is less than c, we can combine that into a is less than b less than c, which tells us directly that a is less than c. We can add inequalities of the same direction, we can subtract inequalities in opposite directions. There’s no general rule for multiplication or division inequalities. Any positive number is greater than any negative number.

And again, that is a very handy shortcut under many circumstances. And finally, adding a positive number makes a number greater, subtracting a positive makes it less.

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  • Mike MᶜGarry

    Mike served as a GMAT Expert at Magoosh, helping create hundreds of lesson videos and practice questions to help guide GMAT students to success. He was also featured as "member of the month" for over two years at GMAT Club. Mike holds an A.B. in Physics (graduating magna cum laude) and an M.T.S. in Religions of the World, both from Harvard. Beyond standardized testing, Mike has over 20 years of both private and public high school teaching experience specializing in math and physics. In his free time, Mike likes smashing foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Learn more about the GMAT through Mike's Youtube video explanations and resources like What is a Good GMAT Score? and the GMAT Diagnostic Test.

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