Simplifying Algebraic Expressions

Do you know much about simplifying algebraic expressions? Well if not, you’re about to learn this concept of algebra! Enjoy the video, and when you’re done with this one–check out our free video on the FOIL method of working with algebraic expressions.

FREE Math Video Lessons from Magoosh! Start here.

Transcript: Simplifying Algebraic Expressions

Our first topic in Algebraic Expressions is simplifying expressions. So suppose we are asked, simplify 3x + 5x. Now of course, this is a very easy question, the test is not gonna ask something this basic. But suppose we have to simplify 3x + 5x, of course, 3x + 5x = 8x. Now let’s think about this for a minute, we’ve said one expression, 3x + 5x, is equal to another expression, 8x.

simplifying algebraic expressions, rules - magoosh

Image by patpitchaya

So what we’re saying here is, we have a rule that’s true for all numbers. Every single number on the number line would obey this particular rule. And of course, we can 3x + 5x using the distributive law, because they are like terms.

Now what do we mean by like terms? Like terms are any two terms with the same variable part, if they differ at all, they differ only in coefficients.

Combining Like Terms

The number one algebraic simplification rule: we can combine like terms by addition or subtraction. And in essence, we’re just adding or subtracting the coefficients. So for example, 15y–8y, both of those are like terms, the variable part is just y, so we can subtract. 15 minus 8 is 7, so that’s 7y.

3y2 + 3y2, those are like terms, in fact they’re identical. So when we add, we just get 3 plus 3, which is 6, 6y squared. In that final one, notice that thing is awfully complicated. But the two terms are actually like terms, because the variable part, x to the 5th, y to the 4th, z to the 7th, those are identical between the two terms.

So we have 2 of the thing plus 1 of the thing. And of course, whenever you have 2 of anything plus 1 of the same thing, you get 3 of that thing, so that’s how we simplify that.

Notice that we can add or subtract only like terms, not terms with different variables or powers. If we look at this expression, we can’t just add everything together, because what we have here are different powers of y. So we have to group the terms by the like term–by the powers of y. So the cubic, y cubed, that’s gonna be by itself.

We group the two quadratic terms and the two linear terms. And then, within those parentheses, within those groupings, we can simplify. So we get down to this simplified expression. Also notice that multiplication is commutative. In other words, a times b equals b times a. You can switch the order around and it doesn’t change the multiplication.

So the order of factors in multiplication doesn’t matter. Therefore, like terms may appear different if the multiplied variables are in a different order. They’re not really different, it’s just a difference in appearance. So for example, 5xy + 7yx, those are still like terms, because xy and yx are the same thing, the order doesn’t matter.

So those are like terms and we can add them. And even this one, this second one, this is more complicated. But notice that all we have are the same factors, the same variables, just multiplied in the different order. And so we have 6 of something minus 4 of the same thing, which will be 2 of that thing.

Now pause the video and simplify these, and then we’ll talk about them.

simplifying algebraic expressions, pause video - magoosh

Image by Salih Yalcin

So in the first one, we have to group the like terms, and this simplifies to this. In the second one, we have to group the like terms, and it simplifies to this. In the third one, it turns out there’s no simplification possible, because no two terms are like terms. So that’s as simple at it gets, right there.

Simplifying Algebraic Expressions Involving Parentheses

Another simplification topic is how to combine algebraic expressions involving parentheses. Parentheses, this is a big mathematical topic, parentheses.

Addition Sign

When an addition sign appears in front of the parentheses, we can simply remove the parentheses, that’s very easy. So we have this, then we can just write the exact expression again as if there were no parentheses at all, just basically erase the parentheses.

And then we can do our simplifying from there. And it turns out this simplifies just the single cubic monomial, 2x cubed.

Subtraction Sign

When a subtraction sign appears in front of the parentheses, things are a little trickier. In removing the parentheses, we have to change every sign inside the parentheses to its opposite.

Addition inside the parentheses becomes subtraction outside, and vice versa. So here we’re subtracting those parentheses. So the first parentheses we can just remove without any problem. But the second parenthesis, when we remove those, the addition of 3x squared inside the parenthesis becomes subtraction outside. And the subtraction of 3x becomes addition outside, those two change to its opposite.

And once we have that, then we can simplify, and it simplifies to this. Pause the video here and simplify these expressions. And these are the answers.


So in summary, we can simplify algebraic expressions by adding, subtracting like terms, that’s a really big idea. When adding an expression in parentheses, we can simply remove the parentheses.

When subtracting an expression in parentheses, we have to change each term to its opposite sign when we remove the parentheses.

FREE Math Video Lessons from Magoosh! Start here.


  • 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.

No comments yet.

Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will only approve comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! 😄 Due to the high volume of comments across all of our blogs, we cannot promise that all comments will receive responses from our instructors.

We highly encourage students to help each other out and respond to other students' comments if you can!

If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service from our instructors, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!

Leave a Reply