What Is Algebra?

What is algebra? What does it have to do with variables? And where did it come from? Keep on reading to learn the secret to understanding algebra!

Jason Marshall, PhD,
April 5, 2013
Episode #148

Page 3 of 3

What Is Algebra? — Redux

Now let’s now start putting all of these ideas together. We’ve learned that algebra is arithmetic with variables, that variables are symbols without predetermined values, and that numerals are symbols with predetermined values. What does it all mean? Let’s work backward through the list to unravel the meaning one thing at a time.

First, starting at the end, numerals are just symbols with pre-determined fixed values. In other words, the idea of “two-ness” or “three-ness” is encapsulated by the numerals “2” and “3.” With that in mind, it’s not such a big leap to understand what a variable is: Just like numerals, variables are symbols that represent numbers…except that the numbers they represent aren’t yet specified. Honestly, that’s really the only difference between something like the numeral 5 and the variable x.

Moving backwards up to the first item on the list, we’ve now arrived at the point where we know and understand all of the pieces required to “get” algebra. Here’s the gist:

Algebra is exactly like good old arithmetic…except that instead of just doing arithmetic with numbers, we’re also going to do it with these new things called variables…which are just symbols that represent the as-yet-unknown values of some numbers.

I know this is kind of a mouthful, but once it’s put this way I hope it’s clear that algebra really isn’t so scary after all.

Wrap Up

Okay, that’s all the math we have time for today. If you want to learn more about algebra, please check out my book The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Algebra.

Remember to become a fan of the Math Dude on Facebook where you’ll find lots of great math posted throughout the week. If you’re on Twitter, please follow me there, too. Finally, please send your math questions my way via Facebook, Twitter, or email at mathdude@quickanddirtytips.com.

Until next time, this is Jason Marshall with The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Make Math Easier. Thanks for reading, math fans!


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