4 Tutorials that teach Negative Exponents
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Negative Exponents

Negative Exponents


This lesson discusses negative exponents, and relates them to expressions with positive exponents.

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College Algebra

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What's Covered?

Negative Exponents

There are a few special exponent properties that deal with exponents that are not positive. The first is considered in the following example, which is worded out 2 different ways:

This final result is an important property known as the zero property of exponents:

Zero Property of Exponents: a0 = 1

Any number or expression raised to the zero power will always be 1. This is illustrated in the following example.

Another property we will consider here deals with negative exponents. Again we will solve the following example two ways.

This example illustrates an important property of exponents. Negative exponents yield the reciprocal of the base. Once we take the reciprocal the exponent is now positive. Also, it is important to note a negative exponent does not mean the expression is negative, only that we need the reciprocal of the base. Following are the rules of negative exponents.

Negative exponents can be combined in several different ways. As a general rule if we think of our expression as a fraction, negative exponents in the numerator must be moved to the denominator, likewise, negative exponents in the denominator need to be moved to the numerator. When the base with exponent moves, the exponent is now positive. This is illustrated in the following example.

As we simplified our fraction we took special care to move the bases that had a negative exponent, but the expression itself did not become negative because of those exponents. Also, it is important to remember that exponents only affect what they are attached to. The 2 in the denominator of the above example does not have an exponent on it, so it does not move with the d.

Nicolas Chuquet, the French mathematician of the 15th century wrote  to indicate   This was the first known use of the negative exponent. 

Simplifying with negative exponents is much the same as simplifying with positive exponents. It is the advice of the author to keep the negative exponents until the end of the problem and then move them around to their correct location (numerator or denominator). As we do this it is important to be very careful of rules for adding, subtracting, and multiplying with negatives. This is illustrated in the following examples:

In the previous example it is important to point out that when we simplified  we moved the three to the denominator and the exponent became positive. We did not make the number negative! Negative exponents never make the bases negative, they simply mean we have to take the reciprocal of the base.