Solving Inequalities

Sometimes we need to solve Inequalities like these:

Symbol
Words
Example
>
greater than
x + 3 > 2
<
less than
7x < 28
greater than or equal to
5 x - 1
less than or equal to
2y + 1 7

Solving

Our aim is to have x (or whatever the variable is) on its own on the left of the inequality sign:

Something like:   x < 5
or:   y ≥ 11

We call that "solved".

How to Solve

Solving inequalities is very like solving equations ... we do most of the same things ...

... but we must also pay attention to the direction of the inequality.

greater than sign
Direction: Which way the arrow "points"

Some things we do will change the direction!

< would become >

> would become <

would become

would become

Safe Things To Do

These are things we can do without affecting the direction of the inequality:

  • Add (or subtract) a number from both sides
  • Multiply (or divide) both sides by a positive number
  • Simplify a side

Example: 3x < 7+3

We can simplify 7+3 without affecting the inequality:

3x < 10

But these things will change the direction of the inequality ("<" becomes ">" for example):

  • Multiply (or divide) both sides by a negative number
  • Swapping left and right hand sides

Example: 2y+7 < 12

When we swap the left and right hand sides, we must also change the direction of the inequality:

12 > 2y+7

Here are the details:

Adding or Subtracting a Value

We can often solve inequalities by adding (or subtracting) a number from both sides (just as in Introduction to Algebra), like this:

Solve: x + 3 < 7

If we subtract 3 from both sides, we get:

x + 3 - 3 < 7 - 3    

x < 4

And that is our solution: x < 4

In other words, x can be any value less than 4.

 

What did we do?

We went from this:

 

To this:

   

x+3 < 7

 

x < 4

         

And that works well for adding and subtracting, because if we add (or subtract) the same amount from both sides, it does not affect the inequality

Example: Alex has more coins than Billy. If both Alex and Billy get three more coins each, Alex will still have more coins than Billy.

What If I Solve It, But "x" Is On The Right?

No matter, just swap sides, but reverse the sign so it still "points at" the correct value!

Example: 12 < x + 5

If we subtract 5 from both sides, we get:

12 - 5 < x + 5 - 5    

7 < x

That is a solution!

But it is normal to put "x" on the left hand side ...

... so let us flip sides (and the inequality sign!):

x > 7

Do you see how the inequality sign still "points at" the smaller value (7) ?

And that is our solution: x > 7

Note: "x" can be on the right, but people usually like to see it on the left hand side.

Multiplying or Dividing by a Value

Another thing we do is multiply or divide both sides by a value (just as in Algebra - Multiplying).

But we need to be a bit more careful (as you will see).


Positive Values

Everything is fine if we want to multiply or divide by a positive number:

Solve: 3y < 15

If we divide both sides by 3 we get:

3y/3 < 15/3

y < 5

And that is our solution: y < 5


Negative Values

warning! When we multiply or divide by a negative number
we must reverse the inequality.

Why?

Well, just look at the number line!

For example, from 3 to 7 is an increase,
but from -3 to -7 is a decrease.

-7 < -3 7 > 3

See how the inequality sign reverses (from < to >) ?

Let us try an example:

Solve: -2y < -8

Let us divide both sides by -2 ... and reverse the inequality!

-2y < -8

-2y/-2 > -8/-2

y > 4

And that is the correct solution: y > 4

(Note that I reversed the inequality on the same line I divided by the negative number.)

So, just remember:

When multiplying or dividing by a negative number, reverse the inequality

Multiplying or Dividing by Variables

Here is another (tricky!) example:

Solve: bx < 3b

It seems easy just to divide both sides by b, which would give us:

x < 3

... but wait ... if b is negative we need to reverse the inequality like this:

x > 3

But we don't know if b is positive or negative, so we can't answer this one!

To help you understand, imagine replacing b with 1 or -1 in that example:

  • if b is 1, then the answer is simply x < 3
  • but if b is -1, then we would be solving -x < -3, and the answer would be x > 3
So:

Do not try dividing by a variable to solve an inequality (unless you know the variable is always positive, or always negative).

A Bigger Example

Solve: (x-3)/2 < -5

First, let us clear out the "/2" by multiplying both sides by 2.

Because we are multiplying by a positive number, the inequalities will not change.

(x-3)/2 ×2 < -5 ×2  

(x-3) < -10

Now add 3 to both sides:

x-3 + 3 < -10 + 3    

x < -7

And that is our solution: x < -7

Two Inequalities At Once!

How do we solve something with two inequalities at once?

Solve:

-2 < (6-2x)/3 < 4

First, let us clear out the "/3" by multiplying each part by 3:

Because we are multiplying by a positive number, the inequalities will not change.

-6 < 6-2x < 12

Now subtract 6 from each part:

-12 < -2x < 6

Now multiply each part by -(1/2).

Because we are multiplying by a negative number, the inequalities change direction.

6 > x > -3

And that is the solution!

But to be neat it is better to have the smaller number on the left, larger on the right. So let us swap them over (and make sure the inequalities point correctly):

-3 < x < 6

 

Summary

  • Many simple inequalities can be solved by adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing both sides until you are left with the variable on its own.
  • But these things will change direction of the inequality:
    • Multiplying or dividing both sides by a negative number
    • Swapping left and right hand sides
  • Don't multiply or divide by a variable (unless you know it is always positive or always negative)