# Negative exponents

Here you will learn about negative exponents, including what they are, how to simplify and evaluate them, and how to combine them with other laws of exponents.

Students will first learn about negative exponents as a part of expressions and equations in grade 8, and will continue to build on this knowledge in high school.

## What are negative exponents?

Negative exponents are a type of index, written with a negative sign, that represents a number that can be written as a fraction.

For example,

3^{-2}=\cfrac{1}{3^{2}}=\cfrac{1}{9}

A negative exponent does not mean that the base is a negative number.

A negative exponent means if the base is a positive number, the denominator of the fraction remains positive.

Let’s see why a negative exponent is a fraction using the powers of 10\text{:}

As each row is divided by 10, the power is reduced by 1.

When you reach 10^0 (the zero exponent) you are dividing the base number by itself, so any base to the power of \bf{0} is always equal to \bf{1}.

When you divide by a further 10, you get 0.1=\cfrac{1}{10}=10^{-1}.

As you continue to divide by 10, the denominator of the fraction becomes increasingly large, meaning that the original number gets smaller and smaller ( closer to 0).

### Positive reciprocal

Another term for the negative power is the positive reciprocal.

The reciprocal of a number is the value that can be multiplied by the original number to get the answer of 1.

For example,

2\times\cfrac{1}{2}=1 , and so \cfrac{1}{2} is the positive reciprocal of 2.

Introducing a negative exponent, we get 2^{-1}=\cfrac{1}{2^{1}}=\cfrac{1}{2} which can be expressed in a general form as:

x^{-a}=\cfrac{1}{x^{a}}

where x and a are constants.

Most of the laws of indices can include a negative exponent and the toughest questions usually involve a fractional base number raised to a negative fraction.

For example,

\left(\cfrac{25}{4}\right)^{-\frac{3}{2}}=\cfrac{8}{125}

### Simplify and evaluate

Questions will often require you to simplify or evaluate an expression.

These terms are subtly different and so the table below shows a couple of examples of the difference between them:

Remember: a fraction can also be converted to a decimal.

## Common Core State Standards

How does this relate to 8 th grade math?

• Grade 8: Expressions and Equations (8.EE.A.1)
Know and apply the properties of integer exponents to generate equivalent numerical expressions. For example, 3^{2}\times3^{-5}=3^{2+-5}=3^{2-5}=3^{-3}=\cfrac{1}{3^3}=\cfrac{1}{27}

## How to solve with negative exponents

In order to use negative exponents:

1. Simplify any powers using laws of indices.
2. Evaluate or solve (if required).

## Negative exponents examples

### Example 1: simplify and evaluate

Simplify and evaluate the expression 6^{-2} \div 6^{-4}.

1. Simplify any powers using laws of indices.

As x^{a}\div{x}^{b}=x^{a-b}, you have:

6^{-2}\div6^{-4}=6^{-2--4}=6^{-2+4}=6^2

2Evaluate or solve (if required).

Evaluating the expression 6^2, you get:

6^2=6\times6=36.

So, 6^{-2}\div6^{-4}=36.

### Example 2: algebraic terms

Write the following expression as a fraction in its simplest form: 2y^{-a}\times2x^{b}.

Simplify any powers using laws of indices.

Evaluate or solve (if required).

### Example 3: inequalities with coefficients

Solve the inequality (3x)^{-2}<\cfrac{1}{36}.

Simplify any powers using laws of indices.

Evaluate or solve (if required).

### Example 4: negative fractional power

Simplify and evaluate the following expression: 125^{-\frac{2}{3}}

Simplify any powers using laws of indices.

Evaluate or solve (if required).

### Example 5: fractional base number

Evaluate: \left(\cfrac{3}{4}\right)^{-3}

Simplify any powers using laws of indices.

Evaluate or solve (if required).

### Example 6: expressing a power with a different base

Simplify any powers using laws of indices.

Evaluate or solve (if required).

### Teaching tips for negative exponents

• Make sure that students have a clear definition of what negative exponents are, including examples of negative exponents and rules to follow in order to solve them.

• Introduce students to the concept using visual aids, such as diagrams and manipulatives, before giving students worksheets with practice problems that increase in rigor as they become more comfortable with the concepts.

• Teach students the properties of exponents (rules of exponents), including the product rule a^m \times a^n=a^{m+n} and quotient rule \cfrac{a^m}{a^n}=a^{m-n}, and explain how these rules apply to expressions with negative exponents.

### Easy mistakes to make

• Negative powers and negative number
A common error is to think that a negative power suggests that the entire number is a negative number. This is incorrect because a negative power means that you are finding a positive reciprocal of the base.
For example, 2^{-4}=-2^4=-16 is incorrect. The correct answer is 2^{-4}=\cfrac{1}{2^{4}}=\cfrac{1}{16}.

• Changing the base incorrectly
For example, 5^{3}\times2^{-4}=(5\times{2})^{3-4}=10^{-1}=\cfrac{1}{10}.

This is incorrect as the bases must be the same when simplifying calculations with powers.
The correct answer would be 5^{3}\times{2^{-4}}=5^{3}\times{\cfrac{1}{16}}=\cfrac{125}{16}.

• Subtracting a negative number
A common error is to incorrectly subtract negative numbers.
For example, 3^{-2}\div{3^{-5}}=3^{-2-5}=3^{-7}=\cfrac{1}{3^{7}}.

This is incorrect because the 5 is a negative number, and subtracting a negative number means that you add.
The correct answer would be 3^{-2}\div3^{-5}=3^{-2--5}=3^{-2+5}=3^3=27.

• PEMDAS
When raising a base to a power, the power is associated with a variable or an expression.
For example, let’s look at 3x^{-2}. Using PEMDAS you can see that, x is being raised to the power of -2, and then is multiplied by 3 to get the answer \cfrac{3}{x^{2}}.

However a common error is to calculate 3x raised to the power of -2, giving the answer \cfrac{1}{9x^{2}} which is incorrect.

If this was the case, the question would be written as (3x)^{-2}.

• Incorrect application of the exponent
A similar circumstance is applied to fractions that are raised to a power.
For example, let’s look at \left(\cfrac{5}{2}\right)^{-3}. The correct application of the laws of indices would give a correct answer of \left(\cfrac{5}{2}\right)^{-3}=\left(\cfrac{2}{5}\right)^{3}=\cfrac{8}{125}.

However a common error would be to apply the -3 only to the numerator, leaving the denominator unchanged.
This would give the incorrect answer of \left(\cfrac{5}{2}\right)^{-3}=\cfrac{1}{125}\times\cfrac{1}{2}=\cfrac{1}{250}.

### Practice negative exponents questions

1. Evaluate 5^4 \times 5^{-6}.

25

-25

-\cfrac{1}{25}

\cfrac{1}{25}
5^{4}\times{5^{-6}}=5^{4-6}=5^{-2}=\cfrac{1}{5^{2}}=\cfrac{1}{25}

2. Simplify fully: 3x^{a}\div6y^{-b}.

\cfrac{x^{a}}{y^{b}}

\cfrac{x^{a}}{2y^{b}}

\cfrac{x^{a}y^{b}}{2}

\cfrac{2}{x^{a}y^{b}}
3x^{a}\div{6y^{-b}}=3x^{a}\div\cfrac{6}{y^{b}}

=3x^{a}\times{\cfrac{y^{b}}{6}}=\cfrac{3x^{a}y^{b}}{6}=\cfrac{x^{a}y^{b}}{2}

3. State the range of values for the following inequality: x^{-2}>\cfrac{1}{16}.

-4<x<4

x<4

-\cfrac{1}{4}<x<\cfrac{1}{4}

x>4, x<-4

4. Evaluate: 16^{\frac{-3}{4}}.

\cfrac{1}{64}

-12

\cfrac{1}{8}

-64

5. Evaluate: \left(\cfrac{1}{5}\right)^{-2}.

\cfrac{1}{25}

\cfrac{-2}{5}

25

-\cfrac{1}{5}
\left(\cfrac{1}{5}\right)^{-2}=\left(\cfrac{5}{1}\right)^{2}=5^{2}=25

2^2

2^{-2}

2^{-1}

2^{\frac{-2}{3}}
\left(8^{2}\right)^{-\frac{1}{3}}=\left(2^{3\times{2}}\right)^{-\frac{1}{3}}=\left(2^{6}\right)^{-\frac{1}{3}}=2^{-\frac{6}{3}}=2^{-2}

## Negative exponents FAQs

What is the negative exponent rule?

The negative exponent power rule states that when a number or variable with a negative exponent is used, it represents the reciprocal of the same number or variable, represented by a^{-n}=\cfrac{1}{a^n}, where a is a non-zero real-number or variable and n is a positive integer.

What is the difference between positive exponents and negative exponents?

Positive exponents represent exponential growth, while negative exponents represent exponential decay. They represent inverse operations, multiplication and division respectively, and have different effects on the value of the expression they are applied to.

What is the rule for multiplying negative exponents?

The rule for multiplying expressions with negative exponents includes combining exponents by addition and then simplifying the expression.

Can you have a negative fractional exponent?

Yes, negative fractional exponents exist in the world of mathematics. With a negative fractional exponent, you would take the reciprocal of the base raised to the absolute value of the exponent. For example, x^{-\frac{1}{2}}=\cfrac{1}{\sqrt{x}}.

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