How to Add and Subtract Rational Expressions

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  • 0:04 Rational Polynomial Defined
  • 0:40 Adding and Subtracting…
  • 1:09 Example #1
  • 3:25 Example #2
  • 5:25 Example #3
  • 7:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kathryn Maloney

Kathryn teaches college math. She holds a master's degree in Learning and Technology.

Adding and subtracting rational expressions brings everything you learned about fractions into the world of algebra. We will mix common denominators with factoring and FOILing.

Rational Polynomial Defined

The word 'rational' means 'fraction.' So a rational polynomial is a fraction with polynomials in the numerator (top) and/or denominator (bottom). Here's an example of a rational polynomial:

(x + 4) / (x^2 + 3x + 2)

As we get started, let's remember that to add or subtract fractions, we need a common denominator. Try this mnemonic to help you remember when you need a common denominator and when you don't:

Add Subtract Common Denominators; Multiply Divide None

Auntie sits counting diamonds; Mother does not.

Let's get started!

Adding and Subtracting Rational Expressions

  1. We need to factor.
  2. Find a common denominator.
  3. Rewrite each fraction using the common denominator.
  4. Put the entire numerator over the common denominator.
  5. Simplify the numerator.
  6. Factor and cancel if possible.
  7. Write the final answer in simplified form.

There are quite a few steps, but let me show you how they work.

Find the common denominator and use it to rewrite the fractions
Common Denominator in Rational Expressions

Example #1

Our first expression is (1 / (x - 2)) + (3 / (x + 4)).

The first step is to factor. Since we don't have anything to factor, let's move to the next step, writing down our denominators, (x-2) and (x+4). This will be our common denominator: (x - 2)(x + 4).

Now we need to create our common denominator. Let's look at our first term, (1 / (x - 2)). (x - 2) is in the denominator. We need to multiply by (x + 4) to make our common denominator. But if we multiply by (x + 4) on the bottom, we need to multiply by (x + 4) on the top.

For right now we are going to write it and not multiply yet.

Let's look at our second term: (3 / (x + 4)). The denominator is (x + 4). We need to multiply (x - 2) times (x + 4) to get our common denominator. But once again, if we multiply by (x - 2) on the bottom, we need to multiply by it on the top too.

So far, this is what we have:

((1(x + 4)) / ((x - 2)(x + 4))) + ((3(x - 2)) / ((x + 4)(x - 2)))

Don't FOIL the denominator - we may have to cancel as our final answer!

Now let's write the entire numerator over our common denominator.

(1(x + 4)) + 3(x - 2)) / ((x - 2)(x + 4))

Let's simplify the numerator.

1(x + 4) = x + 4

3(x - 2) = 3x - 6

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

Collect like terms in the numerator.

Putting the numerator over the common denominator prepares the problem for simplifying
Adding Rational Expressions Step 4

(4x - 2) / ((x + 4)(x - 2))

Factor the numerator if possible.

4x - 2 = 2 (2x - 1)

(2(2x - 1)) / ((x + 4)(x - 2))

There isn't anything to slash or cancel, so we distribute and FOIL for our final answer.

(4x - 2) / (x^2 + 2x - 8)

Example #2

((2x) / (x^2 - 16)) - (1 / (x + 4))

x^2 - 16 factors into (x - 4)(x + 4). So let's put that into the expression.

((2x) / ((x - 4)(x + 4))) - (1 /(x + 4))

Our next step is to write down all of our denominators.

In the first term, we have (x + 4)(x - 4), so we write those down.

We continue to the next term and look at the denominator. We never duplicate denominators from term to term. Since we already have (x + 4) written as part of our denominator, we don't need to duplicate it. So it turns out our common denominator will be (x + 4)(x - 4).

Now we need to create our common denominator. Let's look at our first term ((2x) / (x + 4)(x - 4)). We already have our common denominator here, so we're going to move to the next term: (1 / (x + 4)).

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