Solving Radical Equations: Steps and Examples

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  • 0:27 What Is a Radical?
  • 1:24 Inverse Operation
  • 2:08 Equations with Radicals
  • 3:10 Extraneous Roots
  • 4:40 What Does This Mean in…
  • 6:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Beddoe

Jennifer has an MS in Chemistry and a BS in Biological Sciences.

Solving radical equations is not any more difficult than solving other algebraic equations. This lesson will show you how to solve equations containing a square root and give some real-world examples.

It's Elementary, My Dear Watson

Sherlock Holmes is famous for his crime-solving abilities. No matter how small the clue, he could figure out 'who done it.' This was partly due to his detailed knowledge on a wide variety of topics.

Well, with some practice and knowledge of your own, you can become the Sherlock Holmes of algebra mysteries. You can solve for x no matter what the circumstances. This lesson will give you some of the knowledge that you need to become an algebra master.

What Is a Radical?

What is a radical? You might be thinking (and rightly so) that a radical is someone who speaks out against injustices. They want to do things in a new and unconventional way. While this is true, it will not help at all with solving algebra problems.

For the purposes of this lesson, a radical is an algebraic term under a square root symbol. For example:


It does not have to be a square root; it can be a cubed root, or fourth root or any other number. The square root is the most common and is what is implied when the radical symbol is used alone. If another root is called for, there will be a small superscript number in the 'v' of the root symbol, like this:


The 3 indicates it is a cube root, which means that the term inside the radical equals a term that has been multiplied to itself three times. For example:


This is correct because 2 * 2 * 2 = 8.

Inverse Operations

Every mathematical operation has an inverse operation, an operation that is its opposite: for addition, it's subtraction; for multiplication, it's division; and for the square root, it's squared. Inverse operations are critical for solving algebraic equations.

For example, if you want to solve the following: x + 2 = 3. You need to get x alone. To do that, you perform the inverse operation, to move the 2 to the right side of the equation. That means, you subtract (the opposite of add) 2 from both sides of the equation. x + 2 = 3. Subtract 2 from both sides, and you get x = 1. And your problem is solved.

Equations with Radicals

The method for solving equations containing radicals involves the same process. In order to isolate the x (or whatever the variable happens to be), you need to perform inverse operations to move all the numbers to the right side of the equation. It doesn't have to be the right side. That is just the most conventional way of doing things. You'll get the same answer either way.

Let's try an example. Solve for x:


The first step to solving is to remove the radical symbol by performing the inverse operation, which is to square both sides. (√(x-1))^2 = 4^2. When you square the left side, the square and square root cancel each other out, so you are left with x - 1. On the right side, you simplify 4^2 = 16. Now, the problem is simple. x - 1 = 16. Just add one to both sides and the solution is x = 17.

But Wait! There's More!

With radicals, however, the problem does not end there. There is always the possibility that you will get an answer that is called an extraneous root. This is an answer that seems to work, but isn't right when you check your answers. This is why, with problems containing radicals, you always have to check your answer. It is not common, but there can be an answer that doesn't work. The only way to know is to check your answer by substituting it for x in the original problem.

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