Translating Words Into Math Symbols

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Math is its own language, which can make solving problems difficult. This lesson will help you translate words into math symbols, so you can easily solve word problems.

Translating Words into Math Symbols

You're trying to do some math, and it all sounds like gibberish. You think to yourself 'math is like a different language!' And guess what? You're right! But don't worry, there are some clues can help you translate words into math symbols, or images that represent something. For example, +, -, and = are all symbols in math, and they all mean something different.

Sounds exciting, doesn't it? That's right, you are about to be a translating detective, looking for key words and translating them into math symbols. Let's get started.

Addition and Subtraction

There are many clues in word problems that can help you figure out what to do. Let's begin with addition, or when numbers are added together. The math symbol for addition is '+'. Look at the chart to see what words mean '+'.

Words for Addition

Now, let's look at subtraction, or taking a number away from another number. The math symbol for subtraction is '-'. Again, let's look at the chart to see what words mean subtraction.

Words for Subtraction
Take away

Let's try out your translating detective skills to see if you can find the key words and translate them in this problem:

Sarah had 3 cats and decided to get 2 more. How many cats does Sarah have in all?

If you read through that problem, your detective skills may have picked up on the word 'more.' If you check the table, you can see that 'more' means addition. So, you will need to add the numbers together to see how many cats Sarah has: 3 + 2 = 5.

Multiplication and Division

Now that you know the words that mean '+' and '-', we'll move onto multiplication, which means a number is repeatedly added to itself, and is represented by an 'x' or a '.' For example, 4 x 3 means 4 is repeatedly added to itself, or 4 + 4 + 4. Let's see the chart to see what words mean 'x'.

Words for Multiply

Next, division, or the breaking up of a number into equal pieces, is represented by the symbol:


Or by a line between two numbers: 1/2.

See the chart for words that mean division.

Words for Division
Goes Into

Why don't we try out a problem and see if your detective skills can figure out what to do?

What is the product of 2 and 4?

Using your skills, you can see that 'product' means 'x' or multiply, so 2 x 4 = 8.


Finally, most math problems will have an '=', which means, equal, or the same value. For example 3 + 1 = 4 means that 3 + 1 is the same value as 4. Let's look at this final chart to see what words mean '='.

Words for Equal


Let's do a few practice problems to see how well you can translate words into math symbols. Grab a piece of paper and jot down the symbols and solutions for the following problems:

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