So, now it's time for my official AngryMath "Kill the Shit Out of PEMDAS" blog posting.
It's a funny thing, because I'd never heard of the PEMDAS acronym until I started teaching community college math. None of my friends had ever heard of it; artists, writers, engineers, what-have-you, from Maine or Massachusetts or Indiana or France or anywhere. But for some reason these urban schools teach it as a memory-assisted crutch for sort of getting the order of operations about halfway-right (PEMDAS: Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplying, Division, Addition, Subtraction.)
But the problem is, it's only half-right and the other half is just flat-out wrong. Wikipedia puts it like this ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_operations ):
In the United States, the acronym PEMDAS... is used as a mnemonic, sometimes expressed as the sentence 'Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally' or one of many other variations. Many such acronyms exist in other English speaking countries, where Parentheses may be called Brackets, and Exponentiation may be called Indices or Powers... However, all these mnemonics are misleading if the user is not aware that multiplication and division are of equal precedence, as are addition and subtraction. Using any of the above rules in the order addition first, subtraction afterward would give the wrong answer..."
In my experience, none of the students who learn PEMDAS are aware of the equal-precedence (ties) between the inverse operations of multiplication/division and addition/subtraction. Therefore, they will always get computations wrong when that is at issue. (Maybe prior instructors managed to scrupulously avoid exercises where that cropped up, but I'm not sure how exactly.)
Here's a proper order of operations table for an introductory algebra class. I've taken to repeatedly copying this onto the board almost every night because it's so important, and the PEMDAS has caused so much prior brain damage:
- Exponents & Radicals
- Multiplication & Division
- Addition & Subtraction
An example I use in class: Simplify 24/3*2. Correct answer: 16 (24/3*2 = 8*2 = 16, left-to-right). Frequently-seen incorrect answer: 4 (24/3*2 = 24/6 = 4, following the faulty PEMDAS implication that multiplying is always done before division).
If you're looking at PEMDAS and not the properly-linked 4-stage order of operations, you miss out on all of the following skills:
(1) You solve an equation by applying inverse operations (i.e., cleaning up one side until you've isolated a variable). If you don't know what operation inverts (cancels) another, then you'll be out of luck, especially with regards to exponents and radicals. Otherwise known as "the re-balancing trick", or in Arabic, "al-jabr".
(2) Operations on powers all follow a downshift-one-operation shortcut. Examples: (x^2)^3 = x^6 (exp->mul), sqrt(x^6)=x^3 (rad->div), x^2*x^3 = x^5 (mul->add), x^5/x^3 = x^2 (div->sub), 3x^2 +5x^2 = 8x^2 (considering a shift below add/sub to be "no operation"). If you don't see that, then you've got to memorize what looks like an overwhelming tome of miscellaneous exponent rules. (And from experience: No one succeeds in doing so.)
(3) Distribution works with any operation applied to an operation one step below. Examples: (x^2*y^3)^2 = x^4*y^6 (exp across mul), (x^2/y^3)^2 = x^4/y^6 (exp across div), 3(x+y) = 3x+3y (mul across add), sqrt(x^2*y^6) = x*y^3 (rad across mul), etc. However, the following cannot be simplified by distribution and are common traps on tests: (x^3+y^3)^2 (exp across add), sqrt(x^6-y^6) (rad across sub), etc.
(4) All commutative operations are on the left, all non-commutative operations are on the right (the way I draw it). Also, any commutative operation applied to zero results in the identity of the operation immediately below it. Examples: x^0 = 1 (the multiplicative identity), x*0 = 0 (the additive identity), x+0 = x (no operation), etc. The first example is usually forgotten/done wrong by introductory algebra students.
(5) The fact that each inverse operation generates a new set of numbers (somewhat historically speaking). Examples: Start with basic counting (the whole numbers). (a) Subtraction generates negatives (the set of integers). (b) Division generates fractions (the set of rationals). (c) Radicals generate roots (part of the greater set of reals).
(6) Finally, per my good friend John S., perhaps the most important oversight of all is that PEMDAS misses the whole big idea of the order of operations: "More powerful operations are done before less powerful operations". I write that on the board, Day 1, even before I present the basic OOP table. It's not a bunch of random disassociated rules, it's one big idea with pretty obvious after-effects. (See John's MySpace blog.)
So as you can see, PEMDAS is like a plague o'er the land, a band of Vandals burning and pillaging students' cultivated abilities to compute, solve equations, simplify powers, and see connections between different operations and sets of numbers. If you see PEMDAS, consider it armed and dangerous. Shoot to kill.