# Binary Subtraction

Copyright © 2008-2015 Exploring Binary

http://www.exploringbinary.com/binary-subtraction/

*This is the second of a four part series on “pencil and paper” binary arithmetic, which I’m writing as a supplement to my binary calculator. The first article discusses binary addition; this article discusses binary subtraction.*

The pencil-and-paper method of binary subtraction is just like the pencil-and-paper method of decimal subtraction you learned in elementary school. Instead of manipulating decimal numerals, however, you manipulate binary numerals, according to a basic set of rules or “facts.”

## Decimal Subtraction

For decimal subtraction, the basic facts are things like 5 – 1 = 4, 9 – 8 = 1, and 18 – 9 = 9. In each case, the answer is a single-digit, nonnegative integer. Most of the facts are “single-digit minus single-digit” problems, but some are “double-digit minus single-digit” problems (the double digits are the numbers 10 through 18). The latter represent cases of *borrowing*, which is the process by which negative answers are prevented.

Here’s an example of decimal subtraction:

After the points are aligned, subtraction proceeds from right to left. Red marks indicate borrowing. If a non-zero digit is borrowed from, it is crossed out, one is subtracted from it, and the decremented digit is written above it; a 1 is then placed next to the digit in the borrowing position, making it a two-digit number. If a zero digit is borrowed from, the borrow “cascades” until a non-zero digit is found.

Here’s the example again, step-by-step:

**Step 1**: 5 – 0 = 5.**Step 2**: Borrow to make 12 – 5 = 7.**Step 3**: Borrow to make 15 – 7 = 8.**Step 4**: Borrow to make 10 – 1 = 9.

Some people refer to this as the “American method” (although this is just one variation of it — see Salman Khan’s video, for example). Whatever your method is though, you can apply it to binary numbers.

## Binary Subtraction

For binary subtraction, there are *four* facts instead of one hundred:

- 0 – 0 = 0
- 1 – 0 = 1
- 1 – 1 = 0
- 10 – 1 = 1

The first three are the same as in decimal. The fourth fact is the only new one; it is the borrow case. It applies when the “top” digit in a column is 0 and the “bottom” digit is 1. (Remember: in binary, 10 is pronounced “one-zero” or “two.”)

Now let’s subtract 1011.11 from 10101.101, following the same algorithm I used for decimal numbers:

**Step 1**: 1 – 0 = 1.**Step 2**: Borrow to make 10 – 1 = 1.**Step 3**: Borrow to make 10 – 1 = 1.**Step 4**: Cascaded borrow to make 10 – 1 = 1.**Step 5**: 1 – 1 = 0.**Step 6**: 0 – 0 = 0.**Step 7**: Borrow to make 10 – 1 = 1.

Since there are lots of 0s in binary numbers, there can be lots of borrows — and lots of messy looking cross-outs.

### Checking the Answer

You can check the answer in a few ways. One way is to add the result (1001.111) to the subtrahend (1011.11), and check that that answer matches the minuend (10101.101):

Another way is to convert the operands to decimal, do decimal subtraction, and then convert the decimal answer to binary. 10101.101 = 21.625 and 1011.11 = 11.75, and 21.625 – 11.75 = 9.875. 9.875 = 1001.111, the answer we got using binary subtraction.

You can also check the answer using my binary calculator.

### Subtracting a Bigger Number From a Smaller Number

To subtract a bigger number from a smaller number, just swap the numbers, do the subtraction, and negate the result.

## Discussion

Notice that I didn’t discuss the number base when describing the algorithm; it is base-independent. Nonetheless, I could have talked about powers of ten and powers of two, and how the process can be visualized by regrouping. My goal was to explain just the mechanized algorithm (presumably you do decimal subtraction mechanically, no longer thinking about why it works).

### Subtracting Using Complements

Computers don’t subtract this way; they subtract by adding complements. It’s more efficient. You can do subtraction by complements with pencil-and-paper, but you won’t find it more efficient. (In decimal, you would use nine’s complement or ten’s complement; in binary, you would use ones’ complement or two’s complement.)

July 13th, 2012 at 4:58 am

SIMPLE & EASY. TOO GOOD.

December 16th, 2012 at 3:17 am

I was not able to learn binary subtraction without this site thanks a lot.

February 19th, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Now I know.

February 26th, 2013 at 5:43 am

Very simple and very easy to understand.

Thanks

June 28th, 2013 at 11:37 pm

what will happen if the last digit in the left side is 0..i mean there is nothing left to borrow? is there any rule about it?

June 29th, 2013 at 12:05 am

@jay ann,

Are you talking about subtracting a bigger number from a smaller number? As I mentioned in the article, just swap the numbers, do the subtraction, and negate the result.

August 22nd, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Why 0- 1 =1 in binary

August 22nd, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Please explain its theory…soon

August 22nd, 2013 at 12:51 pm

@pritam,

0-1 = -1 in binary.

September 12th, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Your method rocks!!!

December 7th, 2013 at 7:01 am

thanks a lot Really helps . Keep the good work going 😀

June 8th, 2014 at 12:59 am

thanks & thanks a lot I had a problem of subtraction of Binary numbers but fortunately this site helped me a lot,God bless you

June 20th, 2014 at 2:51 am

11001-101

June 20th, 2014 at 2:52 am

11001-101=?

July 5th, 2014 at 1:20 pm

It doesn’t work for bot numbers larger than top one.

July 5th, 2014 at 10:43 pm

@Gaspar,

You have to swap the numbers and negate (see section “Subtracting a Bigger Number From a Smaller Number”).

August 17th, 2014 at 4:18 am

Really amazing stuff, thanks a lot! Simple, easy, and efficient. Understanding your explanation perfectly; you have the right amount of detail.

August 29th, 2014 at 12:51 am

Thax a lot for clearing my doubts.

September 10th, 2014 at 7:53 pm

I was washaving trouble doing it, but when I read this and took notes I became so good in it.

Thanks so much

December 1st, 2014 at 11:40 am

Subtraction of larger number from smaller number… I am doing implementation I cannot be sure about when it is big or small…. You have a general algorithm thanks in advance

February 23rd, 2015 at 7:24 am

Thanks, Rick Regan.

March 20th, 2015 at 5:02 pm

Thanks a lot,I’m one of the people who had a problem with subtracting of binary but i must say,you helped me a lot. Keep on the good work,God bless you

March 21st, 2015 at 7:27 am

thanks so much for the elusive teaching

April 6th, 2015 at 6:13 am

Your method rocks

April 29th, 2015 at 5:28 am

thank you so much…!!

only because of u…i m able to learn this !!

thank you so much…god bless you !!

May 19th, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Very easy and nice example. Thnx..just before 1night of exam. This is very help full. Thnx again.

July 30th, 2015 at 2:46 am

Your examples involves 2 binary numbers, what if the problem involves 3 or 4 binary numbers to be deducted? Thank you

July 30th, 2015 at 1:45 pm

@feb,

Unless I misunderstand your question, just subtract them in sequence. So for example, in decimal, 10 – 2 – 1 – 3: 10 – 2 = 8; 8 – 1 = 7; 7 – 3 = 4.