Factoring the difference of two squares

By Tutor GuyNo Comments


You will spend a lot of time in algebra (and courses beyond) factoring polynomials into linear and quadratic terms. There are some special polynomials that occur so frequently that you should recognize them on sight so that you know the method for factoring them. The most common is the binomial of the form a^2-b^2. This is called the difference of two squares because both terms are perfect squares and you are subtracting (finding the difference between) the two terms.

Some examples of this binomial are x^2-4, 9x^4-16y^2 and 121y^2z^2-25w^4a^6b^{12}. Note that in each case, both terms are perfect squares.

It is very easy to factor these expressions—you can do it by inspection. The rule is simple and you must memorize it: a^2-b^2=(a+b)(a-b). Once you determine that an expression is the difference of two squares, you can write out its factors immediately. Let’s see how it works with the three examples given above:




It’s really that easy once you learn the format. Of course it doesn’t matter what order you write the two factors, so x^2-4=(x-2)(x+2) is also correct.

One other important point: this factoring rule works in reverse, too! If you have to distribute (multiply out) two factors and you see they are in the form of (a+b)(a-b), you should recognize that this gives the difference of two squares: a^2-b^2. You can do this immediately, without multiplying out every term. Learning this formula will save you lots of time.

Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Precalc/Trig
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