CLEP College Algebra/Absolute Value Equations
Absolute Values[edit  edit source]
Absolute Values represented using two vertical bars, , are common in Algebra. They are meant to signify the number's distance from 0 on a number line. If the number is negative, it becomes positive. And if the number was positive, it remains positive:
For a formal definition:
This can be read aloud as the following:
If , then
The formal definition is simply a declaration of what the function represents at certain restrictions of the value. For any , the output of the graph of the function on the plane is that of the linear function . If , then the output is that of the linear function .
For our purposes, it does not technically matter whether or . As long as you pick one and are consistent with it, it does not matter how this is defined. By convention, it is usually defined as in the beginning formal definition.
Please note that the opposite (the negative, ) of a negative number is a positive. For example, the opposite of is . Usually, some books and teachers would refer to opposite number as the negative of the given magnitude. For convenience, this may be used, so always keep in mind this shortcut in language.
Properties of the Absolute Value Function[edit  edit source]
We will define the properties of the absolute value function. This will be important to know when taking the CLEP exam since it can drastically speed up the process of solving absolute value equations. Finally, the practice problems in this section will test you on your knowledge on absolute value equations. We recommend you learn these concepts to the best of your abilities. However, this will not be explicitly necessary by the time one takes the exam.
Domain and Range[edit  edit source]
Let whose mapping is . By definition,
 .
Because it can only be the case that and , it is not possible for . However, since has no restriction, the domain, , has no restriction. Thus, if represents the range of the function, then and .
Let whose mapping is represent the absolute value function. If is the domain and is the range, then and .
By the above definition, there exists an absolute minimum to the parent function, and it exists at the origin,
Even or odd?[edit  edit source]
Recall the definition of an even and an odd function. Let there be a function
 If and , then is even.
 If and , then is odd.
Proof: is even Let . By definition,
Suppose . Let . 
Because is even, it is also the case that it is symmetrical. A review of this can be found here (Graphs and Their Properties).
Onetoone and onto?[edit  edit source]
Recall the definitions of injective and surjective.
 If , and , then is injective.
 If for all there is an such that , then is surjective.
Proof: is noninjective Suppose and . By the previous proof, we showed is even. As such, we can use the value to make the following statement: Therefore, is noninjective. 
Because we have not established how to prove these statements through algebraic manipulation, we will be deriving properties as we go to gain a further understanding of these new functions. Establishing whether a function is surjective is simply through checking the definition (negating if otherwise to establish it as nonsurjective).
Proof: is nonsurjective Suppose . There exists an element , for which for all . 
A review of the definitions can be found here (Definition and Interpretations of Functions).
Intercepts and Inflections of the Parent Function[edit  edit source]
With all the information provided from the previous sections, we can derive the graph of the parent function . It is even, and therefore, symmetrical about the axis since there is an intercept at . Finally, because we know the domain and range, we know the minimum of the function is at , and we know the definition of the function, we can easily show that the graph of is the following image to the right (Figure 1).
A summary of what you should see from the graph is this:
 Domain: .
 Range: .
 There is an absolute minimum at .
 There is one intercept at .
 There is one intercept at .
 The graph is even and symmetrical about the axis.
 The graph is noninjective and nonsurjective.
 The graph has no inflection point.
Transformations of the Parent Function[edit  edit source]
Many times, one will not be working with the parent function. Many real life applications of this function involve at least some manipulation to either the input or the output: vertical stretching/contraction, horizontal stretching/contraction, reflection about the axis, reflection about the axis, and vertical/horizontal shifting. Luckily, not much changes when it comes to the manipulation of these functions. The exceptions will be talked about in more detail:
Let and . There must be an . Thus,
 If , then is an expansion of by a factor of .
 If , then is a contraction of by a factor of .
 If , then is a reflection of about the axis.
Let and . There must be an . Thus,
 If , then is an upward shift of by .
 If , then is a downward shift of by .
Let and . There must be an . Thus,
 If , then is a leftward shift of by .
 If , then is a rightward shift of by .
The properties not listed above are exceptions to the general rule about functions found in the chapter Algebra of Functions. The exceptions are not anything substantial. The only difference with what we found generally versus what we have provided above are simply a result of what we found in the previous section.
 There is no reflection about the axis because the function is even and symmetrical.
 There is no horizontal expansion and contraction because it gives the same result as vertical expansion and contraction (this will be proven later).
We now have all the information we will need to know about absolute value functions now.
Graphing Absolute Value Functions[edit  edit source]
This subsection is absolutely not optional. You will be asked these questions very explicitly, so it is a good idea to understand this section. If you didn't read the previous subsection, you are not going to understand how any of this makes sense.
Practice Problems[edit  edit source]
Absolute Value Equations[edit  edit source]
Now, let's say that we're given the equation and we are asked to solve for . What number would satisfy the equation of ? 8 would work, but 8 would also work. That's why there can be two solutions to one equation. How come this is true? That is what the next example is for.
Example 2.0(a): Formally define the function below: Recall what the absolute value represents: it is the distance of that number to the left or right of the starting point, the point where the inner function is zero. Recall the formal definition of the absolute value function: We want to formally define the function . Let First, we need to find where . From that, it is safe to say that the following is true: 
It is important to know how to do this so that we may formally apply an algorithm throughout this entire chapter. For now, we will be exploring ways to solve these functions based on the examples given, including the formalizing of an algorithm, which we will give later.
Example 2.0(b): Solve for : Since we formally defined the function in Example 0, we will write the definition down. It is important to realize what the equation is saying: "there is a function equal to such that ." As defined in the opening section, the following function is noninjective and nonsurjective. Therefore, there must be a such that it satisfies . Therefore, the following must be true All that is left to do is to solve the two equations for for each given case, which will be differentiated by its positive and negative case:
We found our two solutions for : 
The above example demonstrates an algorithm that is commonly taught in high schools and many universities since it applicable to every absolute value equation. The steps for the algorithm will now be stated. Given :
 Isolate the absolute value function so that is equal to another function, or .
 Write the equation so that you solve for the composed function into two such cases. Given ,
 Solve for and
 Solve for .
A basic principle of solving these absolute value equations is the need to keep the absolute value by itself. This should be enough for most people to understand, yet this phrasing can be a little ambiguous to some students. As such, a lot of practice problems may be in order here. We will be applying all the steps to algorithm outlined above instead of going through the process of formally solving these equations because Example 1 was meant to show that the algorithm is true.
Example 2.0(c): Solve for : We will show you two ways to solve this equation. The first is the standard way, the second will show you something not usually taught. Standard way: Multiply the constant multiple by its inverse. We'd have to divide both sides by to get the absolute value by itself. We would set up the two different equations using similar reasoning as in the first example: Then, we'd solve, by subtracting the 6 from both sides and dividing both sides by 2 to get the by itself, resulting in . We will leave the solving part as an exercise to the reader. Other way: "Distribute" the three into the absolute value. Play close attention to the steps and reasoning laid out herein, for the reasoning for why this works is just as important as the person using the trick, if not moreso. Let us first generalize the problem. Let there be a positive, nonzero constant multiple multiplied to the absolute value equation : Let us assume both are true. If both statements are true, then you are allowed to distribute the positive constant inside the absolute value. Otherwise, this method is invalid! Notice the two equations have the same highlighted answer in red, meaning so long as the value of the constant multiple is positive, you are allowed to distribute the inside the absolute value bars. However, this "distributive property" needed the property that multiplying two absolute values is the same as the absolute value of the product. We need to prove this is true first before one can use this in their proof. For the student that spotted this mistake, you may have a good logical mind on one's shoulder, or a good eye for detail.
By confirming the general case, we may be employ this trick when we see it again. Let us apply this property to the original problem (this gives us the green result below): This all implies that From there, a simple use of algebra will show that the answer to the original problem is again . 
Let us change the previous problem a little so that the constant multiple is now negative. Without changing much else, what will be true as a result? Let us find out.
Example 2.0(d): Solve for : We will attempt to the problem in two different ways: the standard way and the other way, which we will explain later. Standard way: Multiply the constant multiple by its inverse. Divide like the previous problem, so the equation would look like this: . Recall what the absolute value represents: it is the distance of that number to the left or right of the starting point, zero. With this, do you notice anything strange? When you evaluate an absolute value, you will always get a positive number because the distance must always be positive. Because this is means a logically impossible situation, there are no real solutions. Notice how we specifically mentioned "real" solutions. This is because we are certain that the solutions in the real set, , do not exist. However, there might be some set out there which would have solutions for this type of equation. Because of this posibility, we need to be mathematically rigorous and specifically state "no real solutions." Other way: "Distribute" the constant multiple into the absolute value. Here, we notice that the constant multiple . The problem with that is there is no such that . The only way this would be true is for because With this property, we may therefore only distribute the constant multiple as with a negative as a factor outside the absolute value. As such, It seems the other way has us multiply a constant by its inverse to both sides. Either way, this "other method" still gave us the same answer: there is no real solution. 
The problem this time will be a little different. Keep in mind the principle we had in mind throughout all the examples so far, and be careful because a trap is set in this problem.
Example 2.0(e): Solve for : There are many we ways can attempt to find solutions to this problem. We will do this the standard and allow any student to do it however they so desire. Because the absolute value is isolated, we can begin with our generalized procedure. Assuming , we may begin by denoting these two equations:
These are only true if . For now, assume this condition is true. Let us solve for with each respective equation: Equation ( )Equation ( )We have two potential solutions to the equation. Try to answer why we said potential here based on what you know so far about this problem. Why did we state we had two potential solutions? Because we had to assume that and is true for the provided . Because of this, we have to verify the solutions to this equation exist. Therefore, let us substitute those values into the equation:
This equations has no real solutions. More specifically, it has two extraneous solutions (i.e. the solutions we found do not satisfy the equality property when we substitute them back in). 
Despite doing the procedure outlined since the first problem, you obtain two extraneous solutions. This is not the fault of the procedure but a simple result of the equation itself. Because the lefthand side must always be positive, it means the righthand side must be positive as well. Along with that restriction is the fact that the two sides may not equal the other for the values whereby only positive values are given. This is all a matter of properties of functions.
Example 2.0(f): Solve for : All the properties learned will be needed here, so let us hope you did not skip anything here. It will certainly make our lives easier if we know the properties we are about to employ in this problem. Looking at the second equation might be the first declaration of absurdity. However, an application of the fundamental properties of absolute values is enough to do this problem.
Peel the problem one layer at a time. For this one, we will categorize equations based on where they come from; this should hopefully explain the dashes: 31 is first equation formulated from ( ), for example.
We can demonstrate that some equations are equivalents of the other. For example, ( gives ( ). Further, ( ) and ( ) are equivalent (multiply both sides of equation ( ) by ). After determining all the equations that are equivalent, distribute to the corresponding parentheses. ) and ( ) are equivalent, since dividing both sides of ( ) by
Now all that is left to do is solve the equations. We will leave this step as an exercise for the reader. There are two potential solutions: . All that is left to do is verify that the equation in the question is true when looking at these specific values of :
Because both solutions are true, the two solutions are . 
Absolute value equations can be very useful to the real world, and it is usually when it comes to modeling. We will introduce one example of a standard modeling problem, then one unusual application in geometry (EXAMPLE WIP).
Example 2.0(g): Window Fitting Question: Alfred wants to place a window so that the length of the window varies by 70% the length of the room. The room is 45 feet high and 70 feet in length. If the centered window takes up the entire vertical height of the wall
Answers:
Explanation: The hardest part about this problem is attempting to understand the situation. Once a student understands the problem presented, the rest of the steps are mostly simple. The procedure we used to solve many linearequation word problems shall be used here since it helps us condense a ton of information into something more "bitesized."
We will be using these steps for items (a) and (b). First, we will list the information as below:
Next, sketch the situation based on our list. A good sketch (Figure 3) can tell you a lot more information than the list. As such, this step may be used moreso than the list. This is why this step may be optional if you listed out the information presented in the problem. From our sketch (the tool to solving the problem), we can come up with an equation to help solve for , the sidelength of the wall. Because the absolute value describes the distance (or length), and we want the length to be 70% the room length, we may come to this conclusion: From there, we can solve the equation. In our situation, it makes no sense to consider because it results in a negative length for the window, so we reject . It is always important to keep in mind context when working with word problems. This information will be very useful for item (b). For part (a), it asks us to find the area of the wall side excluding the window. This tells us the area of the wall, according to our sketch, is
Item (b) gave us the following information, along with what we found in working (a):
No sketch will be provided for item (b). With all the information out of the way, we can easily find the surface area that excludes all windows.

The next problem typically requires some trigonometry to solve easily. However, with one extra piece of information, one can use the properties of the absolute value property to solve the following problem.
Example 2.0(h): Tiling a Roof (adapted from Trigonometry Book 1) An engineer is planning to make an roof with a m. frame base and m. perimeter. The angle of the slope of the roof to the base is . The sloped sides are congruent. A reference image (Figure 2) of the slopedroof (with no cartesian plane) is provided. Given the area of a triangle is , and the distance formula is , find the area of the triangular cross section of the roof. Answer Explanation The following problem requires you to think about what doesn't change to successfully allow you to determine what one situation allows for all of the following to be possible. We will apply our problemsolving steps derived onto this problem first before we discuss one difference in this problem that somewhat breaks our algorithm. We will draw it first.
We can gain a lot of information from Figure 3.
Our drawing helped us gleam a lot of information. Knowing the perimeter is tells us that the distance is However, Figure 3 tells us that . Therefore, by the transitive property, After knowing the vertical contraction, we can determine the height of the triangle. From there, the area. The area of the triangle is therefore, 
Notice how it was not necessary for us to solve for a specific value of based on the absolute value equation. The only aspect of absolute value equations necessary for this problem is the graph properties and some logic. In a way, this is the most easy absolute value problem. However, the needed creativity for it makes up for the "easiness" of the problem.
Practice Problems[edit  edit source]
Inequalities with Absolute Values[edit  edit source]
It is important to keep in mind that any function can be less than any other function. For example, has any solutions for . So long as the value for is within that range, the function is less than the output of . The algebra for inequalities of requires a bit more of demonstration to understand. While the methods we use will not be proven, per se, our examples and explanations should give a good intuition behind the idea of find the inequalities of absolute values.
Example 3.0(a): First, let us simplify the following expression through the method we demonstrated in the previous section (factoring the inside of the absolute value and bringing the constant out). Keep in mind, since we are switching the sides for which we view the equation, 50 is the left instead of right, we must also "flip" the inequality to be consistent with the original equation. From there, it should be easy to see that Let us further analyze this situation. What the above equation is saying is is less than the function . We want to make sure the inside value is less than five. Because the absolute value describes the distance, there are two realities to the function. Let Because there are two "pieces" to the function , and we want each piece to be less than 5,
We will demonstrate the more common procedure in the next example. For now, this intuition should begin to form an idea of algebraic analysis. We will solve the lefthand then the righthand case.
We have found a possible distribution of values that allows the following equation to be true, where , and it is for values of in between and , noninclusive. 
The above example is an intuition behind how solving for inequalities work. Technically speaking, we could make a proof for why we have to "operate" (take the steps seen above) absolute value inequalities this way. However, this will be a little too technical and involve a lot of generalization that could potentially confuse students rather than enlighten. If the student feels the challenge is worth, then one may try the proof of the steps we derived below. This is considered standard procedure (according to many High School textbooks).
 Simplify until only the "absolute value bar term" is left.
 Solve by taking the inside and relating it by the inequality for the "lefthand" values; taking the same expression found inside the absolute value, for the "righthand" equation, negate the related term and flip the inequality to then solve.
 Rewrite into necessary notatioon.
Although the procedure may seem to be confusing, we are really only trying to make the algorithm as specific as possible. In reality, we will show just how easy it is to apply this algorithm for the problem above.
Example 3.0(a) (REPEAT): Let us skip to the most simplified form. Now let us apply the above algorithm.
From there, we will solve.

There are two possible reasons why this procedure exists. For one, it allows us to quickly solve for in the "righthand" equation without the need for double the amount of multiplications necessary to solve for (it lessens the amount of times we have to flip the inequality). Next, it allows us to focus more on the idea behind absolute value equations (the value inside will be positive, and hence, we want to find all values that allow us to find all possible solutions).
Nevertheless, keep in mind how we found this procedure, and it was through applying the function definition of absolute values. In reality, we did the exact same thing for absolute value equations. The only difference in application of algorithm applies to the inequality, which further "complicates" matters by introducing a new concept to the noninjective absolute value function. Through finding two solutions, we gave two possible ranges for values of .
Hopefully, this example should further shine a light into what many high schoolers think to be "black magic" among finding solutions to absolute value inequalities and equalities. The next examples should only hopefully further the concepts learned. Keep in mind, if one does not like the algorithm presented in the repeat example above, one is perfectly fine to use the other algorithm. The benefit of multiple choice is the ability to use any method, and only the correctness of your answer will be considered.
Example 3.0(b): Explanations given later 
Example 3.0(c): Explanations given later 
Example 3.0(d): Explanations given later 
Introduction to example included later.
Example 3.0(e): Variable temperature problem Problem: The temperature in a room averages at around in the summer without air conditioning. The change in temperature is dependent on the ambient weather conditions. Without air conditioning, the maximum change in temperature from the average is . When the air conditioning is on, the temperature of the room is a function of time (in hours), given by . The maximum deviation in temperature should be no more than .
Answers:
Explanation: When working with wordproblems it is best to rewrite the problem into something algebraic or "picturesque" (i.e. draw the problem out). One can also use both, as we will soon do. The benefit of drawing a picture (or, more accurate, a sketch) of the situation is being able to more easily interpret situations. We are highly visual people, after all, so seeing a picture is a lot easier to understand than words. The highly intuitive nature of geometry also lends itself well to algebraic interpretations. Let us reread the situation without A/C.
This gives us a lot of information. We know that and , so to keep it as one singular equation, it is best to write it as an absolute value equation. For this situation,
It is important to know why this is true. Recall the absolute value represents the distance from for the inside value. If is the reference point, then to get from , you need to subtract 20 from the current value . As such, this equation is true. Now let us look at the situation for the air conditioning.
Based on the wording of the sentence, the temperature is based on the time, and the temperature can only be at most from the average. By the same logic given for Equation ( ),
Equation ( ) is left in the same form to show how similar the two equations are, and to also relate more to the wording of the setup text. Using the transitive property, one can simplify the equation further to obtain
Recall how , where . Because of this property, one can simplify the equation further to obtain the final equation for part (a):
This sufficiently answers item (a), perhaps the hardest part in the question. However, with the two equations obtained, ( ) and ( ), we can answer both items (b) and (c). Let us reread parts (b) and (c) using our understanding of the question:
This is, in essence, asking the examinee to find the value of using ( ). The previous examples should have hopefully prepared you with solving for absolute value inequalities.
Since the problem is asking for the minimum temperature value, , of an ambient temperature room, the correct answer here is . Keep in mind, we are allowed to put that equal sign there thanks to the problem's wording ("at most" implies less than or equal to). Also, always remember to put units in word problems.
This is, in essence, asking the examinee to find the value of time (in hours) using the most simplified equation, Equation ( ).
Because, in essence, only the positive case is considered (we are only looking at time ), the maximum amount of time that the air conditioning will allow is hours. 
Lesson Review[edit  edit source]
An absolute value (represented with 's) stands for the number's distance from 0 on the number line. This essentially makes a negative number positive although a positive number remains the same. To solve an equation involving absolute values, you must get the absolute value by itself on one side and set it equal to the positive and negative version of the other side, because those are the two solutions the absolute value can output. However, check the solutions you get in the end; some might produce negative numbers on the right side, which are impossible because all outputs of an absolute value symbol are positive!
Lesson Quiz[edit  edit source]