Simultaneous equations

Simultaneous equations help you work out two variables at once.

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Why do we have simultaneous equations? Well, there are two ways of looking at it.

  1. The first is that it solves a problem that seems insoluble: how do you work out two variables at once? For example, if x + y = 10, what are x and y? That’s an impossible question because x and y could literally be anything. If x was 2, then y would be 8, but if x was 100, then y would be -90, but if x was 0.5, then y would be 9.5 and so on. Simultaneous equations help us solve that problem by providing more data. Yes, we still can’t solve each equation individually, but having both of them allows us to solve for one variable and then the other.
  2. The second way of looking at simultaneous equations is to imagine that they describe two lines that meet. The x and y values are obviously different as you move along both lines, but they are identical at the point where they meet, and that is the answer to the question.

The next question is obviously ‘How do we solve simultaneous equations?’ The answer is simple in theory: you just have to add both equations together to eliminate one of the variables, at which point you can work out the second one and then put it back into one of the original equations to work out the first variable. However, it gets more and more complicated as the numbers get less and less ‘convenient’, so let’s take three examples to illustrate the three different techniques you need to know.

Simple addition and subtraction

The first step in solving simultaneous equations is to try and eliminate one of the variables by adding or subtracting them, but you can only do that if the number of the variable is the same in both. In theory, you could choose the first or the second term, but I find the one in the middle is the easiest, eg

4x + 2y = 10

16x – 2y = 10

Here, the number of the variables in the middle of the equations is the same, so adding them together will make them disappear:

20x = 20

It’s then simple to divide both sides by 20 to work out x:

x = 1

Once you have one variable, you can simply plug it back into one of the original equations to work out the other one, eg

4x + 2y = 10

4 x 1 + 2y = 10

4 + 2y = 10

2y = 6

y = 3

Answer: x = 1, y = 3

Multiplying one equation

If the number of variables in the middle is not the same, but one is a factor of the other, try multiplying one equation by whatever number is needed to make the number of the variables match, eg

4x + 2y = 10

7x + y = 10

Multiplying the second equation by 2 means the number of the y’s is the same:

4x + 2y = 10

14x + 2y = 20

The rest of the procedure is exactly the same, only this time we have to subtract rather than add the equations to begin with:

10x = 10

x = 1

The next part is exactly the same as the first example as we simply plug in x to find y:

4x + 2y = 10

4 x 1 + 2y = 10

4 + 2y = 10

2y = 6

y = 3

Answer: x = 1, y = 3

Multiplying both equations

If the number of variables in the middle is not the same, but neither is a factor of the other, find the lowest common multiple and multiply the two equations by whatever numbers are needed to reach it, eg

4x + 2y = 10

x + 3y = 10

The lowest common multiple of 2 and 3 is 6, which means we need to multiply the first equation by 3:

12x + 6y = 30

…and the second by 2:

2x + 6y = 20

As the number of variables in the middle is now the same, we can carry on as before by subtracting one from the other in order to find x:

10x = 10

x = 1

Again, the final part of the technique is exactly the same as we plug x into the first of the original equations:

4x + 2y = 10

4 x 1 + 2y = 10

4 + 2y = 10

2y = 6

y = 3

Answer: x = 1, y = 3

Practice questions

Job done! Now, here are a few practice questions to help you learn the rules. Find x and y in the following pairs of simultaneous equations:

  1. 2x + 4y = 16
    4x – 4y = 8
  2. 3x + 2y = 12
    5x + 2y = 16
  3. 12x – 4y = 28
    3x – 2y = 5
  4. 2x – y = 12
    3x – 2y = 17
  5. 4x + 3y = 24
    5x – 2y = 7
  6. 4x + 3y = 31
    5x + 4y = 40
  7. x + 4y = 23
    5x – 2y = 5
  8. 4x + 3y = 37
    2x – 3y = -13
  9. 2x + 4y = 16
    3x – 5y = -9
  10. 2x + 4y = 20
    3x + 3y = 21

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