SOHCAHTOA (pronounced ‘soccer-toe-uh’) is a useful ‘mnemonic’ to remember the definitions of sines, cosines and tangents. Amazingly, I was never taught this at school, so I just had to look up all the funny numbers in a big book of tables without understanding what they meant. As a result, I was always a bit confused by trigonometry until I started teaching Maths and came across SOHCAHTOA quite by accident!
The reason it’s called SOHCAHTOA is because the letters of all three equations make up that word – if you ignore the equals signs…
First of all, let’s define our terms:
S stands for sine (or sin)
O stands for the opposite side of a right-angled triangle
H stands for the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle
C stands for cosine (or cos)
A stands for the adjacent side of a right-angled triangle
T stands for tangent (or tan)
O stands for the opposite side of a right-angled triangle (again)
A stands for the adjacent side of a right-angled triangle (again)
Sines, cosines and tangents are just the numbers you get when you divide one particular side of a right-angled triangle by another. For a given angle, they never change – however big the triangle is.
Sine = Opposite ÷ Hypotenuse
Cosine = Adjacent ÷ Hypotenuse
Tangent = Opposite ÷ Adjacent
All these ratios were discovered by Indian and Arabic mathematicians some time before the 9th Century, but you can still use them today to help you work out the length of the sides of a right-angled triangle or one of the angles.
Each of these formulas can be rearranged to make two other formulas. (If it helps, you can put the three values in a number triangle with the one in the middle at the top). Let’s take the sine formula first:
Sine = Opposite ÷ Hypotenuse means:
Hypotenuse = Opposite ÷ Sine
Opposite = Hypotenuse x Sine
As long as you know the angle and the length of the opposite side or the hypotenuse, you can work out the length of the other one of those two sides.
Unknown: hypotenuse Known: opposite and angle
If one of the angles of a right-angled triangle is 45° and the opposite side is 5cm, the formula for the length of the hypotenuse must be opposite ÷ sin(45°). The sine of 45° is 0.707 (to three decimal places), so hypotenuse = 5 ÷ 0.707 = 7cm (to the nearest cm).
Unknown: opposite Known: hypotenuse and angle
If one of the angles of a right-angled triangle is 45° and the hypotenuse is 5cm, the formula for the length of the opposite side must be hypotenuse x sin(45°). The sine of 45° is 0.707 (to three decimal places), so opposite = 5 x 0.707 = 4cm (to the nearest cm).
Equally, as long as you know the the hypotenuse and opposite side lengths, you can work out the angle by using the ‘arcsine’ or ‘inverse sine’ function on your calculator, which works out the matching angle for a given sine and is written as sin-1, eg sin(45°) = 0.707, which means sin-1(0.707) = 45°.
Known: opposite and hypotenuse
If the opposite side of a right-angled triangle is 4cm and the hypotenuse is 5cm, the formula for the angle must be sin-1(4÷5), or the inverse sine of 0.8. The sine of 53° (to the nearest degree) is 0.8, so the angle must be 53°.
We can do the same kind of thing with the cosine formula, except this time we’re dealing with the adjacent rather than the opposite side.
Cosine = Adjacent ÷ Hypotenuse means:
Hypotenuse = Adjacent ÷ Cosine
Adjacent = Hypotenuse x Cosine
As long as you know the angle and the length of the adjacent side or the hypotenuse, you can work out the length of the other one of those two sides.
Unknown: hypotenuse Known: adjacent and angle
If one of the angles of a right-angled triangle is 45° and the adjacent side is 5cm, the formula for the length of the hypotenuse must be adjacent ÷ cos(45°). The cosine of 45° is 0.707 (to three decimal places), so hypotenuse = 5 ÷ 0.707 = 7cm (to the nearest cm).
Unknown: adjacent Known: hypotenuse and angle
If one of the angles of a right-angled triangle is 45° and the hypotenuse is 5cm, the formula for the length of the adjacent side must be hypotenuse x cos(45°). The sine of 45° is 0.707 (to three decimal places), so adjacent = 5 x 0.707 = 4cm (to the nearest cm).
Equally, as long as you know the the hypotenuse and adjacent side lengths, you can work out the angle by using the ‘arccosine’ or ‘inverse cosine’ function on your calculator, which works out the matching angle for a given cosine and is written as cos-1, eg cos(45°) = 0.707, which means cos-1(0.707) = 45°.
Known: adjacent and hypotenuse
If the adjacent side of a right-angled triangle is 4cm and the hypotenuse is 5cm, the formula for the angle must be cos-1(4÷5), or the inverse cosine of 0.8. The sine of 37° (to the nearest degree) is 0.8, so the angle must be 37°.
Finally, we can do the same kind of thing with the tangent formula, except this time we’re dealing with the opposite and adjacent sides.
Tangent = Opposite ÷ Adjacent means:
Adjacent = Opposite ÷ Tangent
Opposite = Adjacent x Tangent
As long as you know the angle and the length of the opposite or adjacent side, you can work out the length of the other one of those two sides.
Unknown: adjacent Known: opposite and angle
If one of the angles of a right-angled triangle is 45° and the opposite side is 5cm, the formula for the length of the adjacent must be opposite ÷ tan(45°). The tangent of 45° is 1, so adjacent = 5 ÷ 1 = 5cm.
Unknown: opposite Known: adjacent and angle
If one of the angles of a right-angled triangle is 45° and the adjacent side is 5cm, the formula for the length of the opposite side must be adjacent x tan(45°). The tangent of 45° is 1, so opposite = 5 x 1 = 5cm.
Equally, as long as you know the the opposite and adjacent side lengths, you can work out the angle by using the ‘arctangent’ or ‘inverse tangent’ function on your calculator, which works out the matching angle for a given tangent and is written as tan-1, eg tan(45°) = 0.707, which means tan-1(0.707) = 45°.
Known: adjacent and hypotenuse
If the adjacent side of a right-angled triangle is 5cm and the hypotenuse is 5cm, the formula for the angle must be tan-1(5÷5), or the inverse tangent of 1. The tangent of 45° is 1, so the angle must be 45°.
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