A Guide to Every Math Symbol and What It Represents

Learn what these seemingly random notations mean

It's all in the formula...
Learn about math symbols with this handy dandy guide. PeopleImages / Getty Images

Math symbols—often tiny, indecipherable, and seemingly random—are all-important. Some math symbols are Greek and Latin letters, dating back centuries to ancient times. Others, like the plus, minus, times, and division symbols seem to be mere notations on a paper. Yet, symbols in math are essentially the instructions that drive this area of academics. And, they have true value in real life.

A plus sign (+) can tell you if you are adding cash to your bank account, while a minus sign (-) may indicate trouble ahead—that you are subtracting funds and possibly in danger of running out of money.

Parentheses, which in English punctuation indicate that you're inserting a nonessential thought into the sentence—mean just the opposite in math: that you should work whatever is within those two punctuation marks first, and only then do the rest of the problem. Read on to see what the common math symbols are, what the represent, and why they're important.

Common Math Symbols

Here is a list of the most common symbols used in mathematics.


What It Represents

  +Adding sign: Often referred to as the plus sign or the addition sign
  -Subtracting sign: Often referred to as the minus sign
  xMultiplication sign: Often referred to as the times or times table sign
  ÷Division sign: To divide
  =Equal sign
  | |Absolute value
  ≠Not equal to
  ( )Parenthesis
  [ ]Square brackets
  %Percent sign: Out of 100
 ∑Big sum sign: Summation
 Square root sign
  <Inequality sign: Less than
  >Inequality sign: Greater than
 ∅Empty set
 Angle sign
 !Factorial sign

Math Symbols in Real Life

You use math symbols more than you realize in all areas of your life. As noted above, the difference between a plus or minus symbol in banking can indicate whether you're adding a wealth of funds to your bank account or in withdrawing funds. If you've ever used a computer accounting spreadsheet, you likely know that the big sum sign (∑) gives you an easy—indeed instant—way to add an endless column of numbers.

"Pi," which is denoted by the Greek letter π, is used throughout the world of math, science, physics, architecture, and more. Despite the origins of pi in the subject of geometry, this number has applications throughout mathematics and even shows up in the subjects of statistics and probability. And the symbol for infinity (∞) not only is an important math concept, it also suggests the infinite expanse of the universe (in astronomy) or the infinite possibilities that come from every action or thought (in philosophy). 

Tips for Symbols

Although there are more symbols in math that are indicated in this list, these are some of the more common ones. You'll often need to use HTML code in order for the symbols to show up online, as many fonts do not support the use of mathematical symbols. However, you'll find most of these on the graphing calculator as well.

As you progress in math, you'll begin to use these symbols more and more. If you plan to study math, it will be well worth your time—and indeed save you an infinite (∞) amount of this valuable resource—if you keep this table of math symbols handy.

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Your Citation
Russell, Deb. "A Guide to Every Math Symbol and What It Represents." ThoughtCo, Nov. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/common-mathematic-symbols-2312232. Russell, Deb. (2017, November 5). A Guide to Every Math Symbol and What It Represents. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/common-mathematic-symbols-2312232 Russell, Deb. "A Guide to Every Math Symbol and What It Represents." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/common-mathematic-symbols-2312232 (accessed March 21, 2018).