Skip to the content of the web site.

2.1 Decimal Numbers

Introduction Theory HOWTO Examples Matlab Maple


The use of a decimal numbering system is based on the average human having ten fingers. Outside of this minor benefit, the decimal number system has a number of drawbacks, the greatest being that ten is divisible by only two primes, 2 and 5, and it is neither divisible by 3 nor 4. (Of course, it would be absurd to suggest anything else at this time.)

This topic covers decimal representation and arithmetic so that you may compare it to binary representation and arithmetic.




Interactive Maplet

A Fixed-Precision Decimal Calculator



We use ten ordered decimal digits, 0, 1, 2, ..., 9 to represent numbers. An (n + 1)-digit decimal integer is a number of the form dn⋅⋅⋅d2d1d0 where each di is a decimal digit and dn ≠ 0. This represents the number

When a digit di = 9 is incremented, it is replaced by 0 and the digit di + 1 is incremented by 1.

The digit dn is called the most-significant digit and the digit d0 is called the least-significant digit.

Using these definitions, we derive the basic rules for decimal addition and multiplication.

We may generalize this to represent arbitrary real numbers by including a decimal point and allowing numbers of the form dn⋅⋅⋅d0.d-1d-2⋅⋅⋅ which represents the number

In general, we will truncate such a number to the form:

where m < n. We will usually write such a number as dn.dn − × 10n or dn.dn − 1...dmen. This is often referred to as scientific notation. For example, 123.456 may be represented by 1.23456 × 102 or 1.23456e2.

Again, using this definition of a real number, we may derive rules for decimal addition and multiplication.


Another term to describe number which is represented as a decimal number is to state that it is written in base ten (or base 10).



Given two decimal numbers, add and multiply them.


We will assume that the number of digits is finite. These rules can be extended for an infinite number of digits, but this is unnecessary.


Line up the decimal points and add each column, starting from the right and moving left. If a digit is missing, assume it is zero. If a column sums to more than 9, write down the least-significant digit and carry the remaining digits to the next column. Continue until all columns, including any carries, have been added.

For example, 3.25 + 18.7 is calculated as follows:

   + 18.7 


Given two decimal numbers, total the number of digits to the right of the decimal points. Next, remove the decimal points and multiply the two numbers as integers. Starting with the least significant digit d0 of the second integer, multiply the first integer by that digit. Next, for each higher digit di in the second integer, multiply the first integer by di⋅10i. Finally, sum these products.

For example, 3.25 × 18.7 has three digits to the right of the decimal point and thus we calculate:

   × 187
   1           carry for sum
    2275       325 × 7
   26000       325 × 80
   32500       325 × 100

Adding back 3 digits to the right of the decimal point, we get 60.775.

Note that the zeros are often omitted for convenience:

   × 187
   2600        ←
   325         ←


1. Add the decimal numbers 6.152 and 96.47 .

     11  1         carry
    + 96.47

Lining up the decimal points, each column is added. A blank is interpreted as a zero and the columns are added from right to left. If a column adds to more than 9, the following digits are carried to the next column.

2. Multiply the decimal numbers 3.523 and 80.13

       2412        carry for 8 × 3523
                   carry for 0 × 3523
                   carry for 1 × 3523
       11          carry for 3 × 3523
      × 8013
      1            carry for sum
  + 28184

Adding the number of decimal places (3 + 2 = 5) and using this offset, we get the result 282.29799 .

3. Represent the number 523.2345 in scientific notation.

This number is 500 + ⋅⋅⋅ or 5 × 102, and thus we may write it as 5.232345 × 102 or 5.232345e2

4. What is the problem if we don't use scientific notation to represent 1.23e10?

Using 12300000000, by convention, suggests that the maximum absolute error is 0.5 which has a maximum relative error of 4.1 × 10-11, while the original scientific notation suggests the maximum absolute error is 50000000, which has a maximum relative error of 0.0041.


Matlab uses binary (base 2) to store approximation of real numbers; however, all integers up to 253 (nine quadrillion) may be stored exactly. This exact storage does not extend to all real numbers as is demonstrated here:

>> format long
>> 48 - 41 
ans = 7
>> 51 - 44
ans = 7
>> 4.8 - 4.1 
ans = 0.700000000000000
>> 5.1 - 4.4
ans = 0.699999999999999


Maple already works with decimal numbers, so the following are quite natural in Maple:

3.235 + 9.323 + 83.323;

Note that (by default) Maple uses 10 decimal digits of precision when performing decimal arithmetic.