Lesson 21: Combining Like Terms (Part 2)

Let’s see how to use properties correctly to write equivalent expressions.

21.1: True or False?

Select all the statements that are true. Be prepared to explain your reasoning.

  1. $4 - 2(3+7)=4-2\boldcdot 3 -2\boldcdot 7$
  2. $4 - 2(3+7)=4+\text-2\boldcdot 3 +\text-2\boldcdot 7$
  3. $4 - 2(3+7)=4-2\boldcdot 3 +2\boldcdot 7$
  4. $4 - 2(3+7)=4-(2\boldcdot 3 +2\boldcdot 7)$

21.2: Seeing it Differently

Some students are trying to write an expression with fewer terms that is equivalent to $8-3(4-9x)$.

Noah says, “I worked the problem from left to right and ended up with $20 - 45x$.”

$$8 - 3(4-9x)$$

$$5(4 - 9x)$$

$$20 - 45x$$

Lin says, “I started inside the parentheses and ended up with $23x$.”

$$8 - 3(4-9x)$$

$$8 - 3(\text-5x)$$

$$8 + 15x$$


Jada says, “I used the distributive property and ended up with $27x - 4$.”

$$8 - 3(4-9x)$$

$$8 - (12 - 27x)$$

$$8 - 12 - (\text-27x)$$

$$27x - 4$$

Andre says, “I also used the distributive property, but I ended up with $\text-4 - 27x$.”

$$8 - 3(4-9x)$$

$$8 - 12 - 27x$$

$$\text-4 - 27x$$

  1. Do you agree with any of them? Explain your reasoning.
  2. For each strategy that you disagree with, find and describe the errors.

21.3: Grouping Differently

Diego was taking a math quiz. There was a question on the quiz that had the expression $8x - 9 - 12x + 5$. Diego’s teacher told the class there was a typo and the expression was supposed to have one set of parentheses in it.

  1. Where could you put parentheses in $8x - 9 - 12x + 5$ to make a new expression that is still equivalent to the original expression? How do you know that your new expression is equivalent?
  2. Where could you put parentheses in $8x - 9 - 12x + 5$ to make a new expression that is not equivalent to the original expression? List as many different answers as you can.


Combining like terms allows us to write expressions more simply with fewer terms. But it can sometimes be tricky with long expressions, parentheses, and negatives. It is helpful to think about some common errors that we can be aware of and try to avoid:

  • $6x-x$ is not equivalent to 6. While it might be tempting to think that subtracting $x$ makes the $x$ disappear, the expression is really saying take 1 $x$ away from 6 $x$'s, and the distributive property tells us that $6x-x$ is equivalent to $(6-1)x$. 
  • $7-2x$ is not equivalent to $5x$. The expression $7-2x$ tells us to double an unknown amount and subtract it from 7. This is not always the same as taking 5 copies of the unknown. 
  • $7-4(x+2)$ is not equivalent to $3(x+2)$. The expression tells us to subtract 4 copies of an amount from 7, not to take $(7-4)$ copies of the amount.

If we think about the meaning and properties of operations when we take steps to rewrite expressions, we can be sure we are getting equivalent expressions and are not changing their value in the process.

Practice Problems ▶