Why is there no “remainder” in multiplication

With division, you can have a remainder (such as 5/2=2 remainder 1). Now my six year old son has asked me “Why is there no remainder with multiplication”? The obvious answer is “because it wouldn’t make sense” or just “because”. Somewhat I have the feeling that prime numbers are a bit like the remainders as you can never reach them with multiplication.

Is there a good answer to the question? (Other than the trivial ones?)

Additional comments after many answers are written:

I am really grateful for all the answers! It’s a shame that I can’t accept more than one. (A side note: I really hesitated to ask this question as I felt that this is a dumb question, I almost deleted it after I posted it. Now that I have received so many interesting points of view, I will try hard to find good examples when the next topic comes along to make him get a mathematical sense.)

What I lacked (or the math teacher/book) is answers like you gave before multiplication and division were introduced (as written in a comment).

Division with remainder is part of his math book (2nd grade, but a bit optional). So asking this question didn’t surprise me that much.

I believe when he was taught the integer numbers, all examples (from me and perhaps the teacher) in the beginning were like “4 apples plus 5 apples equals …”. Then the math book introduces subtraction (still explainable with apples). With multiplication and division, the problems lost concrete examples and the “pure math” gets more dominant. And perhaps there was a bit too much focus on symmetry (plus and minus and multiply and divide are opposite), which is true, but not (obviously, that’s where the question arose) completely true.


Division does not have a remainder. The remainder is an artifact (do not use this word on a six year old) of an incomplete division.

When we do long division, a remainder can take place at any stage of the division process. In fact, a remainder keeps it going from one step to the next.

When we divide 529 by 3, what do we do first? We note that 3 “goes into” 5 one time, and from this, there is a remainder of 2. If we didn’t care about accuracy down to the unit, we could just stop right there. We could pad our partial quotient with enough zeros to make 100, and then append the remaining digits 29 to the remainder. And thus 529÷3=100,R 229. Surely enough, checking our result, if we multiply 3×100 we get 300, and if we add 229 to it, we get 529.

Of course we know that 529÷3 isn’t 100. This is just an approximation which is good to within 100. The actual number is in fact 100-something. It’s not less than 100, and it’s not 200 or more.

Now usually we do not do this. We don’t stop division at the hundreds or tens to take a funny remainder. We usually stop division at the units, and take the remainder there.

This is because many objects that we work with in the real world cannot be divided beyond the unit. If we want to distribute 13 toys among 4 children, everyone gets three toys, and there is a toy left over. We don’t want to divide that toy into four, because it will be destroyed. Thus, we use a form of inexact mathematical division which gives us a model for this real-world constraint: integer division with a remainder.

But non-unit remainders can be useful too. Suppose we are distributing a large number of toys at the wholesale level, and there are 24 toys in a box. Customers must get a whole box; we do not divide boxes. Boxes are only opened in the retail store to sell individual toys.

Now suppose I have 1272 toys in my warehouse and 5 stores approach me, all wanting to buy 300 toys. I don’t have 1500 toys, so I decide to give the customers an equal number of toys based on what I have. Now 1272÷5 gives us 254.4, or 254 R 2. Great, each customer can have 254 toys, with two toys left over I can keep. But wait, the toys are in boxes of 24, so that can’t work! I cannot ship 254 toys, because that is 10 whole boxes, plus 14 toys from an open box. The calculation has to be done with boxes, not with toys. In fact I have 53 boxes of toys, and I can give the customers 10 boxes each, and have 3 boxes left over. So the remainder is 3×24=72 toys. In other words, in a real and useful sense, the remainder of dividing 1272÷5 can be 240 with remainder of 72, when we require the result to be a multiple of 24.

So, on to the question: could there be a remainder in multiplication? The answer is no. A remainder is a special way of expressing the error in a calculation, peculiar to inexact division. We do not have to use a remainder to express the error in an inexact division: we can simply express division error as the difference between the approximate quotient and the exact one. For instance 17÷8 doesn’t have to be 2 R 1; it could just be 2 with an error of 1/8, since the exact quotient is 218 and 2218=18. The result is 18 less than the exact result, and so that is the error.

Multiplications cannot have a remainder for two reasons. Firstly, multiplicationsare usually carried to completion and therefore exact. There is no reason why a multiplication of two integers would be left incomplete, in the same way that we can stop a division short and take stock of what is left. Secondly, multiplications can be inexact, when the inputs are fractions (possibly themselves inexact) and we truncate the result to a given number of significant digits. However, when multiplication is inexact, we do not express the error as a remainder.

The concept of “remaining” is peculiar to division. When we divide a number, and make the result slightly smaller so that the division “works out evenly” we have something “left over”. This does not apply in multiplication.

Note also that in (ordinary) multiplication, the two operands are equivalent and it is commutative. In 5×4 both values are products, and it is the same as 4×5. One of the products is called a multiplicand and the other a multiplier, but they can readily switch roles. But in division 5÷4 is not 4÷5: dividend and divisor cannot switch roles, and the remainder is closely related to the divisor. So right off the bat we have a conceptual problem with a remainder in multiplication: which of the two products should be related to the remainder, like the divisor is in division? If we round off the result of a multiplication to some multiple, and choose to express the error as a remainder related to one of the products, should we choose the multiplicand? or the multiplier? And why?

Source : Link , Question Author : topskip , Answer Author : Kaz

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