Modern computers don't have circuits dedicated for subtraction. They do it by using the method of complements.

All is well when the 2 operands are signed 2's complement numbers. The result of addition will be another 2's complement which, when interpreted as a 2's complement number, will give the correct result provided that there's no overflow.

Now consider a 4 bit number. The unsigned range is 0 <-> 15. Signed range is -8 <-> 7.

What happens when I do 15u - 14u? The first thought which comes is "Do the 2's complement of 14 and do 15 + (-14)". But then, -14 is not in the range of a 4 bit number.

But if I do it anyway (Flip all bits and add 1):

 + 0010
1  0001  =  0001 (4 bits)

It works. But 0010 is not even a negative 2's complement number. It is just 2. However, 0010 is the additive inverse of 14 for 4 bits. Is it a coincidence?

Question: Why does it work? And is this even the actual way it's happening?


In your example, what you are really doing is $$ 15 - 14 \equiv 15 + (16 - 14) \pmod{16}. $$ To compute $16 - 14$, you first compute $15-14$ (flipping all bits), and then add $1$ to get $16 - 14$.

  • $\begingroup$ But doesn't all 2's complement negative numbers have 1 at MSB? In this example, we have 0, but it still works. Why? $\endgroup$ – wingerse Aug 14 '16 at 11:37
  • $\begingroup$ There's no 2's complement here. Just simple arithmetic. Moreover, my explanation really explains why 2's complement works. $\endgroup$ – Yuval Filmus Aug 15 '16 at 0:01

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