Understanding Absolute Values with Two Variables

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomWe have looked at quite a few absolute value and inequality concepts. (Check out our discussion on the basics of absolute values and inequalities, here, and our discussion on how to handle inequalities with multiple absolute value terms in a single variable, here.) Today let’s look at an absolute value concept involving two variables. It is unlikely that you will see such a question on the actual GMAT, since it involves multiple steps, but it will help you understand absolute values better.

Recall the definition of absolute value:

|x| = x if x ≥ 0

|x| = -x if x < 0

So, to remove the absolute value sign, you will need to consider two cases – one when x is positive or 0, and another when it is negative.

Say, you are given an inequality, such as |x – y| < |x|. Here, you have two absolute value expressions: |x – y| and |x|. You need to get rid of the absolute value signs, but how will you do that?

You know that to remove the absolute value sign, you need to consider the two cases. Therefore:

|x – y| = (x – y) if (x – y) ≥ 0

|x – y| = – (x – y) if (x – y) < 0

But don’t forget, we also need to remove the absolute value sign that |x| has. Therefore:

|x| = x if x ≥ 0

|x| = -x if x < 0

In all we will get four cases to consider:

Case 1: (x – y) ≥ 0 and x ≥ 0

Case 2: (x – y) < 0 and x ≥ 0

Case 3: (x – y) ≥ 0 and x < 0

Case 4: (x – y) < 0 and x < 0

Let’s look at each case separately:

Case 1: (x – y) ≥ 0 (which implies x ≥ y) and x ≥ 0

|x – y| < |x|

(x – y) < x

-y < 0

Multiply by -1 to get:

y > 0

In this case, we will get 0 < y ≤ x.

Case 2: (x – y) < 0 (which implies x < y) and x ≥ 0

|x – y| < |x|

-(x – y) < x

2x > y

x > y/2

In this case, we will get 0 < y/2 < x < y.

Case 3: (x – y) ≥ 0 (which implies x ≥ y) and x < 0

|x – y| < |x|

(x – y) < -x

2x < y

x < y/2

In this case, we will get y ≤ x < y/2 < 0.

Case 4: (x – y) < 0 (which implies x < y) and x < 0

|x – y| < |x|

-(x – y) < -x

-x + y < -x

y < 0

In this case, we will get x < y < 0.

Considering all four cases, we get that both x and y are either positive or both are negative. Case 1 and Case 2 imply that if both x and y are positive, then x > y/2, and Case 3 and Case 4 imply that if both x and y are negative, then x < y/2. With these in mind, there is a range of values in which the inequality will hold. Both x and y should have the same sign – if they are both positive, x > y/2, and if they are both negative, x < y/2.

Here are some examples of values for which the inequality will hold:

x = 4, y = 5

x = 8, y = 2

x = -2, y = -1

x = -5, y = -6

etc.

Here are some examples of values for which the inequality will not hold:

x = 4, y = -5 (x and y have opposite signs)

x = 5, y = 15 (x is not greater than y/2)

x = -5, y = 9 (x and y have opposite signs)

x = -6, y = -14 (x is not less than y/2)

etc.

As said before, don’t worry about going through this method during the actual GMAT exam – if you do get a similar question, some strategies such as plugging in values and/or using answer choices to your advantage will work. Overall, this example hopefully helped you understand absolute values a little better.

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Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!