A quadratic equation can be written in the standard form
To solve the quadratic equation means to find values of that make the equation true. To illustrate the principles and issues let's look at a special case first. Consider the equation
The last equation in this sequence is in standard form, with , , and having the given values. However, the equation can be solved much more easily than :
Thus there are two solutions of the equation, and . We can (and should) verify this by substituting these values in the original equation. If we obtain and if we obtain .
Note the symbol in the second and third of the above sequence of equations. The square root of is positive by convention and equals . However, our task at that stage is not to compute a square root as such, but to answer the question for what values of does equal ? There are two such values, and , and we must consider both possibilities.
Let's now consider the more general equation
It can be solved just like the special case considered earlier:
The key to solving quadratic equations is to convert them to the form . This process is called completing the square. It is based on the first and second binomial formulas .
Let's see how this works with our equation in standard form:
If the constant term was instead of we would have a perfect square . To make it so we just add on both sides and obtain
Note that since
An example illustrates the process:
We easily check that and do in fact satisfy the original equation.
The above example illustrates one of three possible outcomes of this procedure, the case where there are two real solutions.
In the following example there is only one solution:
The reason there is only one solution is the fact that there is one and only one number whose square is .
If the above procedure leads to taking the square root of a negative number we obtain a conjugate complex pair of solutions as illustrated in the following example:
The Quadratic Formula
Of course there is nothing to stop us from applying this procedure to the general equation . This gives rise to the quadratic formula . Personally, I prefer not to burden my mind with having to memorize reliably yet another formula, and so I complete the square almost every time I solve a quadratic equation.