Negative Binary Numbers

With addition being easily accomplished, we can perform the operation of subtraction with the same

technique simply by making one of the numbers negative. For example, the subtraction problem

of 7 - 5 is essentially the same as the addition problem 7 + (-5). Since we already know how to

represent positive numbers in binary, all we need to know now is how to represent their negative

counterparts and we'll be able to subtract.

Usually we represent a negative decimal number by placing a minus sign directly to the left of

the most signi¯cant digit, just as in the example above, with -5. However, the whole purpose of

using binary notation is for constructing on/o® circuits that can represent bit values in terms of

voltage (2 alternative values: either "high" or "low"). In this context, we don't have the luxury of a

third symbol such as a "minus" sign, since these circuits can only be on or o® (two possible states).

One solution is to reserve a bit (circuit) that does nothing but represent the mathematical sign:

101(2) = 5(10) (positive)

Extra bit, representing sign (0=positive, 1=negative)

1101(2) = -5(10) (negative)

As you can see, we have to be careful when we start using bits for any purpose other than

standard place-weighted values. Otherwise, 11012 could be misinterpreted as the number thirteen

when in fact we mean to represent negative ¯ve. To keep things straight here, we must ¯rst decide

how many bits are going to be needed to represent the largest numbers we'll be dealing with, and

then be sure not to exceed that bit ¯eld length in our arithmetic operations. For the above example,

I've limited myself to the representation of numbers from negative seven (11112) to positive seven

(01112), and no more, by making the fourth bit the "sign" bit. Only by ¯rst establishing these limits

can I avoid confusion of a negative number with a larger, positive number.

Representing negative ¯ve as 11012 is an example of the sign-magnitude system of negative

binary numeration. By using the leftmost bit as a sign indicator and not a place-weighted value, I

am sacri¯cing the "pure" form of binary notation for something that gives me a practical advantage:

the representation of negative numbers. The leftmost bit is read as the sign, either positive or

negative, and the remaining bits are interpreted according to the standard binary notation: left to

right, place weights in multiples of two.

As simple as the sign-magnitude approach is, it is not very practical for arithmetic purposes. For

instance, how do I add a negative ¯ve (11012) to any other number, using the standard technique

for binary addition? I'd have to invent a new way of doing addition in order for it to work, and

if I do that, I might as well just do the job with longhand subtraction; there's no arithmetical

advantage to using negative numbers to perform subtraction through addition if we have to do it

with sign-magnitude numeration, and that was our goal!

There's another method for representing negative numbers which works with our familiar tech-

nique of longhand addition, and also happens to make more sense from a place-weighted numeration

point of view, called complementation. With this strategy, we assign the leftmost bit to serve a

special purpose, just as we did with the sign-magnitude approach, defining our number limits just

as before. However, this time, the leftmost bit is more than just a sign bit; rather, it possesses a

negative place-weight value. For example, a value of negative five would be represented as such:

Extra bit, place weight = negative eight

 1011(2) = 5(10) (negative)

 (1 x -8(10)) + (0 x 4(10)) + (1 x 2(10)) + (1 x 1(10)) = -5(10)

With the right three bits being able to represent a magnitude from zero through seven, and

the leftmost bit representing either zero or negative eight, we can successfully represent any integer

number from negative seven (1001(2) = -8(10) + 7(10) = -1(10)) to positive seven (0111(2) = 0(10) + 7(10) =


Representing positive numbers in this scheme (with the fourth bit designated as the negative

weight) is no di®erent from that of ordinary binary notation. However, representing negative num-

bers is not quite as straightforward:

zero 0000

positive one 0001 negative one 1111

positive two 0010 negative two 1110
positive three 0011 negative three 1101
positive four 0100 negative four 1100
positive five 0101 negative five 1011
positive six 0110 negative six 1010
positive seven 0111 negative seven 1001
negative eight 1000

Note that the negative binary numbers in the right column, being the sum of the right three

bits' total plus the negative eight of the leftmost bit, don't "count" in the same progression as the

positive binary numbers in the left column. Rather, the right three bits have to be set at the proper

value to equal the desired (negative) total when summed with the negative eight place value of the

leftmost bit.

Those right three bits are referred to as the two's complement of the corresponding positive

number. Consider the following comparison:

positive number two's complement

--------------- ----------------

001 111

010 110

011 101

100 100

101 011

110 010

111 001

In this case, with the negative weight bit being the fourth bit (place value of negative eight), the

two's complement for any positive number will be whatever value is needed to add to negative eight

to make that positive value's negative equivalent. Thankfully, there's an easy way to ¯gure out the

two's complement for any binary number: simply invert all the bits of that number, changing all

1's to 0's and visa-versa (to arrive at what is called the one's complement) and then add one! For

example, to obtain the two's complement of ¯ve (1012), we would ¯rst invert all the bits to obtain

0102 (the "one's complement"), then add one to obtain 0112, or -510 in three-bit, two's complement


Interestingly enough, generating the two's complement of a binary number works the same if you

manipulate all the bits, including the leftmost (sign) bit at the same time as the magnitude bits.

Let's try this with the former example, converting a positive five to a negative five, but performing

the complementation process on all four bits. We must be sure to include the 0 (positive) sign bit

on the original number, five (0101(2)). First, inverting all bits to obtain the one's complement: 1010(2).

Then, adding one, we obtain the final answer: 1011(2), or -5(10) expressed in four-bit, two's complement


It is critically important to remember that the place of the negative-weight bit must be already

determined before any two's complement conversions can be done. If our binary numeration field

were such that the eighth bit was designated as the negative-weight bit (100000002), we'd have to

determine the two's complement based on all seven of the other bits. Here, the two's complement of

five (0000101(2)) would be 1111011(2). A positive five in this system would be represented as 00000101(2),

and a negative five as 11111011(2).


Keywords : Logic, Digital, Boolean, Negative, Binary, Numbers
Writer : delon  |
24 Nov 2006 Fri   
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