Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “Everybody loves a compliment.”  I suspect that if he had been a mathematician he would have loved complements, too. We’ve already seen what complements are and talked about the two most prolific: the radix complement and the diminished radix complement. Now it’s time to explore how we can leverage complements to do some really interesting integer arithmetic. Using complements we can subtract one positive integer from another or add a negative integer to a positive one by simply performing addition with two positive integers. The algorithm behind this black magic is called the Method of Complements.

In my last post about binary signed integers, I introduced the ones complement representation. At the time, I said that the ones complement was found by taking the bitwise complement of the number. My explanation about how to do this was simple: invert each bit, flipping 1 to 0 and vice versa. While it’s true that this is all you need to know in order to determine the ones complement of a binary number, if you want to understand how computers do arithmetic with signed integers and why they represent them the way they do, then you need to understand what complements are and how the method of complements allows computers to subtract one integer from another, or add a positive and negative integer, by doing addition with only positive integers.

In the last post, we saw that one of the major failings of the signed magnitude representation was that addition and subtraction could not be performed on the same hardware as for unsigned integers. As I pointed out, the reason for this is because negating a number in signed magnitude does not yield the additive inverse of that number. The ones complement representation eliminates this issue, although it does introduce new, subtle issues, and [spoiler] doesn’t address the problem of having two representations for zero.