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Addition and subtraction of vectors: geometric method

The vector A shown in Figure 1 (a) represents a velocity of 10 m/s northeast, and vector B
represents a velocity of 20 m/s at 30 degrees north of east. (A vector is named with a letter in
boldface, nonitalic type, and its magnitude is named with the same letter in regular, italic type.
You will often see vectors in the figures of the book that are represented by their magnitudes in
the mathematical expressions.) Vectors may be moved over the plane if the represented length
and direction are preserved.

Figure 1Graphical addition of vectors, A + B = C.

In Figure 1 (b), the same vectors are positioned to be geometrically added. The tail of one vector,
in this case A, is moved to the head of the other vector ( B). The vector sum ( C) is the vector
that extends from the tail of one vector to the head of the other. To find the magnitude of C,
measure along its length and use the given scale to determine the velocity represented. To find
the direction θ of C, measure the angle to the horizontal axis at the tail of C.

Figure 2 (a) shows that A + B = B + A. The sum of the vectors is called the resultant and is the
diagonal of a parallelogram with sides A and B. Figure 2 (b) illustrates the construction for
adding four vectors. The resultant vector is the vector that results in the one that completes the

Figure 2(a) A + B = B + A. (b) Graphical addition of several vectors.

To subtract vectors, place the tails together. The difference of the two vectors ( D) is the vector
that begins at the head of the subtracted vector ( B) and goes to the head of the other vector ( A).
An alternate method is to add the negative of a vector, which is a vector with the same length but
pointing in the opposite direction. The second method is demonstrated in Figure 3 .

Figure 3Graphical subtraction of vectors, A − B = D.

Velocity and acceleration vectors in two dimensions

For motion in two dimensions, the earlier kinematics equations must be expressed in vector
form. For example, the average velocity vector is v = ( d f − d o )/ t, where d o and d f are the initial
and final displacement vectors and t is the time elapsed. As noted earlier, the velocity and
displacement vectors are shown in bold type, whereas the scalar (t) is not. In similar fashion, the
average acceleration vector is a = ( v f − v o )/ t, where v o and v f are the initial and final velocity

An important point is that the acceleration can arise from a change in the magnitude of the
velocity (speed) as well as from a change in the direction of the velocity. If an object travels
around a circle at a constant speed, there is an acceleration due to the change in the direction of
the velocity, even though the magnitude of the velocity does not change. A mass moves in a
horizontal circle with a constant speed in Figure 6 . The velocity vectors at positions 1 and 2 are
subtracted to find the average acceleration, which is directed toward the center of the circle.
(Note that the average acceleration vector is placed at the midpoint of the path in the given time

Figure 6Velocity and acceleration vectors of an object moving in a circle.

The following discussion summarizes the four different cases for acceleration in a plane:
 Case 1: Zero acceleration
 Case 2: Acceleration due to changing direction but not speed
 Case 3: Acceleration due to changing speed but not direction
 Case 4: Acceleration due to changing both speed and direction.

Imagine a ball rolling on a horizontal surface that is illuminated by a stroboscopic light. Figure 7
(a) shows the position of the ball at even intervals of time along a dotted path. Case 1 is
illustrated in positions 1 through 3; the magnitude and direction of the velocity do not change
(the pictures are evenly spaced and in a straight line), and therefore, there is no acceleration.
Case 2 is indicated for positions 3 through 5; the ball has constant speed but changing direction,
and therefore, an acceleration exists. Figure 7 (b) illustrates the subtraction of v3 and v4 and the
resulting acceleration toward the center of the arc. Case 3 occurs from positions 5 to 7; the
direction of the velocity is constant, but the magnitude changes. The acceleration for this portion
of the path is along the direction of motion. The ball curves from position 7 to 9, showing case 4;
the velocity changes both direction and magnitude. In this case, the acceleration is directed
nearly upward between 7 and 8 and has a component toward the center of the arc due to the
change in direction of the velocity and a component along the path due to the change in the
magnitude of the velocity.

Figure 7(a) Path of a ball on a table. (b) Acceleration between points 3 and 4.