Define and Simplify Rational Expressions

Learning Outcomes

  • Define and simplify rational expressions
  • Identify the domain of a rational expression

Rational expressions are fractions that have a polynomial in the numerator, denominator, or both. Although rational expressions can seem complicated because they contain variables, they can be simplified using the techniques used to simplify expressions such as [latex]\frac{4x^3}{12x^2}[/latex] combined with techniques for factoring polynomials. There are a couple ways to get yourself into trouble when working with rational expressions, equations, and functions. One of them is dividing by zero, and the other is trying to divide across addition or subtraction.

Determine the Domain of a Rational Expression

One sure way you can break math is to divide by zero. Consider the following rational expression evaluated at [latex]x = 2[/latex]:

Evaluate  [latex]\frac{x}{x-2}[/latex] for [latex]x=2[/latex]

Substitute [latex]x=2[/latex]


This means that for the expression [latex]\frac{x}{x-2}[/latex], [latex]x[/latex] cannot be [latex]2[/latex] because it will result in an undefined ratio. In general, finding values for a variable that will not result in division by zero is called finding the domain. Finding the domain of a rational expression or function will help you not break math.

Domain of a rational expression or equation

The domain of a rational expression or equation is a collection of the values for the variable that will not result in an undefined mathematical operation such as division by zero.  For a = any real number, we can notate the domain in the following way:

 [latex]x[/latex] is all real numbers where [latex]x\neq{a}[/latex]

The reason you cannot divide any number c by zero [latex] \left( \frac{c}{0}\,\,=\,\,? \right)[/latex] is that you would have to find a number that when you multiply it by [latex]0[/latex] you would get back [latex]c \left( ?\,\,\cdot \,\,0\,\,=\,\,c \right)[/latex]. There are no numbers that can do this, so we say “division by zero is undefined”. When simplifying rational expressions, you need to pay attention to what values of the variable(s) in the expression would make the denominator equal zero. These values cannot be included in the domain, so they are called excluded values. Discard them right at the start before you go any further.

(Note that although the denominator cannot be equal to [latex]0[/latex], the numerator can—this is why you only look for excluded values in the denominator of a rational expression.)

For rational expressions, the domain will exclude values where the the denominator is [latex]0[/latex]. The following example illustrates finding the domain of an expression. Note that this is exactly the same algebra used to find the domain of a function.


Identify the domain of the expression. [latex] \frac{x+7}{{{x}^{2}}+8x-9}[/latex]

Simplify Rational Expressions

Before we dive in to simplifying rational expressions, let us review the difference between a factor,  a term,  and an expression.  This will hopefully help you avoid another way to break math when you are simplifying rational expressions.

Factors are the building blocks of multiplication. They are the numbers that you can multiply together to produce another number: [latex]2[/latex] and [latex]10[/latex] are factors of [latex]20[/latex], as are [latex]4, 5, 1, 20[/latex].

Terms are single numbers, or variables and numbers connected by multiplication. [latex]-4, 6x[/latex] and [latex]x^2[/latex] are all terms.

Expressions are groups of terms connected by addition and subtraction. [latex]2x^2-5[/latex] is an expression.

This distinction is important when you are required to divide. Let us use an example to show why this is important.

Simplify: [latex]\dfrac{2x^2}{12x}[/latex]

The numerator and denominator of this fraction consist of factors. To simplify it, we can divide without being impeded by addition or subtraction.


We can do this because [latex]\frac{2}{2}=1\text{ and }\frac{x}{x}=1[/latex], so our expression simplifies to [latex]\dfrac{x}{6}[/latex].

Compare that to the expression [latex]\dfrac{2x^2+x}{12-2x}[/latex]. Notice the denominator and numerator consist of two terms connected by addition and subtraction.  We have to tip-toe around the addition and subtraction. When asked to simplify, it is tempting to want to cancel out like terms as we did when we just had factors. But you cannot do that, it will break math!

Shattered pottery strewn across the floor.

Be careful not to break math when working with rational expressions.

In the examples that follow, the numerator and the denominator are polynomials with more than one term, and we will show you how to properly simplify them by factoring. This turns expressions connected by addition and subtraction into terms connected by multiplication.


Simplify and state the domain for the expression. [latex] \frac{x+3}{{{x}^{2}}+12x+27}[/latex]


Simplify and state the domain for the expression. [latex]\frac{x^{2}+10x+24}{x^{3}-x^{2}-20x}[/latex]

We will show one last example of simplifying a rational expression. See if you can recognize the special product in the numerator.


Simplify [latex]\frac{{x}^{2}-9}{{x}^{2}+4x+3}[/latex] and state the domain.

In the following video, we present additional examples of simplifying and finding the domain of a rational expression.

Steps for Simplifying a Rational Expression

To simplify a rational expression, follow these steps:

  • Determine the domain. The excluded values are those values for the variable that result in the expression having a denominator of [latex]0[/latex].
  • Factor the numerator and denominator.
  • Cancel out common factors in the numerator and denominator and simplify.


An additional consideration for rational expressions is to determine what values are excluded from the domain. Since division by [latex]0[/latex] is undefined, any values of the variable that result in a denominator of [latex]0[/latex] must be excluded from the domain. Excluded values must be identified in the original equation, not from its factored form.Rational expressions are fractions containing polynomials. They can be simplified much like numeric fractions. To simplify a rational expression, first determine common factors of the numerator and denominator then cancel them out.