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An Introduction to Modular Math

When we divide two integers we will have an equation that looks like the following:

A / B = Q with remainder R

A is the dividend
B is the divisor
Q is the quotient
R is the remainder

Sometimes, we are only interested in what the remainder will be when we divide A by B.
For these cases there is an operator called the modulo operator (abbreviated as mod).

Using the same A,B,Q,and R as above, we would have: A mod B = R

We would say this as "A modulo B is congruent to R". Where B is referred to as the modulus.

For example we know: 13/5 = 2 remainder 3
13 mod 5 = 3

Visualize modulus with clocks

Observe what happens when we increment numbers by one and then divide them by 3.

0/3=0 remainder 0
1/3=0 remainder 1
2/3=0 remainder 2
3/3=1 remainder 0
4/3=1 remainder 1
5/3=1 remainder 2
6/3=2 remainder 0

The remainders start at 0 and increases by 1 each time, until the number reaches one less than the number we are dividing by.
After that, the sequence repeats.

By noticing this, we can visualize the modulo operator by using circles.

We write 0 at the top of a circle and continuing clockwise writing integers 1,2 ... up to to one less than the modulus.

For example, a clock with the 12 replaced by a 0 would be the circle for a modulus of 12.

To find the result of A mod B = ? we can follow these steps:
1. Construct this clock for size B
2. Start at 0 and move around the clock A steps
3. Wherever we land is our solution.
(if the number is positive we step clockwise, if it's negative we step counter-clockwise)


8 mod 4 = ?

With a modulus of 4 we make a clock with numbers 0,1,2,3
We start at 0 and go through 8 numbers in a clockwise sequence 1,2,3,0,1,2,3,0

We ended up at 0
8 mod 4 = 0

7 mod 2 = ?

With a modulus of 2 we make a clock with numbers 0,1
We start at 0 and go through 7 numbers in a clockwise sequence 1,0,1,0,1,0,1

We ended up at 1
7 mod 2 = 1

-5 mod 3 = ?

With a modulus of 3 we we make a clock with numbers 0,1,2
We start at 0 and go through 5 numbers in counter-clockwise sequence (5 is negative) 2,1,0,2,1

We ended up at 1
-5 mod 3 = 1


If we have A mod B and we increase A by a multiple of B, we will end up in the same spot
A mod B = (A + K * B) mod B for any integer K.

For example:
3 mod 10 = 3
13 mod 10 = 3
23 mod 10 = 3
33 mod 10 = 3

Notes to the Reader

mod in programming languages and calculators

Many programming languages, and calculators, have a mod operator, typically represented with the % symbol.
If you calculate the result of a negative number, some languages will give you a negative result.
e.g. -5 % 3 = -2.

In a future article we will explain, why this happens, and what it means.

Congruence Modulo

You may see an expression like:

A ≡ B (mod C)

This says that A is congruent to B modulo C. It is similar to the expressions we used here, but not quite the same.

In the next article we will explain, what it means, and how it is related to the expressions above.