There are many many elegant algebraic (more generally, non-geometric) proofs, but fewer of them are both accessible and interesting to a pre-calculus student. Three nice examples of what I'm looking for are the proof of the irrationality of the square root of 2, Cantor's diagonal argument (although I don't know if that's considered an actual proof), and the proof of Euler's formula by algebraic manipulation of the expansions of exp, sin, and cos. I'm seeking a dozen or so more like these, i.e., mostly algebraic, elegant, fun (if you're a math geek :-), and short (you could write them down in ~1 page). Thanks in advance!

(Clarification: If the proof has geometric aspects, like the diagonal argument, that's fair game. What I want to avoid is primarily geometric proofs, like those you do in your first geometry course. It's not that I'm against those, it's just that those are really easy to find as there are books and books of them -- like, specifically, 13 of them! :-) Also, I'm trying to avoid "proofs without words", which I find personally annoying because, although they may not literally have words once you see how the proof works, getting there usually involves a LOT of explanation! So the label "proofs without words" is somewhat disingenuous to my mind.)

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    $\begingroup$ Are you wanting examples of proofs to show your students, or are you thinking they'd actually take part in the proof-writing or discovery process? If the latter (even a little bit), then I'd push back and suggest you consider using some of those "proofs without words". Maybe have students try to figure out the written part of the argument (since they will have a picture in front of them). $\endgroup$
    – Nick C
    Feb 9, 2022 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ Euclid's proof that there are infinitely many primes is easy to understand. $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Feb 9, 2022 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean something like this?: Find the intersection of the unit circle and a line of slope $m=p/q$ through $(-1,0)$ and deduce a parametrization of Pythagorean triples in terms of integers $p$ and $q$. Not sure if you’d call that a proof. You could prove the parametrization represents all of the triples. $\endgroup$
    – user1815
    Feb 10, 2022 at 1:34
  • $\begingroup$ The infinite primes is definitely a good example. The pythagorean triples is one of those proofs w/o words, and, again, although I find these interesting and useful in some settings, I'm not looking for those sorts of proofs here. I'm more seeking proofs that are essentially purely algebraic. (The Cantor argument is sort of an edge case that demonstrates that excluding geometry altogether is impossible. I'm just trying to avoid proofs that lean heavily on geometry.) $\endgroup$ Feb 10, 2022 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ @jackisquizzical the rational parameterization of the unit circle used to find the pythagorean triples is not, by any means, a proof without words. Once you draw the picture there is a ton of algebra to do to obtain the parameterization. $\endgroup$ Feb 10, 2022 at 20:42

2 Answers 2


A lot of the "pre-calculus curriculum" (at least in my day) would seem to qualify.

I remember my textbook containing proofs of:

  1. The quotient-remainder theorem for real polynomials.
  2. The corollary that roots are in correspondence with linear factors.
  3. The corollary that a polynomial of degree $n$ can have at most $n$ roots.
  4. The rational root theorem.
  5. The derivation of the quadratic formula, and the use of discriminants to distinguish reducible from irreducible quadratics.
  6. The binomial theorem.
  7. A lot of interesting results in analytic geometry concerning conic sections (how to complete the square with two variable quadratics, how to rotate a conic section into "standard form", how to compute the location of foci and directrixes, how to compute eccentricities, etc).

The course I took did not expect me to learn or reproduce these proofs: only utilize (some of) the results. I have fond memories of learning this stuff anyways (I have always been a completionist: I wanted to master the whole book).

I think it is worth remembering that even if these "basic" things have lost their luster for you, a high school student is meeting these for the first time. If introduced with care, to the right students, proving these results can be a profound mathematical experience.


My student the other day was delighted with my "proof" that the perpendicular to a line of gradient $m$ has gradient $-1/m$, which I showed him by drawing the standard rise-over-run triangle for one line, drawing a perpendicular to that line, then turning the paper $90^\circ$ and drawing the rise-over-run triangle for that, pointing out that it's the same triangle as the first one I drew, then turning it back the right way and showing that the rise-over-run of the second line had magically turned into minus the run over the rise of the first. He loved it.


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