What do the buttons on a calculator do?

They’re fun for spelling out rude words and passing the odd GSCE test – but do you actually know what the rest of those buttons on your calculator are for? No? After the first line, do all the symbols begin to look like Rachel Riley’s pulled out the wrong letters on Countdown?

We decided to compile this handy run down on what the rest of the buttons actually do… This is the Ebuyer guide to a standard calculator. Scientific or graphic calculators may have different (or a lot more) functions which would take even longer to explain. And, of course, this is the modern age – so many people use the calculator app on their ‘phone.

Let’s start with the basics. We’re going to assume we’re all on the same page (with knowing what the Numbers- 0-9 and the basic +, -, x and = all stand for), so let’s step it up a gear and talk about the other keys…

This article was updated in May 2021

All Clear/Turn on: This will wipe any previous equations on the calculator and take you back to 0. This can also be CE.

Clear: The C button erases the last number or operation entered, use it if the last number you entered was a mistake.

Plus / Minus: This changes the number on screen to a plus or minus

Percentage: Percentage of a number or percentage in an equation

Delete and Insert: Delete will delete individual characters, so you can alter complex equations without clearing the whole formula. Insert allows you to re-enter numbers over a formula, like on a PC keyboard.

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Pi: 3.14159 (continued depending how flash your calculator is).

Square root: This button will show the square route of a displayed number.

Square: The x2 button computes the square of the number currently displayed. (e.g. 5×5)

Cube: Computes the cube of the displayed number (e.g. 5x5x5)


Memory Store: Puts the number on the display into the memory to save. This is useful if you have a number that always needs adding to an equation- Like if every equation needed a shipping fee of 4.5 adding.

M+ / M-
Memory Add (or Subtract): Takes the number on the display, adds it to the memory, and puts the result into memory (or subtracts)

Memory Clear: Will reset the memory to zero

Memory Recall: Uses the number in memory, acts as if you had keyed in that number yourself

Mixed fractions and parentheses

a b/c
Mixed Fraction: This button allows you to insert a mixed fraction. Like 1 and 1/3.

Used in logarithms for changing the base fraction. We’re not even going to pretend to know much about logarithms, so here’s someone much cleverer.

Recall the number last in the memory and displays it.

(  )
Left and Right Parentheses: Otherwise known as brackets. These are for prioritising equations. For example (2+6)x3 is 24 but 2+(6×3) is 20.


Sine, Cosine and Tangent: All used in trigonometry. They are used to establish a number from an angle, in a right angled triangle. To work out a SIN/COS/TAN you need to know the hypotenuse, opposite and adjacent.

Sine, Cosine and Tangent are opposite corners of the triangle. To find the number out divide the length of one side by another side. So for COSINE divide the Adjacent and the Hypotenuse.

Used to select Hyperbolic functions. Without studying calculus, it won’t make a whole lot of sense, it didn’t to me… HYP makes the three above function Hyperbolic so sinh, cosh and tanh- basically the opposite of sin/cos/tan. For a much better definition take a look at this link.

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Allows you to enter exponential values easily. Say you wanted to enter 200000000 on your calculator, rather than pressing 2 with 8 zeros after it, all you need to press is EXP then the number of digits you want (8). Makes more sense with massive numbers.

Rand: Will generate a random number between 0-1. If you want more options with numbers between a specific point use 10*rand().

Change the mode of the computer to accommodate for different measurement of angles- Radians, Degrees and Gradian(Grads)

Engineering Units: Change the number in the display to engineering notation instead of decimal.

And there you go… The most common buttons on a calculator explained for you! Inspiring, eh? Let’s all go away and do a bit of trigonometry, just because we can!

Don’t forget that Ebuyer has a wide variety of other tech-tasty articles here at the blog, and there is also now also a Knowledge Hub which features in-depth essays.

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