What do the buttons on a calculator do?

buttons on a calculator title

 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 do on a calculator?

No?Well me neither and after about the first line, all the symbols began to look like Serbo-Croat acronyms. So I decided to spend the morning researching and compiling this little guide on what the rest of the buttons actually didto an extent…

Mathematicians and those with more than GCSE in the subject, feel free to add more or fill in the gaps as to what’s been missed.

For the rest of us mortals, class is in!… This is a guide for a standard calculator, scientific or graphic calculators may have different/a lot more functions which take even longer to explain.

Let’s start with the basics. I’m going to assume we’re all on the same page with the Numbers- 0-9 and the basics +,,x and =….


OK, let’s step it up a gearcalc buttons 1

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

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

DEL & INS 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.

+/- Plus/Negative – This changes the number on screen to a plus or negative

%- Percentage of a number or percentage in an equation


calc buttons 2

Π or pi- 3.14159 (continued depending how flash your calculator is)

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

X2Square- The x2 button computes the square of the number currently displayed. (e.g. 5×5)

X3- Cube. Computes the cube of the displayed number (e.g. 5x5x5)


Ok, next step… Memory

calc buttons 3

MS or MIN = 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)

MC = Memory Clear will reset the memory to zero

MR = Memory Recall uses the number in memory, acts as if you had keyed in that number yourself

RCL = Recall the number last in the memory and displays it.


Mixed fractions and parentheses… getting more tricky

calc button 4

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

LOG – LOG is used in logarithms for changing the base fraction. I am not even going to pretend to know about logarithms, so here’s a link to someone much cleverer.

(  ) Left and Right Parentheses- Or brackets to you and me. These are for prioritising equations. For example (2+6)x3 is 24 but 2+(6×3) is 20.


Trigonometry– yeah it’s getting a bit complex now…

SIN COS & TANcalc button 5

Sine, Cosine and Tangent are 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.

calc buttons trig 1

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.

calc buttons trig 2

HYP is 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.

Just a bit further… Measurements 

calc button 6

EXP– 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.

RAD, GRAD and DEG change the mode of the computer to accommodate for different measurement of angles- Radians, Degrees and Gradian(Grads)

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

ENG = Engineering Units– Change the number in the display to engineering notation instead of decimal


And there you go… I think… the most common buttons on a calculator. Let’s all go away and do a bit of trigonometry, just because we can!


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