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What is the Difference Between a Whole Number and an Integer?

Whole numbers are the non-negative integers, starting from zero and counting up. Integers encompass these and also include negative numbers, extending infinitely in both directions. Understanding this distinction clarifies mathematical concepts and enhances number sense. How might this knowledge shape your view on everyday calculations? Join us as we explore the implications further.
G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

The difference between a whole number and an integer, unfortunately, depends a great deal on who is talking about the numbers in question. This is because there is a great deal of disagreement over what this type of number represents, which has led to confusion and frustration among students of mathematics. Integers are easier to understand, however, since the set of integers simply refers to all natural numbers, including negatives, positives, and zero. These numbers are often said to refer to only the positive natural numbers, though zero is sometimes included, and some people use the term “whole number” synonymously with “integer.”

Understanding the difference between a whole number and an integer can be difficult, since it depends on how a person is using the term “whole number.” It can be easiest to begin by establishing what integers are, since there is an agreed upon definition for “integer.” Integers are natural numbers, including negatives, zero, and positive numbers. These are only natural numbers and do not include fractions, decimals, irrational numbers, imaginary numbers, or anything else that cannot be expressed as a simple, natural number.

Whole numbers.
Whole numbers.

With reference to these integers, however, whole numbers can be much more complicated. Many people consider only the positive integers, also called counting numbers, to be whole numbers, in which case zero would not be a whole number. Others regard these numbers as non-negative integers, which would include all positive integers, but include zero since it is not a negative number. To further contribute to this confusion, there are also people who use the terms “whole number” and “integer” synonymously, meaning that in such a usage there would be no difference between the two terms.

Fractions are not integers because they are not whole numbers.
Fractions are not integers because they are not whole numbers.

This is why the term is not frequently used in higher level courses and discussions of mathematics, since it can be taken by different people to mean different things. It is often best to use the terms "integers," "negative integers," "positive integers," and "non-negative integers." Integer would then refer to all natural numbers, including negatives, zero, and positives; while negative integer would refer only to negative natural numbers, not including zero since it is not negative. Positive integer can be used to refer to any positive natural number, though this would exclude zero since it is not positive; while non-negative integers would be all positive natural numbers and zero, since it is not negative.

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Discussion Comments


I wasn't the best math student in the world when I was in school. I did fine in my other classes, but once I got to high school and the more advanced math courses I struggled. I was fine with adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing whole numbers, but when we got into all the fractions, negatives numbers, and variables I got lost.

Anyway, like I said, I was fine with math until I got to high school. so I assumed I would be able to help my kids with their math homework up until high school at least. My daughter, who was in third grade at the time came home one day and said she needed me to check over her homework to be sure she hadn't missed any.

I was more than happy to see she was so conscientious, and I was happy to help. That night, when I looked at her homework I was totally confused. I could tell it was math, but that was about it. I actually had to study her text book for a couple hours that night before I could figure out what she was doing. And she was working with whole numbers, no fractions. It was the same basic math I had learned, but with new ways of solving equations.


This brings back memories of grade-school math classes. As I remember it, when I was a student the teacher used the term whole number to refer to any number that wasn't a fraction. That's what the word whole means--not part of a number or a fraction, but all of the number, the whole number.

I don't even remember the term integers. I'm not saying we didn't use the term, but it has been a long time ago since I was a math class, and I don't remember too much about any of them.

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    • Whole numbers.
      By: Grafvision
      Whole numbers.
    • Fractions are not integers because they are not whole numbers.
      By: nancypics
      Fractions are not integers because they are not whole numbers.
    • Integers are all natural numbers, including, zero, negatives and positives.
      By: danilkorolev
      Integers are all natural numbers, including, zero, negatives and positives.