ze·​ro-sum ˈzir-(ˌ)ō-ˈsəm How to pronounce zero-sum (audio)
: of, relating to, or being a situation (such as a game or relationship) in which a gain for one side entails a corresponding loss for the other side
dividing up the budget is a zero-sum game

Did you know?

Does game theory sound like fun? It can be—if you are a mathematician or economist who needs to analyze a competitive situation in which the outcome is determined by the choices of the players and chance. Game theory was introduced by mathematician John von Neumann and economist Oskar Morgenstern in their 1944 book The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. In game theory, a zero-sum game is one, such as chess or checkers, where each player has a clear purpose that is completely opposed to that of the opponent. In economics, a situation is zero-sum if the gains of one party are exactly balanced by the losses of another and no net gain or loss is created. (Such situations are rare.)

Examples of zero-sum in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web But the real issue is that, under federal law, changes to Medicare physician payments must preserve budget neutrality, a zero-sum arrangement in which payment increases for primary care providers mean payment decreases elsewhere. Michelle Andrews, CBS News, 15 Nov. 2023 Xi said in Bali that U.S.-China interactions should be defined by dialogue and win-win cooperation, not confrontation and zero-sum competition. Byaamer Madhani, Fortune, 13 Nov. 2023 In the end, the flow of water and sediment is a zero-sum game. Daniel A. Gross, The New Yorker, 5 Nov. 2023 Commercial bank reserves are used mainly for settlement between banks, but this is a zero-sum game. WSJ, 31 Oct. 2023 There must emerge a better idea, a more attractive idea—an idea that does not assume Jews and Arabs are locked in a zero-sum game in the Middle East but offers a win-win scenario to people on both sides. Ami Ayalon, Foreign Affairs, 31 Oct. 2023 Balancing accommodations for multiple employees never has to be a zero-sum, winner-take-all game. Karla L. Miller, Washington Post, 19 Oct. 2023 This zero-sum game has young candidates asking: why not someone who equally represents both? Gustavo Arellano, Los Angeles Times, 6 Oct. 2023 And adopting a Cold War–style, zero-sum framework, in which the rest of the world is forced to choose sides, only reinforces this dynamic. Blaise Malley, The New Republic, 5 Oct. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'zero-sum.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

First Known Use

1944, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of zero-sum was in 1944


Dictionary Entries Near zero-sum

Cite this Entry

“Zero-sum.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

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