Associative

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In mathematics, associativity is a property that a binary operation can have. It means that the order of evaluation is immaterial if the operation appears more than once in an expression. Put another way, no parentheses are required for an associative operation. Consider for instance the equation

(5+2)+1 = 5+(2+1)

Adding 5 and 2 gives 7, and adding 1 gives an end result of 8 for the left hand side. To evaluate the right hand side, we start with adding 2 and 1 giving 3, and then add 5 and 3 to get 8, again. So the equation holds true. In fact, it holds true for all real numbers, not just for 5, 2 and 1. We say that "addition of real numbers is an associative operation".

Associative operations are abundant in mathematics, and in fact most algebraic structures explicitly require their binary operations to be associative. However, many important and interesting operations are non-associative; one common example would be the vector cross product.

Definition

Formally, a binary operation Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle *} on a set S is called associative if it satisfies the associative law:

Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle (x*y)*z=x*(y*z)\qquad\mbox{for all }x,y,z\in S.}

The evaluation order does not affect the value of such expressions, and it can be shown that the same holds for expressions containing any number of Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle *} operations. Thus, when Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle *} is associative, the evaluation order can therefore be left unspecified without causing ambiguity, by omitting the parentheses and writing simply:

Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle x*y*z.}

Examples

Some examples of associative operations include the following.

Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle \left. \begin{matrix} (x+y)+z=x+(y+z)=x+y+z\quad \\ (x\,y)z=x(y\,z)=x\,y\,z\qquad\qquad\qquad\quad\ \ \, \end{matrix} \right\} \mbox{for all }x,y,z\in\mathbb{R}. }
Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle \left. \begin{matrix} \operatorname{gcd}(\operatorname{gcd}(x,y),z)= \operatorname{gcd}(x,\operatorname{gcd}(y,z))= \operatorname{gcd}(x,y,z)\ \quad \\ \operatorname{lcm}(\operatorname{lcm}(x,y),z)= \operatorname{lcm}(x,\operatorname{lcm}(y,z))= \operatorname{lcm}(x,y,z)\quad \end{matrix} \right\}\mbox{ for all }x,y,z\in\mathbb{Z}. }
Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle \left. \begin{matrix} (A\cap B)\cap C=A\cap(B\cap C)=A\cap B\cap C\quad \\ (A\cup B)\cup C=A\cup(B\cup C)=A\cup B\cup C\quad \end{matrix} \right\}\mbox{for all sets }A,B,C. }
  • If M is some set and S denotes the set of all functions from M to M, then the operation of functional composition on S is associative:
Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle (f\circ g)\circ h=f\circ(g\circ h)=f\circ g\circ h\qquad\mbox{for all }f,g,h\in S.}
  • Slightly more generally, given four sets M, N, P and Q, with h: M to N, g: N to P, and f: P to Q, then
Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle (f\circ g)\circ h=f\circ(g\circ h)=f\circ g\circ h}
as before. In short, composition of maps is always associative.

Non-associativity

A binary operation Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle *} on a set S that does not satisfy the associative law is called non-associative. Symbolically,

Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle (x*y)*z\ne x*(y*z)\qquad\mbox{for some }x,y,z\in S.}

For such an operation the order of evaluation does matter. Subtraction, division and exponentiation are well-known examples of non-associative operations:

Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle \begin{matrix} (5-3)-2\ne 5-(3-2)\quad \\ (4/2)/2\ne 4/(2/2)\qquad\qquad \\ 2^{(1^2)}\ne (2^1)^2.\quad\qquad\qquad \end{matrix} }

In general, parentheses must be used to indicate the order of evaluation if a non-associative operation appears more than once in an expression. However, mathematicians agree on a particular order of evaluation for several common non-associative operations. This is simply a syntactical convention to avoid parentheses.

A left-associative operation is a non-associative operation that is conventionally evaluated from left to right, i.e.,

Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle \left. \begin{matrix} x*y*z=(x*y)*z\qquad\qquad\quad\, \\ w*x*y*z=((w*x)*y)*z\quad \\ \mbox{etc.}\qquad\qquad\qquad\qquad\qquad\qquad\ \ \, \end{matrix} \right\} \mbox{for all }w,x,y,z\in S }

while a right-associative operation is conventionally evaluated from right to left:

Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle \left. \begin{matrix} x*y*z=x*(y*z)\qquad\qquad\quad\, \\ w*x*y*z=w*(x*(y*z))\quad \\ \mbox{etc.}\qquad\qquad\qquad\qquad\qquad\qquad\ \ \, \end{matrix} \right\} \mbox{for all }w,x,y,z\in S }

Both left-associative and right-associative operations occur; examples are given below.

More examples

Left-associative operations include the following.

  • Subtraction and division of real numbers:
Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle x-y-z=(x-y)-z\qquad\mbox{for all }x,y,z\in\mathbb{R};}
Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle x/y/z=(x/y)/z\qquad\qquad\quad\mbox{for all }x,y,z\in\mathbb{R}\mbox{ with }y\ne0,z\ne0.}

Right-associative operations include the following.

Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle x^{y^z}=x^{(y^z)}.}
The reason exponentiation is right-associative is that a repeated left-associative exponentiation operation would be less useful. Multiple appearances could (and would) be rewritten with multiplication:
Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle (x^y)^z=x^{(yz)}.}

Non-associative operations for which no conventional evaluation order is defined include the following.

  • Taking the pairwise average of real numbers:
Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle {(x+y)/2+z\over2}\ne{x+(y+z)/2\over2}\ne{x+y+z\over3}\qquad\mbox{for some }x,y,z\in\mathbb{R}.}
Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "https://wikimedia.org/api/rest_v1/":): {\displaystyle (A\backslash B)\backslash C\ne A\backslash (B\backslash C)\qquad\mbox{for some sets }A,B,C.}

The green part in the left Venn diagram represents (A\B)\C. The green part in the right Venn diagram represents A\(B\C)

See also

bg:Асоциативност cs:Asociativita da:Associativitet de:Assoziativgesetz es:Asociatividad eo:Asocieco fr:Associativité ko:결합법칙 it:Associatività he:אסוציאטיביות nl:Associativiteit ja:結合法則 pl:Łączność (matematyka) ru:Ассоциативная операция sk:Asociatívna operácia sl:Asociativnost sv:Associativitet zh:结合律