Commutative property

This image illustrates that addition is commutative.

In mathematics, a binary operation is commutative if changing the order of the operands does not change the result. It is a fundamental property of many binary operations, and many mathematical proofs depend on it. Most familiar as the name of the property that says "3 + 4 = 4 + 3" or "2 × 5 = 5 × 2", the property can also be used in more advanced settings. The name is needed because there are operations, such as division and subtraction that do not have it (for example, "3 − 5 ≠ 5 − 3"), such operations are not commutative, or noncommutative operations. The idea that simple operations, such as multiplication and addition of numbers, are commutative was for many years implicitly assumed and the property was not named until the 19th century when mathematics started to become formalized.

    Common uses

    The commutative property (or commutative law) is a property generally associated with binary operations and functions. If the commutative property holds for a pair of elements under a certain binary operation then the two elements are said to commute under that operation.

    Mathematical definitions

    The term "commutative" is used in several related senses.

    1. A binary operation on a set S is called commutative if:
      An operation that does not satisfy the above property is called non-commutative.
    2. One says that x commutes with y under if:
    3. A binary function is called commutative if:


    Commutative operations in everyday life

    • Putting on socks resembles a commutative operation, since which sock is put on first is unimportant. Either way, the result (having both socks on), is the same. In contrast, putting on underwear and trousers is not commutative.
    • The commutativity of addition is observed when paying for an item with cash. Regardless of the order the bills are handed over in, they always give the same total.

    Commutative operations in mathematics

    The addition of vectors is commutative, because .

    Two well-known examples of commutative binary operations:

    For example 4 + 5 = 5 + 4, since both expressions equal 9.
    For example, 3 × 5 = 5 × 3, since both expressions equal 15.
    • Some binary truth functions are also commutative, since the truth tables for the functions are the same when one changes the order of the operands.
    For example, the logical biconditional function p ↔ q is equivalent to q ↔ p. This function is also written as p IFF q, or as p ≡ q, or as Epq.
    The last form is an example of the most concise notation in the article on truth functions, which lists the sixteen possible binary truth functions of which eight are commutative: Vpq = Vqp; Apq (OR) = Aqp; Dpq (NAND) = Dqp; Epq (IFF) = Eqp; Jpq = Jqp; Kpq (AND) = Kqp; Xpq (NOR) = Xqp; Opq = Oqp.

    Noncommutative operations in everyday life

    • Concatenation, the act of joining character strings together, is a noncommutative operation. For example
    • Washing and drying clothes resembles a noncommutative operation; washing and then drying produces a markedly different result to drying and then washing.
    • Rotating a book 90° around a vertical axis then 90° around a horizontal axis produces a different orientation than when the rotations are performed in the opposite order.
    • The twists of the Rubik's Cube are noncommutative. This can be studied using group theory.
    • Also thought processes are noncommutative: A person asked a question (A) and then a question (B) may give different answers to each question than a person asked first (B) and then (A), because asking a question may change the person's state of mind.

    Noncommutative operations in mathematics

    Some noncommutative binary operations:

    For example, the truth tables for f (A,B) = A Λ ¬B (A AND NOT B) and f (B,A) = B Λ ¬A are
    A B f (A,B) f (B,A)
    F F F F
    F T F T
    T F T F
    T T F F
    • Matrix multiplication is noncommutative since

    History and etymology

    The first known use of the term was in a French Journal published in 1814

    Records of the implicit use of the commutative property go back to ancient times. The Egyptians used the commutative property of multiplication to simplify computing products.Euclid is known to have assumed the commutative property of multiplication in his book Elements. Formal uses of the commutative property arose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when mathematicians began to work on a theory of functions. Today the commutative property is a well known and basic property used in most branches of mathematics.

    The first recorded use of the term commutative was in a memoir by François Servois in 1814, which used the word commutatives when describing functions that have what is now called the commutative property. The word is a combination of the French word commuter meaning "to substitute or switch" and the suffix -ative meaning "tending to" so the word literally means "tending to substitute or switch." The term then appeared in English in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1844.

    Propositional logic

    Rule of replacement

    In truth-functional propositional logic, commutation, or commutativity refer to two valid rules of replacement. The rules allow one to transpose propositional variables within logical expressions in logical proofs. The rules are:


    where "" is a metalogical symbol representing "can be replaced in a proof with."

    Truth functional connectives

    Commutativity is a property of some logical connectives of truth functional propositional logic. The following logical equivalences demonstrate that commutativity is a property of particular connectives. The following are truth-functional tautologies.

    Commutativity of conjunction
    Commutativity of disjunction
    Commutativity of implication (also called the law of permutation)
    Commutativity of equivalence (also called the complete commutative law of equivalence)

    Set theory

    In group and set theory, many algebraic structures are called commutative when certain operands satisfy the commutative property. In higher branches of mathematics, such as analysis and linear algebra the commutativity of well-known operations (such as addition and multiplication on real and complex numbers) is often used (or implicitly assumed) in proofs.

    Mathematical structures and commutativity

    Related properties


    The associative property is closely related to the commutative property. The associative property of an expression containing two or more occurrences of the same operator states that the order operations are performed in does not affect the final result, as long as the order of terms doesn't change. In contrast, the commutative property states that the order of the terms does not affect the final result.

    Most commutative operations encountered in practice are also associative. However, commutativity does not imply associativity. A counterexample is the function

    which is clearly commutative (interchanging x and y does not affect the result), but it is not associative (since, for example, but ). More such examples may be found in Commutative non-associative magmas.


    Graph showing the symmetry of the addition function

    Some forms of symmetry can be directly linked to commutativity. When a commutative operator is written as a binary function then the resulting function is symmetric across the line y = x. As an example, if we let a function f represent addition (a commutative operation) so that f(x,y) = x + y then f is a symmetric function, which can be seen in the image on the right.

    For relations, a symmetric relation is analogous to a commutative operation, in that if a relation R is symmetric, then .

    Non-commuting operators in quantum mechanics

    In quantum mechanics as formulated by Schrödinger, physical variables are represented by linear operators such as x (meaning multiply by x), and . These two operators do not commute as may be seen by considering the effect of their compositions and (also called products of operators) on a one-dimensional wave function :

    According to the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg, if the two operators representing a pair of variables do not commute, then that pair of variables are mutually complementary, which means they cannot be simultaneously measured or known precisely. For example, the position and the linear momentum in the x-direction of a particle are represented respectively by the operators and (where is the reduced Planck constant). This is the same example except for the constant , so again the operators do not commute and the physical meaning is that the position and linear momentum in a given direction are complementary.

    See also




    • Axler, Sheldon (1997). Linear Algebra Done Right, 2e. Springer. ISBN 0-387-98258-2. 
    Abstract algebra theory. Covers commutativity in that context. Uses property throughout book.
    • Copi, Irving M.; Cohen, Carl (2005). Introduction to Logic. Prentice Hall. 
    • Gallian, Joseph (2006). Contemporary Abstract Algebra, 6e. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-51471-6. 
    Linear algebra theory. Explains commutativity in chapter 1, uses it throughout.
    • Goodman, Frederick (2003). Algebra: Abstract and Concrete, Stressing Symmetry, 2e. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-067342-0. 
    Abstract algebra theory. Uses commutativity property throughout book.
    • Hurley, Patrick (1991). A Concise Introduction to Logic 4th edition. Wadsworth Publishing. 


    • Lumpkin, B. (1997). The Mathematical Legacy Of Ancient Egypt - A Response To Robert Palter. Unpublished manuscript.
    Article describing the mathematical ability of ancient civilizations.
    • Robins, R. Gay, and Charles C. D. Shute. 1987. The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus: An Ancient Egyptian Text. London: British Museum Publications Limited. ISBN 0-7141-0944-4
    Translation and interpretation of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.

    Online resources

    Definition of commutativity and examples of commutative operations
    Explanation of the term commute
    • Yark. Examples of non-commutative operations at, Accessed 8 August 2007
    Examples proving some noncommutative operations
    • O'Conner, J J and Robertson, E F. MacTutor history of real numbers, Accessed 8 August 2007
    Article giving the history of the real numbers
    • Cabillón, Julio and Miller, Jeff. Earliest Known Uses Of Mathematical Terms, Accessed 22 November 2008
    Page covering the earliest uses of mathematical terms
    • O'Conner, J J and Robertson, E F. MacTutor biography of François Servois, Accessed 8 August 2007
    Biography of Francois Servois, who first used the term