Equality (mathematics)

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In mathematics, equality is a relationship between two quantities or, more generally two mathematical expressions, asserting that the quantities have the same value, or that the expressions represent the same mathematical object. The equality between A and B is written A = B, and pronounced A equals B. The symbol "=" is called an "equals sign". Two objects that are not equal are said to be distinct.


For example:


The etymology of the word is from the Latin aequālis (“equal”, “like”, “comparable”, “similar”) from aequus (“equal”, “level”, “fair”, “just”).

Basic properties

Some specific examples of this are:

  • For any real numbers a, b, and c, if a = b, then a + c = b + c (here F(x) is x + c);
  • For any real numbers a, b, and c, if a = b, then ac = bc (here F(x) is xc);
  • For any real numbers a, b, and c, if a = b, then ac = bc (here F(x) is xc);
  • For any real numbers a, b, and c, if a = b and c is not zero, then a/c = b/c (here F(x) is x/c).

These three properties make equality an equivalence relation. They were originally included among the Peano axioms for natural numbers. Although the symmetric and transitive properties are often seen as fundamental, they can be deduced from substitution and reflexive properties.

Equality as predicate

When A and B are not fully specified or depend on some variables, equality is a proposition, which may be true for some values and false for some other values. Equality is a binary relation or, in other words, a two-argument predicate, which may produce a truth value (false or true) from its arguments. In computer programming, its computation from two expressions is known as comparison.


When A and B may be viewed as functions of some variables, then A = B means that A and B define the same function. Such an equality of functions is sometimes called an identity. An example is (x + 1)2 = x2 + 2x + 1. Sometimes, but not always, an identity is written with a triple bar: (x + 1)2  x2 + 2x + 1.


An equation is a problem of finding values of some variables, called unknowns, for which the specified equality is true. Equation may also refer to an equality relation that is satisfied only for the values of the variables that one is interested in. For example, x2 + y2 = 1 is the equation of the unit circle.

There is no standard notation that distinguishes an equation from an identity or other use of the equality relation: a reader has to guess an appropriate interpretation from the semantics of expressions and the context. An identity is asserted to be true for all values of variables in a given domain. An "equation" may sometimes mean an identity, but more often it specifies a subset of the variable space to be the subset where the equation is true.


In some cases, one may consider as equal two mathematical objects that are only equivalent for the properties that are considered. Particularly in the case of geometry, this is where two geometric shapes are said to be equal when one may be moved to coincide with the other. The word congruence is also used for this kind of equality.

Approximate equality

There are some logic systems that do not have any notion of equality. This reflects the undecidability of the equality of two real numbers defined by formulas involving the integers, the basic arithmetic operations, the logarithm and the exponential function. In other words, there cannot exist any algorithm for deciding such an equality.

The binary relation "is approximately equal" between real numbers or other things, even if more precisely defined, is not transitive (it may seem so at first sight, but many small differences can add up to something big). However, equality almost everywhere is transitive.

Relation with equivalence and isomorphism

Viewed as a relation, equality is the archetype of the more general concept of an equivalence relation on a set: those binary relations that are reflexive, symmetric and transitive. The identity relation is an equivalence relation. Conversely, let R be an equivalence relation, and let us denote by xR the equivalence class of x, consisting of all elements z such that x R z. Then the relation x R y is equivalent with the equality xR = yR. It follows that equality is the finest equivalence relation on any set S in the sense that it is the relation that has the smallest equivalence classes (every class is reduced to a single element).

In some contexts, equality is sharply distinguished from equivalence or isomorphism. [3] For example, one may distinguish fractions from rational numbers, the latter being equivalence classes of fractions: the fractions and are distinct as fractions (as different strings of symbols) but they "represent" the same rational number (the same point on a number line). This distinction gives rise to the notion of a quotient set.

Similarly, the sets


are not equal sets — the first consists of letters, while the second consists of numbers — but they are both sets of three elements and thus isomorphic, meaning that there is a bijection between them. For example

However, there are other choices of isomorphism, such as

and these sets cannot be identified without making such a choice — any statement that identifies them "depends on choice of identification". This distinction, between equality and isomorphism, is of fundamental importance in category theory and is one motivation for the development of category theory.

Logical definitions

Leibniz characterized the notion of equality as follows:

Given any x and y, x = y if and only if, given any predicate P, P(x) if and only if P(y).

Equality in set theory

Equality of sets is axiomatized in set theory in two different ways, depending on whether the axioms are based on a first-order language with or without equality.

Set equality based on first-order logic with equality

In first-order logic with equality, the axiom of extensionality states that two sets which contain the same elements are the same set. [4]

Incorporating half of the work into the first-order logic may be regarded as a mere matter of convenience, as noted by Lévy.

"The reason why we take up first-order predicate calculus with equality is a matter of convenience; by this we save the labor of defining equality and proving all its properties; this burden is now assumed by the logic." [5]

Set equality based on first-order logic without equality

In first-order logic without equality, two sets are defined to be equal if they contain the same elements. Then the axiom of extensionality states that two equal sets are contained in the same sets. [6]

See also


  1. Rosser 2008 , p. 163.
  2. Lévy 2002 , pp. 13, 358. Mac Lane & Birkhoff 1999 , p. 2. Mendelson 1964 , p. 5.
  3. ( Mazur 2007 )
  4. Kleene 2002 , p. 189. Lévy 2002 , p. 13. Shoenfield 2001 , p. 239.
  5. Lévy 2002 , p. 4.
  6. Mendelson 1964 , pp. 159–161. Rosser 2008 , pp. 211–213

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