Venn diagram

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Venn diagram showing the uppercase glyphs shared by the Greek, Latin, and Russian alphabets Venn diagram gr la ru.svg
Venn diagram showing the uppercase glyphs shared by the Greek, Latin, and Russian alphabets

A Venn diagram is a widely-used diagram style that shows the logical relation between sets, popularized by John Venn in the 1880s. The diagrams are used to teach elementary set theory, and to illustrate simple set relationships in probability, logic, statistics, linguistics and computer science. A Venn diagram uses simple closed curves drawn on a plane to represent sets. Very often, these curves are circles or ellipses.


Similar ideas had been proposed before Venn. Christian Weise in 1712 (Nucleus Logicoe Wiesianoe) and Leonhard Euler (Letters to a German Princess) in 1768, for instance, came up with similar ideas. The idea was popularised by Venn in Symbolic Logic, Chapter V "Diagrammatic Representation", 1881.


A Venn diagram may also be called a primary diagram, set diagram or logic diagram. It is a diagram that shows all possible logical relations between a finite collection of different sets. These diagrams depict elements as points in the plane, and sets as regions inside closed curves. A Venn diagram consists of multiple overlapping closed curves, usually circles, each representing a set. The points inside a curve labelled S represent elements of the set S, while points outside the boundary represent elements not in the set S. This lends itself to intuitive visualizations; for example, the set of all elements that are members of both sets S and T, denoted S  T and read "the intersection of S and T", is represented visually by the area of overlap of the regions S and T. [1] [2]

In Venn diagrams, the curves are overlapped in every possible way, showing all possible relations between the sets. They are thus a special case of Euler diagrams, which do not necessarily show all relations. Venn diagrams were conceived around 1880 by John Venn. They are used to teach elementary set theory, as well as illustrate simple set relationships in probability, logic, statistics, linguistics, and computer science.

A Venn diagram in which the area of each shape is proportional to the number of elements it contains is called an area-proportional (or scaled) Venn diagram.

Venn diagrams are used heavily in the logic of class branch of reasoning.


Sets A (creatures with two legs) and B (creatures that fly) Venov dijagram.svg
Sets A (creatures with two legs) and B (creatures that fly)

This example involves two sets, A and B, represented here as coloured circles. The orange circle, set A, represents all types of living creatures that are two-legged. The blue circle, set B, represents the living creatures that can fly. Each separate type of creature can be imagined as a point somewhere in the diagram. Living creatures that can fly and have two legs—for example, parrots—are then in both sets, so they correspond to points in the region where the blue and orange circles overlap. This overlapping region would only contain those elements (in this example, creatures) that are members of both set A (two-legged creatures) and set B (flying creatures).

Humans and penguins are bipedal, and so are in the orange circle, but since they cannot fly, they appear in the left part of the orange circle, where it does not overlap with the blue circle. Mosquitoes can fly, but have six, not two, legs, so the point for mosquitoes is in the part of the blue circle that does not overlap with the orange one. Creatures that are not two-legged and cannot fly (for example, whales and spiders) would all be represented by points outside both circles.

The combined region of sets A and B is called the union of A and B, denoted by A ∪ B. [1] [3] The union in this case contains all living creatures that either are two-legged or can fly (or both).

The region included in both A and B, where the two sets overlap, is called the intersection of A and B, denoted by A ∩ B. [1] [3] In this example, the intersection of the two sets is not empty, because there are points that represent creatures that are in both the orange and blue circles.


Stained-glass window with Venn diagram in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge Venn-stainedglass-gonville-caius.jpg
Stained-glass window with Venn diagram in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Venn diagrams were introduced in 1880 by John Venn in a paper entitled "On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings" in the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, about the different ways to represent propositions by diagrams. [4] [5] [6] The use of these types of diagrams in formal logic, according to Frank Ruskey and Mark Weston, is "not an easy history to trace, but it is certain that the diagrams that are popularly associated with Venn, in fact, originated much earlier. They are rightly associated with Venn, however, because he comprehensively surveyed and formalized their usage, and was the first to generalize them". [7]

Venn himself did not use the term "Venn diagram" and referred to his invention as "Eulerian Circles". [6] For example, in the opening sentence of his 1880 article Venn writes, "Schemes of diagrammatic representation have been so familiarly introduced into logical treatises during the last century or so, that many readers, even those who have made no professional study of logic, may be supposed to be acquainted with the general nature and object of such devices. Of these schemes one only, viz. that commonly called 'Eulerian circles,' has met with any general acceptance..." [4] [5] Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson) includes "Venn's Method of Diagrams" as well as "Euler's Method of Diagrams" in an "Appendix, Addressed to Teachers" of his book Symbolic Logic (4th edition published in 1896). The term "Venn diagram" was later used by Clarence Irving Lewis in 1918, in his book A Survey of Symbolic Logic. [7] [8]

Venn diagrams are very similar to Euler diagrams, which were invented by Leonhard Euler in the 18th century. [note 1] [9] [10] Margaret Baron has noted that Leibniz (1646–1716) produced similar diagrams before Euler in the 17th century, but much of it was unpublished. [11] She also observes even earlier Euler-like diagrams by Ramon Llull in the 13th Century. [12]

In the 20th century, Venn diagrams were further developed. David Wilson Henderson showed, in 1963, that the existence of an n-Venn diagram with n-fold rotational symmetry implied that n was a prime number. [13] He also showed that such symmetric Venn diagrams exist when n is five or seven. In 2002, Peter Hamburger found symmetric Venn diagrams for n = 11 and in 2003, Griggs, Killian, and Savage showed that symmetric Venn diagrams exist for all other primes. These combined results show that rotationally symmetric Venn diagrams exist, if and only if n is a prime number. [14]

Venn diagrams and Euler diagrams were incorporated as part of instruction in set theory, as part of the new math movement in the 1960s. Since then, they have also been adopted in the curriculum of other fields such as reading. [15]


A Venn diagram is constructed with a collection of simple closed curves drawn in a plane. According to Lewis, [8] the "principle of these diagrams is that classes [or sets ] be represented by regions in such relation to one another that all the possible logical relations of these classes can be indicated in the same diagram. That is, the diagram initially leaves room for any possible relation of the classes, and the actual or given relation, can then be specified by indicating that some particular region is null or is not-null". [8] :157

Venn diagrams normally comprise overlapping circles. The interior of the circle symbolically represents the elements of the set, while the exterior represents elements that are not members of the set. For instance, in a two-set Venn diagram, one circle may represent the group of all wooden objects, while the other circle may represent the set of all tables. The overlapping region, or intersection , would then represent the set of all wooden tables. Shapes other than circles can be employed as shown below by Venn's own higher set diagrams. Venn diagrams do not generally contain information on the relative or absolute sizes (cardinality) of sets. That is, they are schematic diagrams generally not drawn to scale.

Venn diagrams are similar to Euler diagrams. However, a Venn diagram for n component sets must contain all 2n hypothetically possible zones, that correspond to some combination of inclusion or exclusion in each of the component sets. [16] Euler diagrams contain only the actually possible zones in a given context. In Venn diagrams, a shaded zone may represent an empty zone, whereas in an Euler diagram, the corresponding zone is missing from the diagram. For example, if one set represents dairy products and another cheeses, the Venn diagram contains a zone for cheeses that are not dairy products. Assuming that in the context cheese means some type of dairy product, the Euler diagram has the cheese zone entirely contained within the dairy-product zone—there is no zone for (non-existent) non-dairy cheese. This means that as the number of contours increases, Euler diagrams are typically less visually complex than the equivalent Venn diagram, particularly if the number of non-empty intersections is small. [17]

The difference between Euler and Venn diagrams can be seen in the following example. Take the three sets:

The Euler and the Venn diagram of those sets are:

Extensions to higher numbers of sets

Venn diagrams typically represent two or three sets, but there are forms that allow for higher numbers. Shown below, four intersecting spheres form the highest order Venn diagram that has the symmetry of a simplex and can be visually represented. The 16 intersections correspond to the vertices of a tesseract (or the cells of a 16-cell, respectively).

4 spheres, cell 00, solid.png 4 spheres, weight 1, solid.png

4 spheres, cell 01, solid.png 4 spheres, cell 02, solid.png 4 spheres, cell 04, solid.png 4 spheres, cell 08, solid.png

4 spheres, weight 2, solid.png

4 spheres, cell 03, solid.png 4 spheres, cell 05, solid.png 4 spheres, cell 06, solid.png 4 spheres, cell 09, solid.png 4 spheres, cell 10, solid.png 4 spheres, cell 12, solid.png

4 spheres, weight 3, solid.png

4 spheres, cell 07, solid.png 4 spheres, cell 11, solid.png 4 spheres, cell 13, solid.png 4 spheres, cell 14, solid.png

4 spheres, cell 15, solid.png

For higher numbers of sets, some loss of symmetry in the diagrams is unavoidable. Venn was keen to find "symmetrical figures...elegant in themselves," [9] that represented higher numbers of sets, and he devised an elegant four-set diagram using ellipses (see below). He also gave a construction for Venn diagrams for any number of sets, where each successive curve that delimits a set interleaves with previous curves, starting with the three-circle diagram.

Edwards–Venn diagrams

Anthony William Fairbank Edwards constructed a series of Venn diagrams for higher numbers of sets by segmenting the surface of a sphere, which became known as Edwards–Venn diagrams. [18] For example, three sets can be easily represented by taking three hemispheres of the sphere at right angles (x = 0, y = 0 and z = 0). A fourth set can be added to the representation, by taking a curve similar to the seam on a tennis ball, which winds up and down around the equator, and so on. The resulting sets can then be projected back to a plane, to give cogwheel diagrams with increasing numbers of teeth—as shown here. These diagrams were devised while designing a stained-glass window in memory of Venn. [18]

Other diagrams

Edwards–Venn diagrams are topologically equivalent to diagrams devised by Branko Grünbaum, which were based around intersecting polygons with increasing numbers of sides. They are also two-dimensional representations of hypercubes.

Henry John Stephen Smith devised similar n-set diagrams using sine curves [18] with the series of equations

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) devised a five-set diagram known as Carroll's square. Joaquin and Boyles, on the other hand, proposed supplemental rules for the standard Venn diagram, in order to account for certain problem cases. For instance, regarding the issue of representing singular statements, they suggest to consider the Venn diagram circle as a representation of a set of things, and use first-order logic and set theory to treat categorical statements as statements about sets. Additionally, they propose to treat singular statements as statements about set membership. So, for example, to represent the statement "a is F" in this retooled Venn diagram, a small letter "a" may be placed inside the circle that represents the set F. [19]

Venn diagram as a truth table Venn3tab.svg
Venn diagram as a truth table

Venn diagrams correspond to truth tables for the propositions , , etc., in the sense that each region of Venn diagram corresponds to one row of the truth table. [20] [21] This type is also known as Johnston diagram. Another way of representing sets is with John F. Randolph's R-diagrams.

See also


  1. In Euler's Lettres à une princesse d'Allemagne sur divers sujets de physique et de philosophie [Letters to a German Princess on various physical and philosophical subjects] (Saint Petersburg, Russia: l'Academie Impériale des Sciences, 1768), volume 2, pages 95-126. In Venn's article, however, he suggests that the diagrammatic idea predates Euler, and is attributable to Christian Weise or Johann Christian Lange (in Lange's book Nucleus Logicae Weisianae (1712)).

Related Research Articles

An axiom, postulate or assumption is a statement that is taken to be true, to serve as a premise or starting point for further reasoning and arguments. The word comes from the Greek axíōma (ἀξίωμα) 'that which is thought worthy or fit' or 'that which commends itself as evident.'

Naive set theory is any of several theories of sets used in the discussion of the foundations of mathematics. Unlike axiomatic set theories, which are defined using formal logic, naive set theory is defined informally, in natural language. It describes the aspects of mathematical sets familiar in discrete mathematics, and suffices for the everyday use of set theory concepts in contemporary mathematics.

Logical conjunction

In logic, mathematics and linguistics, And is the truth-functional operator of logical conjunction; the and of a set of operands is true if and only if all of its operands are true. The logical connective that represents this operator is typically written as or .

Set (mathematics) Collection of mathematical objects

In mathematics a set is a collection of distinct elements. The elements that make up a set can be any kind of things: people, letters of the alphabet, numbers, points in space, lines, other geometrical shapes, variables, or even other sets. Two sets are equal if and only if they have precisely the same elements.

Union (set theory) Mathematical operation where sets combine or relate

In set theory, the union of a collection of sets is the set of all elements in the collection. It is one of the fundamental operations through which sets can be combined and related to each other. A nullary union refers to a union of zero sets and it is by definition equal to the empty set.

John Venn English logician and philosopher (1834–1923)

John Venn, FRS, FSA was an English mathematician, logician and philosopher noted for introducing the Venn diagrams, which are used in logic, set theory, probability, statistics, and computer science. In 1866, Venn published The Logic of Chance, a ground-breaking book which espoused the frequency theory of probability, arguing that probability should be determined by how often something is forecast to occur as opposed to “educated” assumptions. Venn then further developed George Boole's theories in the 1881 work Symbolic Logic, where he highlighted what would become known as Venn diagrams.

Universe (mathematics) Collection that contains all the entities one wishes to consider in a given situation in mathematics

In mathematics, and particularly in set theory, category theory, type theory, and the foundations of mathematics, a universe is a collection that contains all the entities one wishes to consider in a given situation.

An existential graph is a type of diagrammatic or visual notation for logical expressions, proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce, who wrote on graphical logic as early as 1882, and continued to develop the method until his death in 1914.

Euler diagram

An Euler diagram is a diagrammatic means of representing sets and their relationships. They are particularly useful for explaining complex hierarchies and overlapping definitions. They are similar to another set diagramming technique, Venn diagrams. Unlike Venn diagrams, which show all possible relations between different sets, the Euler diagram shows only relevant relationships.

In mathematics, a unitary spider diagram adds existential points to an Euler or a Venn diagram. The points indicate the existence of an attribute described by the intersection of contours in the Euler diagram. These points may be joined together forming a shape like a spider. Joined points represent an "or" condition, also known as a logical disjunction.

In mathematics, a free Boolean algebra is a Boolean algebra with a distinguished set of elements, called generators, such that:

  1. Each element of the Boolean algebra can be expressed as a finite combination of generators, using the Boolean operations, and
  2. The generators are as independent as possible, in the sense that there are no relationships among them that do not hold in every Boolean algebra no matter which elements are chosen.

In mathematical logic, algebraic logic is the reasoning obtained by manipulating equations with free variables.

Diagrammatic reasoning

Diagrammatic reasoning is reasoning by means of visual representations. The study of diagrammatic reasoning is about the understanding of concepts and ideas, visualized with the use of diagrams and imagery instead of by linguistic or algebraic means.

Karnaugh map graphical method to simplify Boolean expressions

The Karnaugh map is a method of simplifying Boolean algebra expressions. Maurice Karnaugh introduced it in 1953 as a refinement of Edward W. Veitch's 1952 Veitch chart, which was a rediscovery of Allan Marquand's 1881 logical diagram aka Marquand diagram but with a focus now set on its utility for switching circuits. Veitch charts are therefore also known as Marquand–Veitch diagrams, and Karnaugh maps as Karnaugh–Veitch maps.

Mathematical diagram

Mathematical diagrams, such as charts and graphs, are mainly designed to convey mathematical relationships—for example, comparisons over time.

Intersection (set theory) Concept in mathematics specific to the field of set theory

In mathematics, the intersection of two sets A and B, denoted by AB, is the set containing all elements of A that also belong to B.

A truth table is a mathematical table used in logic—specifically in connection with Boolean algebra, boolean functions, and propositional calculus—which sets out the functional values of logical expressions on each of their functional arguments, that is, for each combination of values taken by their logical variables. In particular, truth tables can be used to show whether a propositional expression is true for all legitimate input values, that is, logically valid.

Randolph diagram

A Randolph diagram (R-diagram) is a simple way to visualize logical expressions and combinations of sets. Randolph diagrams were created by mathematician John F. Randolph in 1965, while he was teaching at the University of Arkansas.

In logic, a quantifier is an operator that specifies how many individuals in the domain of discourse satisfy an open formula. For instance, the universal quantifier in the first order formula expresses that everything in the domain satisfies the property denoted by . On the other hand, the existential quantifier in the formula expresses that there is something in the domain which satisfies that property. A formula where a quantifier takes widest scope is called a quantified formula. A quantified formula must contain a bound variable and a subformula specifying a property of the referent of that variable.

In mathematics and mathematical logic, Boolean algebra is the branch of algebra in which the values of the variables are the truth values true and false, usually denoted 1 and 0, respectively. Instead of elementary algebra, where the values of the variables are numbers and the prime operations are addition and multiplication, the main operations of Boolean algebra are the conjunction (and) denoted as ∧, the disjunction (or) denoted as ∨, and the negation (not) denoted as ¬. It is thus a formalism for describing logical operations, in the same way that elementary algebra describes numerical operations.


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  19. Joaquin, Jeremiah Joven; Boyles, Robert James M. (June 2017). "Teaching Syllogistic Logic via a Retooled Venn Diagrammatical Technique". Teaching Philosophy . 40 (2): 161–180. doi:10.5840/teachphil201771767. Archived from the original on 2018-11-21. Retrieved 2020-05-12.
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Further reading