Tag Archives: Intmath

More about the definition of function

Maya Incaand commented on my post Definition of "function":

Why did you decide against "two inequivalent descriptions in common use"?  Is it no longer true?

This question concerns [1], which is a draft article.  I have not promoted it to the standard article in abstractmath because I am not satisfied with some things in it. 

More specifically, there really are two inequivalent descriptions in common use.  This is stated by the article, buried in the text, but if you read the beginning, you get the impression that there is only one specification.  I waffled, in other words, and I expect to rewrite the beginning to make things clearer.

Below are the two main definitions you see in university courses taken by math majors and grad students.  A functional relation has the property that no two distinct ordered pairs have the same first element.

Strict definition: A function consists of a functional relation with specified codomain (the domain is then defined to be the set of first elements of pairs in the relation).  Thus if $A$ and $B$ are sets and $A\subseteq B$, then the identity function $1_A:A\to A$ and the inclusion function $i:A\to B$  are two different functions.

Relational definition: A function is a functional relation.  Then the identity and inclusion functions are the same function.  This means that a function and its graph are the same thing (discussed in the draft article).

These definitions are subject to variations:

Variations in the strict definition: Some authors use "range" for "codomain" in the definition, and some don't make it clear that two functions with the same functional relation but different codomains are different functions.

Variations in the relational definition: Most such definitions state explicitly that the domain and range are determined by the relation (the set of first coordinates and the set of second coordinates). 


There are many other variations in the formalism used in the definition.  For example, the strict definition can be formalized (as in Wikipedia) as an ordered triple $(A, B, f)$ where $A$ and $B$ are sets and $f$ is a functional relation with the property thar every element of $A$ is the first element of an ordered pair in the relation.  

You could of course talk about an ordered triple $(A,f,B)$ blah blah.  Such definitions introduce arbitrary constructions that have properties irrelevant to the concept of function.  Would you ever say that the second element of the function $f(x)=x+1$ on the reals is the set of real numbers?  (Of course, if you used the formalism $(A,f,B)$ you would have to say the second element of the function is its graph! )

It is that kind of thing that led me to use a specification instead of a definition.  If you pay attention to such irrelevant formalism there seems to be many definitions of function.  In fact, at the university level there are only two, the strict definition and the relational definition.  The usage varies by discipline and age.  Younger mathematicians are more likely to use the strict definition.  Topologists use the strict definition more often than analysts (I think).


There is also variation in usage.

  • Most authors don't tell you which definition they use, and it often doesn't matter anyway. 
  • If an author defines a function using a formula, there is commonly an implicit assumption that the domain includes everything for which the formula is well-defined.  (The "everything" may be modified by referring to it as an integer, real, or complex function.)

Definitions of function on the web

Below are some definitions of function that appear on the web.  I have excluded most definitions aimed at calculus students or below; they often assume you are talking about numbers and formulas.  I have not surveyed textbooks and research papers.  That would have to be done for a proper scholarly article about mathematical usage of "function". But most younger people get their knowledge from the web anyway.

  1. Abstractmath draft article: Functions: Specification and Definition.  (Note:  Right now you can't get to this from the Table of Contents; you have to click the preceding link.) 
  2. Gyre&Gimble post: Definition of "function"
  3. Intmath discussion of function  Function as functional relation between numbers, with induced domain and range.
  4. Mathworld definition of function Functional-relation definition.  Defines $F:A\to B$ in a way that requires $B$ to be the image.
  5. Planet Math definition of function Strict definition.
  6. Prime Encyclopedia of Mathematics Functional-relation definition.
  7. Springer Encyclopedia of Math definition of function  Strict definition, except not clear if different codomains mean different functions.
  8. Wikipedia definition of function Discusses both definitions.
  9. Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Definition of function  Function as functional relation.