Definitions

In helping students read and understand mathematics knowing about definitions,axioms (aka assumptions, postulates) and theorems. By this I mean knowing the parts of a definition or theorem and how they relate to each other should increase the students’ understanding. Today I’ll discuss definitions; theorems and assumptions will be discussed in a future post.

A definition names some mathematical “thing.” A good definition (in mathematics or elsewhere) names the thing defined in a sentence. The sentence may contain symbols, which are really just shorthand for words. A definition has 4 characteristics:

  1. It should put the thing defined into the nearest group of similar things.
  2. It should give the characteristics that distinguish it from the other things in the group.
  3. It should use simpler terms (previously defined terms).
  4. It should be reversible.

I will discuss each of these with an example first from geometry and then from calculus. First however, a word or two about “reversible.” Definitions are what are known technically as bi-conditional statement, meaning that the statement and its converse are true. More on this in the next post.

An example from geometry:

Definition: An equilateral triangle is a triangle with three congruent sides.

The term defined is “equilateral triangle.”

  1. Nearest group of similar things: triangles
  2. Distinguishing characteristic: 3 congruent sides. We all know that an equilateral triangle also has 3 congruent angles, and that all the angles have a measure of \displaystyle \tfrac{\pi }{3}, and all the angles add up to a straight angle, and lots of other great things, but for the definition we only mention the feature that distinguishes equilateral triangles from other triangles. It would be possible to use instead the 3 congruent angles or the fact that all three angles measure are \displaystyle \tfrac{\pi }{3}, as the distinguishing characteristic, but whoever wrote the definition choose the sides. (We could not use the fact that the angles add to a straight angle, because that is true for all triangles and therefore doesn’t distinguish equilateral triangles from the others.) Definitions do not list all the things that may be true, only those that make it different.
  3. Simpler terms: triangle, sides (of a triangle) and congruent. We assume that these key terms are already known to the student. Of course there were no previously defined terms for the very first things (points, lines and planes) but by now we are past that and have lots of previously defined terms to work with.
  4. Reversible: If we know that this object is an equilateral triangle, then without looking further we know it has 3 congruent sides AND if we run across a triangle with 3 congruent sides, we know it must be an equilateral triangle.

An example from the calculus:

Definition: A function, f, is increasing on an interval if, and only if, for all pairs of numbers a and b in the interval, if a < b, then f (a) < f (b).

This is a little more complicated. The term being defined is increasing on an interval. This becomes important and can lead to confusion because sometimes we are tempted to think functions are increasing at a point. There is no definition for the latter: functions increase only on intervals.

  1. Nearest group of similar things: functions
  2. Distinguishing characteristic: for all pairs of numbers a and b in the interval, if a < b, then f (a) < f (b).
    1. The if …, then … construction indicates a conditional statement (discussed in the next post) inside of the definition. This is not uncommon. It means that if can establish that this is true, then we can say then function is increasing on the interval.
    2. The phrase “for all” is also common in mathematics. It means the same thing as “for any” and “for every.” When you come across one of these it is a very good idea to rephrase the sentence with each of them: “for all numbers a and b in the interval…”, “for any pair of numbers a and b in the interval …” and “for every two numbers a and b in the interval…” This greatly helps understanding definitions.
    3. Simpler terms: function, interval (could be open, closed or half-open), less than (<), the meaning of symbols like f (a).
    4. Reversible:
      1. the phrase “if, and only if” indicates that what goes before and what comes after it, each imply the other. This phrase is implicit in all (any, every) definitions although English usage often omits it. The first definition could be written “A triangle is equilateral if, and only if, it has 3 congruent sides” but is a little more user-friendly the way it is stated above.
      2. If you can establish that “for all pairs of numbers a and b in the interval, if a < b, then f (a) < f (b)”, then you can be sure the function increases on the interval. AND if you are told f is increasing on the interval, then without checking further you can be sure that “for all (any, every) pairs of numbers a and b in the interval, if a < b, then f (a) < f (b).”

Now that’s a fairly detailed discussion (definition?) of a definition. But it is worth going through any new definition for your students to help them learn what the definition really means. First identify the four features for you students and then as new definitions come along have them identify the parts. Encourage them to pull definitions apart this way. It is worth the little extra time spent.

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