relation composition

Relation compositionPlanetmathPlanetmath, or the composition of relations, is the generalizationPlanetmathPlanetmath of function composition, or the compositionMathworldPlanetmathPlanetmath of functions. The following treatment of relation composition takes the “strongly typed” approach to relationsMathworldPlanetmathPlanetmath that is outlined in the entry on relation theory (

1 Preliminaries

The first order of business is to define the operation on relations that is variously known as the composition of relations, relational composition, or relative multiplication. In approaching the more general constructions, it pays to begin with the composition of 2-adic and 3-adic relations.

As an incidental observation on usage, there are many different conventions of syntax for denoting the application and composition of relations, with perhaps even more options in general use than are common for the application and composition of functions. In this case there is little chance of standardization, since the convenience of conventions is relative to the context of use, and the same writers use different styles of syntax in different settings, depending on the ease of analysis and computation.

  • The first dimensionPlanetmathPlanetmath of variation in syntax has to do with the correspondence between the order of operation and the linear order of terms on the page.

  • The second dimension of variation in syntax has to do with the automatic assumptionsPlanetmathPlanetmath in place about the associations of terms in the absence of associations marked by parentheses. This becomes a significant factor with relations in general because the usual property of associativity is lost as both the complexities of compositions and the dimensions of relations increase.

  • These two factors together generate the following four styles of syntax:

    Left application, Left association (LALA).
    Left application, Right association (LARA).
    Right application, Left association (RALA).
    Right application, Right association (RARA).

2 Definition

A notion of relational composition is to be defined that generalizes the usual notion of functionalPlanetmathPlanetmathPlanetmathPlanetmath composition:

  • Composing on the right, f:XY followed by g:YZ results in a composite function formulated as fg:XZ.

  • Composing on the left, f:XY followed by g:YZ results in a composite function formulated as gf:XZ.

Note on notation. The ordinary symbol for functional composition is the composition sign, a small circle “” written between the names of the functions being composed, as fg, but the sign is often omitted if there is no risk of confusing the composition of functions with their algebraic productMathworldPlanetmathPlanetmath. In contexts where both compositions and products occur, either the composition is marked on each occasion or else the product is marked by means of a raised dot sign”, as fg.

Generalizing the paradigm along parallel lines, the composition of a pair of 2-adic relations is formulated in the following two ways:

  • Composing on the right, PX×Y followed by QY×Z results in a composite relation formulated as PQX×Z.

  • Composing on the left, PX×Y followed by QY×Z results in a composite relation formulated as QPX×Z.

In the rest of this discussion 2-adic relations will be composed on the right, leading to the following definition of PQ=PQ for the composable pair of relations, PX×Y and QY×Z.

Definition. PQ={(x,z)X×Z:(x,y)Pand(y,z)Q}.

3 Geometric construction

There is a neat way of defining relational compositions in geometric terms, not only showing their relationship to the projectionPlanetmathPlanetmath operationsMathworldPlanetmath that come with any cartesian product, but also suggesting natural directions for generalizing relational compositions beyond the 2-adic case, and even beyond relations that have any fixed arity, in effect, to the general case of formal languagesMathworldPlanetmath as generalized relations.

This way of looking at relational compositions is sometimes referred to as Tarski’s trick, on account of Alfred Tarski having put it to especially good use in his work (Ulam and Bednarek, 1977). It supplies the imagination with a geometric way of visualizing the relational composition of a pair of 2-adic relations, doing this by attaching concrete imagery to the basic set-theoretic operations, namely, intersectionsMathworldPlanetmath, projections, and a certain class of operations inverseMathworldPlanetmathPlanetmathPlanetmathPlanetmathPlanetmathPlanetmathPlanetmath to projections, here called tacit extensions (

See main entry ( for details.

4 Algebraic construction

The transition from a geometric picture of relation composition to an algebraic formulation is accomplished through the introduction of coordinatesPlanetmathPlanetmath, in other words, identifiable names for the objects that are related through the various forms of relations, 2-adic and 3-adic in the present case.

See main entry ( for details.

5 Matrix representation

We have it within our reach to pick up another way of representing 2-adic relations, namely, the representation as logical matricesMathworldPlanetmath, and also to grasp the analogyMathworldPlanetmath between relational composition and ordinary matrix multiplicationMathworldPlanetmath as it appears in linear algebra.

See main entry ( for details.

6 Graph-theoretic picture

There is another form of representation for 2-adic relations that is useful to keep in mind, especially for its ability to render the logic of many complex formulasMathworldPlanetmathPlanetmath almost instantly understandable to the mind’s eye. This is the representation in terms of bipartite graphsMathworldPlanetmath (, or bigraphs for short.

See main entry ( for details.

7 Relation reduction

See main entry ( for details.

8 References

  • Ulam, Stanislaw Marcin; and Bednarek, A.R. (1977), “On the Theory of Relational Structures and Schemata for Parallel Computation”. Reprinted, pp. 477–508 in Ulam (1990).

  • Ulam, Stanislaw Marcin (1990), Analogies Between Analogies : The Mathematical Reports of S.M. Ulam and His Los Alamos Collaborators, A.R. Bednarek and Françoise Ulam (eds.), University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Title relation composition
Canonical name RelationComposition
Date of creation 2013-10-24 16:58:43
Last modified on 2013-10-24 16:58:43
Owner Jon Awbrey (15246)
Last modified by Jon Awbrey (15246)
Numerical id 40
Author Jon Awbrey (15246)
Entry type Topic
Classification msc 68R01
Classification msc 68P15
Classification msc 08A02
Classification msc 05C65
Classification msc 05B30
Classification msc 05B20
Classification msc 03E20
Classification msc 03B10
Synonym composition of relations
Synonym relational composition
Synonym relative multiplication
Related topic RelationTheory
Related topic RelationConstruction
Related topic RelationReduction
Related topic TacitExtension
Related topic LogicalMatrix
Defines relation composition