Infimum and supremum

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A set of real numbers (hollow and filled circles), a subset of (filled circles), and the infimum of Note that for totally ordered finite sets, the infimum and the minimum are equal.
A set of real numbers (blue circles), a set of upper bounds of (red diamond and circles), and the smallest such upper bound, that is, the supremum of (red diamond).

In mathematics, the infimum (abbreviated inf; plural infima) of a subset of a partially ordered set is the greatest element in that is less than or equal to each element of if such an element exists.[1] If the infimum of exists, it is unique, and if b is a lower bound of , then b is less than or equal to the infimum of . Consequently, the term greatest lower bound (abbreviated as GLB) is also commonly used.[1] The supremum (abbreviated sup; plural suprema) of a subset of a partially ordered set is the least element in that is greater than or equal to each element of if such an element exists.[1] If the supremum of exists, it is unique, and if b is an upper bound of , then the supremum of is less than or equal to b. Consequently, the supremum is also referred to as the least upper bound (or LUB).[1]

The infimum is in a precise sense dual to the concept of a supremum. Infima and suprema of real numbers are common special cases that are important in analysis, and especially in Lebesgue integration. However, the general definitions remain valid in the more abstract setting of order theory where arbitrary partially ordered sets are considered.

The concepts of infimum and supremum are close to minimum and maximum, but are more useful in analysis because they better characterize special sets which may have no minimum or maximum. For instance, the set of positive real numbers (not including ) does not have a minimum, because any given element of could simply be divided in half resulting in a smaller number that is still in There is, however, exactly one infimum of the positive real numbers relative to the real numbers: which is smaller than all the positive real numbers and greater than any other real number which could be used as a lower bound. An infimum of a set is always and only defined relative to a superset of the set in question. For example, there is no infimum of the positive real numbers inside the positive real numbers (as their own superset), nor any infimum of the positive real numbers inside the complex numbers with positive real part.

Formal definition[edit]

supremum = least upper bound

A lower bound of a subset of a partially ordered set is an element of such that

  • for all

A lower bound of is called an infimum (or greatest lower bound, or meet) of if

  • for all lower bounds of in ( is larger than any other lower bound).

Similarly, an upper bound of a subset of a partially ordered set is an element of such that

  • for all

An upper bound of is called a supremum (or least upper bound, or join) of if

  • for all upper bounds of in ( is less than any other upper bound).

Existence and uniqueness[edit]

Infima and suprema do not necessarily exist. Existence of an infimum of a subset of can fail if has no lower bound at all, or if the set of lower bounds does not contain a greatest element. (An example of this is the subset of . It has upper bounds, such as 1.5, but no supremum in .)

Consequently, partially ordered sets for which certain infima are known to exist become especially interesting. For instance, a lattice is a partially ordered set in which all nonempty finite subsets have both a supremum and an infimum, and a complete lattice is a partially ordered set in which all subsets have both a supremum and an infimum. More information on the various classes of partially ordered sets that arise from such considerations are found in the article on completeness properties.

If the supremum of a subset exists, it is unique. If contains a greatest element, then that element is the supremum; otherwise, the supremum does not belong to (or does not exist). Likewise, if the infimum exists, it is unique. If contains a least element, then that element is the infimum; otherwise, the infimum does not belong to (or does not exist).

Relation to maximum and minimum elements[edit]

The infimum of a subset of a partially ordered set assuming it exists, does not necessarily belong to If it does, it is a minimum or least element of Similarly, if the supremum of belongs to it is a maximum or greatest element of

For example, consider the set of negative real numbers (excluding zero). This set has no greatest element, since for every element of the set, there is another, larger, element. For instance, for any negative real number there is another negative real number which is greater. On the other hand, every real number greater than or equal to zero is certainly an upper bound on this set. Hence, is the least upper bound of the negative reals, so the supremum is 0. This set has a supremum but no greatest element.

However, the definition of maximal and minimal elements is more general. In particular, a set can have many maximal and minimal elements, whereas infima and suprema are unique.

Whereas maxima and minima must be members of the subset that is under consideration, the infimum and supremum of a subset need not be members of that subset themselves.

Minimal upper bounds[edit]

Finally, a partially ordered set may have many minimal upper bounds without having a least upper bound. Minimal upper bounds are those upper bounds for which there is no strictly smaller element that also is an upper bound. This does not say that each minimal upper bound is smaller than all other upper bounds, it merely is not greater. The distinction between "minimal" and "least" is only possible when the given order is not a total one. In a totally ordered set, like the real numbers, the concepts are the same.

As an example, let be the set of all finite subsets of natural numbers and consider the partially ordered set obtained by taking all sets from together with the set of integers and the set of positive real numbers ordered by subset inclusion as above. Then clearly both and are greater than all finite sets of natural numbers. Yet, neither is smaller than nor is the converse true: both sets are minimal upper bounds but none is a supremum.

Least-upper-bound property[edit]

The least-upper-bound property is an example of the aforementioned completeness properties which is typical for the set of real numbers. This property is sometimes called Dedekind completeness.

If an ordered set has the property that every nonempty subset of having an upper bound also has a least upper bound, then is said to have the least-upper-bound property. As noted above, the set of all real numbers has the least-upper-bound property. Similarly, the set of integers has the least-upper-bound property; if is a nonempty subset of and there is some number such that every element of is less than or equal to then there is a least upper bound for an integer that is an upper bound for and is less than or equal to every other upper bound for A well-ordered set also has the least-upper-bound property, and the empty subset has also a least upper bound: the minimum of the whole set.

An example of a set that lacks the least-upper-bound property is the set of rational numbers. Let be the set of all rational numbers such that Then has an upper bound ( for example, or ) but no least upper bound in : If we suppose is the least upper bound, a contradiction is immediately deduced because between any two reals and (including and ) there exists some rational which itself would have to be the least upper bound (if ) or a member of greater than (if ). Another example is the hyperreals; there is no least upper bound of the set of positive infinitesimals.

There is a corresponding greatest-lower-bound property; an ordered set possesses the greatest-lower-bound property if and only if it also possesses the least-upper-bound property; the least-upper-bound of the set of lower bounds of a set is the greatest-lower-bound, and the greatest-lower-bound of the set of upper bounds of a set is the least-upper-bound of the set.

If in a partially ordered set every bounded subset has a supremum, this applies also, for any set in the function space containing all functions from to where if and only if for all For example, it applies for real functions, and, since these can be considered special cases of functions, for real -tuples and sequences of real numbers.

The least-upper-bound property is an indicator of the suprema.

Infima and suprema of real numbers[edit]

In analysis, infima and suprema of subsets of the real numbers are particularly important. For instance, the negative real numbers do not have a greatest element, and their supremum is (which is not a negative real number).[1] The completeness of the real numbers implies (and is equivalent to) that any bounded nonempty subset of the real numbers has an infimum and a supremum. If is not bounded below, one often formally writes If is empty, one writes


If is any set of real numbers then if and only if and otherwise [2]

If are sets of real numbers then (unless ) and

Identifying infima and suprema

If the infimum of exists (that is, is a real number) and if is any real number then if and only if is a lower bound and for every there is an with Similarly, if is a real number and if is any real number then if and only if is an upper bound and if for every there is an with

Relation to limits of sequences

If is any non-empty set of real numbers then there always exists a non-decreasing sequence in such that Similarly, there will exist a (possibly different) non-increasing sequence in such that

Expressing the infimum and supremum as a limit of a such a sequence allows theorems from various branches of mathematics to be applied. Consider for example the well-known fact from topology that if is a continuous function and is a sequence of points in its domain that converges to a point then necessarily converges to It implies that if is a real number (where all are in ) and if is a continuous function whose domain contains and then

which (for instance) guarantees[note 1] that is an adherent point of the set If in addition to what has been assumed, the continuous function is also an increasing or non-decreasing function, then it is even possible to conclude that This may be applied, for instance, to conclude that whenever is a real (or complex) valued function with domain whose sup norm is finite, then for every non-negative real number
since the map defined by is a continuous non-decreasing function whose domain always contains and

Although this discussion focused on similar conclusions can be reached for with appropriate changes (such as requiring that be non-increasing rather than non-decreasing). Other norms defined in terms of or include the weak space norms (for ), the norm on Lebesgue space and operator norms. Monotone sequences in that converge to (or to ) can also be used to help prove many of the formula given below, since addition and multiplication of real numbers are continuous operations.

Arithmetic operations on sets[edit]

The following formulas depend on a notation that conveniently generalizes arithmetic operations on sets. Throughout, are sets of real numbers.

Sum of sets

The Minkowski sum of two sets and of real numbers is the set

consisting of all possible arithmetic sums of pairs of numbers, one from each set. The infimum and supremum of the Minkowski sum satisfies

Product of sets

The multiplication of two sets and of real numbers is defined similarly to their Minkowski sum:

If and are nonempty sets of positive real numbers then and similarly for suprema [3]

Scalar product of a set

The product of a real number and a set of real numbers is the set

If then

while if then
Using and the notation it follows that

Multiplicative inverse of a set

For any set that does not contain let

If is non-empty then

where this equation also holds when if the definition is used.[note 2] This equality may alternatively be written as Moreover, if and only if where if[note 2] then


If one denotes by the partially-ordered set with the opposite order relation; that is, for all declare:

then infimum of a subset in equals the supremum of in and vice versa.

For subsets of the real numbers, another kind of duality holds: where



  • The infimum of the set of numbers is The number is a lower bound, but not the greatest lower bound, and hence not the infimum.
  • More generally, if a set has a smallest element, then the smallest element is the infimum for the set. In this case, it is also called the minimum of the set.
  • If is a decreasing sequence with limit then


  • The supremum of the set of numbers is The number is an upper bound, but it is not the least upper bound, and hence is not the supremum.

In the last example, the supremum of a set of rationals is irrational, which means that the rationals are incomplete.

One basic property of the supremum is

for any functionals and

The supremum of a subset of where denotes "divides", is the lowest common multiple of the elements of

The supremum of a set containing subsets of some set is the union of the subsets when considering the partially ordered set , where is the power set of and is subset.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Since is a sequence in that converges to this guarantees that belongs to the closure of
  2. ^ a b The definition is commonly used with the extended real numbers; in fact, with this definition the equality will also hold for any non-empty subset However, the notation is usually left undefined, which is why the equality is given only for when


  1. ^ a b c d e Rudin, Walter (1976). ""Chapter 1 The Real and Complex Number Systems"". Principles of Mathematical Analysis (print) (3rd ed.). McGraw-Hill. p. 4. ISBN 0-07-054235-X.
  2. ^ Rockafellar & Wets 2009, pp. 1–2.
  3. ^ Zakon, Elias (2004). Mathematical Analysis I. Trillia Group. pp. 39–42.

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