Trichotomy (mathematics)

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In mathematics, the law of trichotomy states that every real number is either positive, negative, or zero.[1]

More generally, a binary relation R on a set X is trichotomous if for all x and y in X, exactly one of xRy, yRx and x = y holds. Writing R as <, this is stated in formal logic as:



  • On the set X = {a,b,c}, the relation R = { (a,b), (a,c), (b,c) } is transitive and trichotomous, and hence a strict total order.
  • On the same set, the cyclic relation R = { (a,b), (b,c), (c,a) } is trichotomous, but not transitive; it is even antitransitive.

Trichotomy on numbers[edit]

A law of trichotomy on some set X of numbers usually expresses that some tacitly given ordering relation on X is a trichotomous one. An example is the law "For arbitrary real numbers x and y, exactly one of x < y, y < x, or x = y applies"; some authors even fix y to be zero,[1] relying on the real number's additive linearly ordered group structure. The latter is a group equipped with a trichotomous order.

In classical logic, this axiom of trichotomy holds for ordinary comparison between real numbers and therefore also for comparisons between integers and between rational numbers.[clarification needed] The law does not hold in general in intuitionistic logic.[citation needed]

In Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory and Bernays set theory, the law of trichotomy holds between the cardinal numbers of well-orderable sets even without the axiom of choice. If the axiom of choice holds, then trichotomy holds between arbitrary cardinal numbers (because they are all well-orderable in that case).[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Trichotomy Law at MathWorld
  2. ^ Jerrold E. Marsden & Michael J. Hoffman (1993) Elementary Classical Analysis, page 27, W. H. Freeman and Company ISBN 0-7167-2105-8
  3. ^ H.S. Bear (1997) An Introduction to Mathematical Analysis, page 11, Academic Press ISBN 0-12-083940-7
  4. ^ Bernays, Paul (1991). Axiomatic Set Theory. Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-66637-9.