AskDefine | Define commutator

Dictionary Definition

commutator n : switch for reversing the direction of an electric current

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. an electrical switch, in a generator or motor, that periodically reverses the direction of an electric current
  2. (of a group) an element of the form ghg−1h−1 where g and h are elements of the group; it is equal to the group's identity if and only if g and h commute
  3. (of a ring) an element of the form ab-ba, where a and b are elements of the ring, it is identical to the ring's zero element if and only if a and b commute


*Swedish: kommutator *Hungarian: kommutátor*Swedish: kommutator

See also

Extensive Definition

In mathematics, the commutator gives an indication of the extent to which a certain binary operation fails to be commutative. There are different definitions used in group theory and ring theory.

Group theory

The commutator of two elements g and h of a group G is the element
[g, h] = g−1h−1gh
It is equal to the group's identity if and only if g and h commute (i.e. if and only if gh = hg). The subgroup of G generated by all commutators is called the derived group or the commutator subgroup of G. Note that one must consider the subgroup generated by the set of commutators because in general the set of commutators is not closed under the group operation. Commutators are used to define nilpotent and solvable groups.
N.B. The above definition of the commutator is used by group theorists. Many other mathematicians define the commutator as
[g, h] = ghg−1h−1


In the sequel the expression ax denotes the conjugated (by x) element x−1a x.
  • [y,x] = [x,y]^\,.
  • [[x, y^], z]^y\cdot[[y, z^], x]^z\cdot[[z, x^], y]^x = 1.
  • [x y, z] = [x, z]^y\cdot [y, z].
  • [x, y z] = [x, z]\cdot [x, y]^z.
The second identity is also known under the name Hall-Witt identity. It is a group-theoretic analogue of the Jacobi identity for the ring-theoretic commutator (see next section). The fourth identity follows from the first and third.
N.B. The above definition of the conjugate of a by x is used by group theorists. Many other mathematicians define the conjugate of a by x as xax−1. This is usually written ^x a.

Ring theory

The commutator of two elements a and b of a ring or an associative algebra is defined by
[a, b] = ab − ba
It is zero if and only if a and b commute. In linear algebra, if two endomorphisms of a space are represented by commuting matrices with respect to one basis, then they are so represented with respect to every basis. By using the commutator as a Lie bracket, every associative algebra can be turned into a Lie algebra. The commutator of two operators defined on a Hilbert space is an important concept in quantum mechanics since it measures how well the two observables described by the operators can be measured simultaneously. The uncertainty principle is ultimately a theorem about these commutators.


The commutator has the following properties:
Lie-algebra relations:
  • [A,A] = 0 \,\!
  • [A,B] = - [B,A] \,\!
  • [A,[B,C]] + [B,[C,A]] + [C,[A,B]] = 0 \,\!
The second relation is called anticommutativity, while the third is the Jacobi identity.
Additional relations:
If A is a fixed element of a ring \scriptstyle\mathfrak , the first additional relation can also be interpreted as a Leibniz rule for the map \scriptstyle D_A: R \rightarrow R given by \scriptstyle B \mapsto [A,B]. In other words: the map D_A defines a derivation on the ring \scriptstyle\mathfrak .
The following identity involving commutators, a special case of the Baker-Campbell-Hausdorff formula, is also useful:
  • e^Be^=B+[A,B]+\frac[A,[A,B]]+\frac[A,[A,[A,B]]]+...

Graded Rings and Algebras

When dealing with graded algebras, the commutator is usually replaced by the graded commutator, defined in homogeneous components as \ [\omega,\eta]_ := \omega\eta - (-1)^ \eta\omega


Especially if one deals with multiple commutators, another notation turns out to be useful involving the adjoint representation:
\operatorname (x)(y) = [x, y] .
Then (x) is a derivation and is linear, i.e., (x+y)= (x)+ (y) and (\lambda x)=\lambda\,\operatorname (x), and a Lie algebra homomorphism, i.e, ([x, y])=[ (x), (y)], but it is not always an algebra homomorphism, i.e the identity \operatorname(xy) = \operatorname(x)\operatorname(y) does not hold in general.
  • (x) (x)(y) = [x,[x,y]\,]
  • (x) (a+b)(y) = [x,[a+b,y]\,]


  • Introduction to Quantum Mechanics
  • Introductory Quantum Mechanics
commutator in Czech: Komutátor (algebra)
commutator in Danish: Kommutator (matematik)
commutator in German: Kommutator (Mathematik)
commutator in Italian: Commutatore
commutator in Hebrew: קומוטטור
commutator in Dutch: Commutator (wiskunde)
commutator in Polish: Komutator (operatorów)
commutator in Portuguese: Comutador (matemática)
commutator in Finnish: Kommutaattori
commutator in Ukrainian: Комутатор (математика)
commutator in Chinese: 交換子
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