commutator, device used in an electric generator to convert the alternating current produced in the generator into direct current before the current is sent into an external circuit; it is basically a rotary switching device synchronized with the frequency of the alternating current. Commutators are also used in electric motors to switch currents in order to maintain magnetic polarities necessary to keep the shafts of the motors turning.
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


Commutator identities are an important tool in group theory, . The expression ax denotes x−1a x.

  • x^y = x[x,y].
  • [y,x] = [x,y]^{-1}.,
  • [x y, z] = [x, z]^ycdot [y, z] and [x, y z] = [x, z]cdot [x, y]^z.
  • [x, y^{-1}] = [y, x]^{y^{-1}} and [x^{-1}, y] = [y, x]^{x^{-1}}.
  • [[x, y^{-1}], z]^ycdot[[y, z^{-1}], x]^zcdot[[z, x^{-1}], y]^x = 1 and [[x,y],z^x][[z,x],y^z][[y,z],x^y]=1.

The last identities are 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).

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. Similar identities hold for these conventions.

A wide range of identities are used that are true modulo certain subgroups. These can be particularly useful in the study of solvable groups and nilpotent groups. For instance, in any group second powers behave well

(xy)^2 = x^2y^2[y,x][[y,x],y].

If the derived subgroup is central, then

(xy)^n = x^n y^n [y,x]^{binom{n}{2}}.

Ring theory

The commutator of two elements a and b of a ring or an associative algebra is defined by

[a, b] = abba
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:

  • [A,BC] = [A,B]C + B[A,C] ,!
  • [AB,C] = A[B,C] + [A,C]B ,!
  • [A,BC] = [AB,C] + [CA,B] ,!
  • [ABC,D] = AB[C,D] + A[B,D]C + [A,D]BC ,!
  • [[[A,B], C], D] + [[[B,C], D], A] + [[[C, D], A], B] + [[[D, A], B], C] = [[A, C], [B, D]] ,!

If A is a fixed element of a ring scriptstylemathfrak{R} , 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 scriptstylemathfrak{R} .

The following identity involving commutators, a special case of the Baker-Campbell-Hausdorff formula, is also useful:

  • e^{A}Be^{-A}=B+[A,B]+frac{1}{2!}[A,[A,B]]+frac{1}{3!}[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]_{gr} := omegaeta - (-1)^{deg omega deg eta} etaomega


Especially if one deals with multiple commutators, another notation turns out to be useful involving the adjoint representation:

operatorname{ad} (x)(y) = [x, y] .

Then {rm ad} (x) is a derivation and {rm ad} is linear, i.e., {rm ad} (x+y)={rm ad} (x)+{rm ad} (y) and {rm ad} (lambda x)=lambda,operatorname{ad} (x), and a Lie algebra homomorphism, i.e, {rm ad} ([x, y])=[{rm ad} (x), {rm ad}(y)], but it is not always an algebra homomorphism, i.e the identity operatorname{ad}(xy) = operatorname{ad}(x)operatorname{ad}(y) does not hold in general.


  • {rm ad} (x){rm ad} (x)(y) = [x,[x,y],]
  • {rm ad} (x){rm ad} (a+b)(y) = [x,[a+b,y],]

See also


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