reflexive transitive closure

Transitive closure

In mathematics, the transitive closure of a binary relation R on a set X is the smallest transitive relation on X that contains R.

For example, if X is a set of airports and xRy means "there is a direct flight from airport x to airport y", then the transitive closure of R is the relation "it is possible to fly from x to y in one or more flights." Or, if X is the set of humans (alive or dead) and R is the relation 'parent of', then the transitive closure of R is the relation "x is an ancestor of y".

Existence and description

For any relation R, the transitive closure of R always exists. To see this, note that the intersection of any family of transitive relations is again transitive. Furthermore, there exists at least one transitive relation containing R, namely the trivial one: X × X. The transitive closure of R is then given by the intersection of all transitive relations containing R.

We can describe the transitive closure of R in more concrete terms as follows. Define a relation T on X by saying xTy iff there exists a finite sequence of elements (xi) such that x = x0 and

x0Rx1, x1Rx2, …, xn−1Rxn, and xnRy
Formally, one writes
T = bigcup_{i in omega} R^i
It is easy to check that the relation T is transitive and contains R. Furthermore, any transitive relation containing R must also contain T, so T is the transitive closure of R.

Demonstration that T is the smallest transitive relation containing R

Let A be any set of elements.

Supposition: existsGA transitive relationship left / right . RAsubseteqGA wedge TAnotsubseteqGA. So, exists(a,b)notinGAwedge(a,b)inTA. So, that particular (a,b)notinRA.

Now, by definition of T, we know that existsnin mathbb{N} left / right . (a,b)inRnA. Then, foralliin mathbb{N}, i<n Rightarrow eiinA. So, there is a path from a to b like this: aRAe1RA...RAe(n-1)RAb.

But, by transitivity of GA on RA, foralliin mathbb{N}, i<n Rightarrow (a,ei)inGA, so (a,e(n-1))inGA wedge (e(n-1),b)inGA, so by transitivity of GA, we get (a,b)inGA. A Contradiction of (a,b)notinGA.

Therefore, forall(a,b)inAtimesA, (a,b)inTA Rightarrow (a,b)inGA. This means that TsubseteqG, for any transitive G containing R. So, T is the smallest transitive relationship containing R.


If R is transitive, then R = T.


Note that the union of two transitive relations need not be transitive. In order to preserve transitivity, one must take the transitive closure. This occurs, for example, when taking the union of two equivalence relations or two preorders. In order to obtain a new equivalence relation or preorder one must take the transitive closure (reflexivity and symmetry—in the case of equivalence relations—are automatic).

The transitive closure of a directed acyclic graph or DAG is the reachability relation of the DAG and a strict partial order.

Graph Theory

In computer science the concept of transitive closure can be thought of as constructing a data structure that makes it possible to answer reachability questions. That is, can one get from node a to node d in one or more hops? A binary relation tells you only that node a is connected to node b, and that node b is connected to node c, etc. After the transitive closure is constructed, as depicted in the following figure, in an O(1) operation one may determine that node d is reachable from node a. The data structure is typically stored as a matrix, so if matrix[1][4] = 1, then it is the case that node 1 can reach node 4 through one or more hops.

Relationship to complexity

In computational complexity theory, the complexity class NL corresponds precisely to the set of logical sentences expressible using first-order logic together with transitive closure. This is because the transitive closure property has a close relationship with the NL-complete problem STCON for finding directed paths in a graph. Similarly, the class L is first-order logic with the commutative, transitive closure. When transitive closure is added to second-order logic instead, we obtain PSPACE.

Related concepts

  • The transitive reduction of a relation R is the smallest relation having the transitive closure of R as its transitive closure. In general, it is not unique.


Efficient algorithms for computing the transitive closure of a graph can be found here The simplest technique is probably the Floyd-Warshall algorithm.


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