In mathematics, the associative property is a property of some binary operations, which means that rearranging the parentheses in an expression will not change the result. In propositional logic, associativity is a valid rule of replacement for expressions in logical proofs.
Within an expression containing two or more occurrences in a row of the same associative operator, the order in which the operations are performed does not matter as long as the sequence of the operands is not changed. That is (after rewriting the expression with parentheses and in infix notation if necessary), rearranging the parentheses in such an expression will not change its value. Consider the following equations:
Even though the parentheses were rearranged on each line, the values of the expressions were not altered. Since this holds true when performing addition and multiplication on any real numbers, it can be said that "addition and multiplication of real numbers are associative operations".
Associativity is not the same as commutativity, which addresses whether the order of two operands affects the result. For example, the order does not matter in the multiplication of real numbers, that is, a × b = b × a, so we say that the multiplication of real numbers is a commutative operation. However, operations such as function composition and matrix multiplication are associative, but (generally) not commutative.
However, many important and interesting operations are non-associative; some examples include subtraction, exponentiation, and the vector cross product. In contrast to the theoretical properties of real numbers, the addition of floating point numbers in computer science is not associative, and the choice of how to associate an expression can have a significant effect on rounding error.
The associative law can also be expressed in functional notation thus: f(f(x, y), z) = f(x, f(y, z)).
If a binary operation is associative, repeated application of the operation produces the same result regardless of how valid pairs of parentheses are inserted in the expression. This is called the generalized associative law. For instance, a product of four elements may be written, without changing the order of the factors, in five possible ways:
If the product operation is associative, the generalized associative law says that all these formulas will yield the same result. So unless the formula with omitted parentheses already has a different meaning (see below), the parentheses can be considered unnecessary and "the" product can be written unambiguously as
As the number of elements increases, the number of possible ways to insert parentheses grows quickly, but they remain unnecessary for disambiguation.
In standard truth-functional propositional logic, association, or associativity are two valid rules of replacement. The rules allow one to move parentheses in logical expressions in logical proofs. The rules (using logical connectives notation) are:
Associativity is a property of some logical connectives of truth-functional propositional logic. The following logical equivalences demonstrate that associativity is a property of particular connectives. The following are truth-functional tautologies.
Joint denial is an example of a truth functional connective that is not associative.
For such an operation the order of evaluation does matter. For example:
Also although addition is associative for finite sums, it is not associative inside infinite sums (series). For example,
Some non-associative operations are fundamental in mathematics. They appear often as the multiplication in structures called non-associative algebras, which have also an addition and a scalar multiplication. Examples are the octonions and Lie algebras. In Lie algebras, the multiplication satisfies Jacobi identity instead of the associative law; this allows abstracting the algebraic nature of infinitesimal transformations.
In mathematics, addition and multiplication of real numbers is associative. By contrast, in computer science, the addition and multiplication of floating point numbers is not associative, as rounding errors are introduced when dissimilar-sized values are joined together.
To illustrate this, consider a floating point representation with a 4-bit mantissa:
(1.0002×20 + 1.0002×20) + 1.0002×24 = 1.0002×21 + 1.0002×24 = 1.0012×24
1.0002×20 + (1.0002×20 + 1.0002×24) = 1.0002×20 + 1.0002×24 = 1.0002×24
Even though most computers compute with a 24 or 53 bits of mantissa, this is an important source of rounding error, and approaches such as the Kahan summation algorithm are ways to minimise the errors. It can be especially problematic in parallel computing.
A left-associative operation is a non-associative operation that is conventionally evaluated from left to right, i.e.,
while a right-associative operation is conventionally evaluated from right to left:
Both left-associative and right-associative operations occur. Left-associative operations include the following:
Non-associative operations for which no conventional evaluation order is defined include the following.
William Rowan Hamilton seems to have coined the term "associative property" around 1844, a time when he was contemplating the non-associative algebra of the Octonions he had learned about from John T. Graves