Parity of a permutation

The sign, signature, or signum of a permutation σ is denoted sgn(σ) and defined as +1 if σ is even and −1 if σ is odd. The signature defines the alternating character of the symmetric group Sn. Another notation for the sign of a permutation is given by the more general Levi-Civita symbol (εσ), which is defined for all maps from X to X, and has value zero for non-bijective maps.

Alternatively, the sign of a permutation σ can be defined from its decomposition into the product of transpositions as

where m is the number of transpositions in the decomposition. Although such a decomposition is not unique, the parity of the number of transpositions in all decompositions is the same, implying that the sign of a permutation is well-defined.[1]

There are many other ways of writing σ as a composition of transpositions, for instance

but it is impossible to write it as a product of an even number of transpositions.

The identity permutation is an even permutation.[1] An even permutation can be obtained as the composition of an even number and only an even number of exchanges (called transpositions) of two elements, while an odd permutation can be obtained by (only) an odd number of transpositions.

The following rules follow directly from the corresponding rules about addition of integers:[1]

that assigns to every permutation its signature is a group homomorphism.[2]

Furthermore, we see that the even permutations form a subgroup of Sn.[1] This is the alternating group on n letters, denoted by An.[3] It is the kernel of the homomorphism sgn.[4] The odd permutations cannot form a subgroup, since the composite of two odd permutations is even, but they form a coset of An (in Sn).[5]

If n > 1, then there are just as many even permutations in Sn as there are odd ones;[3] consequently, An contains n!/2 permutations. (The reason is that if σ is even then (1  2)σ is odd, and if σ is odd then (1  2)σ is even, and these two maps are inverse to each other.)[3]

A cycle is even if and only if its length is odd. This follows from formulas like

In practice, in order to determine whether a given permutation is even or odd, one writes the permutation as a product of disjoint cycles. The permutation is odd if and only if this factorization contains an odd number of even-length cycles.

Another method for determining whether a given permutation is even or odd is to construct the corresponding permutation matrix and compute its determinant. The value of the determinant is the same as the parity of the permutation.

Every permutation of odd order must be even. The permutation (1 2)(3 4) in A4 shows that the converse is not true in general.

This section presents proofs that the parity of a permutation σ can be defined in two equivalent ways:

Let σ be a permutation on a ranked domain S. Every permutation can be produced by a sequence of transpositions (2-element exchanges). Let the following be one such decomposition

We want to show that the parity of k is equal to the parity of the number of inversions of σ.

Every transposition can be written as a product of an odd number of transpositions of adjacent elements, e.g.

If we decompose in this way each of the transpositions T1 ... Tk above, we get the new decomposition:

where all of the A1...Am are adjacent. Also, the parity of m is the same as that of k.

This is a fact: for all permutation τ and adjacent transposition a, either has one less or one more inversion than τ. In other words, the parity of the number of inversions of a permutation is switched when composed with an adjacent transposition.

Therefore, the parity of the number of inversions of σ is precisely the parity of m, which is also the parity of k. This is what we set out to prove.

A third approach uses the presentation of the group Sn in terms of generators τ1, ..., τn−1 and relations

Recall that a pair x, y such that x < y and σ(x) > σ(y) is called an inversion. We want to show that the count of inversions has the same parity as the count of 2-element swaps. To do that, we can show that every swap changes the parity of the count of inversions, no matter which two elements are being swapped and what permutation has already been applied. Suppose we want to swap the ith and the jth element. Clearly, inversions formed by i or j with an element outside of [i, j] will not be affected. For the n = ji − 1 elements within the interval (i, j), assume vi of them form inversions with i and vj of them form inversions with j. If i and j are swapped, those vi inversions with i are gone, but nvi inversions are formed. The count of inversions i gained is thus n − 2vi, which has the same parity as n.

Similarly, the count of inversions j gained also has the same parity as n. Therefore, the count of inversions gained by both combined has the same parity as 2n or 0. Now if we count the inversions gained (or lost) by swapping the ith and the jth element, we can see that this swap changes the parity of the count of inversions, since we also add (or subtract) 1 to the number of inversions gained (or lost) for the pair (i,j).

Consider the elements that are sandwiched by the two elements of a transposition. Each one lies above completely above, completely below or between the two transposition elements.

Let σ = (i1 i2 ... ir+1)(j1 j2 ... js+1)...(1 2 ... u+1) be the unique decomposition of σ into disjoint cycles, which can be composed in any order because they commute. A cycle (a b c ... x y z) involving k + 1 points can always be obtained by composing k transpositions (2-cycles):

so call k the size of the cycle, and observe that, under this definition, transpositions are cycles of size 1. From a decomposition into m disjoint cycles we can obtain a decomposition of σ into k1 + k2 + ... + km transpositions, where ki is the size of the ith cycle. The number N(σ) = k1 + k2 + ... + km is called the discriminant of σ, and can also be computed as

Suppose a transposition (a b) is applied after a permutation σ. When a and b are in different cycles of σ then

In either case, it can be seen that N((a b)σ) = N(σ) ± 1, so the parity of N((a b)σ) will be different from the parity of N(σ).

Parity can be generalized to Coxeter groups: one defines a length function ℓ(v), which depends on a choice of generators (for the symmetric group, adjacent transpositions), and then the function v ↦ (−1)ℓ(v) gives a generalized sign map.