# Ask Uncle Colin: An Antisymmetric Relation

Dear Uncle Colin,

Can you give me an example of an antisymmetric relation?

- Equivalence Sodding Classes, Heaping Endless Rage

Hi, ESCHER, and thanks for your message!

I struggled with the notation for relations for a long while: I didn’t realise that the R in $a\text{ R }b$ stood for something like = or $\subset$.

So a (binary) relation is a way of describing two things and how they relate to each other (hence the name). The symbol in the middle, R, can (usually) be replaced by a clause (e.g. “is equal to” or “is a subset of”) and you’re only allowed to write $a\text{ R }b$ if the resulting sentence is true.

Two is not equal to three, so you may not write 2 = 3.

The integers are a subset of the complex numbers, so you may write $\Z \subset \C$.

Equivalence classes call for *symmetric* relations – if $a\text{ R }b$ then $b\text{ R }a$ – that is, if $a$ and $b$ are related in one way, $b$ and $a$ are related the same way. The relation = is symmetric (if $a$ is the same as $b$ then $b$ is the same as $a$), but $\subset$ isn’t ($A \subset B$ does not imply $B \subset A$.)

An *antisymmetric* relation is one where:

- if $a$ and $b$ are different
- and you can write $a\text{ R }b$
- then you
*cannot*write $b \text{ R }a$.

That is, if $a$ is related to a different $b$ in some way, then $b$ is *definitely not* related to $a$ the same way.

Some examples of an antisymmetric relation:

- $\ge$ on the real numbers
- $\subset$ on any set of sets
- Parenthood (if $a$ is a parent of $b$, then $b$ is not a parent of $a$)
- $a$ is divisible by $b$ on the integers
- the empty relation

There are – of course – infinitely many others, but these are ones that I feel give a taste of what the term means.

I hope that helps!

- Uncle Colin