A Summer 2015 Mathematics A To Z: n-tuple


We use numbers to represent things we want to think about. Sometimes the numbers represent real-world things: the area of our backyard, the number of pets we have, the time until we have to go back to work. Sometimes the numbers mean something more abstract: an index of all the stuff we’re tracking, or how its importance compares to other things we worry about.

Often we’ll want to group together several numbers. Each of these numbers may measure a different kind of thing, but we want to keep straight what kind of thing it is. For example, we might want to keep track of how many people are in each house on the block. The houses have an obvious index number — the street number — and the number of people in each house is just what it says. So instead of just keeping track of, say, “32” and “34” and “36”, and “3” and “2” and “3”, we would keep track of pairs: “32, 3”, and “34, 2”, and “36, 3”. These are called ordered pairs.

They’re not called ordered because the numbers are in order. They’re called ordered because the order in which the numbers are recorded contains information about what the numbers mean. In this case, the first number is the street address, and the second number is the count of people in the house, and woe to our data set if we get that mixed up.

And there’s no reason the ordering has to stop at pairs of numbers. You can have ordered triplets of numbers — (32, 3, 2), say, giving the house number, the number of people in the house, and the number of bathrooms. Or you can have ordered quadruplets — (32, 3, 2, 6), say, house number, number of people, bathroom count, room count. And so on.

An n-tuple is an ordered set of some collection of numbers. How many? We don’t care, or we don’t care to say right now. There are two popular ways to pronounce it. One is to say it the way you say “multiple” only with the first syllable changed to “enn”. Others say it about the same, but with a long u vowel, so, “enn-too-pull”. I believe everyone worries that everyone else says it the other way and that they sound like they’re the weird ones.

You might care to specify what your n is for your n-tuple. In that case you can plug in a value for that n right in the symbol: a 3-tuple is an ordered triplet. A 4-tuple is that ordered quadruplet. A 26-tuple seems like rather a lot but I’ll trust that you know what you’re trying to study. A 1-tuple is just a number. We might use that if we’re trying to make our notation consistent with something else in the discussion.

If you’re familiar with vectors you might ask: so, an n-tuple is just a vector? It’s not quite. A vector is an n-tuple, but in the same way a square is a rectangle. It has to meet some extra requirements. To be a vector we have to be able to add corresponding numbers together and get something meaningful out of it. The ordered pair (32, 3) representing “32 blocks north and 3 blocks east” can be a vector. (32, 3) plus (34, 2) can give us us (66, 5). This makes sense because we can say, “32 blocks north, 3 blocks east, 34 more blocks north, 2 more blocks east gives us 66 blocks north, 5 blocks east.” At least it makes sense if we don’t run out of city. But to add together (32, 3) plus (34, 2) meaning “house number 32 with 3 people plus house number 34 with 2 people gives us house number 66 with 5 people”? That’s not good, whatever town you’re in.

I think the commonest use of n-tuples is to talk about vectors, though. Vectors are such useful things.