Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I am a little confused about the basic definition of inclusion.

I understand that, for example, $\{4\}\subset\{4\}$.

I also understand that $4\in\{4\}$, and that it is false to say that $\{4\}\in\{4\}$.

However, is it possible to say that $4\subset\{4\}$?

share|cite|improve this question
$4=\lbrace{0,1,2,3\rbrace}$ – 91500 Jan 10 '14 at 15:10
up vote 4 down vote accepted

First of all, sets can be elements of other sets too. For example if $X$ is a set then $\mathcal P(X)$ is the power set of $X$, and it is a set whose elements are all sets. But now that's out of the way, let us focus on the question whether or not $4\subseteq\{4\}$ makes sense.

It is possible if you interpret $4$ as a set. In naive set theory we often work under assumptions closer to type theory. There are real numbers, and there are vectors, and functions, and there are sets and there are other sort of type of mathematical objects.

In modern set theory we often work under the assumption that everything is a set. We construct surrogate sets to interpret other concepts such as the integers, or the real numbers, as sets.

For example, one of the mainstream ways to interpret the ordered pair $\langle x,y\rangle$ is by considering the set $\{\{x\},\{x,y\}\}$. Even though ordered pairs are "not sets", we can represent them using sets.

Similarly for integers, we can represent them as sets too. Often we choose the following encoding, $0=\varnothing$ and $n+1=n\cup\{n\}=\{0,\ldots,n\}$. In that case $4=\{0,1,2,3\}$. Clearly under this interpretation $4\nsubseteq\{4\}$. But under this interpretation, $0\subseteq\{0\}=1$.

share|cite|improve this answer
So Asaf, under that interpretation of integers as sets it is possible to say that 3 ⊂ {4}? – Ken McGill Jan 10 '14 at 15:19
@Ken: Recall that $A\subseteq B$ if and only if every element of $A$ is an element of $B$. The set $\{4\}$ has one element, and $3$ has three elements (and $4$ has four). So it's fairly easy to see that the answer is negative. – Asaf Karagila Jan 10 '14 at 15:20
But (to continue the investigation) $3\subset 4$, since $\{0,1,2\}\subseteq\{0,1,2,3\}$. – rschwieb Jan 10 '14 at 15:21

Technically it depends on the definition of 4 and the axioms of set theory you are using. With the standard definitions it is false. (Note though that $4 \subset \{4\}$ is a valid statement)

share|cite|improve this answer
What do you mean by "valid statement"? "Valid"where and how? – DonAntonio Jan 10 '14 at 15:13
@DonAntonio: I don't think "valid" is a good word to use here (because "logically valid" is in use as a technical term meaning "will always be true", so it is confusing). What dani_s means is that "$4\subset \{4\}$" is a well-formed claim when we're working in a world where everything is sets. In ordinary everyday mathematics where we stick to an informal type system, however, $4\subset \{4\}$ is not a useful statement. – Henning Makholm Jan 10 '14 at 15:15
Exactly, that's what I meant to say :) – dani_s Jan 10 '14 at 15:17
Thanks @HenningMakholm . I thought it could be something like that dani_s meant. – DonAntonio Jan 10 '14 at 15:21

There are two symbols, here, and I think you may be getting them confused. I would suggest to not use the word "inclusion" (at least, not all the time) because that a different meaning in English than in math.

The $\in$ symbol is used to designate if something is inside of a set. That is, $4\in\{4\}$, and $\{4\}\in\{\{4\}\}$, but $\{4\}\not\in\{4\}$.

The $\subset$ symbol is used to show whether the elements of one set are inside another set. That is, if $A \subset B$, then $a\in B$ for every $a \in A$. Another way of looking at it: $\subset$ always has a set on both sides.

share|cite|improve this answer

$\;4\;$ is an element of the set $\;\{4\}\;$, so the symbol $\;\subset\;$ doesn't fit it. You need the internationally accepted symbol of curly parentheses {} or any other accepted notation in order to make clear it is a set.

For example, if $\;X = \{ 1,\{1\}\}\;$ , then we both have $\;1\in X\,,\,\{1\}\in X\;$ , and we also have $\;\{1\}\subset X\,,\,\{\{1\}\}\subset X\;$

share|cite|improve this answer

No, because $4$ is not a set, but an element.

share|cite|improve this answer
In set theory, "elements" aren't primitives, they are just other sets that have the membership relation with another set. In other words, one could say that sets and their elements are on equal footing. And very concretely, $4$ is built up as a set in elementary set theory, so this doesn't really get at the heart of the matter. – rschwieb Jan 10 '14 at 15:18
Hmmm...@rschwieb : under the usual, basic and most simple rules of set theory I think Alex's answer is correct, though perhaps not thorough (but then, why should it be thorough?!) The added explanations, as in Asaf's or dani_s's, are in place but, perhaps, for a beginner could be too much to swallow in a first reading. – DonAntonio Jan 10 '14 at 15:25
@DonAntonio If he meant it (and edited it) to be "$4$ is not a subset of $\{4\}$, but it is an element of $\{4\}$" then I would agree. But I think flatly declaring that a particular symbol "is not a set, but is an element" is planting a misconception. In basic set theory, there isn't such a thing as an element that isn't a set. – rschwieb Jan 10 '14 at 15:28
And by all means, someone please let me know if that edit occurs :) – rschwieb Jan 10 '14 at 15:34

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.