There are traditionally 8 axioms to check whether a set $V$ together with a field $F$ constitute a vector space. A common list of axioms can be found here.

Missing from the list, however, is a condition that \begin{equation} a\mathbf{v}=\mathbf{v}a \end{equation} which one would hope holds for all $a \in F$ and $\mathbf{v} \in V$.

It seems like this condition is omitted because it follows from the other axioms. But in the abstract sense, how can one be ensured that a set $V$ and field $F$, together with the usual 8 vector space axioms, ensure that $a\mathbf{v}=\mathbf{v}a$ for all $a \in F$ and $\mathbf{v} \in V$?

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    $\begingroup$ In a vector space over a field we talk about operation $$\cdot:k\times V \rightarrow V.$$ So abstractly $\mathbf{v}a$ doesn't have any seance unless it is defined $\endgroup$
    – user195546
    Mar 26, 2015 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ What is $k$? Are you using that to denote the field? $\endgroup$ Mar 26, 2015 at 7:36
  • $\begingroup$ yes, I meant the field. $\endgroup$
    – user195546
    Mar 26, 2015 at 7:38
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    $\begingroup$ In German mathematics, what we call a field is more literally a body, which is Körper (capitalized, since Germans capitalize all nouns). The prevalence of $k$ to represent a field in abstract algebra speaks to how important the contributions made by German mathematicians have been. $\endgroup$
    – 2'5 9'2
    Mar 26, 2015 at 19:10

3 Answers 3


As Kamal says in the comments, a vector space only requires meaning for multiplication of a vector with a scalar on one particular side, (usually the left by convention). If you add additional structure to the vector space by giving meaning to products of the form $\vec{v}a$, that's fine, but it's not part of the underlying vector space structure. It's a new kind of multiplication on top of the vector space scalar-vector multiplication.

Now, if you want to include scalar multiplication on the right in such a way that it gives $V$ another, separate, vector space structure from the structure that uses scalar multiplication on the left, then you could ask if it's possible for these two kinds of multiplication to be different. That is, is it possible to have $k\times V\to V$ be the scalar multiplication for one vector space structure on $V$, and $V\times k\to V$ be the scalar multiplication for another vector space structure on $V$, and have $a\vec{v}\neq\vec{v}a$ for some $a$, $\vec{v}$.

This can indeed happen. One example of this is if $V=\mathbb{C}$, left multiplication is regular multiplication, and right multiplication is multiplication by the conjugate. That is, $a\vec{v}=\vec{a\cdot v}$, but $\vec{v}a=\vec{v\cdot\bar{a}}$. Clearly the left-multiplication is defining vector space structure on $\mathbb{C}$ over $\mathbb{C}$. But also, the right-multiplication is doing so, as you can check the axioms. And yet $i\vec{1}=\vec{i}\neq\vec{-i}=\vec{1}i$.

So to summarize, it's possible to have vector spaces where $a\vec{v}\neq\vec{v}a$.

If the field is $\mathbb{Q}$ or $\mathbb{F}_p$, then actually $a\vec{v}=\vec{v}a$, essentially because every scalar is "generated" by $1$.

$$\begin{align} m\vec{v}\frac{n}{m}&=(\overbrace{1+\cdots+1}^{m})\vec{v}\frac{n}{m}\\ &=\left(\overbrace{\vec{v}\frac{n}{m}+\cdots+\vec{v}\frac{n}{m}}^{m}\right)\\ &=\vec{v}\left(\overbrace{\frac{n}{m}+\cdots+\frac{n}{m}}^{m}\right)\\ &=\vec{v}n\\ &=\vec{v}(\overbrace{1+\cdots+1}^{n})\\ &=\overbrace{\vec{v}+\cdots+\vec{v}}^{n}\\ &=n\vec{v}\\ \implies\vec{v}\frac{n}{m}&=\frac{n}{m}\vec{v} \end{align}$$

Then consider $\mathbb{R}$, or any of its subfields, where every scalar is the limit of some rational numbers. So if $V$ is over $\mathbb{R}$ or any of its subfields, and if $V$ has a topology, and if the scalar multiplication map is required to be continuous, then I think you can conclude that here as well, $a\vec{v}=\vec{v}a$.

  • $\begingroup$ Incredible. You hit right at the essence of my question (which I couldn't even express). Thanks for the example of a vector space with separate right and left multiplications where $a\mathbf{v} \ne \mathbf{v}a$. $\endgroup$ Mar 26, 2015 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, that's great! Also I had some more thoughts about this and added more to the answer about $\mathbb{Q}$, $\mathbb{F}_p$, and $\mathbb{R}$. $\endgroup$
    – 2'5 9'2
    Mar 26, 2015 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand your example with the complex numbers, if $V = \mathbb{C}$, i.e both vectors and scalars are complex numbers, isn't scalar multiplication just regular multiplication of complex numbers which is commutative? How does the conjugate even come into play? $\endgroup$ Jun 16 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ @LinusDieLinse You can have the set $\mathbb{C}^1$ where all you are thinking about is the elements in that set and its additive group structure. And then you can define what it means to multiply a scalar on the right of something from that additive group. You can define vector-scalar multiplication to be $\vec{v}\cdot c = \bar{c}\vec{v}$. $\endgroup$
    – 2'5 9'2
    Jun 16 at 16:21

A small note: for the question considered here, the relevant vector space axiom is:

$\alpha \cdot(\beta \cdot v) = (\alpha\beta)\cdot v$ which tells us the group $F^{\ast}$ acts (as a left action) on the set $V$.

It is natural to ask, why can't we define a right action by:

$v \cdot \alpha = \alpha \cdot v$?

Well, we can, but we would like a right-action to satisfy:

$(v\cdot \beta)\cdot \alpha = v\cdot(\beta\alpha) = (\beta\alpha)\cdot v$, and what we get is:

$(v\cdot \beta)\cdot \alpha = (\alpha\beta)\cdot v$.

In a field, or even a commutative ring, this is not an issue, but if one's "action upon an abelian group" is via a non-commutative ring it becomes a problem.

In other words, any left-vector space can be turned into an isomorphic right-vector space over the same field- in the case where we have an extension field of a smaller field, these two are the same entity.

This doesn't contradict alex.jordan's example, as the right-action he exhibits is a distinct action from the "natural" one induced here.

So, for example, when speaking of $R$-modules, if $R$ is commutative, it is typical to "pick a side and stick with it", although there are times (such as when dealing with tensor products) when it is convenient to view an $R$-module, as an $R,R$-bimodule (for a commutative ring $R$).

With vector spaces $R = F$, any vector space is already an $F,F$-bimodule (using the natural "left=right" action), but as alex.jordan's example shows, not ALL $F,F$-bimodule structures arise in this way.


Lurking in the background here is the notion of a module, which is like a vector space except the scalars need only form a ring and not a field. In this more general setting, one makes distinctions between "left modules" and "right modules", depending on whether the module is equipped with a map $R \times M \rightarrow M$ or a map $M \times R \rightarrow M$.

Simple example: The quaternions $\mathbb{H}$ are almost, but not quite, a field because multiplication is non-commutative. And though we often speak of "quaternionic vector spaces", we have to remember that, even for $\mathbb{H}^n$, the natural left- and right-multiplications don't agree.


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