I have tried learning about ratios and proportions from a couple of books, but I have problems with the approaches they take.

First of all, a definition is never actually given. Examples are given concerning only natural numbers. For example one definition I encountered was the ratio of object $x$ to object $y$ is $m:n$ if for every $m$ $x's$ there are $n$ $ y's$. Good enough but what about rational and real numbers ?

Secondly, if a ratio is supposed to be a relation between two quantities (which it is defined vaguely in many books) then why is it treated as a number, for example saying things like the ratio of a to b is greater than that of c to d and so on.

So the question is:

What is a definition of the ratio between two real numbers $a$ and $b$. Is it fair to say that $a$ and $b$ have ratio $m:n$ if $\frac{a}{m} = \frac{b}{n}$, for example?

  • $\begingroup$ The ratio of the real numbers $a$ and $b$ is the real number $\frac ab$. You are freely allowed to expand or simplify that fraction if you so desire, and what makes two ratios equal are exactly the same as makes two normal fractions equal. $\endgroup$
    – Arthur
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ I think you switched $m$ and $n$: if for every $m x$ there are $n y$ then the ration $x:y$ is $n\colon m$ ( think $m$ large compared to $n$). $\endgroup$
    – orangeskid
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ if for every 2 apples there are 3 oranges then the ratio of apples to oranges is 2:3,no ? $\endgroup$
    – alexgiorev
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 14:47

3 Answers 3


Your concerns are very much the same as the concerns of the ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC. Their solution is summarized in books 5 to 10 of Euclid's Elements, written about 300 BC in Alexandria, Egypt. Euclid's Elements.

It's really a deeply philosophical thing to ask whether a ratio is in fact a number. The solution in textbooks is to call an equivalence class of ratios a rational number. But that's really a cop-out. It doesn't say what the rational number really is. It's really one of those regularly perplexing things in mathematics. You start with some system which seems really "real", and then you construct something else from it, like the real numbers, the complex numbers, negative numbers, and so forth. But the concepts of mathematics keep getting more and more abstract. Another example is tensors, which have many definitions, all of them unsatisfactory, including equivalence classes (i.e. quotient spaces). But if you go back to the integers, if you look closely enough, you'll see that they're not really well defined either. They're just less difficult to accept than the "higher" number concepts.

And concerning the integers, around about 100 to 120 years ago, people were defining integers to be equivalence classes too. E.g. the number 3 is the equivalence class of all sets which contain 3 objects. That's pretty crazy, but a lot of books still use this definition of cardinality. My point is that even the integers are not above suspicion.


I don't know if this explanation will be sufficient for your purposes, but at a high level, a ratio $a/b$ is simply the product of $a$ and the multiplicative inverse of $b$.

Is that too abstract? I think that part of the problem here is that a "ratio" is rarely a well-formalized mathematical object: we use ratios in everyday discourse to describe relationships between two things using a rational number, but I rarely see the idea of a ratio mentioned formally in mathematics. I wouldn't overthink ratios -- you're fundamentally looking at arithmetic.

  • $\begingroup$ Too late for not overthinking it. Thanks for bringing calm to my mind. $\endgroup$
    – alexgiorev
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 14:19


Let a and b be the non-zero numerical values of two similar quantities. Then these quantities are said to be in the ratio r:R where r and R are positive real numbers iff there exists a real number x such that a=xr and b=xR.

Illustrative Example

Let masses of two persons A and B be 40 kg and 36 Kg respectively. Then their masses are in the ratio 10 : 9 since 40=4×10 and 36=4×9.
Remark 1:

It immediately follows from this definition that given the values a and b for two similar quantities, the ratio determined by the values a and b is not unique. But this definition works fine for all practical purposes.

Remark 2

Since ratio is essentially used for comparing two similar quantities the following theorem lends intuitive meaning to our definition of ratio.


Let the non-zero numerical values, a and b, of two similar quantities be in the ratio r:R. Then, a is r ⁄ R times of b, i.e. , a=r/R x b.


Since a and b are in the ratio r:R hence a=xr and b=xR for some real number x. Now,

           r / R  x b = (r / R).(xR) = xr = a.                 Q.E.D.

Illustrative Example The ratio of trees to shrubs in my garden is 7:4. How many shrubs are there for 21 trees?

Solution The ratio of shrubs to trees is 4:7. So shrubs are 4/7 times the trees. Hence, the number of shrubs =4/7 ×21=12.


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