Let $B = B_n(\mathbb{F})$ be the set of upper triangular matrices of order $n$ with entries from $\mathbb{F}$. I am supposed to be showing $N_G(B) = B$

I have been told that what we need to notice here is that the stabilizer of the standard flag (when considered with its natural action due to $GL_n(\mathbb{F})$ is $B$ and we are supposed to be using this fact here, somehow.

My attempt was to try picking an element from the normalizer and showing that it necessarily stabilizes the standard flag, and hence deduce that the elements in the normalizer are in fact in the stabilizer, which is $B$. However, I couldn't succeed with this.

[I have no idea of why flags or Borel groups are considered in general. So, please post an answer which is approachable for a person with no knowledge of Algebraic Groups.]

  • $\begingroup$ Do you know about quotients of algebraic groups and complete varieties? That is what I use to understand this problem. $\endgroup$
    – D_S
    Feb 26, 2017 at 5:22
  • $\begingroup$ @D_S sorry, I have no training of algebraic groups or geometry. This was being taught in a group theory course. $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2017 at 2:59
  • $\begingroup$ I'd try to use the fact that if a group $G$ is acting on a set $\Omega$, then the normalizer of a subgroup $U$ acts on the set of fixed points of $U$. Here $\Omega$ is the set of flags and $U$ the Borel subgroup $B$, which has a unique fixed point, so that its normalizer has to stabilize it. $\endgroup$
    – j.p.
    Feb 28, 2017 at 7:05

2 Answers 2


Originally, I relied on some slick algebraic geometry techniques to understand this result. I've never actually gone through the details of flags before, and it turned out to be kind of tedious. You may be better off working out the details yourself than slogging through what I've written.

Let $F$ be a field, and let $V$ be an $n$-dimensional vector space over $F$. A (complete) flag $\mathbf F$ of $V$ is an ascending chain of $n$ distinct subspaces of $V$. Fix a basis $e_1, ... , e_n$ for $V$. Consider the flag consisting of the subspaces $V_1 \subseteq \cdots \subseteq V_n$ defined by $V_i = \textrm{span}\{e_1, ... ,e_i\}$.

If $T \in G = \textrm{GL}(V)$ is a vector space automorphism of $V$, then $T(V_1) \subseteq \cdots \subseteq T(V_n)$ is another flag. We say that $T$ preserves $\mathbf{F}$ if $T(V_i) = V_i$ for all $i$. In other words, $$\textrm{span}\{Te_1, ... , Te_i \} = \textrm{span} \{e_1, ... , e_i\}$$ for all $i$.

This is a straightforward exercise:

Lemma: $T$ preserves $\mathbf{F}$ if and only if the matrix of $T$ with respect to the basis $e_1, ... , e_n$ is upper triangular.

It follows that the subset $B$ of $\textrm{GL}(V)$ consisting of those $T$ which preserve $\mathbf F$ is a group, and if we define an isomorphism $\textrm{GL}(V) \rightarrow \textrm{GL}_n(F)$ by sending each $T$ to the matrix of $T$ with respect to the basis $e_1, ... , e_n$, then the image of $B$ is exactly the group of upper triangular invertible matrices.

Our goal is then to show that $B$ is self normalizing. Let $S, T \in G$. If $T \in SBS^{-1}$, then $S^{-1}TS \in B$, so for each $i$,

$$\textrm{span}\{S^{-1}TSe_1, ... , S^{-1}TSe_i \} = \textrm{span}\{e_1, ... , e_i \}$$

or equivalently,

$$\textrm{span}\{TSe_1, ... , TSe_i \} = \textrm{span}\{Se_1, ... , Se_i \}$$

Now, assume that $S$ normalizes $B$. Then for each $T \in B$, and each $i$, we have that

$$\textrm{span} \{TSe_1, ... , TSe_i \} = \textrm{span} \{Se_1, ... , Se_i \}$$

We are done if we can show that $\textrm{span} \{Se_1, ... Se_i \} = \textrm{span} \{e_1, ... , e_i\}$ for all $i$.

Let's represent $S$ is matrix form, as $(a_{ij})$. Then the condition $\textrm{span}\{ Se_1 \} = \textrm{span} \{TSe_1 \}$ tells us that for any choice of invertible upper triangular matrix $(c_{ij})$, the vectors

$$(c_{11}a_{11} + \cdots + c_{1n}a_{n1}, c_{22}a_{21} + \cdots + c_{2n}a_{n1}, ... , c_{nn}a_{n1} )$$

$$(a_{11}, ... , a_{n1})$$

are proportional. You can argue from here that $a_{21}, ... , a_{n1}$ have to be zero. If you don't believe me, I'll give you the statement of what you need to argue for the cases $n = 2$ and $n =3$, and you can see easily how this generalizes to all $n$.

$n = 2$: if $a, b$ are fixed elements of $F$, and $\alpha, \beta, \gamma$ are any elements of $F$ you want, with the requirement that $\alpha$ and $\gamma$ be nonzero, suppose for every such choice of $\alpha, \beta, \gamma$ that the vectors $(a,b)$ and $(\alpha a + \beta b, \gamma b)$ are proportional. Then $b = 0$.

$n = 3$: if $a, b, c$ are fixed elements of $F$, and $\alpha, \beta, \gamma, \delta, \epsilon, \lambda$ are any elements of $F$ you want, with the requirement that $\alpha, \delta, \lambda$ be nonzero, suppose for every such choice of Greek letters that the vectors

$$(a,b,c) = (\alpha a + \beta b + \gamma c, \delta b + \epsilon c, \lambda c)$$

are nonzero. Then $b = c = 0$.

Once this is out of the way, what you will have proved is that the span of $e_1$ is the same as that of $Se_1$. Or in other words, $S(V_1) = V_1$. Now pass to the quotient space $V/V_1$. This space has basis $\overline{e_2}, ... , \overline{e_n}$, the image of the old basis $e_1, ... , e_n$. We get a new flag on $V/V_1$ corresponding to this basis, namely $\overline{V_i} = V_i/V_1, i =2 ,... , n-1$. Since $S(V_1) = V_1$, $S$ induces an automorphism $\overline{S}$ on this space, and the assumption that $TS(V_i) = S(V_i)$ for all $T$ satisfying $T(V_i) = V_i$, tells you that $\overline{T} \overline{S}(\overline{V_i}) = \overline{S}(\overline{V_i})$, for all automorphisms $\overline{T}$ with the property that $\overline{T}(\overline{V_i}) = \overline{V_i}$.

Thus we are in the same situation as before, this time in the vector space $V/V_1$, with the basis $\overline{e_2}, ... , \overline{e_n}$, the flag corresponding to that basis, and an automorphism $\overline{S}$ of $V/V_1$ normalizing the group of elements in $\textrm{GL}(V/V_1)$ which preserve the flag $\overline{V_2}, ... , \overline{V_n}$. But $V/V_1$ is of smaller dimension, so by induction, we can conclude here what we intend to conclude for $V$, namely that $\overline{S}(\overline{V_i}) = \overline{V_i}$ for $i = 2, ... , n$.

This is the same as saying that $S(V_i)/V_1 = V_i/V_1$ for such $i$, which implies $S(V_i) = V_i$ by the correspondence theorem for quotient groups, since $S(V_i)$ contains $S(V_1) = V_1$. This completes the proof.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Group actions FTW :-) $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2017 at 6:52

Alternative proof: $G=GL_{\mathbb F}(V)$ acts on the set of (complete) flags $(V_i)_i$ (i.e., the $V_i$ are subspaces of $V$ with $\dim V_i = i$ and $V_i\le V_{i+1}$ where $V_0=0$ and $V_n=V$) and the Borel subgroup $B$ is the stabilizer of the standard flag.

For $v_i\in V_i\setminus V_{i-1}$ the smallest $B$-invariant subspace containing $v_i$ is $V_i$: Picking $v_j\in V_j$ for $j\in\{1,\dots, i-1, i+1, \dots n\}$ gives a base of $V$, so for arbitrary $v\in V_{i-1}$ one can define a linear map $\lambda_v$ sending $v_i$ to $v_i+v$ and fixing all other $v_j$ ($j\ne i$). Clearly $\lambda_v$ stabilizes all $V_i$, i.e., $\lambda_v\in B$. Hence any $B$-invariant subspace of $V$ containing $v_i$ contains also $\lambda_v(v_i)-v_i = v$ for arbitrary $v\in V_{i-1}$, hence it contains also $\langle v_i, V_{i-1}\rangle = V_i$ proving the claim.

Any $B$-invariant subspace $W$ of $V$ of dimension $i$ equals $V_i$ as otherwise it contains some $w\in W\setminus V$. For $j$ minimal with $w\in V_j$ (hence $j>i$) we get by the last paragraph $V_j\le W$ contradicting $\dim V_j = j > i = \dim W$.

This implies that the standard flag is the only (complete) flag stabilized by $B$, i.e., the set of fixed points of $B$ consists of only one element. As the normalizer $N := N_G(B)$ of $B$ acts on the set of fixed points of $B$ (taking $n\in N, b\in B$ and a fixed point $x$ of $B$ one gets $bnx = n(n^{-1}bn)x = nb'x = nx$ as $b':=n^{-1}bn\in B$), it fixes the standard flag, hence $N$ is contained in $B$.


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