Consider a vector space $V$ and its (orthogonal) subspaces $W$ and $U$. If $A$ is a matrix representing the linear map $T: V \rightarrow W$, and we want to project an element of $U$ onto $W$, why is our projection matrix defined as it is?

If we have an element $b \in U$, then its projection onto $W$ is $P = A (A^T A)^{-1} A^T b$, but if we look at what the actual vector that we're looking for is, it is $(A^T A)^{-1} A^T b$, without the left-multiplier $A$.

In Gilbert Strang's 'Introduction to Linear Algebra', he also writes:

"The $\textit{projection}$ of $b$ onto the subspace is $\textbf{p} = A \overline x = A (A^T A)^{-1} A^T b$"

Why the multiplication by $A$? The requested vector is already found, and it is $\overline x$, not $A \overline x$.

Edit: Difference between orthogonal projection and least squares solution is another thread with the same question that I found that clarified my misunderstanding. Specifically Chad's answer. Our $\overline x$ is simply the solution to the equation $A \overline x = p$, so of course the projection must be left-multiplied by A.

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    $\begingroup$ Short answer: without that last $A$, the resulting vector is expressed relative to the wrong basis. $\endgroup$
    – amd
    May 21, 2019 at 3:52
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    $\begingroup$ What's the linear map $T\colon V\to W$? $\endgroup$
    – egreg
    May 21, 2019 at 13:57

1 Answer 1


When you want to find the projection $p$ of $b$ onto $W,$ and $W$ is described in terms of a linear map, then you can start with a "parameterization" of $p$ that guarantees that your result is in $W.$ So you set $p=A\bar x$ and $\bar x\in V.$ Now you want $p-b$ to be orthogonal to $W,$ which means $A^T(p-b)=0$ or $A^T(A\bar x-b)=0$ or $$ \bar x = (A^T A)^{-1}A^T b $$ Now you have the particular $\bar x\in V$ that provides the correct parameters for your projection $p,$ and you just have to apply your initial choice $p=A\bar x$ for the parametrization to obtain the projection $p$.

  • $\begingroup$ I still don't understand why. By our construction, $\overline x = (A^T A)^{-1} A^T b$ is already guaranteed to be the orthogonal projection into the subspace. Why would we 'set' $p = A \overline x$, when that is not what we get when we construct the projection? $\endgroup$
    – Not Legato
    May 21, 2019 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ $\bar x$ is not the projection. It is the input that you have to plug into the map $T$ to get the projection. $\endgroup$ May 21, 2019 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, I see now. I went looking for clarification, and found another thread where an explanation clicked with me. I forgot that we were looking for $\overline x$ such that $A \overline x = p$, not simply $\overline x$ itself. $\endgroup$
    – Not Legato
    May 21, 2019 at 23:04

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