Use of “without loss of generality”

Why do we use “without loss of generality” when writing proofs?
Is it necessary or convention? What “synonym” can be used?


I think this is great question, as the mathematical use of “without loss of generality” often varies from its literal meaning. The literal meaning is when you rephrase a general statement

P(x) is true for all xS,

using another set (which is easier to work with)

P(z) is true for all zT,

where P is some property of elements in S and T, and it can be shown (or is known) that S=T.

For example:

  • We want to show that P(x) is true for all xZ. Without loss of generality, we can assume that x=z+1 for some zZ. [In this case, S=Z and T={z+1:zZ}.]

  • We want to show that P(x) is true for all xZ. Without loss of generality, we can assume that x=5q+r where q,rZ and 0r<q. [In this case, S=Z and T={5q+r:qZ and rZ and 0r<q}.]

In the above instances, indeed no generality has been lost, since in each case we can prove S=T (or, more likely, it would be assumed that the reader can deduce that S=T). I.e., proving that P(z) holds for zT is the same as proving that P(x) holds for xS.

The above cases are examples of clear-cut legitimate usage of "without loss of generality", but there is a widespread second use. Wikipedia writes:

The term is used before an assumption in a proof which narrows the premise to some special case; it is implied that the proof for that case can be easily applied to all others (or that all other cases are equivalent). Thus, given a proof of the conclusion in the special case, it is trivial to adapt it to prove the conclusion in all other cases.

[emphasis mine.]

So, paradoxically, "without loss of generality" is often used to highlight when the author has deliberately lost generality in order to simplify the proof. Thus, we are rephrasing a general statement:

P(x) is true for all xS,


P(z) is true for all zT, and

if xS, then there exists zT for which P(x) is true if P(z) is true.

For example:

  • Let S be a set of groups of order n. We want to show P(G) is true for all GS. Without loss of generality, assume the underlying set of G is {0,1,n1} for some n1. [Here, T is a set of groups with underlying set {0,1,n1} that are isomorphic to groups in S, and the reader is assumed to be able to deduce that property P is preserved by isomorphism.]

My personal preference is to replace the second case with:

"It is sufficient to prove P(z) for zT, since [[for some reason]] it follows that P(x) is true for all xS."

Source : Link , Question Author : Pedro left MSE , Answer Author : Community

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