What actually is a polynomial?

I can perform operations on polynomials. I can add, multiply, and find their roots. Despite this, I cannot define a polynomial.

I wasn’t in the advanced mathematics class in 8th grade, then in 9th grade I skipped the class and joined the more advanced class. This question isn’t about something I don’t understand; it’s something I missed.

My classes have not covered what really a polynomial is. I can generate one, but not define one. The internet has yielded incomplete definitions: “Consisting of multiple terms” or “A mathematical expression containing 2 or more terms and variables.”

Take the following expressions for example:

2x2x+122x2+x12. Consists of multiple terms, but can also be expressed as 0. Is zero a polynomial?

What about x1? x1 have -1 zeroes?”>I’ve been told this one isn’t a polynomial, but I don’t understand why.

Is x2+x+1x1x2x3? a polynomial? It contains both positive and negative exponents?

tl;dr: What actually is the mathematical definition of a polynomial? Is 0 a polynomial, and why isn’t x1 a polynomial under this definition?


A polynomial (in one variable) is an expression of the form p(x)=a0+a1x+a2x2++anxn where the coefficients ai are some kind of number (or more generally they’re elements of a Ring). The exponents 1,2,n must all be integers.

Unless we’ve been silly and an=0, n is called the degree of the polynomial. We can formalize this by defining the largest n such that an0 as the degree.

Notice that constants are allowed. p(x)=3 is a zero-th degree polynomial.

You asked about zero. Yes, p(x)=0 is considered to be a polynomial. However, you’ll notice that there is a problem with the definition of degree here since there is no coefficient that is nonzero. The degree of the zero polynomial is thus undefined.

This allows us to say that if we multiply two polynomials w(x)=p(x)q(x) with p of degree n and q of degree m, then w has degree n+m. (Notice how the zero polynomial would mess this up if its degree were defined to be zero like the other constants.)

You’re right that simplification is important. The x is just a symbol and we can always “combine like terms” alxl+blxl=(al+bl)xl. We always combine all the terms together and simplify in order to get an expression into the form above with only one term for each power before we do things like consider the degree.

Notice we can add two polynomials according to the simplification rule and get a polynomial as a result. This is a good reason to consider zero to be a polynomial… it allows the sum of two polynomials to always be a polynomial. Likewise we can multiply two polynomials according to the the distributive property, the rule (amxm)(alxl)=amalxm+l, and the additive simplification rule. The result will be another polynomial.

Yes, the exponents all need to be positive. Of course other expressions are possible but they aren’t called polynomials. Terms like x3 are considered part of the family of rational functions (or as a commenter noted, the Laurent polynomials, not to be confused with the (unqualified) polynomials). This is just a definition and thus somewhat arbitrary (though good definitions are important for organization). It’s just like saying 4 is an integer but not a natural number. It’s true by definition, and yes, a bit arbitrary, but nonetheless useful and a nearly universal convention.

As Paul Sinclair pointed out in the comments, there are also polynomials in multiple variables. For instance p(x,y)=A+Bx+Cy+Dx2+Exy+Fy2 is the general degree two polynomial in two variables. The degree of a term is just the sum of the degrees with respect to the individual variables. So a term like 3xy has degree two and a term like 3x4y5z would have degree 4+5+1=10. The degree of a polynomial is the degree of its highest-degree term with nonzero coefficient.

Source : Link , Question Author : Travis , Answer Author : spaceisdarkgreen

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