Why is it important for a matrix to be square?

I am currently trying to self-study linear algebra. I’ve noticed that a lot of the definitions for terms (like eigenvectors, characteristic polynomials, determinants, and so on) require a square matrix instead of just any real-valued matrix. For example, Wolfram has this in its definition of the characteristic polynomial:

The characteristic polynomial is the polynomial left-hand side of the characteristic equation det, where A is a square matrix.

Why must the matrix be square? What happens if the matrix is not square? And why do square matrices come up so frequently in these definitions? Sorry if this is a really simple question, but I feel like I’m missing something fundamental.


Remember that an n-by-m matrix with real-number entries represents a linear map from \mathbb{R}^m to \mathbb{R}^n (or more generally, an n-by-m matrix with entries from some field k represents a linear map from k^m to k^n). When m=n – that is, when the matrix is square – we’re talking about a map from a space to itself.

So really your question amounts to:

Why are maps from a space to itself – as opposed to maps from a space to something else – particularly interesting?

Well, the point is that when I’m looking at a map from a space to itself inputs to and outputs from that map are the same “type” of thing, and so I can meaningfully compare them. So, for example, if f:\mathbb{R}^4\rightarrow\mathbb{R}^4 it makes sense to ask when f(v) is parallel to v, since f(v) and v lie in the same space; but asking when g(v) is parallel to v for g:\mathbb{R}^4\rightarrow\mathbb{R}^3 doesn’t make any sense, since g(v) and v are just different types of objects. (This example, by the way, is just saying that eigenvectors/values make sense when the matrix is square, but not when it’s not square.)

As another example, let’s consider the determinant. The geometric meaning of the determinant is that it measures how much a linear map “expands/shrinks” a unit of (signed) volume – e.g. the map (x,y,z)\mapsto(-2x,2y,2z) takes a unit of volume to -8 units of volume, so has determinant -8. What’s interesting is that this applies to every blob of volume: it doesn’t matter whether we look at how the map distorts the usual 1-1-1 cube, or some other random cube.

But what if we try to go from 3D to 2D (so we’re considering a 2-by-3 matrix) or vice versa? Well, we can try to use the same idea: (proportionally) how much area does a given volume wind up producing? However, we now run into problems:

  • If we go from 3 to 2, the “stretching factor” is no longer invariant. Consider the projection map (x,y,z)\mapsto (x,y), and think about what happens when I stretch a bit of volume vertically …

  • If we go from 2 to 3, we’re never going to get any volume at all – the starting dimension is just too small! So regardless of what map we’re looking at, our “stretching factor” seems to be 0.

The point is, in the non-square case the “determinant” as naively construed either is ill-defined or is 0 for stupid reasons.

Source : Link , Question Author : Beneschan , Answer Author : Noah Schweber

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