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Dedekind used his cut to construct the irrational, real numbers.

In mathematics, a Dedekind cut is а method of construction of the real numbers. It is a partition of the rational numbers into two non-empty sets A and B, such that all elements of A are less than all elements of B, and A contains no greatest element.

Under name Schnitt, Dedekind cuts were introduced by Richard Dedekind, but a similar construction was used in Euclid's Elements (book V, definition 5) to define proportional segments.

The set B may or may not have a smallest element among the rationals. If B has a smallest element among the rationals, the cut corresponds to that rational. Otherwise, that cut defines a unique irrational number which, loosely speaking, fills the "gap" between A and B. In other words, A contains every rational number less than the cut, and B contains every rational number greater than or equal to the cut. An irrational cut is equated to an irrational number which is in neither set. Every real number, rational or not, is equated to one and only one cut of rationals.

Whenever, then, we have to do with a cut produced by no rational number, we create a new irrational number, which we regard as completely defined by this cut ... . From now on, therefore, to every definite cut there corresponds a definite rational or irrational number ....

— Richard Dedekind[1]

More generally, a Dedekind cut is a partition of a totally ordered set into two non-empty parts A and B, such that A is closed downwards (meaning that for all a in A, xa implies that x is in A as well) and B is closed upwards, and A contains no greatest element. See also completeness (order theory).

It is straightforward to show that a Dedekind cut among the real numbers is uniquely defined by the corresponding cut among the rational numbers. Similarly, every cut of reals is identical to the cut produced by a specific real number (which can be identified as the smallest element of the B set). In other words, the number line where every real number is defined as a Dedekind cut of rationals is a complete continuum without any further gaps.



It is more symmetrical to use the (A,B) notation for Dedekind cuts, but each of A and B does determine the other. It can be a simplification, in terms of notation if nothing more, to concentrate on one "half" — say, the lower one — and call any downward closed set A without greatest element a "Dedekind cut".

If the ordered set S is complete, then, for every Dedekind cut (A, B) of S, the set B must have a minimal element b, hence we must have that A is the interval ( −∞, b), and B the interval [b, +∞). In this case, we say that b is represented by the cut (A,B).

The important purpose of the Dedekind cut is to work with number sets that are not complete. The cut itself can represent a number not in the original collection of numbers (most often rational numbers). The cut can represent a number b, even though the numbers contained in the two sets A and B do not actually include the number b that their cut represents.

For example if A and B only contain rational numbers, they can still be cut at √2 by putting every negative rational number in A, along with every non-negative number whose square is less than 2; similarly B would contain every positive rational number whose square is greater than or equal to 2. Even though there is no rational value for √2, if the rational numbers are partitioned into A and B this way, the partition itself represents an irrational number.

Ordering of cutsEdit

Regard one Dedekind cut (A, B) as less than another Dedekind cut (C, D) (of the same superset) if A is a proper subset of C. Equivalently, if D is a proper subset of B, the cut (A, B) is again less than (C, D). In this way, set inclusion can be used to represent the ordering of numbers, and all other relations (greater than, less than or equal to, equal to, and so on) can be similarly created from set relations.

The set of all Dedekind cuts is itself a linearly ordered set (of sets). Moreover, the set of Dedekind cuts has the least-upper-bound property, i.e., every nonempty subset of it that has any upper bound has a least upper bound. Thus, constructing the set of Dedekind cuts serves the purpose of embedding the original ordered set S, which might not have had the least-upper-bound property, within a (usually larger) linearly ordered set that does have this useful property.

Construction of the real numbersEdit

A typical Dedekind cut of the rational numbers is given by


This cut represents the irrational number √2 in Dedekind's construction. To establish this truly, one must show that this really is a cut and that it is the square root of two. However, neither claim is immediate. Showing that it is a cut requires showing that for any positive rational x with x2 < 2, there is a rational y with x < y and y2 < 2. The choice   works. Then we have a cut and it has a square no larger than 2, but to show equality requires showing that if r is any rational number less than 2, then there is positive x in A with r < x2.

Note that the equality b2 = 2 cannot hold since √2 is not rational.


A construction similar to Dedekind cuts is used for the construction of surreal numbers.

Partially ordered setsEdit

More generally, if S is a partially ordered set, a completion of S means a complete lattice L with an order-embedding of S into L. The notion of complete lattice generalizes the least-upper-bound property of the reals.

One completion of S is the set of its downwardly closed subsets, ordered by inclusion. A related completion that preserves all existing sups and infs of S is obtained by the following construction: For each subset A of S, let Au denote the set of upper bounds of A, and let Al denote the set of lower bounds of A. (These operators form a Galois connection.) Then the Dedekind–MacNeille completion of S consists of all subsets A for which (Au)l = A; it is ordered by inclusion. The Dedekind-MacNeille completion is the smallest complete lattice with S embedded in it.



  • Dedekind, Richard, Essays on the Theory of Numbers, "Continuity and Irrational Numbers," Dover: New York, ISBN 0-486-21010-3. Also available at Project Gutenberg.

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