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This article is about equalisers in mathematics. For equalizers in audio signal processing, see Equalization.

In mathematics, an equaliser, or equalizer, is a set of arguments where two or more functions have equal values. An equaliser is the solution set of an equation. In certain contexts, a difference kernel is the equaliser of exactly two functions.

Table of contents
1 Definitions
2 Difference kernels
3 In category theory
4 Coequalisers


Let X and Y be sets. Let f and g be functions, both from X to Y. Then the equaliser of f and g is the set of elements x of X such that f(x) equals g(x) in Y. Symbolically:

The equaliser may be denoted Eq(f,g) or a variation on that theme (such as with lowercase letters "eq"). In informal contexts, the notation {f = g} is common.

The definition above used two functions f and g, but there is no need to restrict to only two functions, or even to only finitely many functions. In general, if F is a set of functions from X to Y, then the equaliser of the members of F is the set of elements x of X such that, given any two members f and g of F, f(x) equals g(x) in Y. Symbolically:

This equaliser may be denoted Eq(F), or Eq(f,g,h,...) if F is the set {f,g,h,...}. In the latter case, one may also find {f = g = h = ···} in informal contexts.

As a degenerate case of the general definition, let F be a singleton {f}. Since f(x) always equals itself, the equaliser must be the entire domain X. As an even more degenerate case, let F be the empty set {}. Then the equaliser is again the entire domain X, since the universal quantification in the definition is vacuously true.

Difference kernels

A binary equaliser (that is, an equaliser of just two functions) is also called a difference kernel. This may also be denoted DiffKer(f,g), Ker(f,g), or Ker(f - g). The last notation shows where this terminology comes from, and why it is most common in the context of abstract algebra: The difference kernel of f and g is simply the kernel of the difference f - g. Conversely, the kernel of a single function f can be reconstructed as the difference kernel Eq(f,0), where 0 is the constant function with value zero.

Of course, all of this presumes an algebraic context where the kernel of a function is its preimage under zero; that is not true in all situations. However, the terminology "difference kernel" has no other meaning.

In category theory

Equalisers can be defined by a universal property, which allows the notion to be generalised from the category of sets to arbitrary categories.

In the general context, X and Y are objects, while f and g are morphisms from X to Y. These objects and morphisms form a diagram in the category in question, and the equaliser is simply the limit of that diagram.

In more explicit terms, the equaliser consists of an object E and a morphism eq from E to X satisfying f·eq = g·eq (where "·" denotes composition of morphisms); and such that, given any other object O and morphism m from O to X, if f·m = g·m, then there exists a unique morphism u from O to E such that eq·u = m.

There should be a picture here.

In any universal algebraic category, including the categories where difference kernels are used, as well as the category of sets itself, the object E can always be taken to be the ordinary notion of equaliser, and the morphism eq can in that case be taken to be the inclusion function of E as a subset of X.

The generalisation of this to more than two morphisms is straightforward; simply use a larger diagram with more morphisms in it. The degenerate case of only one morphism is also straightforward; then eq can be any isomorphism from an object E to X.

The degenerate case of no morphisms at all might be confusing at first; it may seem that the diagram in question consists of only the objects X and Y, with no morphsims. The limit of that diagram is the product of X and Y, which doesn't agree with the set-theoretic definition above. However, the correct interpretation is that the diagram is based on X and includes Y only because Y is the codomain of a morphism in the diagram. Then if there are no morphisms involved, then the diagram consists of X alone, so the limit is again any isomorphism between E and X.

It can be proved that any equaliser in any category is a monomorphism. If the converse holds in a given category, then that category is said to be regular (in the sense of monomorphisms). More generally, a regular monomorphism in any category is any morphism m that is an equaliser of some set of morphisms. Some authorities require (more strictly) that m be a binary equaliser, that is an equaliser of exactly two morphisms. However, if the category in question is complete, then both definitions agree.

The notion of difference kernel also makes sense in a category-theoretic context. The terminology "difference kernel" is common throughout category theory for any binary equaliser. In the case of a preadditive category (a category enriched over the category of Abelian groups), the term "difference kernel" may be interpreted literally, since subtraction of morphisms makes sense. That is, Eq(f,g) = Ker(f - g), where Ker denotes the category-theoretic kernel.


A coequaliser, or coequalizer, is the dual notion, obtained by reversing the arrows in the equaliser definition.