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1.5: Some Minimal Guidance

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    Especially in the opening sections, it will not be clear what facts from your prior experience in mathematics you are “allowed" to use. Unfortunately, addressing this issue is difficult and is something we will sort out along the way. In addition, you are likely unfamiliar with how to structure a valid mathematical proof. So that you do not feel completely abandoned, here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you get started with writing proofs.

    • The statement you are proving should be on the same page as the beginning of your proof.
    • You should indicate where the proof begins by writing “Proof." at the beginning.
    • Make it clear to yourself and the reader what your assumptions are at the very beginning of your proof. Typically, these statements will start off “Assume…", “Suppose…", or “Let…". Sometimes there will be some implicit assumptions that we can omit, but at least in the beginning, you should get in the habit of clearly stating your assumptions up front.
    • Carefully consider the order in which you write your proof. Each sentence should follow from an earlier sentence in your proof or possibly a result you have already proved.
    • Unlike the experience many of you had writing proofs in your high school geometry class, our proofs should be written in complete sentences. You should break sections of a proof into paragraphs and use proper grammar. There are some pedantic conventions for doing this that will be pointed out along the way. Initially, this will be an issue that you may struggle with, but you will get the hang of it.
    • There will be many situations where you will want to refer to an earlier definition, problem, theorem, or corollary. In this case, you should reference the statement by number, but it is also helpful to the reader to summarize the statement you are citing. For example, you might write something like, “According to Theorem 2.3, the sum of two consecutive integers is odd, and so…" or “By the definition of divides (Definition 2.5), it follows that…". One thing worth pointing out is that if we are citing a definition, theorem, or problem by number, we should capitalize “Definition", “Theorem", or “Problem", respectively (e.g., “According to Theorem 2.3…"). Otherwise, we do not capitalize these words (e.g., “By the definition of divides…").
    • There will be times when we will need to do some basic algebraic manipulations. You should feel free to do this whenever the need arises. But you should show sufficient work along the way. In addition, you should organize your calculations so that each step follows from the previous. The order in which we write things matters. You do not need to write down justifications for basic algebraic manipulations (e.g., adding 1 to both sides of an equation, adding and subtracting the same amount on the same side of an equation, adding like terms, factoring, basic simplification, etc.).
    • On the other hand, you do need to make explicit justification of the logical steps in a proof. As stated above, you should cite a previous definition, theorem, etc. when necessary.
    • Similar to making it clear where your proof begins, you should indicate where it ends. It is common to conclude a proof with the standard “proof box" (\(\square\) or \(\blacksquare\)). This little square at end of a proof is sometimes called a tombstone or Halmos symbol after Hungarian-born American mathematician Paul Halmos (1916–2006).

    It is of utmost importance that you work to understand every proof. Questions—asked to your instructor, your peers, and yourself—are often your best tool for determining whether you understand a proof. Another way to help you process and understand a proof is to try and make observations and connections between different ideas, proof statements and methods, and to compare various approaches.

    If you would like additional guidance before you dig in, look over the guidelines in Appendix A: Elements of Style for Proofs. It is suggested that you review this appendix occasionally as you progress through the book as some guidelines may not initially make sense or seem relevant. Be prepared to put in a lot of time and do all the work. Your effort will pay off in intellectual development. Now, go have fun and start exploring mathematics!

    This page titled 1.5: Some Minimal Guidance is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dana Ernst via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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