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This is certainly related to "What are your favorite instructional counterexamples?", but I thought I would ask a more focused question. We've all seen Counterexamples in Analysis and Counterexamples in Topology, so I think it's time for: Counterexamples in Algebra.

Now, Algebra is quite broad, and I'm new at this, so if I need to narrow this then I will- just let me know. At the moment I'm looking for counterexamples in all areas of algebra: finite groups, representation theory, homological algebra, Galois theory, Lie groups and Lie algebras, etc. This might be too much, so a moderator can change that.

These counterexamples can illuminate a definition (e.g. a projective module that is not free), illustrate the importance of a condition in a theorem (e.g. non-locally compact group that does not admit a Haar measure), or provide a useful counterexample for a variety of possible conjectures (I don't have an algebraic example, but something analogous to the Cantor set in analysis). I look forward to your responses!

You can also add your counter-examples to this nLab page:

(the link to that page is currently "below the fold" in the comment list so I (Andrew Stacey) have added it to the main question)

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My feeling is that this question is far too broad. – Andy Putman Jun 21 '10 at 23:11
I like that the question is general. I think if it's narrowed too much we won't get as many interesting responses. All of the big list type questions that have been successful have been fairly general, so I don't think it hurts as long as we aren't swarmed with questions like this. – jeremy Jun 22 '10 at 0:23
Whilst I like lists of counterexamples, I don't think that MO is an appropriate place for one. I've explained why in the meta discussion (NB: please vote for the comment linking to the meta discussion so that it appears "above the fold"). I think that this would work so much better as a wiki page. So I've started one on the nLab: Obviously, as I'm not an algebraist I didn't understand everything and have probably left out a lot of information in copying it over. I recommend closing this question and redirecting to that nLab page. – Loop Space Jun 22 '10 at 8:33
Andrew, why not keep the question open, in order to generate the examples here that can then be more sensibly organized on your page? It seems likely to me that you will get a lot of good examples with this question that might otherwise be missed. – Joel David Hamkins Jun 22 '10 at 13:16

55 Answers 55

This is probably more of an example than a counterexample. Consider the following binary operation table defined on a three element set with zero:

    0 1 2
0   0 0 0
1   0 0 1
2   0 2 2
V. Murskii showed that the equational theory of this algebra has no logically equivalent (in equational logic) finite theory. Lyndon earlier showed that every two element algebra with one binary operation did have a finite basis, and Perkins found a six element semigroup with no finite basis. I don't know the status of algebras with a single ternary operation.

Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2010.06.21

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Please forgive me if someone has already posted this...

Let X > Y > Z be a tower of groups with Y and Z being normal subgroups of X and Y, respectively. Z need not be a normal subgroup of X.

An example: D_4 > Klein's 4-group > Z/2Z.

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I just did this exercise in Dummit and Foote- nice! P.S. Big fan of Pinball Wizard and Tiny Dancer. – Dylan Wilson Jun 28 '10 at 7:30

An example showing that, in the standard definition of a ring (without $1$), it won't do to replace the left and right distributive laws with the single law$$(u+v)\cdot(x+y)=u\cdot x+u\cdot y+v\cdot x+v\cdot y$$as was done on p. 18 of my old copy (July 1957 printing) of Kelley's General Topology.

(Spoiler alert: if you hover over the gray box, an example of what can go wrong is revealed.)

Take an additive group of order $3$, choose a nonzero element $c$, and define $x\cdot y=c$.

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Do you also mean to exclude the $0a = a0 = 0$ axiom? – darij grinberg Oct 26 '14 at 16:01
@darijgrinberg Kelley's General Topology, first printing, p. 18: "A ring is a triple $(R,+,\cdot)$ such that $(R,+)$ is an abelian group and $\cdot$ is a function on $R\times R$ to $R$ such that: the operation is associative, and the distributive law $(u+v)\cdot(x+y)=u\cdot x+u\cdot y+v\cdot x+v\cdot y$ holds for all members $x$, $y$, $u$, and $v$ of $R$." – bof Oct 26 '14 at 20:40
@darijgrinberg $0a=a0=0$ is not usually included among the axioms for a ring, since it is a consequence of the usual distributive laws together with the additive group properties. – bof Oct 26 '14 at 20:43
@darijgrinberg Of course you only have to add the axiom $0\cdot0=0$ to Kelley's axioms to get a correct definition of a ring. – bof Oct 26 '14 at 20:58
OK, I see what you mean. Well, I am used to including $0a=a0=0$ with the axioms, but I guess this is atypical. – darij grinberg Oct 26 '14 at 21:31

An infinitely-generated Noetherian ring: $\mathbb{Q},$ the field of rational numbers.

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A subring of a UFD need not be a UFD.

An example by M. Zafrullah: Let R be the set of real numbers and Q be the set of rational numbers. Then the polynomial ring R[X] is a UFD (since it is a PID), but its subring Q + XR[X] is not a UFD.

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As a number theorist, I have found it perplexing that commutative algebraists seem to regard this type of construction as being in some sense the simplest possible example. Any student of algebraic number theory will have no trouble proving that a nonmaximal order in the ring of integers of a number field is not a UFD, and that a number field $K$ contains nonmaximal orders iff $K \neq \mathbb{Q}$: let $\alpha$ be an algebraic integer such that $K = \mathbb{Q}(\alpha)$. If $\mathbb{Z}[\alpha]$ is not the full ring of integers of $K$, great. Otherwise, take $\mathbb{Z}[2\alpha]$. – Pete L. Clark Jul 3 '10 at 1:28
@Pete: Your example is simple in a writing-down-sense. $\mathbb{Z}[\alpha]$ may well be the shortest expression for such a ring. If one is intressted in proof as well, then your example is much more complicated than $\mathbb{Q}+X\mathbb{R}[X]$ because one has to define and prove several things about algebraic integers first. – Johannes Hahn Aug 11 '10 at 9:47
Every integral domain is a subring of a UFD (for example, its field of fractions). So all you need here is an integral domain which is not a UFD. – Chris Eagle Jun 18 '11 at 8:50
Anyway, there's no reason to think that the UFD property is hereditary since it requires the existence of sufficiently many irreducibles as well as the uniqueness of factorizations. It's not at all surprising that if you cut out a lot of elements of a UFD you will be unable to find the irreducibles you need. Chris Eagle's example demonstrates one reason: if the larger ring is a UFD for trivial reasons, such as everything being a unit, then not only does the subring have to have sufficiently many irreducibles, but it also has to "invent" factorization from scratch. – Ryan Reich Jun 20 '11 at 14:54

If $f$ and $g$ are relatively prime in ${\mathbf Q}[X]$ then the mapping ${\mathbf Q}[X]/(fg) \rightarrow {\mathbf Q}[X]/(f) \times {\mathbf Q}[X]/(g)$ given by $h \bmod fg \mapsto (h \bmod f, h \bmod g)$ is a ring isomorphism. This is a special case of the Chinese remainder theorem.

If we replace ${\mathbf Q}[X]$ with its subring ${\mathbf Z}[X]$, which is a UFD, then for relatively prime $f$ and $g$ in ${\mathbf Z}[X]$ the mapping ${\mathbf Z}[X]/(fg) \rightarrow {\mathbf Z}[X]/(f) \times {\mathbf Z}[X]/(g)$ given by $h \bmod fg \mapsto (h \bmod f, h \bmod g)$ is a ring homomorphism, but it is not necessarily an isomorphism since it need not be surjective (though it is injective). For example, if $f = X-1$ and $g = 1+X+\cdots + X^{n-1}$ where $n > 1$ then the natural mapping $${\mathbf Z}[X](X^n-1) \rightarrow {\mathbf Z}[X]/(X-1) \times {\mathbf Z}[X]/(1+X+\cdots + X^{n-1})$$ does not have $(0,1)$ in its image. The reason is that if $f(X) \in {\mathbf Z}[X]$ is mapped to $(0,1)$ then $f(X) = (X-1)g(X)$ for some $g(X) \in {\mathbf Z}[X]$ and then $1 = (\zeta_p-1)g(\zeta_p)$ for any prime $p$ dividing $n$, which says $\zeta_p-1$ is a unit in ${\mathbf Z}[\zeta_p]$, and that's false.

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But curiously enough, $\mathbb{Z}\left[X\right] / \left(\Phi_{n} \Phi_m\right) \to \mathbb{Z}\left[X\right] / \left(\Phi_n\right) \times \mathbb{Z}\left[X\right] / \left(\Phi_m\right)$ is an isomorphism whenever $n/m$ is not of the form $p^a$ for some prime $p$ and some $a \in \mathbb{Z}$. (See, e.g., Theorem 1 in Dresden's Resultants of cyclotomic polynomials, .) – darij grinberg Oct 26 '14 at 16:11

A finitely generated module with a non-finitely generated submodule: Consider the polynomial ring $k[x_1, x_2, ...]$ as a module over itself. The submodule generated by $\{ x_1, x_2, ...\}$ is not finitely generated.

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Analysis is a good source of natural-looking examples of non-noetherian algebra. For example, the ring $C[0,1]$ of continuous functions has the very non-finitely generated ideal of functions vanishing at 0. It's a nice contrast with the non-example $\mathbb{R}[x]$ and ideal $(x)$. – Ryan Reich Jun 20 '11 at 15:03

My favorite counter example in Galois theory is the field extension $\mathbb{Q}(\sqrt[3]{2})/\mathbb{Q}$.

Here are some cases to which it provides a counter example:

  1. It is a non-Galois extension (so providing counter example to "every extension is Galois").

  2. The Galois group of its Galois closure is non-abelian.

  3. Although the intersection of it with $\mathbb{Q}(\zeta_3)$ is $\mathbb{Q}$, these fields are not linearly disjoint.

[Here $\zeta_3=e^{\frac{2\pi i}{3}}$.]

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The quaternion group of order $8$ has a real irreducible character of degree $2,$ but the associated representation can not be realized over the real field.

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I like Amnon Yekutieli's example of a module whose completion is not complete.

Let $A$ be a commutative ring, $I$ an ideal of $A$ and $M$ an $A$-module. Algebraically you can define the completion $\hat{M}$ of $M$ as the inverse limit of the modules $M / I^k M$ (with the canonical quotient maps $M / I^{k+1} M \to M / I^k M$). There is a canonical module morphism $M \to \hat{M}$ and you can call $M$ ($I$-adically) complete if this is an isomorphism.

I used to think that the completion of an arbitrary module is complete! Rest assured that this is true if $A$ is Noetherian. But it does fail for the simplest example of a non-Noetherian ring: take $A = k[x_1, x_2, \ldots]$ the ring of polynomials in countably many variables, and $M = A$. For the ideal $I = \langle x_1, x_2, \ldots \rangle$ generated by the all variables, the completion $\hat{M}$ is, as one would expect from the finite dimensional case, the ring of power series in countably many variables (these power series should have only finitely many monomials of any given degree, so something like $\sum_i x_i$ does not count). However this module is not $I$-adically complete: indeed, look at the sequence of polynomials $\sum_{i=1}^n x_i^i$. If it did converge to a power series, by comparing coefficients, it is clear that the limit would have to be $\sum_{i=1}^\infty x_i^i$. (Since all power series in $I^k \hat{M}$ have only monomials of degree at least $k$, elements of the completion of $\hat{M}$ have a well-defined coefficient for any monomial.) But it does not in fact converge to that since it is easy to check that the tails, $\sum_{i=j}^\infty x_i^i$ do not lie in any $I^k \hat{M}$, i.e, you can't have an equality of the form $\sum_{i=j}^\infty x_i^i = m_1 g_1 + \cdots + m_l g_l$, where the $m_i$ are finitely many monomials: every term on the RHS mentions one of the finitely many variables present in the $m_i$, but there is no such "finite cover by variables" for the LHS.

I learned this example from Amnon Yekutieli's paper On Flatness and Completion for Infinitely Generated Modules over Noetherian Rings.

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Examples of modules not having a basis.

It is well known that a vector space always has a basis. A module may not have a basis. Here are some examples:

  • The module $\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z}$ of the integers modulo $n$. This module has torsion.
  • The module $\mathbb{Q}$ of the rational numbers over the integers. This module is torsion-free.
  • The module $F[X]$ over the ring $F^\prime[X]$ of polynomials that have coefficient of $X$ equal to $0$. This module is finitely generated and torsion-free.

For more details, you can have a look here.

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A principal ideal with two non-associate generators (i.e. generators that are not unit multiples of each other).

In the ring $k[x,y,z]/(x-xyz)$, we have $([x])=([xy])$, but there is no unit $u$ such that $[xy]=u[x]$. See

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Regarding Schur's lemma:

For a finite group $G$ and $V$ a finite-dimensional irreducible representation of $G$ over a field $K$, there exist endomorphisms of this representation that are not scalar multiples of the identity. For example, take $G=\mathbb{Z}_4$, $K=\mathbb{R}$, and $\rho:\mathbb{Z_4}\rightarrow GL(\mathbb{R}^2)$ given by

$$\rho(1)=\left(\begin{align} 0 & -1 \\\ 1 & \ \ 0 \end{align}\right)$$

Then since $\rho(1)$ has no real eigenvalues the representation is irreducible. But on the other hand, $\mathbb{Z}_4$ is abelian and $\rho(1): \mathbb{R}^2\rightarrow\mathbb{R}^2$ is an endomorphism of this representation.

This is why it is important $K$ be algebraically closed.

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If $V$ is any representation of anything, and if $M$ is any matrix without eigenvalues in $K$ that commutes with everything, then it is a counterexample to Schur's lemma without algebraic closure (the proof of the lemma tells you this). In particular, if the group is abelian these are easy to find. What if the group is not abelian? – Ryan Reich Jun 20 '11 at 15:42

Desmond MacHale wrote an article, "Minimal Counterexamples in Group Theory", Mathematics Magazine, 54 (1981), no. 1, 23–28. I've found this paper useful in an introductory algebra class and I like the philosophy of the paper, "Is X true? No, probably not. So what is a smallest counterexample?" A variation on the group theory (and Irish!) tune of MacHales appears here. A followup article is "Constructing a minimal counterexample in group theory" by Arnold Feldman, also in Mathematics Magazine (1985).

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A finitely generated soluble group isomorphic to a proper quotient group

Let $\mathbb{Q}_2$ be the ring of rational numbers of the form $m2^n$ with $m, n \in \mathbb{Z}$ and $N = U(3, \mathbb{Q}_2)$ the group of unitriangular matrixes of dimension $3$ over $\mathbb{Q}_2$. Let $t$ be the diagonal matrix with diagonal entries: $1, 2, 1$, put $H = < t, N >$ and $w=\left( \begin{array}{ccc} 1 & 0 & 1 \\ 0 & 1 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end{array} \right)$. Then the group $G=H/< w^2 >$ is finitely generated soluble and isomorph to a proper quotient subgroup.

For more details you can see here.

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Counter-example to the idea that algebraic duals cannot become simpler.

Consider the free $\mathbb{Z}$-module on a countable set $V=\mathbb{Z}^{(\omega)}$. The dual is $V^{\ast}\cong \mathbb{Z}^{\omega}$, a countable direct product of $\mathbb{Z}$'s, which is not free and also much bigger than $V$. Strangely, the double dual is $V^{\ast\ast}\cong V$!

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I am also making this list for my record. The examples here are marvelous. I will put something that were not in this list. These examples are from Field Theory.

An Algebraic Extension of Infinite Degree.

$\mathbb{Q}(\sqrt 2, \sqrt 3, \sqrt 5, \cdots)$ over $\mathbb{Q}$.

A Nontrivial Finite Extension that is Isomorphic to the Ground Field.

Let $F=\mathbb{Q}(x)$ and $k=\mathbb{Q}(\sqrt x)$. Then $k$ is a degree-2 extension of $F$. However, they are isomorphic.

A Finite Extension which Contains Infinitely Many Subextensions.

Let $p$ be a prime. Let $F=\mathbb{GF}(p)(x,y)$ and $k=\mathbb{GF} (p) (x^{\frac 1 p},y^{\frac 1 p})$. For any $f(y)\in \mathbb{GF}(p)(y)$, $$ K=F(x^{\frac 1 p} f(y) + y^{\frac 1 p})$$ is a nontrivial subextension of $k$.

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The last is also a finite extension which is not a simple extension. – Gerry Myerson Oct 23 '15 at 6:10

Radical of a primary ideal is prime but not every ideal whose radical is prime is primary. Here is a cute counterexample: Let $I=(x^2,xy)\in F[x,y]$ where $F$ is a field. The radical $\sqrt{I}$ of $I$ is $(x)$ which is prime but $I$ is not primary; $xy\in I$, $x\not\in I$ but no power of $y$ belongs to $I$.

This is from page 154 of Commutative Algebra Vol. 1 by Zariski and Samuel. Now that I check, this is the 1975 printing which I bought on 1979. How time flies when you are having fun! :-)

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If $K/\Bbb Q$ is a number field and $\mathcal{O}_K$ its ring of integers, $\mathcal{O}_K$ need not have a power basis as a $\Bbb Z$-module; i.e., $\mathcal{O}_K\neq\Bbb Z[\alpha]$ for any $\alpha\in\mathcal{O}_K$! An example is given by $K = \Bbb Q(\alpha)$, where $\alpha$ is a root of $T^3 - T^2 - 2T - 8$ (a $\Bbb Z$-basis is instead given by $\{1,\alpha,(\alpha^2 + \alpha)/2\}$).

See Keith Conrad's notes for more detail on this example.

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Here's one from universal algebra: the class of mono-unary algebras $\mathfrak A=(A,f)$ such that $f$ is a permutation with a unique fixed point does not have the unique factorization property for direct decomposition.

(Spoiler alert: if you hover over the gray box, an example of what can go wrong is revealed.)

For $n\equiv1\pmod3$ let $\mathfrak A_n=(A,f)$ where $|A|=n$ and $f$ is a permutation of order $3$ with a unique fixed point; then $\mathfrak A_{100}\cong\mathfrak A_{10}\times\mathfrak A_{10}\cong\mathfrak A_4\times\mathfrak A_{25}$, and $\mathfrak A_4,\mathfrak A_{10},\mathfrak A_{25}$ are indecomposable.

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The (several) results of A.H. Schofield answering Artin's question (in the negative) by constructing skew-field extensions $K \subset L$ such that the right and left degrees are different deserve a mention.

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Assertion: If $S$ is an associative ring with identity and $M, N$ are unital left $S$-modules, then $\hom_S(M,N)$ is a unital left $S$-module.

Th is is false in general. Consider the matrix ring $S:=M_2({\mathbb Z})$, and let $M={\mathbb Z}^2=N$ be equipped with natural $S$-module structure. We have $\hom_S(M,N)\hookrightarrow S$, as additive groups; moreover, if $\phi\in \hom_S(M,N)$, then $\phi(A{\bf v})=A(\phi({\bf v}))$ for every $A\in M_2({\mathbb Z})$ and ${\bf v}\in M$. Thus, the scalar matrices, and only those, are the elements in $\hom_S(M,N)$, since the only matrices that commute with all four of the elementary matrices are precisely the scalar matrices. By the isomorphism ${\mathbb Z}\cong {\mathbb Z} I_2$, we have $X:=\hom_S(M,N)\cong {\mathbb Z}$, and this makes $\hom_{\mathbb Z}(X,X)\cong {\mathbb Z}$.

Now, to make $X=\hom_S(M,N)$ into a unital left $S$-module, we need to give a unital ring homomorphism $S\rightarrow \hom_{\mathbb Z}(X,X)\cong {\mathbb Z}$. But there is no such. To see this, we notice that the elementary matrices in $S$ are nilpotent elements, and therefore, must be mapped to the unique nilpotent element $0\in {\mathbb Z}$. Since a ring homomorphism is additive, the only homomorphism $S\rightarrow {\mathbb Z}$ must be trivial.

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This is obscure, but Mogiljanskaja gave an example of two (and even an infinite sequence of) non-isomorphic semigroups such that their power semigroups are isomorphic. This resolved a question of Schein and Tamura. I don't remember the example now, but I should have the papers in my family house. If this is of any interest to anybody I could try to write it up since the papers are not readily available -- my copies came from Russia by snail mail and it cost a bit. There are two papers. The first shows an example of a sequence of semigroups and is quite simple. The second one adds one semigroup to the sequence and that's a bit more intricate, but still elementary. The semigroups can also easily be made commutative, which Mogiljanskaja remarks on.

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This one is only about terminology, but while the topic is couterexamples in Algebra so it's tempting to give this one: Lie algebra is not an algebra.

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Sure it is. It is just not an associative algebra. – Tobias Kildetoft Dec 15 '14 at 10:59

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