nLab direction of a vector


This entry is about the concepts of direction of a vector and of a line in linear algebra/analytic geometry. For the concept in order theory see at direction.


Linear algebra

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see also algebraic topology



Paths and cylinders

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Basic facts




In vector/affine geometry the parallel? vectors with the same orientation form an equivalence class. The same holds for oriented lines and even higher dimensional oriented subspaces. The equivalence class of a vector (or other object) is called its direction. (In the case of higher dimension we may say “nn-direction”; see also bivector.) If the vector space is normed, then each such equivalence class has a canonical unit vector representative, called a direction vector.

If we neglect the orientation we get a bigger equivalence class, called the unoriented direction. Unoriented directions have a representing unit vector only up to sign.


Oriented direction


For VV a real vector space, or more generally a vector space over an ordered field, the direction of a non-zero vector vVv \in V is its equivalence class under the multiplication with positive scalars.

If VV is a normed vector space (such as an inner product space with the induced norm vv,vv\mapsto \sqrt{\langle v, v\rangle}), the direction of vv is canonically represented by the unit norm vector obtained by multiplying vv with the inverse of its norm

1|v|vS(V)V, \tfrac{1}{\vert v\vert} v \;\in \; S(V) \subset V \,,

which may be regarded as an element of the unit sphere S(V)S(V) of VV.

(e.g. MathWorld)


Recall that a nonzero vector vv is parallel to a linear subspace WW of a vector space VV if vv has a representative of the form AB\vec{A B} (i.e. v=BAv = B - A) with A,BWA,B\in W. When WW is a line, we say that vv furthermore has the same orientation as WW if AB\vec{A B} points (in the sense of def. ) in the positive direction along WW.


The direction of a non-zero vector vVv \in V is the equivalence class of oriented lines parallel to vv and having the same orientation.

Unoriented direction

Similarly, the unoriented direction of a non-zero vector in any vector space is its equivalence class under multiplication by non-zero elements of the ground field, hence the element it represents in the corresponding projective space PVP V. Unlike oriented direction, this makes sense over an arbitrary field.

The unit direction vector can be attached not only to a (direction of) a vector but also to a direction of lines per se (see Wikipedia, Direction vector).

J. Lelong-Ferrand defines the direction of an affine subspace of an affine space as its orbit under the action of the translation group. This agrees with the parallelness in Choquet where two affine subspaces of the same dimension are parallel if their translation group of vectors (as a subgroup of the group of vectors of translations of the entire space) is the same.



(wave fronts)

In microlocal analysis the wave front set of a distribution records the direction (def. ) of all those wave vectors along which, locally, the Fourier transform of the distribution is not a rapidly decaying function.


  • MathWorld, Unit vector

  • Gustave Choquet, Geometry in a modern setting, Hermann 1969

  • K. Horvatić, Linear algebra (in Croatian), 2004

  • Jacquelline Lelong-Ferrand, Les fondements de la géométrie, Presses Universitaires de France 1985.

Last revised on June 7, 2023 at 08:40:22. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.