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Combinatorics Definitions and Examples

Multiplication principle, or rule of product:

The number of ways to make n consecutive independent choices is the product of the
number of alternatives for each choice.

Example: There are 3 x 4 x 5 = 60 outfits possible when choosing to wear one of 3

shirts, 4 pairs of pants, and 5 hats.

Summation principle, or rule of sum:

The number of ways to make a single choice from among disjoint sets of alternatives
is the sum of the number of alternatives in each set.

Example: There are 5 = 3 + 2 ways to choose to put on one of 3 possible pairs of

shorts, or 2 possible pairs of pants. Nonexample: the number of ways to roll either a
multiple of 2 or of 3 on a single die is not 5 = 3 ways to roll a multiple of 2 (2, 4, or 6)
+ 2 ways to roll a multiple of 3 (3 or 6). This is because the possibilities are not
disjoint: 6 is a multiple both 2 and of 3. The number of multiples of 2 or 3 is 4 (2,3,4,
or 6).


The number of ways to arrange n different objects in a row is

n x (n-1) x (n-2) x  x 3 x 2 x 1 (also written n! and called “n factorial”)

Example: The number of ways to arrange 5 books on a shelf is

5! = 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120


The number of ways to arrange k out of n objects (that is, choose k from the n and
then arrange those k) is n x (n-1) x  x (n-k+1) = n!/(n-k)!
In other words, it is a product of k factors, starting at n and going down.
This is often written as P(n,k) or as nPk

Example: The number of ways to arrange 3 books on a shelf selected from 5 books is
5 x 4 x 3 = 5!/2! = 60,

The number of ways to choose k out of n objects (ignoring their order) is

⎝k ⎠
P / k! = n!/k!(n-k)! and is written C(n,k), or nCk, or
n k . (Read “n choose k”)

Example: The number of ways to choose 3 books from 5 books is

(5 x 4 x 3) / 2! = 5! / 3! 2! = 30

Notice that C(n,k) = C(n,(n-k)) because choosing k items is the same as choosing to
exclude the remaining n-k items.


There are many different tricks that we can use to help us count. The tricks,
together with the basic techniques above, allow us to solve many more problems. Here
are a few tricks.

 Simplify the problem by overcounting and then correcting your count by the
amount you overcounted. Often, such correction is obtained either by division or

Example: the number of necklaces with 5 different colored beads is not 5!,
because this counts each bracelet 10 times: one for each rotation clockwise by
one position, and one for the same bracelets flipped over. We therefore divide
by 10 to get 5! / 10 = 12 different necklaces. Here we divide by the number of

Example: the number of ways to roll a single die and obtain either a multiple of
2 or 3 is not 5 (since, as discussed above, we’ve counted “6” twice), but the
correct answer is obtained by correcting: subtract the number of items that
were counted twice to get 5 – 1 = 4.

 Separate into cases and use the summation principle.

Example: the number of ways to roll a number less than or equal to 4 when
rolling two dice is computed by adding together the separate answers for the
number of ways to roll 2, 3, or 4: 1 (1-1) + 2 (1-2 or 2-1) + 3 (1-3, 2-2, or 3-
1) =6.

 Instead of counting the possibilities you are interested in, count all the other
possibilities instead, and subtract from the total number.

Example: a die is rolled 3 times in succession. How many different outcomes

have a “6” occurring at least once? You could break this into three cases (a 6
occurs once, a 6 occurs twice, and a 6 occurs thrice). But it is easiest to
consider the number of different ways no 6 can occur, and subtract from the
total number of possible outcomes. By the multiplication principle, there are 5
x 5 x 5 = 125 possible outcomes when the die is rolled three times (we assume
order matters) without obtaining a 6. There are 6 x 6 x 6 = 216 possible
outcomes in all. Consequently, the number of three-roll sequences that contain
at least one 6 is exactly 216 – 125 = 91.

 mix and match all of the above tricks, and the various principles.


Many probability problems are really just counting problems. Identify a set S of
possible outcomes. The probability that the event T occurs is defined to be the
fraction of the S possibilities for which T holds also. Thus, the probability that a
number is rolled on a die that is a multiple of 2 or of 3 is 4/6 = 2/3, because there are
6 possible outcomes for the die, and of these, 4 of them are multiples of 2 and/or 3.

In probability problems, the numerator and the denominator are often best dealt with
as separate combinatorial counting problems.

Example: If 5 kids line up for recess in a random order, what is the probability that
Arnie and Becky are next to each other? There are 5! = 120 ways for the kids to line
up. Among these, 48 in which Arnie and Becky are together, so the probability is
48/120 = 2/5. (Where did 48 come from? Treat Arnie/Becky as one object, and
there are then 4! = 24 ways to arrange them with the other 3 people. But we’ve
undercounted because each of these can occur with Arnie first, or with Becky first.
So, we multiply by 2 to count all of the possibilities.

Example: What is the probability of getting a full house in a 5-card hand? The
denominator is the number of possible 5-card hands, which is C(52,5). For the
numerator of the probability, we must answer: How many of these are full-houses?
That is, consist of a pair and a triplet? The number of ways to choose the rank of the
cards that form the pair and the triplet is C(13,2). But we also need to choose which
of the 4 cards of the given ranks are to be included. For the triplet, there are 4 =
C(4,1) possibilities (leave out the clubs, leave out the hearts, …). For the pair, there
are C(4,2) possibilities (choose two suits from among the 4). Using the multiplication
principle, the numerator is then C(13,2) x C(4,1) x C( 4,2).

Pascal’s Triangle

⎝k ⎠
The kth element in the nth row of Pascal’s triangle is .

Note for algebra teachers: this entry in Pascal’s triangle is also the coefficient of
akbn-k when (a+b)n is multiplied out.

Another note. There are zillions of interesting properties and activities related to
Pascal’s triangle. Surf the web.