Notation for Software Engineering and CS

CS and Math have a rich and well defined syntax to express the difference between different primitives (e.g: literal, set, list, ...). However, since ideas and documentation often needs to be done in plain-text, there is no official

This article attempts to achieve the following goals:

  1. All-in one place definition and explanation of the notation for common computer science primitives.
  2. For all the primitives in 1., suggest a consistent annotation for plain-text files.
  3. A reference place for myself so that I am consistent with my notation.

Elementary Types


Literals are simple values. For example, in int i = 1, i is a literal. Literals start with a lowercase letter. Examples:

    int i = 1;
    float pressure = 0.5;
    string name = "I, Claudius";


An array is a collection of elements. Those elements can be literals, or complex objects.

Arrays uses square brackets: [1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2].

They are a collection of element with no special restrictions (can repeat, no specific order). Arrays are usually contiguous in memory.

Note that many languages (such as C++) use curly brackets as array initializers -- that conflicts with that is typically used in Mathematics: curly banquets '{' and '}' are usually reserved for sets.


A tuple is a sequence of elements where the order matters. A n-tuple is a sequence of n elements. For example, (1, 2, 3) is a 3-tuple.

Since the order matters, (1, 2, 3) and (3, 2, 1) are two distinct tuples.

Value can repeat in tuples and are not necessarily ordered. So (5, 5, 5, 1, 4) is a valid tuple. (5, 5) is a distinct tuple from (5).

Square brackets '[]' are also sometime used as a notation for tuple since tuples are very similar to arrays.


A set is a collection of distinct objects. Think of a set as telling you if an element is present or not.

For example, the set of people at a party can either contain or not contain each of your friend once.

Set use curly brackets; {1, 2, 3} is a set of items 1, 2 and 3.

Since order does not matter in sets, {1, 2, 3} = {3, 2, 1}; they are considered equivalent. However, it is less confusing to order the elements in a set as a matter of convention, so {1, 2, 3} would be preferred to {3, 2, 1} or {2, 3, 1}, although all three sets are equivalent.

Note that {1, 2, 2} is not a valid set since set do not repeat elements; 2 is present or not, having it twice in the set is meaningless.

Set Relationship

A ⊆ B indicates that A is a subset of B.

A ⊆ B holds true for: A = {1, 2}, B = {1, 2, 3} since all element of A are also in B.

Set References

Complex Types


Graphs are a set of vertices (singular: vertex, somtimes also called nodes) where some pair of vertices are connected by edges (sometimes called links).

A popular notation for graphs is G = (V, E), where V is a set of vertices which are connected by edges E, which are 2-element subsets of V.

For example:

    V = {1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6}
    E = {{1, 2}, {1, 5}, {2, 3}, {2, 5}, {3, 4}, {4, 5}, {4, 6}}

... is a valid graph.

Since E is a set of set, it implies that the edges are not directed and that there are no self loops. In order to have either of those, E would need to be a set of tuples; e.g.: E = {(1,2), (2,1), (2,2), ...}. Here (2, 1) implies a directed edge from vertex 2 to 1.

For a complete yet accessible review of graphs and their use in CS, see MIT6_042, section 5.1.1.


A matrix is a rectangular 2D-array of elements arranges in rows and columns.

A column is vertical whereas a row is horizontal.

A common convention with matrices is that the first number (y) represents the column, and the second (x) the line. In general, column represent different dimensions: they represent different type of entities whereas the line elements represent another instance of the same type of entity.

Matrixes can be represented in plain-text files using a capital letter followed by an underscore, then the column and row number: M_y,x. For example, the last element of a 3x3 matrix 'M' is denoted as M_3,3.

The complete matrix can be enumerated by using square brackets. Since it is hard to represent matrices in a a text file, the coma (;) represents the end of a line. So [1, 2, 3; 4, 5, 6] is the same as:

[1, 2, 3
 4, 5, 6]

A Matrix transposition is noted by appending a 'T' after the matrix closing bracket. So [1, 2, 3; 4, 5, 6]T is:

[1, 4
 2, 5
 3, 6]

Logic Symbols

∀: for all

∃: there exist

References and Links