Factorials, Permutations and Combinations
A factorial is represented by the sign (!). When we encounter n! (known
as ‘n factorial’) we say that a factorial is the product of all the whole numbers
between 1 and n, where n must always be positive.
0! is a special case factorial.
This is special because there are no positive numbers less than zero and we defined
a factorial as a product of the numbers between n and 1. We say that 0! = 1 by claiming
that the product of no numbers is 1. The reasoning and mathematics behind this is
complicated and beyond the scope of this page, so let’s just accept 0! as equal
This works out to be mathematically true and allows us to redefine n! as follows:
The above allows us to manipulate factorials and break them up, which is useful
in combinations and permutations.
Useful Factorial Properties
The last two properties are important to remember. The factorial sign DOES NOT distribute
across addition and subtraction.
Permutations and Combinations
Permutations and Combinations in mathematics both refer to different ways of arranging
a given set of variables. Permutations are not strict when it comes to the order
of things while Combinations are.
For example; given the letters abc
The Permutations are listed as follows
Combinations on the other hand are considered different, all the above are considered
the same since they have the exact same letters only arranged different. In other
words, in combination, you can’t just rearrange the same letters and then claim
to have a completely different combination. Combinations are done differently: Given
abc, we can make a number of combinations by taking groups of letters at
In groups of 1 we get
In groups of 2 we get
In groups of 3 we get
From the above, you should see that Combinations are about finding how many ways
you can combine the different elements of the given entity.
The notation for Combinations is given as
which means the number of combinations of n items taking r items at
means find the number of ways 3 items can be combined, taking 2 at a time, and from
the example before, we saw that this was 3.
Another example to further illustrate this is as follows:
Given four letters abcd find
Remember that the order doesn’t matter when it comes to combinations, i.e. bcd
is the same as dbc which is also the same as cdb
in other words,
Combinations are also commonly denoted as
and in question in the example above could have been asked as
So it is important to remember that
Now that we’ve seen what combinations are, let us move on to relating factorials
The Combination function can be defined using factorials as follows:
We can prove that this is true using the previous example;
which is the same answer we got before.
Let us return to Permutations, which we defined above and also saw an example of.
Permutations are denoted by the following
which means the number of permutations of n items taken r items at
For example; given 3 letters abc find
Remember that the repetition is allowed in permutations unlike in combinations;
which mean that there are 6 ways, in other words
The Permutation function can also be using factorials:
We can prove the above using the previous example
Which is the same answer as before.
If you take a close look at the formulae for Combinations and Permutations, you
will be able to see that the two can be expressed in terms of one another, i.e.
from the above, the following relationship can be derived:
The above can be proved by substituting the formula for permutations into the equation
Which as we already saw is the formula for Combinations.
Examples of Factorials, Permutations and Combinations
Evaluate the following without using a calculator
We have seen that a relatively big number (like 10 in this example) can be broken
down into a product of factorials i.e.
We can use the above to evaluate the expression as
Since 7! appears both in the numerator and denominator, we can proceed to cancel
Evaluate the following
We have already defined the combination notation above as:
Therefore, we can just substitute in the above formula
The numerator and denominator are equal so we can just cancel them out as
Evaluate the following expression
The notation above shouldn’t be all that unfamiliar if you’ve gone through the page
this entire page. We have seen that
Thus it follows that
So as in the previous example, we can just substitute and solve
but the following is also true
and we can quickly also see that
And so we can substitute the above to make the computation easier
Canceling out equal terms in the numerator and denominator results in
= 5 x 4 = 20
Compute the following
The notation used above is the permutation notation and it means the following:
Thus we can substitute for the variable to obtain:
3! cancels out to leave the following expression
Quiz on Factorials, Permutations and Combinations
of 20 people?
The above question is asking how many ways you can pick 5 things from 20 things,
which in essence is asking how many combinations of 5 things you can pick from a
pool of 20 things i.e.
How many of these outcomes have 6 tails?
When you flip a coin once, there are two possible outcomes; a head or a tail. If
you flip the coin more than once, the out comes appear in combinations of heads
and tails: for example: if you flip the coin twice you’ll end up with; 2 heads,
or 2 tails, or a head and a tail or a tail and a head. In other words, we’re looking
for combinations! Therefore the question is asking for
This question is really simple, the trick is to ignore that misleading choice of
word combinations. This question is about permutations since we’ve been asked to
arrange the letters without any order in mind.
All we have to do here is count the number of letters in the word ‘COMBINATIONS’
COMBINATIONS with the first 3 letters as BAN?
This question is similar to the one above, we’re still being asked for permutations
(arrangement) of the letters of the word ‘COMBINATIONS’. The only difference here
is that we have been asked that the first 3 letters of all the different permutations
must be ‘BAN’.
So how do we deal with that?
The solution is to subtract the number of letters whose position is constant and
then permutate the remaining letters:
Therefore the number of different ways to arrange the letters in ‘COMBINATIONS’
with ‘BAN’ as the first letter: