On logic

As part of my postgraduate life here in Edinburgh, I’m expected to tutor a couple of dozen first (of four) year undergraduate Mathematics students. Thus I was involved in the marking of their group theory exam last Friday. As the questions were being assigned to markers, there seemed to be a reluctance to take the logic question, probably because students manage to tie themselves in hard-to-follow knots with this material. However, I spent some of my previous year at Bath tutoring on set theory and logic to Physicists, so was prepared for the worst, and I’d also spotted that the question was multiple choice, so the actual marking shouldn’t be too taxing, so I took responsibility for that one.

Still, 207 scripts later I was somewhat worried by the general standard. There were quite a few attempts which received full marks, but many more received zero, including elsewhere high-scoring candidates. Whilst the emphasis of a group theory exam should be group theory, the pressure of an exam and lack of access to notes will always dampen performance, and I probably received a few scripts that were pure guesswork, that’s still a disappointment. Whilst it pains me to say it, a student could become competent at first year undergraduate mathematics just by learning how to ‘turn the handle’ of appropriate bits of mathematical machinery, and as this is pretty much all that they do at school, they may find that university-level mathematics isn’t really the subject they thought it was. To make the leap from computation to understanding, it strikes me as vital to gain mastery of basic logical manipulation. Nor should this just be the domain of Mathematicians; if anything, a precise understanding of the structure of an argument (and its falsification) should be even more crucial to the Humanities.

So I’m going to reproduce the question here and then attempt to unravel it in a precise manner but without recourse to the more abstract approaches of formal logic, in the hope that everyone can follow. Here goes:

Consider the statements:

A. All people who can sing in tune are musical.

B. Some people who cannot sing in tune are musical.

C. Some unmusical people can sing in tune.

D. Some unmusical people cannot sing in tune.

E. No unmusical person can sing in tune.

Mark with the number 1 any of the statements B,C,D,E that are logically equivalent to statement A, with 2 any that are (logically equivalent to) the negation of A, with 3 any that are (logically equivalent to) the converse of A, with 4 any that are (logically equivalent to) the negation of the converse of A and with 0 any which are in none of the above categories.

Solution is behind the cut, so if you want to try this yourself without spoilers, now’s the time!

It seems that the easiest way to proceed is to establish what an example of each number would look like, then match those to the statements given. To do so, of course, requires an understanding of the notions of negation and converse.


Amongst the scripts which contained some reasoning (rather than just a final answer), the overwhelming majority of those that went wrong did so because of a misunderstanding of negation. To negate a statement is to make it false: not to find its complete opposite. For our statement

all people who can sing in tune are musical

negating is as simple as putting “not” in front:

not all people who can sing in tune are musical

But what I tended to see was the opposite of A:

no people who can sing in tune are musical

Certainly, if no tuneful people were musical, then it would be the case that not all tuneful people are musical. But this over-reaches: all we need to negate the statement is one unmusical, tuneful person; not that every tuneful person be unmusical.

Put another way, statement A asserts that it is impossible to be an unmusical person who sings in tune. So if I tell you that Bob sings in tune, you know he’s musical. Its negation therefore asserts that it is possible to find such an individual; i.e., knowing that Bob sings in tune tells you nothing about his musical status. But the opposite is concerned with a different group of people: it means that if I tell you that Alice is a musical person, you can conclude (oddly) that she can’t sing in tune.


The converse of a statement is its reversal: that Y causes X, instead of X causing Y. This won’t, in general, have the same meaning, and often won’t even be talking about the same things. The converse of our statement A is as follows:

All people who are musical can sing in tune

Now we know that given a musical person, we can count on them to sing in tune; but we no longer make any assertions about the musical nature of someone who can sing in tune. They could be musical, in which case our statement above doesn’t generate any contradiction (it verifies their ability to sing in tune); but if they’re not, since the statement says nothing about them, there is no problem.

More formally, we are dealing with statements of the form “P implies Q”, equivalently, “if P, then Q”. Sometimes, one has the situation of “P, if and only if Q” which is the combination of P implies Q and Q implies P. So we can speak of necessary and sufficient conditions: if you know one holds, you can be sure the other does (sufficient), and if you know one doesn’t, you also know the other doesn’t (necessary). This is the concept of logical equivalence which we also need for answering the question.

It’s vital to recognise that a statement needn’t be logically equivalent to its converse: that P can mean Q without Q meaning P. Whilst it’s necessary to drive at 20mph to hit 150mph (150 implies 20, if only briefly), no-one argues that driving at 20mph should be banned because all the 150mph drivers have done it, since it’s not inevitable (i.e., 20 doesn’t imply 150) that driving at slow speeds will lead to faster ones. Nonetheless, the same (invalid) argument arises for “gateway drugs”- even if it was the case that all class A drug users had used cannabis, that tells you nothing about a random cannabis user’s taste for stronger substances, since the (assumed) necessary condition (class A use implies cannabis use) doesn’t prove the converse, that cannabis use is sufficient to get you on the harder stuff.

Negation of converse

Since we know the converse, and know how to negate, this is easy:

Not all people who are musical can sing in tune

That is, a musical person needn’t be able to sing in tune, so knowing about someone’s musical ability sheds no light on their singing under this assumption.


So we have

1) All people who can sing in tune are musical

2) Not all people who can sing in tune are musical (negation)

3) All people who are musical can sing in tune (converse)

4) Not all people who are musical can sing in tune (negation of converse)

0) None of the above


1) Tuneful and unmusical is impossible

2) Tuneful and unmusical is possible (negation)

3) Musical and untuneful is impossible (converse)

4) Musical and untuneful is possible (negation of converse)

The answer

So we can compare to our given statements.

B says there are untuneful people who are nonetheless musical; this is the same as 4.

C says there are unmusical people who can sing in tune; this is the same as 2.

D says it’s possible to be an unmusical, untuneful person; none of our reformulations consider such individuals, so we have case 0.

E says that being unmusical prevents you from being someone who sings in tune, so it’s impossible to be both, that is, we have case 1, a rewording of A.

That’s it! I’d be interested to know how people got on with this, whether you tried it ‘cold’ or followed the explanation some of the way. I’m also bound to have mistyped something in a crucial way, so let me know if you spot an inconsistency.


  1. Hi,

    The jump you talk of from A Levels to university is one which I experienced myself. It took me three quarters of the first semester before I realised what was expected of me and what I must do. (Namely because of a lecturer!)

    I think if we’re going to sit back and let all them 300 students struggle initially and find their own way, then inevitably a lot are going to be lost on the way. I consider myself very lucky to have found my footing, and the experience I believe of finding my feet was necessary. However, do we want 50 odd students to drop out because they failed and another 50 to change course because maths is not what it used to be? I think maths to a majority of students doing a maths degree used to be ‘easy’ (they didn’t have to work as hard), however at university it is very different indeed.

    I would have had a huge problem answering that question in the exam. 😮 (It’s the sentences that confuse me- I sort of understand the logic behind it, but playing around with the words in not very beans friendly!) Would you use the contrapositive for A? (On how I got on- I suck at negations!)

  2. Hi beans, did you find your way here from here?

    My main concern is that many students who think they want to be mathematicians because they did well at maths a-level would in fact find university physics, engineering or CS a better match, but are then unable or unwilling to transfer. That said, there was a fair bit of flexibility at Bath, where I was an undergrad- you could transfer to one of the maths with * courses, or take a broader range of modules for a mathematical sciences degree; and for those on the flip side, moving up to the MMath from the Bsc as I did is also possible. In fact, I can’t think of many coursemates who stuck to their original choice, and I had friends who were technically on the same degree who took completely different modules to me in the last year. Here at Edinburgh, meanwhile, students study two subjects initially (I had a lot of maths+informatics) and presumably can specialise to one of those at the end, which provides another way to recover from a maths course that didn’t meet expectations.

    The question is, how can we make the a-level (or at least further maths a-level) a better indicator of the ‘true’ nature of mathematics, without driving away students who are taking it to supplement other numerate disciplines and already find it painfully abstract? Should basic reasoning skills like the ones developed in the above problem be part of the much maligned general studies course?

  3. Hi,

    Yes, I followed the link from your comment. I think they may still be suited to maths but they get a ‘shock’ so to speak, since they’ve never had to previously work that hard at maths. If they put in the extra hours they could be ok. However I think universities discourage (in a way!) students from starting their first year at a running pace. Our first year is worth squat. All that matters is whether or not we pass or fail. A lot of students seem to have the attitude that all they have to do is pass and they’ll study the following years. If indeed out first year had been worth something then maybe more of the students would try harder? I’m generalising I suppose, since I do know quite a few many students who do work throughtout the year.

    We have more flexibility starting from our second semseter next year. (can choose outside course modules etc) and I could also transfer onto the MMath from the BSc. Yes I agree- these students are capable mathematicians but it is the system that is probably letting them down. I think the ability to appreciate proofs and possibly do them should be part of the syllabus, since that is one of the most important things of doing maths at a higher level. Having read the paper at Maths Under the Microscope, it’s so easy to dismiss any chance of change. 🙁

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