When should \cdot be used to indicate multiplication?

Is this purely personal style, or are the generally accepted guidelines? Clearly, when dealing with numbers either $2 \cdot 2$ or $2 \times 2$ is needed, but within formulae where an absence of an operator implies multiplication, when should a \cdot be used? I tend to use it only sparingly if it aids in grouping. (Of course, barring the cases where it's required, e.g. a dot product.)

• in german articles it is cdot and in english ones \times. 2\cdot3 or 2\times3 but 2a\cdot3b
– user2478
Jan 11 '12 at 19:55

This is only useful to avoid ambiguity. Two circumstances come to mind:

• Multiplying actual numbers, as you say: 2 \cdot 2 versus 22 is obviously the way to go. More subtly, writing, say, 2 \cdot 3^4 is an improvement over 2 3^4 for the same reason. You might say "of course!" except that sometimes, if you have a pedantic input style (like me) you fool yourself: 2 {13}^2 looks like 213^2.

• Function notation. This is the only time in abstract algebra that juxtaposition of symbols means something other than multiplication; it means the "product" of a function acting on its argument instead. So, for example, if you have a function f(x) and you try to multiply it by x + 1, you could write either f(x + 1) (obviously wrong) or f(x) (x + 1) (too many similar braces). Here, writing f \cdot (x + 1) or f(x) \cdot (x + 1) is probably best.

This is a totally anecdotal answer.

• Dear Ryan. For your second example, there is of course a simple way out by writing (x+1)f or (x+1)f(x) instead :) Mar 23 '12 at 9:15
• @StefanWaldmann unless the factors don't commute, like e.g. when they are quaternion-valued. Feb 27 '17 at 10:06

In "higher" mathematics, no symbol is generally used to denote multiplication, except for avoiding ambiguities.

Well written algebraic expressions very rarely need an explicit symbol for the multiplication, but in this case it's almost always a centered dot (\cdot). I've seen \times used to mark a multiplication when a formula needs to be split, but it's better to split at a "plus" or a "minus" sign (or to use \cdot).

Take into account that \times has acquired a precise technical meaning for denoting set product. However some national typographic traditions might prefer \times (or even a dot at the baseline).

Of course a symbol is necessary when writing the multiplication of two explicit numbers as 2\cdot 3, but usually not in 2(4-1), which is not ambiguous.

Precedence rules usually help in deciding possible ambiguities: a function symbol ties more than operation ones, so

sin(x + 1)(a + b)

should mean "the sine of x+1 multiplied by a+b", but it would be better to write the expression as

(a + b) sin(x + 1)

Note that a dot would still not add to the clarity. Multiplication by explicit numbers has still higher precedence, so

sin 2x

is "the sine of 2x" and not "(the sine of 2) multiplied by x". Here, again, a dot would not add to clarity. In case of doubt, add parentheses:

sin(2x)

For numbers in floating point format, the usage oscillates between \cdot and \times

0.42 · 105 or 0.42 × 105

Using a high level LaTeX package such as siunitx allows to be consistent:

\num{0.42e5}

will print the number according to a standard convention or our personal preference (look at the documentation).

• Excellent answer! To avoid the use of the dot between numbers what I do is put them in parentheses, as occurs when one encloses a negative number in parentheses. For example, (3)(4) instead of 3\cdot4, and also 4(-2) and -x(2). Jan 17 '19 at 16:33

Since multiplication is a binary operation, using $2\mathbin{<whatever>}2$ would provide the correct horizontal spacing. In both instances, \cdot and \times are typeset as a binary relation in terms of spacing: \documentclass{article}
\begin{document}
\begin{tabular}{cc}
\LaTeX & Output \\ \hline
\verb|$2 \cdot 2$| & $2 \cdot 2$ \\
\verb|$2\mathbin{\cdot}2$| & $2\mathbin{\cdot}2$ \\
\verb|$2 \times 2$| & $2 \times 2$ \\
\verb|$2\mathbin{\times}2$| & $2\mathbin{\times}2$
​\end{tabular}
\end{document}​​​​​​​​​

It would depend on whether or not a compact or less compact visualization is required and may therefore result in a personal preference; \cdot for the former or \times for the latter.

Of course, using multiples of variables, you could drop this altogether and just use (say) 2c instead of 2 \cdot c, since it is generally understood that they are the same.

When writing the multiplication of numbers, I would suggest following the recommendations of the International System of Units (see the SI brochure) , i.e. to use \times, not \cdot: Given that the OP's question is not mathematical specific, one other example of when to use \times would be scientific notation. For example, a computer might tell me that the Avogadro constant is 6.02e+23, but I would typeset this as 6.02 \times 10^{23}.

Of course, this is field specific, but my personal observation is that a \times symbol works better than a * or x (letter x) many scientists use who do not understand typesetting.

Surprised to see that no-one has drawn attention to the fact that, while a dot is used for multiplication of symbols in English, \cdot between two numbers will often be interpreted as a decimal point in English. It's only relatively recently that a dot on the line has been used as a decimal separator in English, and that change came about largely because typewriters and computer printers did not have a centred dot. Printed text in English-speaking countries still often uses a centred dot as a decimal marker.

So ideally, avoid \cdot between numbers when they might be read in English, or redefine \times (e.g \let \times \cdot) so that it can easily be switched back for translation.

• I've seen this in old articles. \pi=3\cdot14159… Sep 1 '18 at 3:05
• @phollox, actually, some people think that it would be more correct (more symmetric) if the dot is below the unit digit, instead of to the right of the unit digit.
– alfC
Sep 28 '18 at 2:12