The multinomial theorem

The multinomial theorem is a statement about expanding a polynomial when it is raised to an arbitrary power. Rather than just stating the theorem and showing examples, we motivate the theorem by a concrete example of finite random sampling. This example demonstrates that the notion of finite sampling provides another interpretation to the multinomial thoerem. As a result, the multinomial theorem and the multinomial coefficients are useful in combinatorial techniques in finite random sampling models. The multinomial coefficients are also useful in partitioning a set of objects into several subgroups where each subgroup is made up of indistinguishable objects. See the post The game of poker dice and the multinomial theorem for an example of applications of these ideas.


An example

Suppose we have a finite set S with n elements where n is a positive integer. Suppose we select k elements from the population S with replacement. We consider ordered samples of size k and unordered samples of size k. To make this notion more concrete, consider the population consisting of 4 letters \lbrace{m,i,s,p}\rbrace. Suppose we sample 11 times with replacement. The following are two specific ordered samples of size 11:

    mississippi \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ mississiipp \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ (1)

Thus ordered samples can be represented as strings of characters drawn from the population presented in the order in which the objects are drawn. In this example, there are 4^{11}=4194304 many ordered samples. Each character drawn has 4 choices and the drawing is done 11 times. In general, if the population has size n, then there are n^k many ordered samples of size k.

We now look at unordered samples obtained from sampling 11 times from the population \lbrace{m,i,s,p}\rbrace. In unordered samples, the order in which the letters are drawn is no longer important (or recorded). We only care about the number of instances each letter is selected. Thus each of the ordered samples shown above yields the same unordered sample: 1 \ m, 4 \ i's, 4 \ s's and 2 \ p's. We represent the unordered sample in two ways:


    * \ | \ * \ * \ * \ * \ | \ * \ * \ * \ * \ | \ * \ *

The first representation is a 4-tuple where the coordinates are the number of m's, the number of i's, the number of s's and the number of p's in the 11 selections. Thus, the sum of the coordinates must be 11 (the total number of selections). The second representation of the unordered sample is made up of stars and bars. The three bars create 4 spaces and the stars in each space represent the number of characters drawn. We would like to point out that the “unordered” in the unordered samples refers to the fact that the order in which the objects are drawn is immaterial. However, both the 4-tuple notation and the stars and bars diagrams are ordered according to the 4 letters in the population (showing how many instances each object appears in the samples).

The star and bar diagram has a combinatorial advantage. For example, how many unordered samples are there when you draw 11 letters with replacement from the population \lbrace{m,i,s,p}\rbrace? In any unordered sample, there are 3 bars and 11 stars. The order of the stars and bars can be in any arbitrary order. Thus there are \displaystyle \binom{11+3}{11}=364 many unordered samples. In general, if the population size is n, then there are \displaystyle \binom{k+n-1}{k}=\binom{k+n-1}{n-1} many unordered samples, either represented as k-tuples or stars and bars diagrams with n-1 bars and k stars.

One more note about the number 364 calculated above. This is also the total number of non-negative integer solutions to the equation m+i+s+p=11. Thinking of an unordered sample as a 4-tuple, the sum of the 4 coordinates must be 11. This observation is important to understanding the multinomial theorem.

There is one more count associated with unordered samples. How many unordered samples are there when you draw 11 letters with replacement from the population \lbrace{m,i,s,p}\rbrace such that each letter is selected at least once? The answer is 120. Suppose that each letter is already selected once. Then we need to sample 7 more times out of these 4 letters. According to the above paragraph, the total count is \displaystyle \binom{7+3}{3}=120. To generalize, if the population size is n, there are \displaystyle \binom{k-n+n-1}{n-1}=\binom{k-1}{n-1} many unordered samples in which all objects in the population are represented in each sample.

We now tie unordered samples back to ordered samples. How many ordered samples are equivalent to the unordered sample (1,4,4,2)? Both ordered samples in (1) are equivalent to (1,4,4,2) (i.e. each letter is drawn the same number of times). In other words, how many 11-character strings can be formed using 1 \ m, 4 \ i's, 4 \ s's and 2 \ p's? The answer is:

    \displaystyle \begin{aligned}\binom{11}{1} \binom{10}{4} \binom{6}{4} \binom{2}{2}&=\displaystyle \frac{11!}{1! \ 4! \ 4! \ 2!}\\&=34650\end{aligned}

The reasoning for the above calculation is that out of 11 positions in the strings, we choose 1 position for the m, choose 4 positions for the i in the remaining 10 positions and so on.


Summary of the example

In sampling 11 times with replacement from the population \lbrace{m,i,s,p}\rbrace, we summarize our observations about the example.

  • The number of ordered samples is 4^{11}=4194304.
  • The number of unordered samples is \displaystyle \binom{11+3}{11}=364. Furthermore, the number of non-negative integer solutions to the equation m+i+s+p=11 is 364.
  • The number of unordered samples where each letter is selected is \displaystyle \binom{7+3}{3}=120. Furthermore, the number of positive integer solutions to the equation m+i+s+p=11 is 120.
  • For any unordered sample (a,b,c,d) where a+b+c+d=11, the total number of ordered samples equivalent to this unordered sample is \displaystyle \frac{11!}{a! \ b! \ c! \ d!}. As we shall see, these are called multinomial coefficients.

Note the interplay between the ordered samples and unordered samples. We start out with a large number of ordered samples (4^{11} many). We then collapse these ordered samples to just 364 unordered samples. We see that each unordered sample corresponds to certain number of ordered samples according to the multinomial coefficients. Thus we have the following sum where a,b,c,d are non-negative integers:

    \displaystyle \sum \limits_{a+b+c+d=11} \frac{11!}{a! \ b! \ c! \ d!}=4^{11}


The Multinomial Theorem

With the preceding discussion, we now state the multinomial theorem.

The Multinomial Theorem
For any positive integer n and any positive integer k, we have the following polynomial expansion:

    \displaystyle \biggl(x_1+x_2+ \cdots +x_n\biggr)^k=\sum \limits_{a_1+ \cdots +a_n=k} \frac{k!}{a_1! \ a_2! \cdots \ a_n!} \ x_1^{a_1} x_2^{a_2} \cdots x_n^{a_n}

The same observations we make about the example apply. For example, the number of terms in the polynomial expansion is \displaystyle \binom{k+n-1}{k}, which is the number of non-negative integer solutions to the equation a_1+ \cdots +a_n=k. Each term x_1^{a_1} x_2^{a_2} \cdots x_n^{a_n} in the polynomial expansion can be considered as an unordered sample in the finite sampling with replacement. Then the coefficient of each term (called multinomial coefficient) is the number of associated ordered samples. As a result, the multinomial coefficients sum to n^k.

We conclude with two interpretations of the multinomial coefficient.

    \displaystyle \frac{k!}{a_1! \ a_2! \cdots \ a_n!} \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ (2)

If we have n many distinct symbols (say x_1,x_2, \cdots, x_n) and we have a_1 many x_1, a_2 many x_2 and so on, then the multinomial coefficient in (2) is the number of k-length character strings that can be formed using the available symbols.

Another interpretation is that of partitioning a set of k objects into n subgroups where the objects in each subgroup are indistinguishable.

Both interpretations are one and the same, just looking at the same result in a different angle. For example, all three of the following yield the same answer: \text{34,650}. We have 11 letters (one m, four i's, four s's and two p's), how many character strings can be formed with these letters?

On the other hand, we have 11 identical candies randomly distributed to Marcus, Issac, Samantha and Paul. How many ordered samples will result if Marcus receives one candy, Issac receives four candies, Samantha receives four candies and Paul receives two candies? Here, we are trying to partition a set of 11 objects into four subgroups where one group has one element, two of the groups have four elements each and another group has two elements.

If we have 11 candidates for forming four distinct committees where one committee has one member, two of the committees have four members each and another one has two members. In how many ways can this be done?


  1. Feller, W., An Introduction to Probability Theory and its Applications, Vol. I, 3rd ed., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1968

Revised March 28, 2015
\copyright \ \text{2010 - 2015 by Dan Ma}


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