Modus tollens

In propositional logic, modus tollens (/ˈmdəs ˈtɒlɛnz/; MT; also modus tollendo tollens (Latin for "mode that by denying denies")[1] or denying the consequent)[2] is a valid argument form and a rule of inference. It is an application of the general truth that if a statement is true, then so is its contrapositive.

The inference rule modus tollens asserts that the inference from P implies Q to the negation of Q implies the negation of P is valid.

The modus tollens rule can be stated formally as:

where stands for the statement "P implies Q". stands for "it is not the case that Q" (or in brief "not Q"). Then, whenever "" and "" each appear by themselves as a line of a proof, then "" can validly be placed on a subsequent line. The history of the inference rule modus tollens goes back to antiquity.[3]

Modus tollens is closely related to modus ponens. There are two similar, but invalid, forms of argument: affirming the consequent and denying the antecedent. See also contraposition and proof by contrapositive.

The first to explicitly describe the argument form modus tollens was Theophrastus.[4]

Formal notation

The modus tollens rule may be written in sequent notation:

where is a metalogical symbol meaning that is a syntactic consequence of and in some logical system;

or as the statement of a functional tautology or theorem of propositional logic:

where and are propositions expressed in some formal system;

or including assumptions:

though since the rule does not change the set of assumptions, this is not strictly necessary.

More complex rewritings involving modus tollens are often seen, for instance in set theory:

("P is a subset of Q. x is not in Q. Therefore, x is not in P.")

Also in first-order predicate logic:

("For all x if x is P then x is Q. y is not Q. Therefore, y is not P.")

Strictly speaking these are not instances of modus tollens, but they may be derived from modus tollens using a few extra steps.



  1. The argument has two premises.
  2. The first premise is a conditional or "if-then" statement, for example that if P then Q.
  3. The second premise is that it is not the case that Q.
  4. From these two premises, it can be logically concluded that it is not the case that P.

Consider an example:

If the watch-dog detects an intruder, the watch-dog will bark.
The watch-dog did not bark.
Therefore, no intruder was detected by the watch-dog.

Supposing that the premises are both true (the dog will bark if it detects an intruder, and does indeed not bark), it follows that no intruder has been detected. This is a valid argument since it is not possible for the conclusion to be false if the premises are true. (It is conceivable that there may have been an intruder that the dog did not detect, but that does not invalidate the argument; the first premise is "if the watch-dog detects an intruder." The thing of importance is that the dog detects or does not detect an intruder, not whether there is one.)

Another example:

If I am the axe murderer, then I can use an axe.
I cannot use an axe.
Therefore, I am not the axe murderer.

Another example:

If Rex is a chicken, then he is a bird.
Rex is not a bird.
Therefore, Rex is not a chicken.

Relation to modus ponens

Every use of modus tollens can be converted to a use of modus ponens and one use of transposition to the premise which is a material implication. For example:

If P, then Q. (premise – material implication)
If not Q, then not P. (derived by transposition)
Not Q . (premise)
Therefore, not P. (derived by modus ponens)

Likewise, every use of modus ponens can be converted to a use of modus tollens and transposition.

Justification via truth table

The validity of modus tollens can be clearly demonstrated through a truth table.

p q p → q

In instances of modus tollens we assume as premises that p → q is true and q is false. There is only one line of the truth table—the fourth line—which satisfies these two conditions. In this line, p is false. Therefore, in every instance in which p → q is true and q is false, p must also be false.

Formal proof

Via disjunctive syllogism

Step Proposition Derivation
3Material implication (1)
4Disjunctive syllogism (2,3)

Via reductio ad absurdum

Step Proposition Derivation
4Modus ponens (1,3)
5Conjunction introduction (2,4)
6Reductio ad absurdum (3,5)
7Conditional introduction (2,6)

Via contraposition

Step Proposition Derivation
3Contraposition (1)
4Modus ponens (2,3)

Correspondence to other mathematical frameworks

Probability calculus

Modus tollens represents an instance of the law of total probability combined with Bayes' theorem expressed as:


where the conditionals and are obtained with (the extended form of) Bayes' theorem expressed as:

and .

In the equations above denotes the probability of , and denotes the base rate (aka. prior probability) of . The conditional probability generalizes the logical statement , i.e. in addition to assigning TRUE or FALSE we can also assign any probability to the statement. Assume that is equivalent to being TRUE, and that is equivalent to being FALSE. It is then easy to see that when and . This is because so that in the last equation. Therefore, the product terms in the first equation always have a zero factor so that which is equivalent to being FALSE. Hence, the law of total probability combined with Bayes' theorem represents a generalization of modus tollens [5].

Subjective logic

Modus tollens represents an instance of the abduction operator in subjective logic expressed as:


where denotes the subjective opinion about , and denotes a pair of binomial conditional opinions, as expressed by source . The parameter denotes the base rate (aka. the prior probability) of . The abduced marginal opinion on is denoted . The conditional opinion generalizes the logical statement , i.e. in addition to assigning TRUE or FALSE the source can assign any subjective opinion to the statement. The case where is an absolute TRUE opinion is equivalent to source saying that is TRUE, and the case where is an absolute FALSE opinion is equivalent to source saying that is FALSE. The abduction operator of subjective logic produces an absolute FALSE abduced opinion when the conditional opinion is absolute TRUE and the consequent opinion is absolute FALSE. Hence, subjective logic abduction represents a generalization of both modus tollens and of the Law of total probability combined with Bayes' theorem [6].

See also


  1. Stone, Jon R. (1996). Latin for the Illiterati: Exorcizing the Ghosts of a Dead Language. London: Routledge. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-415-91775-9.
  2. Sanford, David Hawley (2003). If P, Then Q: Conditionals and the Foundations of Reasoning (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-415-28368-7. [Modus] tollens is always an abbreviation for modus tollendo tollens, the mood that by denying denies.
  3. Susanne Bobzien (2002). "The Development of Modus Ponens in Antiquity", Phronesis 47.
  4. "Ancient Logic: Forerunners of Modus Ponens and Modus Tollens". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. Audun Jøsang 2016:p.2
  6. Audun Jøsang 2016:p.92


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