Counting nilpotent matrices

Consider matrices of order n with entries in the finite field GF(q). The matrix N is called nilpotent when Ne=0 for some e. The minimal nonnegative such e is called the exponent of N. If n > 0, the zero matrix is the unique matrix with exponent 1.

It is an old result that the number of nilpotent matrices with entries in GF(q) is qn(n−1). Proofs have been given by Philip Hall (1955), Fine & Herstein (1958), Gerstenhaber (1961), Crabb (2006) and others. In a more general setting (of which this is the GL(n,q), that is, An−1 case) Steinberg (1968) showed that the number of nilpotent matrices equals q|Φ|, where Φ is the root system. For example, the number of nilpotent skew-symmetric matrices is q2m(m−1) for n=2m, and q2m^2 for n=2m+1.

Counting symmetric nilpotent matrices

The total number of symmetric nilpotent matrices is known. For counts by rank or by exponent, there are partial results.

Clearly, for order 1 there is precisely 1. A little bit of work shows that the number of symmetric nilpotent matrices of order 3 equals q^3 + q^2 − q. Not so nice, but at least a polynomial in q. However, the number of symmetric nilpotent matrices of order 2 is 2q−1 for q=1 (mod 4), 1 for q=3 (mod 4), and q for q even. Not a polynomial in q. That means that we are doing something wrong.

Selfadjoint matrices

Let g(x,y) be a nondegenerate symmetric bilinear form on the vector space V of dimension n over GF(q). The linear map N on V is called selfadjoint (with respect to g) when g(Nx,y) = g(x,Ny) for all x,y in V.

If we choose a basis, then g is given by a matrix G, the Gram matrix of the basis, via g(x,y) = xT G y (with column vectors x,y). Let us call the form g for which G is the identity matrix the standard form. It is given by g(x,y) = Σ xiyi. A matrix is symmetric if and only if it is selfadjoint wth respect to the standard form.

Classification of nondegenerate symmetric bilinear forms

When q is odd and n is even, there are two types of (nondegenerate symmetric bilinear) forms: the elliptic and the hyperbolic one. When q is odd and n is odd, there is a unique type of form, let us call it the parabolic form. When q is even and n is even, there are two types of forms: the standard form and the symplectic form. When q is even and n is odd, there is a unique type of form, the standard form.

For even q, the symplectic and standard forms are easily distinguished: for a symplectic form G has zero diagonal, for a standard form it has not.

For odd q, and even n, the standard form is the orthogonal direct sum of n/2 2-dimensional spaces with standard form. This 2-dimensional space is hyperbolic for q=1 (mod 4), elliptic for q=3 (mod 4). This means that V (with standard form) is elliptic when q=3 (mod 4) and n/2 is odd, and is hyperbolic otherwise.


The above means that it is a bad idea to count symmetric nilpotent matrices. The right thing is to count selfadjoint nilpotent matrices, and distinguish the six cases (elliptic, hyperbolic, parabolic; symplectic, standard (in even dimension), standard (in odd dimension)).

Let us call these counts e(2m), h(2m), p(2m+1) (for odd q), and z(2m), s(2m), s(2m+1) (for even q).

Theorem. All of e(2m), h(2m), p(2m+1), z(2m), s(2m), s(2m+1) are polynomials in q.

Theorem. p(2m+1) = s(2m+1).

Put a(2m) = (h(2m)+e(2m))/2 and d(2m) = (h(2m)−e(2m))/2, so that h(2m) = a(2m)+d(2m) and e(2m) = a(2m)−d(2m).

Theorem. s(2m) = a(2m).

Theorem. z(2m) = q2m^2.

Theorem. p(2m+1) = q2ma(2m) + qmd(2m).

Theorem. p(2m+1) = (q2m−1)a(2m) + z(2m).

Theorem. a(2m) = q2m−1 p(2m−1).

This proves the corollary, conjectured by Sheekey:

Corollary. p(2m+1) = q2m−1 (q2m−1) p(2m−1) + q2m^2.

Counts by rank

Let p(2m+1,r), h(2m,r), e(2m,r) count selfadjoint nilpotent matrices of rank r (for odd q). Then p(2m+1,0) = h(2m,0) = e(2m+2,0) = 1. Again put h(2m,r) = a(2m,r)+d(2m,r) and e(2m,r) = a(2m,r)−d(2m,r). Let [m] abbreviate qm−1, and let Qnom(n,m,q) denote the Gaussian binomial coefficient [n choose m]_q.


(i) p(2m+1,2s+1) = [2m−2s] p(2m+1,2s).

(ii) a(2m,2s+1) = [2m−2s−1] a(2m,2s).

(iii) d(2m,2s) = [2m−2s] d(2m,2s−1).

(iv) [2m]a(2m,r) = [2m−r]p(2m+1,r).

(v) p(2m+1,2s) = qs(s+1) Π0≤i≤s−1 [2m−2i] . Σ0≤i≤s q(s−i)(2m−2s−1) Qnom(m−s−1+i,i,q2).

(vi) d(2m,2s+1) = (q−1)qm+s(s+1)−1 Π1≤i≤s [2m−2i] . Σ0≤i≤s q(s−i)(2m−2s−3) Qnom(m−s−1+i,i,q2).

Once more, as a picture:

so that

We can give an explicit recurrence for these functions. Let p0, h0, e0 count the selfadjoint nilpotent N such that Nx=0 for a fixed nonzero isotropic vector x. Define a0, d0 in the obvious way.

Proposition. These functions are recursively given by the following:

(i) [2m+1−r] p(2m+1,r) = [2m] p0(2m+1,r) + q2m(q−1) a(2m,r) + qm(q−1) d(2m,r).

(ii) [2m−r] a(2m,r) = [2m−1] a0(2m,r) + qm−1(q−1) d0(2m,r) + q2m−1(q−1) p(2m−1,r).

(iii) [2m−r] d(2m,r) = [2m−1] d0(2m,r) + qm−1(q−1) a0(2m,r) − qm−1(q−1) p(2m−1,r).

And for f any of p,h,e,a,d:

(iv) f0(n,r) = qr f(n−2,r) + (q−1)qr−1 f(n−2,r−1) + [n−r]qr−1 f(n−2,r−2).

Here f(n,r) = f0(n,r) = 0 for r < 0 or r > n or r = n > 0. As start of the induction only h(0,0) = 1 is needed.

Generating functions

Let Pn(X) = Σr p(n,r) Xr. Conjecture: P2m+1(−1/q) = q2m(m−1).

Let An(X) = Σr a(n,r) Xr. Conjecture: A2m(−1/q) = q2m(m−2)+1.

Let Dn(X) = Σr d(n,r) Xr. Conjecture: D2m(−1/q) = −(q−1)qm(2m−3).

Counts by exponent

There are results for large exponent (at least half of n). We give the counts for exponent n.

Suppose n > 0. Then the exponent is n iff the rank is n−1. The number of symmetric nilpotent matrices of order n and rank n−1 equals

p(2m+1,2m) = qm^2 [2] [4] ... [2m]
for n = 2m+1. If q is odd and n=2m is even, then
a(2m,2m−1) = d(2m,2m−1) = qm(m−1) [m] [2] [4] ... [2m−2].
So, twice this if the form is hyperbolic, 0 if the form is elliptic. For even q, the count is a(2m,2m−1) if the form is standard, and qm(m−1) [2] [4] ... [2m] if the form is symplectic.


Sums over Young diagrams, as was done by Fine and Herstein.

Recursion via f0, as was done by Lusztig.

Recursion from all matrices to nilpotent matrices via Fitting decomposition, as done by Gow & Sheekey.


Slides of a talk (March 2012).

Send corrections, additions, theorems, proofs to