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Journal of the American Mathematical Society

Published by the American Mathematical Society, the Journal of the American Mathematical Society (JAMS) is devoted to research articles of the highest quality in all areas of mathematics.

ISSN 1088-6834 (online) ISSN 0894-0347 (print)

The 2020 MCQ for Journal of the American Mathematical Society is 4.83.

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Measure preserving words are primitive
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by Doron Puder and Ori Parzanchevski
J. Amer. Math. Soc. 28 (2015), 63-97
Published electronically: April 17, 2014


We establish new characterizations of primitive elements and free factors in free groups, which are based on the distributions they induce on finite groups. For every finite group $G$, a word $w$ in the free group on $k$ generators induces a word map from $G^{k}$ to $G$. We say that $w$ is measure preserving with respect to $G$ if given uniform distribution on $G^{k}$, the image of this word map distributes uniformly on $G$. It is easy to see that primitive words (words which belong to some basis of the free group) are measure preserving w.r.t. all finite groups, and several authors have conjectured that the two properties are, in fact, equivalent. Here we prove this conjecture. The main ingredients of the proof include random coverings of Stallings graphs, algebraic extensions of free groups, and Möbius inversions. Our methods yield the stronger result that a subgroup of $\mathbf {F}_{k}$ is measure preserving if and only if it is a free factor.

As an interesting corollary of this result we resolve a question on the profinite topology of free groups and show that the primitive elements of $\mathbf {F}_{k}$ form a closed set in this topology.

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Bibliographic Information
  • Doron Puder
  • Affiliation: Einstein Institute of Mathematics, Hebrew University, Jerusalem 91904, Israel
  • MR Author ID: 903080
  • ORCID: 0000-0003-2793-7525
  • Email:
  • Ori Parzanchevski
  • Affiliation: School of Mathematics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey 08540
  • MR Author ID: 879748
  • ORCID: 0000-0003-1596-215X
  • Email:
  • Received by editor(s): January 31, 2013
  • Received by editor(s) in revised form: October 15, 2013, and November 23, 2013
  • Published electronically: April 17, 2014
  • © Copyright 2014 American Mathematical Society
  • Journal: J. Amer. Math. Soc. 28 (2015), 63-97
  • MSC (2010): Primary 20E05; Secondary 20E18, 20B30, 68R15, 06A11
  • DOI:
  • MathSciNet review: 3264763