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A Common Misconception regarding OWL Properties

A misconception w.r.t. OWL properties that I come across from time-to-time is that people mistakenly think that properties express relations between classes rather than relations between individuals. In this post

  1. I explain how this misconception fails,
  2. I explain what is the meaning of OWL properties, and
  3. I explain how you can model relations between classes if that is really what you want to do.

Throughout this post I will refer to object properties only, even though what I say applies to data properties as well, except of course that object properties relate objects to objects whereas data properties relate objects to data type values.

As an example ontology I will use the following:

Class: Employer
Class: Employee

ObjectProperty: employs
   Domain: Employer
   Range: Employee

How thinking that Properties express Relations between Classes fails

Thinking that properties express relations between classes fails in two different ways:

  1. The first way in which the expectations of users fail under this misconception is that their assumption is that domain and range axioms behave as constraints. That is if we extend our Employer ontology with something nonsensical like
    Class: Cheese
    Class: Fridge
    Individual: companyFridge 
        Types: Fridge
    Individual: blueCheese
       Types: Cheese
       Facts: employs companyFridge

    the reasoner will indicate that our ontology is inconsistent because the individual blueCheese is not of type Employer and neither is the individual companyFridge an instance of Employee. However, this is not the case. This ontology is in fact consistent because domain and range axioms do not behave as constraints.

  2. The other way in which the assumption of users is shattered is that they tend to think that domain and range axioms mean that in our Employer ontology it means that instances of the Employer class must necessarily be linked via the employs property to an instance (or instances?) of Employee. Thus, the expectation is that if we have an instance Employer that is not linked to an instance of Employee via the employs property, the reasoner should give an inconsistency. Again, this is wrong. This ontology will still be consistent.

The Real Meaning of OWL Object Properties

The OWL specification is very explicit about the meaning of object properties. It states:

Object properties connect pairs of individuals.

So what is the meaning of domain and range axioms then? Domain and range axioms are not constraints to be checked, but rather they are axioms from which the reasoner can make inferences. What domain and range axioms state is that whenever two instances are linked via the employs property, for example, it means that the first instance is of type Employer and the second instance is of type Employee. Thus, in our cheese and fridge example, no matter how silly it is, the reasoner will infer that blueCheese is an instance of Employer and companyFridge is an instance of Employee.

Finally, the underlying mathematical formalization of object properties themselves does not enable linking of pairs of classes. An OWL object r is represented as a role r in description logics. Stating that the role r has the domain C and the range D, where C and D are concepts, is achieved through the following axioms:

DomainRangeAxiom whereTopis the set representing the application domain. An object property r between instances a and b is expressed as a role assertion
RoleAssertion in description logics. Note that this assertion contains no information regarding description logic concepts (i.e. classes in OWL).

If you really, really want to have a Link between Classes

So if you really, really want to express a relation between classes, how can this be done? For our Employer ontology we can state the following:

Class: Employer
   SubClassOf: employs some Employee

This states that the Employer class is a subclass of the class consisting of the instances that are linked to at least 1 instance of the Employee class. If we now have an instance of Employer that is not linked via employs to an instance of Employee, the reasoner will find that our ontology is inconsistent. To state that acme is an employer without employees, we state it as follows:

Individual: acme
   Types: Employer
   Facts: employs max 0 Employee


In this post I explained that object properties link individuals (not classes!) and that thinking otherwise can lead to various errors when designing an ontology.