Wikipedia describes an accidental symmetry as

a symmetry which is present in a renormalizable theory only because the terms which break it have too high a dimension to appear in the Lagrangian

but I don't understand what this means: are non-accidental symmetries always present, no matter the dimension of terms that I allow in the renormalized Lagrangian? Also, I know that some examples of accidental vs non-accidental symmetries are the lepton number vs the electric charge, but I fail to see why the first one would be accidental and the second one wouldn't.

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    $\begingroup$ Accidental is a synonym for "small explicit" breaking. A gauge symmetry (such as the one associated with the electric charge) is unforgiving, however: it has to be exact. $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2021 at 13:07

1 Answer 1


Typically, when you want to require a symmetry you choose to restrict the allowed terms in your Lagrangian to a smaller subset, this subset being the terms that are singlets under the symmetry group. For example, consider the Lagrangian of two fields $\phi_1$ and $\phi_2$. If it depends only on the combinations $$ \phi_1^2+\phi_2^2\,,\quad(\partial\phi_1)^2+(\partial\phi_2)^2\,, $$ then there is an $\mathrm{SO}(2)$ symmetry. This statement amounts to saying that terms such as $\phi^2_1$ or $\phi_1\phi_2$ are absent.

Now suppose that you write down all terms that involve the particles you are considering and which are relevant. Relevant here is meant in an RG sense, namely terms that survive in the infra-red. If all these terms happen to be singlets of a certain group, then so be it, your Lagrangian is going to have that symmetry. But it was not a deliberate choice, it's just what is forced upon you when you go to low energies.

Because of this fact such symmetries are called "accidental."

An example of this is QED which is $\mathsf{P}$ invariant but just because you can't write any $\mathsf{P}$-breaking term that has dimension below four which is made only of electrons and photons.


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