## Abstract

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 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 F_{k} form a closed set in this topology.

Original language | American English |
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Pages (from-to) | 63-97 |

Number of pages | 35 |

Journal | Journal of the American Mathematical Society |

Volume | 28 |

Issue number | 1 |

DOIs | |

State | Published - 2015 |

Externally published | Yes |

### Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:© 2014, American Mathematical Society.