Definition:Derivative/Real Function

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At a Point

Let $I$ be an open real interval.

Let $f: I \to \R$ be a real function defined on $I$.

Let $\xi \in I$ be a point in $I$.

Let $f$ be differentiable at the point $\xi$.

Definition 1

That is, suppose the limit $\displaystyle \lim_{x \mathop \to \xi} \frac {f \left({x}\right) - f \left({\xi}\right)} {x - \xi}$ exists.

Then this limit is called the derivative of $f$ at the point $\xi$.

Definition 2

That is, suppose the limit $\displaystyle \lim_{h \mathop \to 0} \frac {f \left({\xi + h}\right) - f \left({\xi}\right)} h$ exists.

Then this limit is called the derivative of $f$ at the point $\xi$.

On an Open Interval

Let $I\subset\R$ be an open interval.

Let $f : I \to \R$ be a real function.

Let $f$ be differentiable on the interval $I$.

Then the derivative of $f$ is the real function $f': I \to \R$ whose value at each point $x \in I$ is the derivative $f' \left({x}\right)$:

$\displaystyle \forall x \in I: f' \left({x}\right) := \lim_{h \mathop \to 0} \frac {f \left({x + h}\right) - f \left({x}\right)} h$

With Respect To

Let $f$ be a real function which is differentiable on an open interval $I$.

Let $f$ be defined as an equation: $y = f \left({x}\right)$.

Then the derivative of $y$ with respect to $x$ is defined as:

$\displaystyle y^\prime = \lim_{h \to 0} \frac {f \left({x + h}\right) - f \left({x}\right)} h = D_x f \left({x}\right)$

This is frequently abbreviated as derivative of $y$ WRT or w.r.t. $x$, and often pronounced something like wurt.

We introduce the quantity $\delta y = f \left({x + \delta x}\right) - f \left({x}\right)$.

This is often referred to as the small change in $y$ consequent on the small change in $x$.

Hence the motivation behind the popular and commonly-seen notation:

$\displaystyle \frac{\mathrm d y}{\mathrm d x} := \lim_{\delta x \to 0} \frac {f \left({x + \delta x}\right) - f \left({x}\right)} {\delta x} = \lim_{\delta x \to 0} \frac{\delta y}{\delta x}$

Hence the notation $f^\prime \left({x}\right) = \dfrac{\mathrm d y}{\mathrm d x}$. This notation is useful and powerful, and emphasizes the concept of a derivative as being the limit of a ratio of very small changes.

However, it has the disadvantage that the variable $x$ is used ambiguously: both as the point at which the derivative is calculated and as the variable with respect to which the derivation is done. For practical applications, however, this is not usually a problem.


There are various notations available to be used for the derivative of a function $f$ with respect to the independent variable $x$:

  • $\dfrac {\d f} {\d x}$
  • $\dfrac \d {\d x} \left({f}\right)$
  • $\dfrac {\d y} {\d x}$ when $y = f \left({x}\right)$
  • $f' \left({x}\right)$
  • $D f \left({x}\right)$
  • $D_x f \left({x}\right)$

When evaluated at the point $\left({x_0, y_0}\right)$, the derivative of $f$ at the point $x_0$ can be variously denoted:

  • $f' \left({x_0}\right)$
  • $D f \left({x_0}\right)$
  • $D_x f \left({x_0}\right)$
  • $\dfrac {\d f} {\d x} \left({x_0}\right)$

and so on.