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The main linear part of increment of a function.

1) A real-valued function of a real variable is said to be differentiable at a point if it is defined in some neighbourhood of this point and if there exists a number such that the increment

may be written (if the point lies in this neighbourhood) in the form

where as . Here is usually denoted by and is called the differential of at . For a given the differential is proportional to , i.e. is a linear function of . By definition, as the additional term is infinitely small of a higher order than (and also than if ). This is why the differential is said to be the main part of increment of the function.

For a function which is differentiable at a point , if , i.e. a function which is differentiable at a point is continuous at that point. A function is differentiable at a point if and only if it has, at that point, a finite derivative


There exist continuous functions which are not differentiable.

The designation may be used instead of , and the above equation assumes the form

The increment of the argument is then usually denoted by , and is said to be the differential of the independent variable. Accordingly, one may write

Hence , i.e. the derivative is equal to the ratio of the differentials and . If , then as , i.e. if , then and are infinitesimals of the same order as ; this fact, along with the simple structure of the differential (i.e. linearity with respect to ), is often used in approximate computations, by assuming that for small . E.g., if it is desired to compute from a known when is small, it is assumed that

Obviously, such reasoning is useful only if it is possible to estimate the magnitude of the error involved.

Geometric interpretation of the differential. The equation of the tangent to the graph of a function at a point is of the form . If one puts , then . The right-hand side represents the value of the differential of the function at the point corresponding to the value of being considered. Thus, the differential is identical with the corresponding increment of the ordinate of the tangent to the curve (cf. the segment in Fig. a). Here , i.e. the value of coincides with the length of the segment .

Figure: d031810a

2) The definitions of differentiability and differential are readily extended to real-valued functions of real variables. Thus, in the case a real-valued function is said to be differentiable at a point with respect to both variables and if it is defined in some neighbourhood of this point and if its total increment

may be written as

where and are real numbers, if , ; it is assumed that the point belongs to the neighbourhood mentioned above (Fig. b).

Figure: d031810b

One introduces the notation

is said to be the total differential, or simply the differential, of the function at the point (the phrase "with respect to both variables x and y" is sometimes added). For a given point the differential is a linear function of and ; the difference is infinitely small of a higher order than . In this sense is the main linear part of the increment .

If is differentiable at the point , then it is continuous at this point and has finite partial derivatives (cf. Derivative)

at this point. Thus

The increments and of the independent variables are usually denoted by and , as in the case of a single variable. One may write, accordingly,

The existence of finite partial derivatives does not, in general, entail the differentiability of the function (even if it is assumed to be continuous).

If a function has a partial derivative with respect to at a point , the product is said to be its partial differential with respect to ; in the same manner, is the partial differential with respect to . If the function is differentiable, its total differential is equal to the sum of the partial differentials. Geometrically, the total differential is the increment in the -direction in the tangent plane to the surface at the point , where (Fig. c).

Figure: d031810c

The following is a sufficient criterion for the differentiability of a function: If in a certain neighbourhood of a point a function has a partial derivative which is continuous at and, in addition, has a partial derivative at that point, then is differentiable at that point.

If a function is differentiable at all points of an open domain , then at any point of the domain

where , . If, in addition, there exist continuous partial derivatives and in , then, everywhere in ,

This proves, in particular, that not every expression

with continuous and (in a domain ) is the total differential of some function of two variables. This is a difference from functions of one variable, where any expression with a continuous function in some interval is the differential of some function.

The expression is the total differential of some function in a simply-connected open domain if and are continuous in this domain, meet the condition and, in addition: a) and are continuous or b) and are everywhere differentiable in with respect to both variables and [7], [8].

See also Differential calculus for differentials of real-valued functions of one or more real variables and for differentials of higher orders.

3) Let a function be defined on some set of real numbers, let be a limit point of this set, let , , , where if ; then the function is called differentiable with respect to the set at , while is called its differential with respect to the set at . This is a generalization of the differential of a real-valued function of one real variable. Special kinds of this generalization include differentials at the end points of the interval within which the function is defined, and the approximate differential (cf. Approximate differentiability).

Differentials with respect to a set for real-valued functions of several real variables are introduced in a similar manner.

4) All definitions of differentiability and a differential given above can be extended, almost unchanged, to complex-valued functions of one or more real variables; to real-valued and complex-valued vector-functions of one or more real variables; and to complex functions and vector-functions of one or more complex variables. In functional analysis they are extended to functions of the points of an abstract space. One may speak of differentiability and of the differential of a set function with respect to some measure.


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[8] G.P. Tolstov, "On the total differential" Uspekhi Mat. Nauk , 3 : 5 (1948) pp. 167–170 MR0027044


See also Differentiation; Differentiation of a mapping.

For differentiation of set functions cf. Set function; Radon–Nikodým theorem, [a7].

For generalizations to functions between abstract spaces see also Fréchet derivative; Gâteaux derivative.

For the derivative of a function see Analytic function.


[a1] T.M. Apostol, "Calculus" , 1–2 , Blaisdell (1964) MR1908007 MR1182316 MR1182315 MR0595410 MR1536963 MR1535772 MR0271732 MR0248290 MR0247001 MR0261376 MR0250092 MR0236734 MR0236733 MR0214705 MR1532185 MR1531712 MR0087718 Zbl 0123.25902
[a2] T.M. Apostol, "Mathematical analysis" , Addison-Wesley (1974) MR0344384 Zbl 0309.26002
[a3] W. Fleming, "Functions of several variables" , Springer (1977) MR0422527 Zbl 0348.26002
[a4] K.R. Stromberg, "Introduction to classical real analysis" , Wadsworth (1981) MR0604364 Zbl 0454.26001
[a5] R. Courant, "Vorlesungen über Differential- und Integralrechnung" , 1–2 , Springer (1971–1972) MR0190266 MR1521849 MR1521664 Zbl 0224.26001 Zbl 0217.37201 Zbl 0121.28904 Zbl 0066.30303 Zbl 0064.04704 Zbl 0003.05401 Zbl 57.0246.01 Zbl 56.0193.01 Zbl 53.0200.13 Zbl 55.0728.02
[a6] I.P. Natanson, "Theorie der Funktionen einer reellen Veränderlichen" , H. Deutsch , Frankfurt a.M. (1961) (Translated from Russian) MR0640867 MR0409747 MR0259033 MR0063424 Zbl 0097.26601
[a7] G.E. Shilov, B.L. Gurevich, "Integral, measure, and derivative: a unified approach" , Dover, reprint (1977) (Translated from Russian) MR0466463 Zbl 0391.28007
[a8] A. Denjoy, "Introduction à la théorie des fonctions des variables réelles" , Gauthier-Villars (1937) Zbl 0017.10504 Zbl 63.0177.02 Zbl 63.0177.01
How to Cite This Entry:
Differential. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. URL:
This article was adapted from an original article by G.P. Tolstov (originator), which appeared in Encyclopedia of Mathematics - ISBN 1402006098. See original article