Difference Quotients I

Difference Quotients & Definition of the Derivative

In the second posting on Local Linearity, we saw that what we were doing, finding the slope to a nearby point, looked like this symbolically:

\displaystyle \frac{f\left( x+h \right)-f\left( x \right)}{h}

This expression is called the Forward Difference Quotient (FDQ). It kind of assumes that h > 0.

There is also the Backwards Difference Quotient (BDQ):

\displaystyle \frac{f\left( x \right)-f\left( x-h \right)}{h}=\frac{f\left( x-h \right)-f\left( x \right)}{-h}

The BDQ also kind of assumes that h > 0. If h < 0 then the FDQ becomes the BDQ and vice versa. So these are really the same thing. The limit (if it exists) as h approaches zero is the slope of the tangent line at whatever x is and this is important enough to have its own name. It is called the derivative of f at x with the notation (among others) {f}'\left( x \right) :

\displaystyle {f}'\left( x \right)=\underset{h\to 0}{\mathop{\lim }}\,\frac{f\left( x+h \right)-f\left( x \right)}{h}

Since h must approach 0 from both sides, this expression incorporates the FDQ and the BDQ in one expression.

To emphasize that h is a “change in x” this limit is often written

\displaystyle {f}'\left( x \right)=\underset{\Delta x\to 0}{\mathop{\lim }}\,\frac{f\left( x+\Delta x \right)-f\left( x \right)}{\Delta x}


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