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Mathematics LibreTexts

9: Curves in the Plane

We have explored functions of the form \(y = f(x)\) closely throughout this text. We have explored their limits, their derivatives and their antiderivatives; we have learned to identify key features of their graphs, such as relative maxima and minima, inflection points and asymptotes; we have found equations of their tangent lines, the areas between portions of their graphs and the x-axis, and the volumes of solids generated by revolving portions of their graphs about a horizontal or vertical axis.

Despite all this, the graphs created by functions of the form \(y = f(x)\) are limited. Since each x-value can correspond to only 1 y-value, common shapes like circles cannot be fully described by a function in this form. Fittingly, the “vertical line test” excludes vertical lines from being functions of x, even though these lines are important in mathematics.

In this chapter we’ll explore new ways of drawing curves in the plane. We’ll still work within the framework of functions, as an input will still only correspond to one output. However, our new techniques of drawing curves will render the vertical line test pointless, and allow us to create important – and beautiful – new curves. Once these curves are defined, we’ll apply the concepts of calculus to them, continuing to find equations of tangent lines and the areas of enclosed regions.

  • 9.1: Conic Sections
    The ancient Greeks recognized that interesting shapes can be formed by intersecting a plane with a double napped cone (i.e., two identical cones placed tip--to--tip as shown in the following figures). As these shapes are formed as sections of conics, they have earned the official name "conic sections.''
  • 9.2: Parametric Equations
    The rectangular equation y=f(x)y=f(x) works well for some shapes like a parabola with a vertical axis of symmetry, but in the previous section we encountered several shapes that could not be sketched in this manner. (To plot an ellipse using the above procedure, we need to plot the "top'' and "bottom'' separately.) In this section we introduce a new sketching procedure.
  • 9.3: Calculus and Parametric Equations
    The previous section defined curves based on parametric equations. In this section we'll employ the techniques of calculus to study these curves. We are still interested in lines tangent to points on a curve. They describe how the y-values are changing with respect to the x-values, they are useful in making approximations, and they indicate instantaneous direction of travel.
  • 9.4: Introduction to Polar Coordinates
    We are generally introduced to the idea of graphing curves by relating x-values to y-values through a function f. The previous two sections introduced and studied a new way of plotting points in the x,y-plane. Using parametric equations, x and y values are computed independently and then plotted together. This method allows us to graph an extraordinary range of curves. This section introduces yet another way to plot points in the plane: using polar coordinates.
  • 9.5: Calculus and Polar Functions
    The previous section defined polar coordinates, leading to polar functions. We investigated plotting these functions and solving a fundamental question about their graphs, namely, where do two polar graphs intersect? We now turn our attention to answering other questions, whose solutions require the use of calculus. A basis for much of what is done in this section is the ability to turn a polar function r=f(θ) into a set of parametric equations.
  • 9.E: Curves in the Plane (Exercises)


  • Gregory Hartman (Virginia Military Institute). Contributions were made by Troy Siemers and Dimplekumar Chalishajar of VMI and Brian Heinold of Mount Saint Mary's University. This content is copyrighted by a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial (BY-NC) License.