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  • Basics of Graphs

  • Linear Functions

  • Quadratic Functions

  • Polynomial Functions

  • Exponential and Logarithmic Functions

  • Conclusion

Home > Resources > Graphs of Common Functions: Linear, Quadratic, Exponential & More

Graphs of Common Functions: Linear, Quadratic, Exponential & More

Understanding the graphs of common functions is a fundamental aspect of mathematics that extends across various disciplines, from physics to economics. Graphs serve as a visual representation of mathematical concepts, making it easier to identify patterns, predict future behavior, and comprehend complex relationships.

This article aims to demystify the graphs of various common functions, including linear, quadratic, polynomial, trigonometric, exponential, and logarithmic functions. By exploring the visual aspect of these functions, students and enthusiasts alike can enhance their mathematical intuition and problem-solving skills.

Basics of Graphs

Before diving into the specifics of each type of function, it's crucial to establish a foundational understanding of graphs. Graphs are visual representations of mathematical relationships, plotted within a coordinate system.

Coordinate System

The Cartesian coordinate system is the backbone of plotting graphs. It consists of two perpendicular lines, namely the x-axis (horizontal) and the y-axis (vertical), which intersect at a point called the origin (0,0). This system allows us to pinpoint the location of any point in a two-dimensional space using a pair of numerical coordinates: (x, y).

Basic Terminology

  • Axes: The two perpendicular lines that define the coordinate system. The horizontal line is the x-axis, and the vertical line is the y-axis.
  • Origin: The point of intersection of the axes, serving as the reference point for the coordinate system, denoted as (0,0).
  • Slope: A measure of the steepness and direction of a line, defined as the ratio of the change in y to the change in x between two points on the line.
  • Intercepts: Points where the graph intersects the axes. The y-intercept is where the graph crosses the y-axis (x=0), and the x-intercepts (there may be more than one) are where the graph crosses the x-axis (y=0).
  • Domain: The set of all possible x-values (input) that a function can accept.
  • Range: The set of all possible y-values (output) that a function can produce.

Understanding these foundational elements is essential for exploring the graphs of more complex functions. These concepts not only aid in plotting graphs accurately but also in interpreting the graphical representation of functions. With these basics in hand, we're now ready to explore the graphs of common functions, starting with linear functions.

Linear Functions

Linear functions are among the simplest and most commonly encountered types of functions. They are characterized by a constant rate of change, or slope, and can be represented by the formula:

\[ y = mx + c \]

where \(y\) represents the dependent variable, \(x\) is the independent variable, \(m\) is the slope of the line, and \(c\) is the y-intercept, or the point where the line crosses the y-axis.

Graph Characteristics

  • Slope (\(m\)): Determines the steepness and direction of the line. A positive slope means the line ascends from left to right, while a negative slope means it descends.
  • Y-intercept (\(c\)): The point where the line crosses the y-axis. This is the value of \(y\) when \(x = 0\).

Example Graphs

  1. Positive Slope: A line with equation \(y = 2x + 1\) has a positive slope (2) and crosses the y-axis at \(y = 1\).
  2. Negative Slope: A line with equation \(y = -x + 2\) has a negative slope (-1) and crosses the y-axis at \(y = 2\).

Quadratic Functions

Quadratic functions create a U-shaped curve known as a parabola. The general form of a quadratic function is:

\[ y = ax^2 + bx + c \]

where \(a\), \(b\), and \(c\) are constants, and \(a ≠ 0\). The value of \(a\) influences the direction and width of the parabola.

Graph Characteristics

  • Vertex: The highest or lowest point of the parabola, depending on the direction of the opening. The vertex represents the maximum or minimum value of the function.
  • Axis of Symmetry: A vertical line that divides the parabola into two mirror images, passing through the vertex.
  • Direction: A positive \(a\) value opens upwards, and a negative \(a\) value opens downwards.

Example Graphs

  1. Upward-Opening Parabola: For \(y = x^2\), the parabola opens upwards with the vertex at the origin (0,0).
  2. Downward-Opening Parabola: For \(y = -x^2\), the parabola opens downwards, again with the vertex at the origin (0,0).

Polynomial Functions

Polynomial functions are expressions that involve sums of powers of \(x\), with non-negative integer exponents. The general form is:

\[ y = a_nx^n + a_{n-1}x^{n-1} + \cdots + a_2x^2 + a_1x + a_0 \]

where \(n\) is a non-negative integer, and \(a_n, a_{n-1}, \ldots, a_1, a_0\) are constants, with \(a_n ≠ 0\).

Graph Characteristics

Degree: The highest exponent of \(x\) (denoted as \(n\)) indicates the degree of the polynomial. The degree influences the shape of the graph, including the number of turns and end behavior.

Turns: A polynomial of degree \(n\) can have up to \(n-1\) turns.

Roots/Zeroes: Points where \(y=0\). The graph crosses the x-axis at these points.

Example Graphs

  1. Degree 2 (Quadratic): \(y = x^2\) shows a degree 2 polynomial with a single turning point.
  2. Degree 3 (Cubic): A function like \(y = x^3\) exhibits up to two turns and illustrates how a cubic function can change direction.

Each of these function types—linear, quadratic, and polynomial—serves as a foundational building block in mathematics. Their graphs help illustrate the fundamental behaviors of mathematical relationships, facilitating a deeper understanding of more complex functions and their applications.

Exponential and Logarithmic Functions

Exponential and logarithmic functions are inverses of each other and are fundamental in modeling growth and decay processes, like population growth, radioactive decay, and interest calculations.

Exponential Functions

An exponential function can be represented by the formula:

\[ y = a^x \]

where \(a\) is a constant base, \(a > 0\), and \(a \neq 1\). The function grows rapidly as \(x\) increases if \(a > 1\), and decays as \(x\) increases if \(0 < a < 1\).

Graph Characteristics

  • Growth/Decay: Determined by the base \(a\). If \(a > 1\), the function exhibits exponential growth; if \(0 < a < 1\), it shows exponential decay.
  • Y-Intercept: Always at \(y = 1\) since \(a^0 = 1\) for any \(a\).
  • Asymptote: The x-axis (\(y = 0\)) acts as a horizontal asymptote, which the graph approaches but never touches.

Logarithmic Functions

The general form of a logarithmic function is:

\[ y = \log_a(x) \]

where \(a\) is the base of the logarithm, and \(a > 0\), \(a \neq 1\). The function increases slowly and is used to model processes that grow in a decelerating rate.

Graph Characteristics:

  • Base: Similar to exponential functions, the base \(a\) affects the growth rate.
  • Y-Intercept: Not applicable, as the function is undefined at \(x = 0\).
  • Asymptote: The y-axis (\(x = 0\)) acts as a vertical asymptote.

Example Graphs

  1. Exponential Growth: For \(y = 2^x\), the graph shows rapid growth as \(x\) increases.
  2. Logarithmic Growth: For \(y = \log_2(x)\), the graph shows slow, decelerating growth as \(x\) increases.

Trigonometric Functions

Trigonometric functions such as sine, cosine, and tangent are periodic functions, which means they repeat their values in regular intervals. They are essential in modeling wave patterns, circular motion, and oscillations.

Sine and Cosine Functions

The general form of the sine and cosine functions can be expressed as:

\[ y = A \sin(Bx + C) \]

\[ y = A \cos(Bx + C) \]

where \(A\) affects the amplitude (height) of the wave, \(B\) affects the period (the width of one complete cycle), and \(C\) affects the phase shift (horizontal shift).

Graph Characteristics:

  • Periodicity: Both functions have a period of \(2\pi\), meaning they repeat every \(2\pi\) units.
  • Amplitude: The maximum height of the wave from its midline.
  • Phase Shift: How much the function is shifted horizontally from the usual position.

Tangent Function

The tangent function, denoted as \(y = \tan(x)\), has a period of \(\pi\), meaning it repeats every \(\pi\) units. It has vertical asymptotes where the function is undefined and increases or decreases indefinitely.

Tips for Graphing

Understanding the properties of these functions makes graphing them easier. Here are some tips to help with graphing:

  1. Using Graphing Software: Tools like Desmos, GeoGebra, or even a graphing calculator can help visualize these functions quickly and accurately.
  2. Understanding Scales and Axes: Choose scales that accommodate the function's range and important features, like intercepts and asymptotes.
  3. Identifying Key Features: Mark key points such as intercepts, maxima, minima, and asymptotes before drawing the curve.
  4. Periodicity for Trigonometric Functions: Use the period to determine how often the graph repeats and plot one cycle accurately, then replicate it according to the period.
  5. Practice Sketching: While software is helpful, manually sketching graphs enhances understanding and retention of function properties.

By utilizing these tips and understanding the characteristics of exponential, logarithmic, and trigonometric functions, students can master the graphing of these essential mathematical tools. This not only aids in solving equations but also in comprehending the myriad ways these functions model real-world phenomena.


Throughout this exploration of the graphs of common functions, we've ventured from the foundational simplicity of linear and quadratic functions through to the dynamic behaviors of polynomial, exponential, logarithmic, and trigonometric functions.

Each type of function reveals unique patterns and characteristics through its graph, offering insights into the relationship between mathematical equations and their graphical representations.

Understanding these functions and their graphs is crucial not only for academic success in mathematics but also for applying mathematical concepts to solve real-world problems.

By visualizing how a function behaves, you can better predict outcomes, analyze trends, and develop solutions across various fields including physics, engineering, economics, and biology.

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