While many relationships in our world can be described using a single mathematical function or relation, there are also many that require either more or less than what one equation describes. The behavior being described might start at a specific time, or its nature changes at one or more points in time. Two examples of such situations could be:
Acceleration up to a speed limit
Free fall then controlled descent
In the graph on the left, note that the blue line starts at the origin. It does not appear to the left of the origin at all. Furthermore, when x = 3 the blue line stops and the green line begins – but with a different slope.
In the graph on the right, note that the blue curve starts at x = 0. It does not appear of the left of the vertical axis at all. And when x = 3 the blue parabola turns into a green line with a very different slope. And the green line stops at x = 5.5, just as it reaches the horizontal axis.
These graphs do not seem to follow all the rules you were taught for graphing lines or parabolas. Instead of being defined over all Real values of x, they start and stop at specific values. The graphs also show (in this case) two very different functions, but in a way that makes them look as though they are meant to represent a single, more complex function. Both of these graphs are examples of “Piecewise Functions”, functions defined in a way that lets you mix and match as many separate components (pieces) as you wish.
A function has been “translated” when it has been moved in a way that does not change its shape or rotate it in any way. A function can be translated either vertically, horizontally, or both. Other possible “transformations” of a function include dilation, reflection, and rotation.
Imagine a graph drawn on tracing paper or a transparency, then placed over a separate set of axes. If you move the graph left or right in the direction of the horizontal axis, without rotating it, you are “translating” the graph horizontally. Move the graph straight up or down in the direction of the vertical axis, and you are translating the graph vertically.
In the text that follows, we will explore how we know that the graph of a function like
which is the blue curve on the graph above, can be described as a translation of the graph of the green curve above:
Describing as a translation of a simpler-looking (and more familiar) function like makes it easier to understand and predict its behavior, and can make it easier to describe the behavior of complex-looking functions. Before you dive into the explanations below, you may wish to play around a bit with the green sliders for “h” and “k” in this Geogebra Applet to get a feel for what horizontal and vertical translations look like as they take place (the “a” slider dilates the function, as discussed in my Function Dilations post).
Many people seem puzzled by function notation well after it has been introduced, and ask “why can’t we just write instead of ?”. To motivate the use of function notation and improve understanding, I advocate using multi-variable functions instead of single-variable functions in introducing this notation. My introduction usually proceeds something like this:
Suppose you are talking to a friend over the telephone, and they have a piece of paper in front of them on which they have drawn a circle using a ruler and a compass. You need the clearest, most concise instructions possible so that you can exactly duplicate the appearance of the paper your friend has… your circle must be exactly the same size as theirs, and in the exact same location on the piece of paper. What information do you need in order to be able to do this?
For the size of the circle, either the radius or the diameter will work nicely (most students come up with this answer quickly). If you are using a compass to draw the circle, the radius will probably be more convenient. However, the radius alone does not tell you where to locate the circle on the paper. What aspect of a circle will do the best job of telling you where it is located (this question is often challenging for students to answer initially)?