I'm making a video right now about the unit circle definitions of the basic trig functions.

I've done sine and cosine, and am now talking about the tangent function.

As most of you know, it can be rewritten as in the title, but off the top of my head, I can't remember when this might be genuinely useful.

Certain derivatives and integrals come to mind. Do you have any other examples?

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    $\begingroup$ Most trig. identities involving tangent can be reduced to those in sine and cosines, usually easier since you have to remember fewer formulas. $\endgroup$
    – Chris C
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ @BenjaminDickman - The video is one of over 900 math videos I've made so far. The current playlist involves trigonometric equations/inequalities, and so I started with an introduction to the unit circle definitions of the basic trig functions. When I asked this question, I was mid-video (on pause) and looking for quick examples. Now, days later, it is a non-issue of course. $\endgroup$
    – Alec
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ @BenjaminDickman - Yes, it is a public resource. However, it's in Norwegian. It's widely used among students in Norway, as teachers tend to assign videos as homework. Personally, I just started making it becuase I benefited from Khan Academy, but my friends didn't, because their English wasn't quite good enough to follow math while interpreting a foreign language. I got carried away and am still continuing. $\endgroup$
    – Alec
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ @BenjaminDickman - Oh, yes. Forgot about that. udl.no $\endgroup$
    – Alec
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ I think a simple example that will "click" with students is an airplane's vertical distance and horizontal distance. It gives a visual picture, as well as being a real example. Yes, we probably use sin most, cos next and tangent least. And a lot of times with tan we just change back to sin/cos definition. But there is one practical example. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 0:35

3 Answers 3

  • You are simplifying the equation for a function and you get down to something like $f(x) = \cos x\tan x $.

  • You want to know where tan(x) is discontinuous without memorizing it (assuming you already know where cos(x) is zero).


My previous answer (which was basically "That is the definition of tangent!") was not well received. I admit that that answer was made out of exasperation with the question. I have written a longer response as to why I feel the way I do, with some mathematical and historical context.

You say you are defining these functions based on the unit circle. If this is the case, then you are probably defining $\cos(\theta)$ to be the $x$-coordinate, and $\sin(\theta)$ to be the $y$-coordinate of the point obtained by taking a piece of string of length $\theta$, fixing one end at $(1,0)$, and winding it it counterclockwise around the circle. In this case, if you define tangent to be $\frac{y}{x}$ this is also defining tangent to be $\frac{\sin(\theta)}{\cos(\theta)}$. The two should be so closely identified that these two expressions "say" exactly the same thing to you. Because of this I am confused by the question: it appears that the definition of tangent is $\frac{\sin(\theta)}{\cos(\theta)}$.

The unit circle approach takes some care to make rigorous. You at least need to be able to define arclength to make it work. For this reason, most introductions to analysis which I have seen either define sine and cosine in terms of their power series representations, or as solutions to their defining differential equations. In either content, the tangent function would again be defined by the ratio of the two. Trying to define tangent "on its own", without first defining sine and cosine, is difficult because it is not an entire function.

In a certain sense, I am suspicious of the attention given to the other trig functions. We no longer pay homage to haversine or exsecant, yet we still talk about tangent. Why? Fundamentally the reason that tangent, secant, exsecant, etc even have names of their own is that they were needed in some computations quite commonly (say, while sailing), and it was easier to compile tables of values for these "special functions" than to calculate them by hand given only tables for sine and cosine. I do not know the historical reason that only 6 of these functions survived into the common usage, but from a mathematical perspective I feel like only sine and cosine really "deserve" names in the current era. It would be as if we had a new operation "inc sum", denoted $\oplus$ with $a \oplus b = a+b+1$. A useful operation, to be sure, but not useful enough to warrant its own distinct mental real estate.

I also think that the habit of questioning where each and every mathematical fact is "useful" is misguided. Asking about the "usefulness" of an identity which is at most one mental step away from the definition is not a healthy attitude with which to approach mathematics. When someone is learning mathematics, they should always be exploring 3 or 4 steps away from what is written. This is just part of building a mental model, gaining "familiarity with the landscape". Playing with identities to understand the basic relationships between various functions should be appreciated for its own sake. Individual mathematical facts are not useful: a mathematical outlook is useful, a mathematical framework is useful. This particular fact is just one part of building up the mathematical framework of trigonometry.

This is not to say all questions of the form "Examples of when this identity is useful" are not good. For example, I think that the equality expressed by "completing the square" on an arbitrary quadratic is "just an identity", but it has a huge story behind it, and how it connects to the larger story of understanding quadratics. So asking "how is this useful", can prompt an introduction to a whole framework of thinking. Similar comments apply to many identities, like the fundamental theorems of calculus, or Cauchy's formula, etc. $\tan(\theta) = \frac{\sin(\theta)}{\cos(\theta)}$ on the other hand, is on the same level as $(x+1)(x-1) = x^2-1$ (or even lower on the totem pole): it is just an immediate consequence of definitions. One should not have to justify exploring it. It is not a pivotal part of any story, so it should just be one of those things to observe in passing and appreciate for what it is.

Edit: perhaps the following analogy is useful. If you give someone a blanket, they might ask "What is the use of this particular thread?". The answer to this question for any thread is that, all by itself, it is useless. When you weave all of the threads together you get an object which is incredibly useful. This is the way with mathematics as well. Mathematics, when properly understood, is a powerful framework for understanding many diverse problems. $\tan(\theta) = \frac{\sin(\theta)}{\cos(\theta)}$ is like one of those threads.

  • $\begingroup$ Not really sure why this is down voted. Most sources I have seen do define all of the other trig functions in terms of sine and cosine. How do you even assign signs to the tangent function correctly without knowing this? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ I think what happened here is that the answer is so short, it showed up in review queues as a "low quality answer." $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 4, 2014 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ I've always defined tangent theta as opposite/adjacent (using right triangles) or as y/x (using an angle in standard position crossing a circle). Saying that tangent theta is defined to be sin theta / cos theta would put its definition in a different context than the definitions of sine and cosine. That seems odd to me. (@Steven, can you show me any of the sources you mention?) Downvote. $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Commented Oct 4, 2014 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for expanding your answer. I changed my vote. I can connect to the sentiment of surprise. $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Oct 4, 2014 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ Concerning "from a mathematical perspective I feel like only sine and cosine really "deserve" names in the current era", I strongly disagree. Without a name for $\tan$, writing the formulas for $\tan(2x)$ and the like would be incredibly painful. Performing a change of variable $t=\tan(x/2)$ would not be a great experience either. In some sense, once one has complex numbers at hand, why would you even bother with $\sin$ and $\cos$, instead of relying only on $\exp$? Why $\cosh$ and $\sinh$? In all cases, the answer seems twofold to me: these notation are computationaly efficient even today... $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 19:59

One reason the tangent function is useful is that it yields the slope of a line, $\tan \theta$ where $\theta$ is the angle of a line tangent to a curve at a point (and note the connection of the tangent function to a line tangent to a curve):

If you identify $y$ with $\sin \theta$ and $x$ with $\cos \theta$, the connection to slope could be explained.

More pragmatically, you can use the tangent to estimate the height $y$ of a building: If you are standing about $x$ units from the building, and you need to look up $\theta$ to the top, then $y = x \tan \theta$. Again, this could be explained in terms of $\sin \theta$ and $\cos \theta$.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 even though you seem to be addressing Steven's remarkably long edited answer (his answer, in effect, an objection to the question itself) and the actual question. I now have a fast answer to my student's question, "TAN, what is it good for?" $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 14:35

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