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At a Glance - How Tangent Lines Look

The tangent line to f at a is the line approached by the secant lines between a and a + h as h approaches 0.

Tangent lines and secant lines are (usually) different things.

A secant line must hit two points on a graph. A secant line between the points on the graph where x = a and x = b will hit the graph at x = a and x = b.

A tangent line occurs at one single point on a graph and has the same slope as the graph at that point.

Visually, the tangent line to f at a bounces off the graph at x = a:

A tangent line may also cross through the graph somewhere else. The important thing that makes a tangent line a tangent line is that it grazes the graph at that one special point. This line is tangent to f at x = a because it bounces off there:

However, this line is also a secant line between x = a and x = b:

A tangent line usually doesn't "cross over" the graph from one side to the other. However, it may cross over the graph at x = a in cases like this:

Here, the tangent line isn't so much "bouncing off" as it is "laying along" the graph of f.
This phenomenon has to do with something called concavity.

When looking to see if a line is tangent to f at a, we're looking to see if the line "bounces off" or "lays along" the graph of f at a.

Sample Problem 

This function has a tangent line with infinite slope at x = a:

Since the slope here is infinite, f ' (a) doesn't exist.

Sample Problem

If we have a function f that's already a line, the tangent line to f at any point a will be f again:


So remember, tangent lines usually bounce off the graph at a single point without crossing it. There are a few exceptions to this, but we've covered them in detail so that you won't be shocked when one those other freak tangent lines gets thrown your way.

Example 1

Draw the tangent line to f at a:

Exercise 1

Determine whether each line is tangent to f at x = a, a secant line, or both a tangent line and a secant line.

Exercise 2

For the function f and point a, draw the tangent line to f at a:

Exercise 3

For the function f and point a, draw the tangent line to f at a

Exercise 4

For the function f and point a, draw the tangent line to f at a:

Exercise 5

Determine if each line is tangent to f at a

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