Given $z=f(x,y)$, what's the difference between $\displaystyle\frac{dz}{dx}$ and $\displaystyle \frac{\partial f}{\partial x}$?

I got confused when I saw $dz/dx= \partial f/\partial x+\partial f/\partial y*dy/dx$, could somebody explain the difference to me? Thanks

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Presumably $z(x) = f(x,y(x))$. $\endgroup$
    – copper.hat
    Nov 16, 2013 at 4:23

1 Answer 1


When you write $\displaystyle \frac{dz}{dx}$ you are assuming that $z$ is a function of $x$ only. This forces $y$ to be a function of $x$, therefore abusing the notation we write $y=y(x)$. Meanwhile, we have that $f$ continues to be a function of two variables, therefore $\displaystyle \frac{\partial f}{\partial x}$ means the usual partial derivative with respect to $x$.

When we take total derivatives we usually write it this way:

$$dz = \frac{\partial f}{\partial x} dx + \frac{\partial f}{\partial y} dy.$$

If we assume $z$ is a function of a certain parameter $t$ then we'd have

$$\frac{dz}{dt} = \frac{\partial f}{\partial x} \frac{dx}{dt} + \frac{\partial f}{\partial y} \frac{dy}{dt}.$$

In this case the parameter is $x$ itself, and we'd abuse notation by writing

$$\frac{dz}{dx} = \frac{\partial f}{\partial x} \frac{dx}{dx} + \frac{\partial f}{\partial y} \frac{dy}{dx} = \frac{\partial f}{\partial x} + \frac{\partial f}{\partial y} \frac{dy}{dx}.$$

We are saying that "dx/dx = 1", essentially.


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