Adding by a Form of 0 (Part 2)

Often intuitive appeals for the proof of the Product Rule rely on pictures like the following:

The above picture comes from, which notes the intuitive appeal of the argument but also its lack of rigor.

My preferred technique is to use the above rectangle picture but make it more rigorous. Assuming that the functions f and g are increasing, the difference f(x+h) g(x+h) - f(x) g(x) is exactly equal to the sum of the green and blue areas in the figure below.

In other words,

f(x+h) g(x+h) - f(x) g(x) = f(x+h) [g(x+h) - g(x)] + [f(x+h) - f(x)] g(x),


f(x+h) g(x+h) - f(x+h) g(x) + f(x+h) g(x) - f(x) g(x).

This gives a geometrical way of explaining this otherwise counterintuitive step for students not used to adding by a form of 0. I make a point of noting that we took one term, f(x+h), from the first product f(x+h) g(x+h), while the second term, g(x), came from the second product f(x) g(x). From this, the usual proof of the Product Rule follows:

[(fg)(x)]' = \displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{f(x+h) g(x+h) - f(x) g(x)}{h}

\displaystyle = \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{f(x+h) [g(x+h) - g(x)]}{h} + \lim_{h\ to 0} \frac{[f(x+h) - f(x)] g(x)}{h}

\displaystyle = \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{f(x+h) [g(x+h) - g(x)]}{h} + \lim_{h\ to 0} \frac{[f(x+h) - f(x)] g(x)}{h}

\displaystyle = \lim_{h \to 0} f(x+h) \frac{g(x+h) - g(x)}{h} + \lim_{h\ to 0} \frac{f(x+h) - f(x) }{h} g(x)

= f(x)g'(x) + f'(x) g(x)

For what it’s worth, a Google Images search for proofs of the Product Rule yielded plenty of pictures like the one at the top of this post but did not yield any pictures remotely similar to the green and blue rectangles above. This suggests to me that the above approach of motivating this critical step of this derivation might not be commonly known.

Once students have been introduced to the idea of adding by a form of 0, my experience is that the proof of the Quotient Rule is much more palatable. I’m unaware of a geometric proof that I would be willing to try with students (a description of the best attempt I’ve seen can be found here), and so adding by a form of 0 becomes unavoidable. The proof begins

\left[\left( \displaystyle \frac{f}{g} \right)(x) \right]' = \displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{ \displaystyle \frac{f(x+h)}{ g(x+h)} - \frac{f(x)}{ g(x)}}{h}

= \displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{ \displaystyle \frac{f(x+h) g(x) - f(x) g(x+h)}{ g(x) g(x+h)}}{h}

= \displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{f(x+h) g(x) - f(x) g(x+h)}{ h g(x) g(x+h)}.

At this point, I ask my students what we should add and subtract this time to complete the derivation. Given the previous experience with the Product Rule, students are usually quick to chose one factor from the first term and another factor from the second term, usually picking f(x) g(x). In fact, they usually find this step easier than the analogous step in the Product Rule because this expression is more palatable than the slightly more complicated f(x+h) g(x). From here, the rest of the proof follows:

[(fg)(x)]' = \displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{ \displaystyle \frac{f(x+h) g(x) - f(x) g(x+h)}{h }}{g(x) g(x+h)}

= \displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{ \displaystyle \frac{f(x+h) g(x) - f(x)g(x) + f(x)g(x) - f(x) g(x+h)}{h }}{g(x) g(x+h)}

= \displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{ \displaystyle \frac{f(x+h) g(x) - f(x)g(x)}{h} + \frac{f(x)g(x) - f(x) g(x+h)}{h }}{g(x) g(x+h)}

= \displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{ \displaystyle \frac{f(x+h) g(x) - f(x)g(x)}{h} - \frac{f(x) g(x+h) - f(x)g(x)}{h }}{g(x) g(x+h)}

= \displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{ \displaystyle \frac{[f(x+h) - f(x)] g(x)}{h} - \frac{f(x) [g(x+h) - g(x)]}{h }}{g(x) g(x+h)}

= \displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{ \displaystyle \frac{f(x+h) - f(x) }{h} g(x) - f(x) \frac{ g(x+h) - g(x)}{h }}{g(x) g(x+h)}

= \displaystyle \frac{ f'(x) g(x) - f(x) g'(x)}{g(x)^2}


  • The website also suggests an interesting pedagogical idea: before giving the formal proof of the Product Rule, use a particular function and the limit definition of a derivative so that students can intuitively guess the form of the rule. For example, if g(x) = x^2:

3 thoughts on “Adding by a Form of 0 (Part 2)

  1. You can also find the following “more rigorous” area-based proof on my blog here:
    As for the quotient rule, the most beautiful proof of the quotient rule that I know goes like this: Let h=f/g. Now multiply by g to obtain hg=f. Then differentiate using the product rule and solve for h’. This is SO quick and I usually have students fill in all the details themselves.
    The advantages are: (1) shorter, (2) easier, (3) students can do it themselves, (4) directly uses product rule which they just learned, (5) doesn’t require chain rule, (6) doesn’t involve introducing the mystery terms that are added and subtracted.
    Try it out and tell me what you think. I intentionally didn’t go through the whole proof (even though it’s short) because I didn’t want to spoil it for you.

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