6.1 - Rectangular coordinates

The cartesian plane

A plane is a flat 2-dimensional region such as the surface of a page.

To specify locations on the plane we can lay down two number lines or axes perpendicularly on the plane as shown to the right. The horizontal axis is usually called the x axis and the vertical axis is usually called the y axis. The point where the axes cross is usually chosen to be where x = 0 and where y = 0 (this point is called the origin). The origin is indicated by a circle in the center of the picture. The axes divide the plane into four regions called quadrants, which are numbered counterclockwise as shown. This construction, a plane plus two perpendicular axes, is called a cartesian plane (named after René Decartes, 1596 - 1650).

If we draw points on a cartesian plane or if we draw a curve representing a function on a cartesian plane then we say that we are graphing or drawing a graph of the points or of the function.

The study of geometric shapes such as lines, circles, triangles, etc. can be done on the ordinary, blank plane or on the cartesian plane. When done on the ordinary plane, their study is called plane geometry and when done on the cartesian plane, it is called analytical geometry. Trigonometry, the study of triangles, is done partly using plane geometry and partly using analytical geometry.

Any point on the cartesian plane can be located by giving its horizontal distance to the right of the origin (this is called its x coordinate) and its vertical distance above the origin (this is called its y coordinate). For example the red dot in the cartesian plane shown to the right has an x coordinate of 2 and a y coordinate of 1. Sometimes we say that this point is at x = 2 and y = 1 but most often we use the ordered pair notation (2, 1) to describe this point. (Note that the number before the comma is always the x coordinate and the number after the comma is always the y coordinate.)

This method of using an x value and a y value to locate a point in the plane is called the rectangular coordinate system (notice the dotted rectangle shown in the picture). Another coordinate system in common use, for example for complex numbers, is the polar coordinate system; it uses a distance from the origin and a direction to locate a point.

Identifying points on graphs

We saw above that giving an x coordinate and a y coordinate locates a point in the cartesian plane. But we can turn the logic around: we could say that a point in the cartesian plane represents the simultaneous values of two quantities x and y. This interpretation is very important in science and technology where x and y can represent almost any quantities.

The following examples show how to identify points on progressively more complicated graphs.

Example 1: This graph has several features beyond what was explained above:

Example 2: The labels on the axes now have units. The label t (ms) means that t is measured in milliseconds and the label d (cm) means that d is measured in centimeters. Thus point B is at t = 250 ms and d = 7.5 cm. Graphs with units appear often in scientific or technical applications.

Example 3: The quantities plotted horizontally and vertically are now algebraic expressions. Thus at point C, the quantity mg has a value of 3 Newtons and the quantity r 2 has a value of 12.5 square meters.

Graphs with expressions on the axes appear often in scientific or technical applications. Their use makes it possible to transform a curve into a straight line, which is much easier to analyze.