Function composition


In mathematics, function composition is an operation  ∘  that takes two functions f and g, and produces a function h = g  ∘  f such that h(x) = g(f(x)). In this operation, the function g is applied to the result of applying the function f to x. That is, the functions f : XY and g : YZ are composed to yield a function that maps x in domain X to g(f(x)) in codomain Z. Intuitively, if z is a function of y, and y is a function of x, then z is a function of x. The resulting composite function is denoted g ∘ f : XZ, defined by (g ∘ f )(x) = g(f(x)) for all x in X.[nb 1]

The notation g ∘ f is read as "g of f ", "g after f ", "g circle f ", "g round f ", "g about f ", "g composed with f ", "g following f ", "f then g", or "g on f ", or "the composition of g and f ". Intuitively, composing functions is a chaining process in which the output of function f feeds the input of function g.

The composition of functions is a special case of the composition of relations, sometimes also denoted by . As a result, all properties of composition of relations are true of composition of functions,[1] such as the property of associativity.

Composition of functions is different from multiplication of functions (if defined at all), and has some quite different properties; in particular, composition of functions is not commutative.[2]


Concrete example for the composition of two functions.
  • Composition of functions on a finite set: If f = {(1, 1), (2, 3), (3, 1), (4, 2)}, and g = {(1, 2), (2, 3), (3, 1), (4, 2)}, then gf = {(1, 2), (2, 1), (3, 2), (4, 3)}, as shown in the figure.
  • Composition of functions on an infinite set: If f: RR (where R is the set of all real numbers) is given by f(x) = 2x + 4 and g: RR is given by g(x) = x3, then:
    (fg)(x) = f(g(x)) = f(x3) = 2x3 + 4, and
    (gf)(x) = g(f(x)) = g(2x + 4) = (2x + 4)3.
  • If an airplane's altitude at time t is a(t), and the air pressure at altitude x is p(x), then (pa)(t) is the pressure around the plane at time t.



The composition of functions is always associative—a property inherited from the composition of relations.[1] That is, if f, g, and h are composable, then f ∘ (g ∘ h) = (f ∘ g) ∘ h.[3] Since the parentheses do not change the result, they are generally omitted.

In a strict sense, the composition g ∘ f is only meaningful if the codomain of f equals the domain of g; in a wider sense, it is sufficient that the former be an improper subset of the latter.[nb 2] Moreover, it is often convenient to tacitly restrict the domain of f, such that f produces only values in the domain of g. For example, the composition g ∘ f of the functions f : R(−∞,+9] defined by f(x) = 9 − x2 and g : [0,+∞)R defined by   can be defined on the interval [−3,+3].

Compositions of two real functions, the absolute value and a cubic function, in different orders, show a non-commutativity of composition.

The functions g and f are said to commute with each other if g ∘ f = f ∘ g. Commutativity is a special property, attained only by particular functions, and often in special circumstances. For example, |x| + 3 = |x + 3| only when x ≥ 0. The picture shows another example.

The composition of one-to-one (injective) functions is always one-to-one. Similarly, the composition of onto (surjective) functions is always onto. It follows that the composition of two bijections is also a bijection. The inverse function of a composition (assumed invertible) has the property that (f ∘ g)−1 = g−1f−1.[4]

Derivatives of compositions involving differentiable functions can be found using the chain rule. Higher derivatives of such functions are given by Faà di Bruno's formula.[3]

Composition monoids


Suppose one has two (or more) functions f: XX, g: XX having the same domain and codomain; these are often called transformations. Then one can form chains of transformations composed together, such as ffgf. Such chains have the algebraic structure of a monoid, called a transformation monoid or (much more seldom) a composition monoid. In general, transformation monoids can have remarkably complicated structure. One particular notable example is the de Rham curve. The set of all functions f: XX is called the full transformation semigroup[5] or symmetric semigroup[6] on X. (One can actually define two semigroups depending how one defines the semigroup operation as the left or right composition of functions.[7])

Composition of a shear mapping (red) and a clockwise rotation by 45° (green). On the left is the original object. Above is shear, then rotate. Below is rotate, then shear.

If the transformations are bijective (and thus invertible), then the set of all possible combinations of these functions forms a transformation group; and one says that the group is generated by these functions. A fundamental result in group theory, Cayley's theorem, essentially says that any group is in fact just a subgroup of a permutation group (up to isomorphism).[8]

The set of all bijective functions f: XX (called permutations) forms a group with respect to function composition. This is the symmetric group, also sometimes called the composition group.

In the symmetric semigroup (of all transformations) one also finds a weaker, non-unique notion of inverse (called a pseudoinverse) because the symmetric semigroup is a regular semigroup.[9]

Functional powers


If Y X, then f: XY may compose with itself; this is sometimes denoted as f 2. That is:

(ff)(x) = f(f(x)) = f2(x)
(fff)(x) = f(f(f(x))) = f3(x)
(ffff)(x) = f(f(f(f(x)))) = f4(x)

More generally, for any natural number n ≥ 2, the nth functional power can be defined inductively by fn = ffn−1 = fn−1f, a notation introduced by Hans Heinrich Bürmann[citation needed][10][11] and John Frederick William Herschel.[12][10][13][11] Repeated composition of such a function with itself is called iterated function.

  • By convention, f0 is defined as the identity map on f's domain, idX.
  • If Y = X and f: XX admits an inverse function f−1 (sometimes called «minus first iteration»[citation needed]), negative functional powers fn are defined for n > 0 as the negated power of the inverse function: fn = (f−1)n.[12][10][11]

Note: If f takes its values in a ring (in particular for real or complex-valued f), there is a risk of confusion, as fn could also stand for the n-fold product of f, e.g. f2(x) = f(x) · f(x).[11] For trigonometric functions, usually the latter is meant, at least for positive exponents.[11] For example, in trigonometry, this superscript notation represents standard exponentiation when used with trigonometric functions: sin2(x) = sin(x) · sin(x). However, for negative exponents (especially −1), it nevertheless usually refers to the inverse function, e.g., tan−1 = arctan ≠ 1/tan.

In some cases, when, for a given function f, the equation gg = f has a unique solution g, that function can be defined as the functional square root of f, then written as g = f1/2.

More generally, when gn = f has a unique solution for some natural number n > 0, then fm/n can be defined as gm.

Under additional restrictions, this idea can be generalized so that the iteration count becomes a continuous parameter; in this case, such a system is called a flow, specified through solutions of Schröder's equation. Iterated functions and flows occur naturally in the study of fractals and dynamical systems.

To avoid ambiguity, some mathematicians[citation needed] choose to use to denote the compositional meaning, writing fn(x) for the n-th iterate of the function f(x), as in, for example, f∘3(x) meaning f(f(f(x))). For the same purpose, f[n](x) was used by Benjamin Peirce[14][11] whereas Alfred Pringsheim and Jules Molk suggested nf(x) instead.[15][11][nb 3]

Alternative notations


Many mathematicians, particularly in group theory, omit the composition symbol, writing gf for gf.[16]

In the mid-20th century, some mathematicians decided that writing "gf" to mean "first apply f, then apply g" was too confusing and decided to change notations. They write "xf" for "f(x)" and "(xf)g" for "g(f(x))".[17] This can be more natural and seem simpler than writing functions on the left in some areas – in linear algebra, for instance, when x is a row vector and f and g denote matrices and the composition is by matrix multiplication. This alternative notation is called postfix notation. The order is important because function composition is not necessarily commutative (e.g. matrix multiplication). Successive transformations applying and composing to the right agrees with the left-to-right reading sequence.

Mathematicians who use postfix notation may write "fg", meaning first apply f and then apply g, in keeping with the order the symbols occur in postfix notation, thus making the notation "fg" ambiguous. Computer scientists may write "f ; g" for this,[18] thereby disambiguating the order of composition. To distinguish the left composition operator from a text semicolon, in the Z notation the ⨾ character is used for left relation composition.[19] Since all functions are binary relations, it is correct to use the [fat] semicolon for function composition as well (see the article on composition of relations for further details on this notation).

Composition operator


Given a function g, the composition operator Cg is defined as that operator which maps functions to functions as  

Composition operators are studied in the field of operator theory.

In programming languages


Function composition appears in one form or another in numerous programming languages.

Multivariate functions


Partial composition is possible for multivariate functions. The function resulting when some argument xi of the function f is replaced by the function g is called a composition of f and g in some computer engineering contexts, and is denoted f |xi = g  

When g is a simple constant b, composition degenerates into a (partial) valuation, whose result is also known as restriction or co-factor.[20]


In general, the composition of multivariate functions may involve several other functions as arguments, as in the definition of primitive recursive function. Given f, a n-ary function, and n m-ary functions g1, ..., gn, the composition of f with g1, ..., gn, is the m-ary function  

This is sometimes called the generalized composite or superposition of f with g1, ..., gn.[21] The partial composition in only one argument mentioned previously can be instantiated from this more general scheme by setting all argument functions except one to be suitably chosen projection functions. Here g1, ..., gn can be seen as a single vector/tuple-valued function in this generalized scheme, in which case this is precisely the standard definition of function composition.[22]

A set of finitary operations on some base set X is called a clone if it contains all projections and is closed under generalized composition. A clone generally contains operations of various arities.[21] The notion of commutation also finds an interesting generalization in the multivariate case; a function f of arity n is said to commute with a function g of arity m if f is a homomorphism preserving g, and vice versa i.e.:[21]  

A unary operation always commutes with itself, but this is not necessarily the case for a binary (or higher arity) operation. A binary (or higher arity) operation that commutes with itself is called medial or entropic.[21]



Composition can be generalized to arbitrary binary relations. If RX × Y and SY × Z are two binary relations, then their composition RS is the relation defined as {(x, z) ∈ X × Z : yY. (x, y) ∈ R (y, z) ∈ S}. Considering a function as a special case of a binary relation (namely functional relations), function composition satisfies the definition for relation composition. A small circle RS has been used for the infix notation of composition of relations, as well as functions. When used to represent composition of functions   however, the text sequence is reversed to illustrate the different operation sequences accordingly.

The composition is defined in the same way for partial functions and Cayley's theorem has its analogue called the Wagner–Preston theorem.[23]

The category of sets with functions as morphisms is the prototypical category. The axioms of a category are in fact inspired from the properties (and also the definition) of function composition.[24] The structures given by composition are axiomatized and generalized in category theory with the concept of morphism as the category-theoretical replacement of functions. The reversed order of composition in the formula (f ∘ g)−1 = (g−1f−1) applies for composition of relations using converse relations, and thus in group theory. These structures form dagger categories.

The standard "foundation" for mathematics starts with sets and their elements. It is possible to start differently, by axiomatising not elements of sets but functions between sets. This can be done by using the language of categories and universal constructions.

. . . the membership relation for sets can often be replaced by the composition operation for functions. This leads to an alternative foundation for Mathematics upon categories -- specifically, on the category of all functions. Now much of Mathematics is dynamic, in that it deals with morphisms of an object into another object of the same kind. Such morphisms (like functions) form categories, and so the approach via categories fits well with the objective of organizing and understanding Mathematics. That, in truth, should be the goal of a proper philosophy of Mathematics.

- Saunders Mac Lane, Mathematics: Form and Function[25]



The composition symbol is encoded as U+2218 RING OPERATOR (∘, ∘); see the Degree symbol article for similar-appearing Unicode characters. In TeX, it is written \circ.

See also



  1. ^ Some authors use f ∘ g : XZ, defined by (f ∘ g )(x) = g(f(x)) instead. This is common when a postfix notation is used, especially if functions are represented by exponents, as, for instance, in the study of group actions. See Dixon, John D.; Mortimer, Brian (1996). Permutation groups. Springer. p. 5. ISBN 0-387-94599-7.
  2. ^ The strict sense is used, e.g., in category theory, where a subset relation is modelled explicitly by an inclusion function.
  3. ^ Alfred Pringsheim's and Jules Molk's (1907) notation nf(x) to denote function compositions must not be confused with Rudolf von Bitter Rucker's (1982) notation nx, introduced by Hans Maurer (1901) and Reuben Louis Goodstein (1947) for tetration, or with David Patterson Ellerman's (1995) nx pre-superscript notation for roots.


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  9. ^ Ganyushkin, Olexandr; Mazorchuk, Volodymyr (2008). Classical Finite Transformation Semigroups: An Introduction. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-84800-281-4.
  10. ^ a b c Herschel, John Frederick William (1820). "Part III. Section I. Examples of the Direct Method of Differences". A Collection of Examples of the Applications of the Calculus of Finite Differences. Cambridge, UK: Printed by J. Smith, sold by J. Deighton & sons. pp. 1–13 [5–6]. Archived from the original on 2020-08-04. Retrieved 2020-08-04. [1] (NB. Inhere, Herschel refers to his 1813 work and mentions Hans Heinrich Bürmann's older work.)
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Cajori, Florian (1952) [March 1929]. "§472. The power of a logarithm / §473. Iterated logarithms / §533. John Herschel's notation for inverse functions / §535. Persistence of rival notations for inverse functions / §537. Powers of trigonometric functions". A History of Mathematical Notations. Vol. 2 (3rd corrected printing of 1929 issue, 2nd ed.). Chicago, USA: Open court publishing company. pp. 108, 176–179, 336, 346. ISBN 978-1-60206-714-1. Retrieved 2016-01-18. […] §473. Iterated logarithms […] We note here the symbolism used by Pringsheim and Molk in their joint Encyclopédie article: "2logba = logb (logba), …, k+1logba = logb (klogba)."[a] […] §533. John Herschel's notation for inverse functions, sin−1x, tan−1x, etc., was published by him in the Philosophical Transactions of London, for the year 1813. He says (p. 10): "This notation cos.−1e must not be understood to signify 1/cos. e, but what is usually written thus, arc (cos.=e)." He admits that some authors use cos.mA for (cos. A)m, but he justifies his own notation by pointing out that since d2x, Δ3x, Σ2x mean ddx, ΔΔΔ x, ΣΣ x, we ought to write sin.2x for sin. sin. x, log.3x for log. log. log. x. Just as we write dn V=∫n V, we may write similarly sin.−1x=arc (sin.=x), log.−1x.=cx. Some years later Herschel explained that in 1813 he used fn(x), fn(x), sin.−1x, etc., "as he then supposed for the first time. The work of a German Analyst, Burmann, has, however, within these few months come to his knowledge, in which the same is explained at a considerably earlier date. He[Burmann], however, does not seem to have noticed the convenience of applying this idea to the inverse functions tan−1, etc., nor does he appear at all aware of the inverse calculus of functions to which it gives rise." Herschel adds, "The symmetry of this notation and above all the new and most extensive views it opens of the nature of analytical operations seem to authorize its universal adoption."[b] […] §535. Persistence of rival notations for inverse function.— […] The use of Herschel's notation underwent a slight change in Benjamin Peirce's books, to remove the chief objection to them; Peirce wrote: "cos[−1]x," "log[−1]x."[c] […] §537. Powers of trigonometric functions.—Three principal notations have been used to denote, say, the square of sin x, namely, (sin x)2, sin x2, sin2x. The prevailing notation at present is sin2x, though the first is least likely to be misinterpreted. In the case of sin2x two interpretations suggest themselves; first, sin x ⋅ sin x; second,[d] sin (sin x). As functions of the last type do not ordinarily present themselves, the danger of misinterpretation is very much less than in case of log2x, where log x ⋅ log x and log (log x) are of frequent occurrence in analysis. […] The notation sinnx for (sin x)n has been widely used and is now the prevailing one. […] (xviii+367+1 pages including 1 addenda page) (NB. ISBN and link for reprint of 2nd edition by Cosimo, Inc., New York, USA, 2013.)
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  19. ^ ISO/IEC 13568:2002(E), p. 23
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