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In mathematics, a parametric equation defines a group of quantities as functions of one or more independent variables called parameters.[1] Parametric equations are commonly used to express the coordinates of the points that make up a geometric object such as a curve or surface, in which case the equations are collectively called a parametric representation or parameterization (alternatively spelled as parametrisation) of the object.[1][2][3]

For example, the equations

form a parametric representation of the unit circle, where t is the parameter: A point (x, y) is on the unit circle if and only if there is a value of t such that these two equations generate that point. Sometimes the parametric equations for the individual scalar output variables are combined into a single parametric equation in vectors:

Parametric representations are generally nonunique (see the "Examples in two dimensions" section below), so the same quantities may be expressed by a number of different parameterizations.[1]

In addition to curves and surfaces, parametric equations can describe manifolds and algebraic varieties of higher dimension, with the number of parameters being equal to the dimension of the manifold or variety, and the number of equations being equal to the dimension of the space in which the manifold or variety is considered (for curves the dimension is one and one parameter is used, for surfaces dimension two and two parameters, etc.).

Parametric equations are commonly used in kinematics, where the trajectory of an object is represented by equations depending on time as the parameter. Because of this application, a single parameter is often labeled t; however, parameters can represent other physical quantities (such as geometric variables) or can be selected arbitrarily for convenience. Parameterizations are non-unique; more than one set of parametric equations can specify the same curve.[4]


In kinematics, objects' paths through space are commonly described as parametric curves, with each spatial coordinate depending explicitly on an independent parameter (usually time). Used in this way, the set of parametric equations for the object's coordinates collectively constitute a vector-valued function for position. Such parametric curves can then be integrated and differentiated termwise. Thus, if a particle's position is described parametrically as

then its velocity can be found as

and its acceleration as

Another important use of parametric equations is in the field of computer-aided design (CAD).[5] For example, consider the following three representations, all of which are commonly used to describe planar curves.

The first two types are known as analytic, or non-parametric, representations of curves; when compared to parametric representations for use in CAD applications, non-parametric representations have shortcomings. In particular, the non-parametric representation depends on the choice of the coordinate system and does not lend itself well to geometric transformations, such as rotations, translations, and scaling; non-parametric representations therefore make it more difficult to generate points on a curve. These problems can be addressed by rewriting the non-parametric equations in parametric form.[6]

Numerous problems in integer geometry can be solved using parametric equations. A classical such solution is Euclid's parametrization of right triangles such that the lengths of their sides a, b and their hypotenuse c are coprime integers. As a and b are not both even (otherwise a, b and c would not be coprime), one may exchange them to have a even, and the parameterization is then

where the parameters m and n are positive coprime integers that are not both odd.

By multiplying a, b and c by an arbitrary positive integer, one gets a parametrization of all right triangles whose three sides have integer lengths.


If the parametrization is given by rational functions

where p, q, r are set-wise coprime polynomials, a resultant computation allows one to implicitize. More precisely, the implicit equation is the resultant with respect to t of xr(t) – p(t) and yr(t) – q(t)

In higher dimension (either more than two coordinates of more than one parameter), the implicitization of rational parametric equations may by done with Gröbner basis computation; see Gröbner basis § Implicitization in higher dimension.

To take the example of the circle of radius a, the parametric equations

can be implicitized in terms of x and y by way of the Pythagorean trigonometric identity:



we get

and thus

which is the standard equation of a circle centered at the origin.

Examples in two dimensions

The simplest equation for a parabola,

can be (trivially) parameterized by using a free parameter t, and setting

More generally, any curve given by an explicit equation

can be (trivially) parameterized by using a free parameter t, and setting

A more sophisticated example is the following. Consider the unit circle which is described by the ordinary (Cartesian) equation

This equation can be parameterized as follows:

With the Cartesian equation it is easier to check whether a point lies on the circle or not. With the parametric version it is easier to obtain points on a plot.

In some contexts, parametric equations involving only rational functions (that is fractions of two polynomials) are preferred, if they exist. In the case of the circle, such a rational parameterization is

With this pair of parametric equations, the point (-1, 0) is not represented by a real value of t, but by the limit of x and y when t tends to infinity.

An ellipse in canonical position (center at origin, major axis along the X-axis) with semi-axes a and b can be represented parametrically as

An ellipse in general position can be expressed as

A Lissajous curve is similar to an ellipse, but the x and y sinusoids are not in phase. In canonical position, a Lissajous curve is given by

An east-west opening hyperbola can be represented parametrically by

A north-south opening hyperbola can be represented parametrically as

In all these formulae (h,k) are the center coordinates of the hyperbola, a is the length of the semi-major axis, and b is the length of the semi-minor axis.

A hypotrochoid is a curve traced by a point attached to a circle of radius r rolling around the inside of a fixed circle of radius R, where the point is at a distance d from the center of the interior circle.

  • A hypotrochoid for which r = d
  • A hypotrochoid for which R = 5, r = 3, d = 5

The parametric equations for the hypotrochoids are:

Other examples are shown:

  • j=3 k=3
  • j=3 k=3
  • j=3 k=4
  • j=3 k=4
  • j=3 k=4
  • i=1 j=2

Examples in three dimensions

Parametric equations are convenient for describing curves in higher-dimensional spaces. For example:

describes a three-dimensional curve, the helix, with a radius of a and rising by 2πb units per turn. The equations are identical in the plane to those for a circle. Such expressions as the one above are commonly written as

where r is a three-dimensional vector.

A torus with major radius R and minor radius r may be defined parametrically as

where the two parameters t and u both vary between 0 and 2π.

  • R=2, r=1/2

As u varies from 0 to 2π the point on the surface moves about a short circle passing through the hole in the torus. As t varies from 0 to 2π the point on the surface moves about a long circle around the hole in the torus.

Examples with vectors

See also

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