In mathematics, a composite function represents the application of one function to the results of another. For instance, the functions f: X → Y and g: Y → Z can be composed by first applying f to an argument x and then applying g to the result. Thus one obtains a function g o f: X → Z defined by (g o f)(x) = g(f(x)) for all x in X. The notation g o f is read as "g circle f", or "g composed with f", "g following f", or just "g of f".
The composition of functions is always associative. That is, if f, g, and h are three functions with suitably chosen domains and codomains, then f o (g o h) = (f o g) o h. Since there is no distinction between the choices of placement of parentheses, they may be safely left off.
The functions g and f are said to commute with each other if g o f = f o g. In general, composition of functions will not be commutative. Commutativity is a special property, attained only by particular functions, and often in special circumstances. For example, only when . But inverse functions always commute to produce the identity mapping.
Repeated composition of a function with itself is called function iteration.
Note: If f takes its values in a ring (in particular for real or complex-valued f ), there is a risk of confusion, as f n could also stand for the n-fold product of f, e.g. f 2(x) = f(x) · f(x).
(For trigonometric functions, usually the latter is meant, at least for positive exponents. 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, an expression for f in g(x) = f r(x) can be derived from the rule for g given non-integer values of r. This is called fractional iteration. A simple example would be that where f is the successor function, f r(x) = x + r.
In the mid-20th century, some mathematicians decided that writing "g o f" to mean "first apply f, then apply g" was too confusing and decided to change notations. They wrote "xf" for "f(x)" and "xfg" for "g(f(x))". This can be more natural and seem simpler than writing functions on the left in some areas, and is called postfix notation. For instance, in linear algebra, where x is a row vector and f and g denote matrices and the composition is by matrix multiplication. The order is important because this multiplication is non-commutative. Successive transformations applying and composing to the right agrees with the left-to-right reading sequence.
Category Theory uses f;g interchangeably with g o f. To distinguish the left composition operator from a text semicolon, in the Z notation a fat semicolon ⨟ is used for left relation composition. Since all functions are binary relations, it is correct to use the fat semicolon for function composition as well.
Composition operators are studied in the field of operator theory.