Verifying Trigonometric Identities

by Dr. Carol JVF Burns (website creator)
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An identity is a mathematical sentence that is always true.
(A bit more precisely—everywhere it is defined, it is true.)

To verify (or prove) an identity means to prove that the sentence is always true.

This section discusses two common approaches for verifying (proving) identities.

Fundamental Trigonometric Identities talks about identities in general, and their usefulness.
It also introduces three important trigonometric identities (listed below). Review this earlier section as needed.

Tools for Verifying Trigonometric Identities

Verifying identities is all about renaming—to show that two (initially different-looking) expressions are actually the same.
You'll use:

Two Basic Approaches for Verifying Identities

Equations of the form:
Often, one side of a (suspected) identity
is more complicated than the other.

In such cases, it is usually easiest to:
  • start with the complicated side
  • apply tools (one at a time) to rename it as the simpler side
$$ \cssId{s79}{ \begin{align} \text{C O M}&\text{P L I C A T E D}\cr &= \ \text{<re-name>}\cr &= \ \text{<re-name>}\cr &= \ \ldots\cr &= \ \text{SIMPLER} \end{align}} $$
Often, both sides of a (suspected) identity
are similarly complicated.

In such cases, you can often work with each side separately,
renaming each side as the same simpler expression:
$$ \cssId{s83}{ \begin{align} \text{COMPL1} &= \ \text{<re-name>}\cr &= \ \ldots\cr &= \ \color{red}{\text{SIMPLER}}\cr\cr \text{COMPL2} &= \ \text{<re-name>}\cr &= \ \ldots\cr &= \ \color{red}{\text{SIMPLER}} \end{align}} $$ The two $\,\color{red}{\text{SIMPLER}}\,$ expressions are the same!

(Sometimes, when renaming one side,
you inadvertently end up with the other side.

If so—you're done!)
  • if a complicated side is long,
    put the first simplication on the next line, indented a bit
  • for readability, line up all equal signs
  • you may want to provide a reason for each step
(In the examples and exercises, only one correct approach is shown.)

Turning a Complicated Side into the Simpler Side

Verify the identity:     $\,\displaystyle \tan x + \frac{\cos x}{1 + \sin x} = \sec x\,$


The left side ($\,\tan x + \frac{\cos x}{1 + \sin x}\,$) is more complicated than the right side ($\,\sec x\,$).
Therefore, start with the expression on the left;
rename it to match the expression on the right.

The solution shown here first rewrites everything in terms of sines and cosines, and then uses the conjugate technique: $$ \begin{alignat}{2} &\cssId{s103}{\tan x + \frac{\cos x}{1 + \sin x}} &\qquad\qquad& \cssId{s104}{\text{(start with left side)}} \cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s105}{= \ \frac{\sin x}{\cos x} + \frac{\cos x}{1 + \sin x}} &&\cssId{s106}{\text{(definition of tangent)}}\cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s107}{= \ \frac{\sin x}{\cos x} + \frac{\cos x}{1 + \sin x}\cdot\frac{1 - \sin x}{1 - \sin x}} &&\cssId{s108}{\text{(conjugate technique)}}\cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s109}{= \ \frac{\sin x}{\cos x} + \frac{(\cos x)(1 - \sin x)}{\cos^2 x}} &&\cssId{s110}{\text{(FOIL, Pythagorean Identity)}}\cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s111}{= \ \frac{\sin x}{\cos x} + \frac{1 - \sin x}{\cos x}} &&\cssId{s112}{\text{(cancel)}}\cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s113}{= \ \frac{1}{\cos x}} &&\cssId{s114}{\text{(add fractions)}}\cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s115}{= \ \sec x} &&\cssId{s116}{\text{(definition of secant)}}\cr \end{alignat} $$

Working With Both Sides Separately

Verify the identity:     $\,\displaystyle \frac{1 + \cos t}{\cos t} = \frac{\tan^2 t}{\sec t - 1}\,$


The left side ($\,\frac{1 + \cos t}{\cos t}\,$) and the right side ($\,\frac{\tan^2 t}{\sec t - 1}\,$) are similarly complicated.
Therefore, work with both sides separately, trying to reduce each to the same simpler expression.
Here, ‘LHS’ and ‘RHS’ stand for ‘left-hand side’ and ‘right-hand side’.
Note that the conjugate technique is successfully applied to an expression of the form $\,\sec t - 1\,.$

$$ \begin{alignat}{2} &\cssId{s126}{\text{LHS}} \cssId{s127}{= \frac{1 + \cos t}{\cos t}} &\qquad\qquad& \cssId{s128}{\text{(start with LHS)}} \cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s129}{= \ \frac{1}{\cos t} + \frac{\cos t}{\cos t}} &&\cssId{s130}{\text{(algebra)}}\cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s131}{= \ \color{red}{\sec t + 1}} &&\cssId{s132}{\text{(definition of secant)}}\cr \end{alignat} $$ $$ \begin{alignat}{2} &\cssId{s133}{\text{RHS}} \cssId{s134}{= \frac{\tan^2 t}{\sec t - 1}} &\qquad\qquad& \cssId{s135}{\text{(start with RHS)}} \cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s136}{= \ \frac{\tan^2 t}{\sec t - 1}\cdot\frac{\sec t + 1}{\sec t + 1}} &&\cssId{s137}{\text{(conjugate technique)}}\cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s138}{= \ \frac{\tan^2 t(\sec t + 1)}{\sec^2 t - 1}} &&\cssId{s139}{\text{(FOIL)}}\cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s140}{= \ \frac{\tan^2 t(\sec t + 1)}{\tan^2 t}} &&\cssId{s141}{\text{(alternate Pythagorean Identity)}}\cr\cr &\qquad\cssId{s142}{= \ \color{red}{\sec t + 1}} &&\cssId{s143}{\text{(cancel)}}\cr \end{alignat} $$
Notice that both the LHS and RHS have been renamed as the same expression, $\,\sec t + 1\,$.

Graphically Checking that an Equation is an Identity

For many years, I worked in a math lab. Any student could come in to get help.
I have a recollection of a time when I learned an important lesson.

I was helping someone verify an identity—but nothing was working! We tried oodles of things, for a very long time.
Finally, the thought occurred to me that perhaps it wasn't an identity after all—maybe it was just a mistake.
Indeed, it was a typo in the book.

If you ever find yourself in the same situation, check that you're really working with an identity.
If the LHS and RHS are always equal then they will have precisely the same graphs.

At WolframAlpha, if you type in two comma-separated expressions, then both will be graphed in the same coordinate system.
If you graph both sides of an identity, then it will look like a single graph, because the graphs will overlap perfectly!

For example, cut-and-paste the following into WolframAlpha:

tan(x) + cos(x)/(1 + sin(x)) , sec x

Here's what you'll see:

The blue and red graphs overlap perfectly, giving the appearance of a single graph.

This graphically shows that   ‘$\,\displaystyle \tan x + \frac{\cos x}{1 + \sin x} = \sec x\,$’   is an identity.
If you prefer, you can get an equivalent equation with zero on one side: $$\cssId{s163}{\tan x + \frac{\cos x}{1 + \sin x} - \sec x = 0}$$ Since this is an identity,
the left side graphs as the zero function.

Not much to see!

How to Prove that an Equation is NOT an Identity

If the graphs don't match up (and you've input both sides correctly), then you're not working with an identity.
To prove that a sentence is not an identity, you need only provide a single number for which the sentence is false.

For example, ‘$\,\displaystyle \tan x + \frac{\cos x}{1 + \sin x} = 1 + \sec x\,$’ is not an identity:

Master the ideas from this section
by practicing the exercise at the bottom of this page.

When you're done practicing, move on to:
Addition and Subtraction Formulas for Sine and Cosine
On this exercise, you will not key in your answer.
However, you can check to see if your answer is correct.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

(MAX is 28; there are 28 different problem types.)
Want textboxes to type in your answers? Check here: