We want to describe how fast a function grows
or declines.^{1}

Let $f: \R \to \R $. The lower growth class of $f$ (toward infinity) is the set of all functions $g: \R \to \R $ for which there exists $C, M > 0$ so that $\abs{g(x)} \leq C\abs{f(x)}$ for all $x > M$. The intuition is that if $h: \R \to \R $ is in the lower growth class of $f$, $h$ does not grow faster than $f$. In this case we say that $h$ grows at order $f$.

The lower limit class of $f$ at $x_0$ is the set of all functions $g: \R \to \R $ for which there exists $C, \varepsilon > 0$ so that $\abs{g(x)} \leq C \abs{f(x)}$ for all $\abs{x - x_0} < \varepsilon $. The intuition is that for $x$ sufficiently close to $x_0$, the magnitude of $f$ is bounded by a constant times the magnitude of $g$. Often $x_0$ is $0$.

The upper growth class of $f$ (toward infinity) is the set of all functions $g: \R \to \R $ for which there exists $C, M > 0$ so that $\abs{g(x)} \geq C\abs{f(x)}$ for all $x > M$. The intuition is that if $h$ is in the upper growth class of $f$, $h$ grows at least as fast as $f$. We similarly define the upper growth class at a limit $x_0$.

The (exact) growth class of $f$ is the set of all functions $g: \R \to \R $ for which there exists $C_1, C_2, M$ so that $C_1\abs{f(x)} \leq \abs{g(x)} \leq C_2 \abs{f(x)}$ for all $x > M$. The intuition is that if $h$ is in the growth class of $f$, then $h$ and $f$ grow at the same rate. Again, we similarly define the growth class at limit $x_0$.

We denote the upper, lower and exact growth classes of a function $f: \R \to \R $ by of $f$ by $O(f)$, $\Omega (f)$ and $\Theta (f)$, respectively. We read the notation $O(f)$ as “order at most f,” we read $\Omega (f)$ as “order at least $f$,” and $\Theta (f)$ as “order exactly $f$.”

The letter $O$ is a mnemonic for order, and $\Omega $ and $\Theta $ build on this mnemonic. The term order appears to arise from the use of growth classes when discussing Taylor approximations. In this case of small $x$ (i.e., $\abs{x} < 1$), $\abs{x^p} < \abs{x^q}$ if $q < p$ and so higher order terms are “smaller” and “negligible.” This notation is sometimes called Big O notation, Landau's symbol, Landau notation or Landau's notation.

Let $\phi , \psi : \R \to \R $.
Many authors use $\phi = O(\psi )$ or
$\phi (t) = O(\psi (t))$ to assert that $\phi $
is in the upper growth class of $\psi $ at
some understood limit (e.g., $0$ or $\infty$).
In other words, the equation asserts that there
exists some positive constant $C > 0$ sot
that, for all $t$ sufficiently close to the
understood limit, $\abs{\phi (t)} \leq C
\abs{\psi (t)}$.^{2}
For example, the statement $\sin^2(t) = P(t^2)$
as $t \to 0$ (or for $t \to 0$) means that
there exists constants $C, \varepsilon > 0$
so that, $\abs{t} < \varepsilon \implies
\abs{\sin^2(t)} \leq Ct^2$.