Strictly speaking, del is not a specific operator, but rather a convenient mathematical notation for those three operators, that makes many equations easier to write and remember. The del symbol can be interpreted as a vector of partial derivative operators, and its three possible meanings—gradient, divergence, and curl—can be formally viewed as the product with a scalar, a dot product, and a cross product, respectively, of the del "operator" with the field. These formal products do not necessarily commute with other operators or products. These three uses, detailed below, are summarized as:
It always points in the direction of greatest increase of , and it has a magnitude equal to the maximum rate of increase at the point—just like a standard derivative. In particular, if a hill is defined as a height function over a plane , the gradient at a given location will be a vector in the xy-plane (visualizable as an arrow on a map) pointing along the steepest direction. The magnitude of the gradient is the value of this steepest slope.
In particular, this notation is powerful because the gradient product rule looks very similar to the 1d-derivative case:
However, the rules for dot products do not turn out to be simple, as illustrated by:
This gives the rate of change of a field in the direction of . In operator notation, the element in parentheses can be considered a single coherent unit; fluid dynamics uses this convention extensively, terming it the convective derivative—the "moving" derivative of the fluid.
Note that is an operator that takes scalar to a scalar. It can be extended to operate on a vector, by separately operating on each of its components.
Del can also be applied to a vector field with the result being a tensor. The tensor derivative of a vector field (in three dimensions) is a 9-term second-rank tensor – that is, a 3×3 matrix – but can be denoted simply as , where represents the dyadic product. This quantity is equivalent to the transpose of the Jacobian matrix of the vector field with respect to space. The divergence of the vector field can then be expressed as the trace of this matrix.
For a small displacement , the change in the vector field is given by:
DCG chart: A simple chart depicting all rules pertaining to second derivatives. D, C, G, L and CC stand for divergence, curl, gradient, Laplacian and curl of curl, respectively. Arrows indicate existence of second derivatives. Blue circle in the middle represents curl of curl, whereas the other two red circles (dashed) mean that DD and GG do not exist.
When del operates on a scalar or vector, either a scalar or vector is returned. Because of the diversity of vector products (scalar, dot, cross) one application of del already gives rise to three major derivatives: the gradient (scalar product), divergence (dot product), and curl (cross product). Applying these three sorts of derivatives again to each other gives five possible second derivatives, for a scalar field f or a vector field v; the use of the scalar Laplacian and vector Laplacian gives two more:
These are of interest principally because they are not always unique or independent of each other. As long as the functions are well-behaved, two of them are always zero:
Two of them are always equal:
The 3 remaining vector derivatives are related by the equation:
And one of them can even be expressed with the tensor product, if the functions are well-behaved:
Most of the above vector properties (except for those that rely explicitly on del's differential properties—for example, the product rule) rely only on symbol rearrangement, and must necessarily hold if the del symbol is replaced by any other vector. This is part of the value to be gained in notationally representing this operator as a vector.
Though one can often replace del with a vector and obtain a vector identity, making those identities mnemonic, the reverse is not necessarily reliable, because del does not commute in general.
A counterexample that relies on del's failure to commute:
A counterexample that relies on del's differential properties:
Central to these distinctions is the fact that del is not simply a vector; it is a vector operator. Whereas a vector is an object with both a magnitude and direction, del has neither a magnitude nor a direction until it operates on a function.
For that reason, identities involving del must be derived with care, using both vector identities and differentiation identities such as the product rule.