Often, a surface is defined by equations that are satisfied by the coordinates of its points. This is the case of the graph of a continuous function of two variables. The set of the zeros of a function of three variables is a surface, which is called an implicit surface. If the defining three-variate function is a polynomial, the surface is an algebraic surface. For example, the unit sphere is an algebraic surface, as it may be defined by the implicit equation
A surface may also be defined as the image, in some space of dimension at least 3, of a continuous function of two variables (some further conditions are required to insure that the image is not a curve). In this case, one says that one has a parametric surface, which is parametrized by these two variables, called parameters. For example, the unit sphere may be parametrized by the Euler angles, also called longitude u and latitude v by
Parametric equations of surfaces are often irregular at some points. For example, all but two points of the unit sphere, are the image, by the above parametrization, of exactly one pair of Euler angles (modulo 2π). For the remaining two points (the north and south poles), one has cos v = 0, and the longitude u may take any values. Also, there are surfaces for which there cannot exist a single parametrization that covers the whole surface. Therefore, one often considers surfaces which are parametrized by several parametric equations, whose images cover the surface. This is formalized by the concept of manifold: in the context of manifolds, typically in topology and differential geometry, a surface is a manifold of dimension two; this means that a surface is a topological space such that every point has a neighborhood which is homeomorphic to an open subset of the Euclidean plane (see Surface (topology) and Surface (differential geometry)). This allows defining surfaces in spaces of dimension higher than three, and even abstract surfaces, which are not contained in any other space. On the other hand, this excludes surfaces that have singularities, such as the vertex of a conical surface or points where a surface crosses itself.
In classical geometry, a surface is generally defined as a locus of a point or a line. For example, a sphere is the locus of a point which is at a given distance of a fixed point, called the center; a conical surface is the locus of a line passing through a fixed point and crossing a curve; a surface of revolution is the locus of a curve rotating around a line. A ruled surface is the locus of a moving line satisfying some constraints; in modern terminology, a ruled surface is a surface, which is a union of lines.
In this article, several kinds of surfaces are considered and compared. An unambiguous terminology is thus necessary to distinguish them. Therefore, we call topological surfaces the surfaces that are manifolds of dimension two (the surfaces considered in Surface (topology)). We call differential surfaces the surfaces that are differentiable manifolds (the surfaces considered in Surface (differential geometry)). Every differential surface is a topological surface, but the converse is false.
For simplicity, unless otherwise stated, "surface" will mean a surface in the Euclidean space of dimension 3 or in R3. A surface that is not supposed to be included in another space is called an abstract surface.