The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider

Almost Everywhere

Now we come to one of the most common terms of art in analysis: “almost everywhere”. It’s unusual in that it sounds perfectly colloquial, and yet it has a very technical meaning.

The roots of “almost everywhere” are in the notion of a negligible set. If we’re working with a measure space (X,\mathcal{S},\mu) we don’t really care about subsets of sets of measure zero, and anything that happens only on such a negligible set we try to sweep under the rug. For example, let’s say we have a function defined by f(x)=0 for all x\neq0, and by f(0)=1. Colloquially, we say that f is zero “almost everywhere” because the set where it isn’t zero — the singleton \{0\} — has measure zero.

In general, if we have some property P that can be applied to points x\in X, then we say P is true “almost everywhere” if the set where P is false is negligible. That is, if we can find some measurable set E with \mu(E)=0 so that P is true for all x\notin E. Note that we don’t particularly care if the set where P is false is itself measurable, although if \mu is complete then all \mu-negligible sets will be measurable. This sort of language is so common in measure theory and analysis that it’s often abbreviated as “a.e.”. Older texts will say “p.p.” for the French equivalent “presque partout“. In probability theory (measure theory’s cousin) we run into “a.s.” for “almost surely”.

No matter how we say or write it, “almost everywhere” has a hidden dependence on some measure. In many cases, the measure is obvious from context, in that there’s only one measure under consideration on a given space. However, in the case where we have two measures \mu and \nu on the same measurable space, we may distinguish them by writing “\mu-almost everywhere” and “\nu-almost everywhere” (or “\mu-a.e.” and “\nu-a.e.”), or by explicitly stating with respect to which measure we mean.

We’ve actually seen this sort of thing in the wild before; Lebesgue’s condition can be reformulated to say that a bounded function f:[a,b]\rightarrow\mathbb{R} defined on an n-dimensional interval [a,b] is Riemann integrable on that interval if and only if f is continuous almost everywhere (with respect to Lebesgue measure).

As more of a new example, we say that a function f:X\to\mathbb{R} is “essentially bounded” if it is bounded almost everywhere. That is, if there is a constant c and some measurable set E\subseteq X with \mu(E)=0 so that \lvert f(x)\rvert\leq c for all x\notin E. We’re willing to accept some points exceeding c, but no more than a set of measure zero. The infimum of all such essential bounds is the “essential supremum” of \lvert f\rvert, written \text{ess sup}(\lvert f\rvert).

May 13, 2010 - Posted by | Analysis, Measure Theory


  1. I think that you want, in the last paragraph, to say “some set of zero measure E” or something like this.

    Comment by Tracer | May 13, 2010 | Reply

  2. Yes, sorry.. that got edited out.

    Comment by John Armstrong | May 13, 2010 | Reply

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  13. Do you know if this term “almost everywhere” along with it’s abbreviation “a.e.” was in existence in the late 16th Century?

    Comment by David Ewald | March 3, 2014 | Reply

    • I do not; is there a particular reason you’re wondering?

      Comment by John Armstrong | March 3, 2014 | Reply

      • I am afraid that it is too obscure for you to be bothered with the details, but thank you for your kind response.

        Comment by David Ewald | March 3, 2014 | Reply

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  15. There’s a bug in the text: In the 4th paragraph, the second “\mu-almost everywhere” should be ” \nu-almost everywhere”, right?

    Comment by Mihai Todor | July 14, 2020 | Reply

    • Yep, thanks for catching that, Mihai!

      Comment by John Armstrong | July 14, 2020 | Reply

      • Cool! Thanks for fixing it and for writing such a good article!

        Comment by Mihai Todor | July 14, 2020 | Reply

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