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Polygonal Functions

N. L. Carothers
Dept. of Mathematics & Statistics
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, OH 43403
carother @

To begin, a polygonal function is a piecewise linear, continuous function; that is, a continuous function f : [ a, b ] R is a polygonal function if there are finitely many distinct
points a = x0 < x1 < < xn = b, called nodes, such that f is linear on each of the
intervals [ xk1 , xk ], k = 1, . . . , n. If we fix the nodes a = x0 < x1 < < xn = b, then
its clear that any polygonal function based on these nodes is completely determined by
its values at the nodes.
Our first result is due to Lebesgue. In fact, its the first observation in Lebesgues
first published paper Sur lapproximation des fonctions (complete references are given at
the end of this paper), which appeared in 1898; Lebesgue was 23 at the time. Lebesgues
observation is that uniformly continuous functions can be uniformly approximated by
polygonal functions. In what follows, we will use k k to denote the uniform, or sup-norm;
specifically, given a continuous function f on an interval [ a, b ], we write
kf k = max |f (x)|.

Theorem. Let f : [ 0, 1 ] R be continuous, and let > 0. Then, there is a polygonal

function g : [ 0, 1 ] R such that kf gk < .
Proof. Since f is uniformly continuous, we can choose a positive integer n, sufficiently
large, so that |f (x) f (y)| < whenever |x y| < 1/n. What this means is that the
polygonal function g defined by g(k/n) = f (k/n), for k = 0, . . . , n, and g linear on each

interval k/n, (k + 1)/n , satisfies kf gk < . (Why?)
Next we modify our approximating function: Let h be another polygonal function,
also having nodes at (k/n)nk=0 , but with h(k/n) rational and with |h(k/n) g(k/n)| <
for each k. It follows that kg hk < and, consequently, that kf hk < 2.
Since the set of all polygonal functions taking only rational values at the nodes
(k/n)nk=0 , for some n, is countable (Exercise 1), this shows that C[ 0, 1 ] is separable.

Polygonal Functions
1. For each n, let Qn be the set of all polygonal functions that have nodes at x = k/n,
k = 0, . . . , n, and that take on only rational values at these points. Check that Qn is
a countable set, and hence the union of the Qn s is a countable dense set in C[ 0, 1 ].

The space of polygonal functions

Fix distinct points a = x0 < x1 < < xn = b in [ a, b ], and let Sn denote the set of
all polygonal functions having nodes at the xk s. Its not hard to see that Sn is a vector
space. (Why?) In fact, its relatively clear that Sn must have dimension exactly n + 1
since there are n + 1 degrees of freedom (each element of Sn is completely determined
by its values at the xk s). More convincing, perhaps, is the fact that we can easily display
a basis for Sn .
2. Let a = x0 < x1 < < xn = b be distinct points in [ a, b ], and let Sn be the set of all
polygonal functions having nodes at the xk s. Show that Sn is an n + 1-dimensional
subspace of C[ a, b ] spanned by the constant function 0 (x) = 1 and the angles
k+1 (x) = |x xk | + (x xk ), for k = 0, . . . , n 1. Specifically, show that each
h Sn can be uniquely written as h(x) = c0 + i=1 ci i (x). [Hint: Since each side
of the equation is an element of Sn , its enough to show that the system of equations
h(x0 ) = c0 and h(xk ) = c0 + 2 i=1 ci (xk xi1 ) for k = 1, . . . , n can be solved
(uniquely) for the ci s.]
3. Each element of Sn can be written in the form


ai |x xi | + bx + d for some

choice of scalars a1 , . . . , an1 , b, d.

It is of some interest numerically to know just how well a continuous function can be
approximated by polygonal functions through an interpolation scheme. Specifically, lets
stick with the nodes (k/n)nk=0 , n = 1, 2, . . ., associated to [ 0, 1 ]. Given f C[ 0, 1 ] and a
positive integer n, let Ln (f ) denote the unique polygonal function, with nodes at (k/n)nk=0 ,
which agrees with f at each of these nodes.
4. Show that kf Ln (f )k 2/n in the case f (x) = x2 .
5. Let f be Lipschitz; that is, suppose that f satisfies |f (x) f (y)| C|x y| for some
constant C and all x, y in [ 0, 1 ]. Show that kf Ln (f )k 2 C/n. [Hint: Given x
in [ k/n, (k + 1)/n), check that |f (x) Ln (f )(x)| = |f (x) f (k/n) + Ln (f )(k/n)
Ln (f )(x)| |f (x) f (k/n)| + |f ((k + 1)/n) f (k/n)|.]
6. Show that kf Ln (f )k 2 f (1/n), where f is the modulus of continuity of f . In
particular, if f C[ 0, 1 ], then Ln (f ) converges uniformly to f .
7. Prove that Ln is a linear projection from C[ 0, 1 ] onto Sn . Moreover, given f C[ 0, 1 ],
show that kLn (f )k kf k.

Polygonal Functions

The upshot of Exercise 3 is that each polygonal function is a linear function plus a
linear combination of translates of the function |x|. If we knew that the function |x| could
be uniformly approximated by polynomials on, say, [1, 1 ], then we could fashion a proof
of the Weierstrass theorem. Lebesgues original proof uses the fact that the binomial series

1 z = 1 + c1 z + c2 z 2 + c3 z 3 + c4 z 4 + ,


cn =

(1) 1 3 (2n 3)
2 4 6 (2n)

is uniformly convergent for 0 z 1; thus,

|x| =

1 (1 x2 ) = 1 + c1 (1 x2 ) + c2 (1 x2 )2 + c3 (1 x2 )3 +

is uniformly convergent for 1 x 1 (but is no longer a power series, of course).

1 3 (2n 1)
for n 1. Show that cn = an an1 and,
2 4 (2n)
hence, that c1 + + cn = an a0 1. Conclude that the binomial series for

1 z is uniformly convergent on [ 0, 1 ]. Why does it converge to 1 z ?

8. Let a0 = 1 and an =

9. Heres an alternate proof (see Rudin for more details):

(a) Define (Pn ) recursively by Pn+1 (x) = Pn (x) + [x Pn (x)2 ]/2, where P0 (x) = 0.
Use induction to show that each Pn is a polynomial.

(b) Use induction to show that 0 Pn (x) Pn+1 (x) x for 0 x 1.

(c) Use Dinis theorem to conclude that Pn (x) converges uniformly to x on [ 0, 1 ].

(d) Pn (x2 ) is also a polynomial, and Pn (x2 ) converges uniformly to |x| on [ 1, 1 ].
Since the collection of polynomials is invariant under translation, standard arguments
now show that we can approximate |x x0 | uniformly by polynomials on any interval
[ a, b ]. Specifically, if f is a continuous function on [ a, b ], and if we can find a polynomial

p that uniformly approximates the function g(t) = f (b a) t + a on the interval [ 0, 1 ],

say kg pk < , then the function q(x) = p (x a)/(b a) is again a polynomial, and
uniformly approximates f on [ a, b ]; in fact, its easy to see that kf qk < . This proves
Corollary. Let f : [ a, b ] R be continuous, and let > 0. Then, there is a polynomial
p such that kf pk < .
This familiar result is often called Weierstrasss First Theorem. It appeared in 1885
in the first installment of a two-part paper. The main result in the second part, called
Weierstrasss Second Theorem, states that each continuous, 2-periodic function can be
uniformly approximated, on the whole line, by trigonometric polynomials. Lebesgue also
addressed this second theorem in his 1898 paper; he deduced Weierstrasss Second Theorem

Polygonal Functions

from the First through purely elementary techniques. Whats more, Lebesgue pointed out
that the two results are actually equivalent; in other words, the First Theorem can likewise
be deduced from the Second. Since there are many independent proofs of the two theorems,
this is of some interest.
A somewhat simplified version of Lebesgues original proofs can be found in the books
by de La Vallee Poussin and by Natanson. Instead of pursuing Lebesgues proof, we
will next discuss Dunham Jacksons observation, taken from Jacksons Carus Monograph
Fourier Series and Orthogonal Polynomials, that Weierstrasss Second Theorem already
follows from Lebesgues first result and a few simple calculations.
Weierstrasss Second Theorem
To begin, we denote the collection of continuous, 2-periodic functions f : R R by
C 2 . Please note that each element of C 2 is completely determined by its values on, say,
[, ]. In particular, each element of C 2 is uniformly continuous (on all of R), and we
may continue to use the sup-norm; in this case,
kf k =

max |f (x)|.

What Jackson tells us is that if f is a polygonal function in C 2 , then the Fourier

coefficients for f satisfy |ak |, |bk | C/k 2 . In particular, each 2-periodic polygonal
function is the uniform limit of its Fourier series. Since the polygonal functions are clearly
dense in C 2 , this observation gives a quick proof of Weierstrasss second theorem.
10. Let f (x) = cx + d be a linear function on the interval [ a, b ] and let n be a positive
integer. Use integration by-parts to show that

f (x) cos nx dx =

f (b) sin nb f (a) sin na + 2 cos nb cos na .

Let f be a polygonal function with nodes at = x0 < x2 < < xm = and

having slope ck in the k-th interval [ xk1 , xk ]. Then,

m Z
1 X xk
f (x) cos nx dx =
f (x) cos nx dx



and, according to Exercise 10,



f (x) cos nx dx =


f (xk ) sin nxk f (xk1 ) sin nxk1 + 2 cos nxk cos nxk1 .

Polygonal Functions

The first of these expressions is easy to sum:


f (xk ) sin nxk f (xk1 ) sin nxk1 = f () sin f () sin() = 0,

while the sum of the second expression is easy to estimate:



cos nxk cos nxk1 2 max{c1 , . . . , cm }.



Now M = m max{c1 , . . . , cm } is a constant depending only on f (and not on n), thus

weve shown that


2M .
|an | =

A similar calculation will show that we also have

f (x) sin nx dx
|bn | =

That is, the Fourier coefficients for a polygonal function f are of order 1/n2 . An application
of the Weierstrass M -test (and other standard arguments) shows that the Fourier series
for f converges uniformly to f on [, ].
11. Let f be a polygonal (but not necessarily periodic) function on R. Fix x R, and
consider the function
g(t) =

f (x + t) f (x)

for 0 < | t | ,

and g(0) = 5.

Show that g is bounded and has at most one (jump) discontinuity in [, ]. In

particular, both g and g 2 are Riemann integrable on [, ].
f (x + t) f (x)
, for 0 < | t | , and (0) = 5.
2 sin 2t
13. If and 2 are both integrable over [, ], show that
(t) sin(n + 21 ) t dt = 0.
12. Do the same for the function (t) =

[Hint: sin(n + 12 ) t = cos 2t sin nt + sin 2t cos nt. Thus, the integral can be written as a
sum of Fourier coefficients for the functions (t) cos 2t and (t) sin 2t .]
If we denote the n-th partial sum of the Fourier series for a fixed function f by

a0 X
sn (x) =
ak cos kx + bk sin kx ,

Polygonal Functions

then we may appeal to the familiar Dirichlet formula (and Exercise 12) to write:
sn (x) f (x) =

 sin(n + 12 ) t
f (x + t) f (x)
dt =

2 sin 2

(t) sin(n + 21 ) t dt.

If f is a 2-periodic polygonal function on R, then, by Exercises 1113, this last expression

tends to 0 as n ; that is, the Fourier series for f converges pointwise to f . But we
already know that the Fourier series for f is uniformly convergent (by the M -test), thus
sn (x) must actually converge uniformly to f .
As Jackson then points out, since each continuous, 2-periodic function on the line is
uniformly close to a polygonal function, each continuous, 2-periodic function is in turn
uniformly close to a trigonometric polynomial. That is, weve just proved Weierstrasss
Second Theorem.
Theorem. Let f : R R be continuous and 2-periodic, and let > 0. Then, there is a
trigonometric polynomial T such that kf T k < .
Many modern textbooks present Weierstrasss Second Theorem (and often even the
First) as a corollary to Stones version of the Weierstrass theorem. Its interesting to
note in this regard that, according to Cheney, Stone was influenced at least in part by
Lebesgues paper. In particular, the fact that |x| is the uniform limit of polynomials plays
a key role in Stones proof.
E. W. Cheney, Introduction to Approximation Theory, Chelsea, 1982.
E. W. Hobson, The Theory of Functions of a Real Variable, 2 vols., Cambridge, 1950.
D. Jackson, Fourier Series and Orthogonal Polynomials, MAA, 1941.
e Poussin, Lecons sur lApproximation des Fonctions dune Variable Reele, GauthierCh.-J. de La Valle
Villars, 1919; also available in the volume LApproximation, by S. Bernstein and Ch.-J. de La
e Poussin, Chelsea, 1970.
H. Lebesgue, Sur lapproximation des fonctions, Bulletin des Sciences Mathematique, 22 (1898), 278
S. Lojasiewicz, The Theory of Real Functions, Wiley, 1988.
I. Natanson, Constructive Function Theory, 3 vols., Ungar, 19641965; but see also Theory of Functions
of a Real Variable, 2 vols., Ungar, 1955.
W. Rudin, Principles of Mathematical Analysis, 3rd. ed., McGraw-Hill, 1976.

K. Weierstrass, Uber
die analytische Darstellbarkeit sogenannter willk
urlicher Functionen einer reellen

Veranderlichen, Sitzungsberichte der Koniglich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenshcaften zu Berlin,

(1885), 633639, 789805. See also, Mathematische Werke, Mayer and M
uller, 1895, vol. 3, 137. A
French translation appears as Sur la possibilite dune representation analytique des fonctions dites
arbitraires dune variable reele, Journal de Mathematiques Pures et Appliquees, 2 (1886), 105138.