Sorting a collection of values – arranging them in a fixed order, usually alphabetical or numerical – is one of the most common computing applications. When the number of values is even moderately large, sorting is such a tiresome, errorprone, and timeconsuming process for human beings that the programmer should automate it whenever possible. For this reason, computer scientists have studied this application with extreme care and thoroughness.
One of the clear results of their investigations is that no one algorithm for sorting is best in all cases. Which approach is best depends on whether one is sorting a small collection or a large one, on whether the individual elements occupy a lot of storage (so that moving them around in memory is timeconsuming), on how easy or hard it is to compare two elements to figure out which one should precede the other, and so on. In this course we will examine a variety of useful algorithms for sorting, including insertion sort, selection sort, merge sort, quick sort, and heap sort.
Because this course also emphasizes issues in objectoriented design and general software design, we will also explore ways to incorporate more general design concepts in the software ecosystem we build.
sort
methodClearly, sorting is an operation that we apply to collections of values. But what kinds of collections? It makes sense to sort an array, because we know the relative positions of the elements in the array. What happens after we’ve finished sorting an array? Most likely, the value in position i is less than or equal to the value in position i+1 for all reasonable values of i. We’ll return to the question of what it means to be “less than or equal to” in a subsequent section.
It also makes sense to sort a list, because lists have an implicit ordering. In effect, sorting a list takes the userdefined ordering and replaces it with the “sort order”. When we’re done sorting, we know that the list is sorted because when we iterate the list, we see the values in order (usually from smallest to largest).
Does it make sense to sort other data structures or ADTs? It may, but sorting does imply a linear ordering of elements, and lists and arrays are the primary collections in which we order elements linearly. We may eventually design ADTs like “sorted list” in which the elements are always iterated in sort order, but we’ll leave that as a topic for a future reading.
Other than the collection to sort, are there other parameters we should include in our sorting method? It depends a bit on the values we want to sort. Some values, such as Integers, have a natural order. But others, such as People, don’t have a natural order.
When the Java collections framework was added to the Java programming
language, the designers acknowledge the two situations by creating
two interfaces. Objects that implement the Comparable<T>
interface
have a compare(T other)
method that we can use to compare them
to other objects. The compare
method returns a negative number
if this object should precede the other object, zero if the two
objects are the same, and a positive number if this object should
follow the other object.
If we wanted to write a static method to sort comparable objects, we might declare it something like the following.
public static <T extends Comparable<T>> void sort(T[] values)
That is, the sort
sorts arrays of values of a type whose objects
are comparable to each other. (Yes, there are some strange
complexities to Java’s generics. You’ll get used to them eventually.)
However, more frequently we’ll want to work with collections of
values that don’t have a natural order. In that case, we’ll want
to use a Comparator
as a parameter. Comparator
objects provide
a ``compare(Object o, Object p)
method with two parameters, instead
of one. In this case compare
returns a negative number if o
should precede p
, zero if the two are equal, and a positive number
of o
should follow p
.
In the discussion above, we wrote the signature for a static sorting
method for sorting arrays of objects that implement the Comparable
interface. But is that really the best approach? One of the
important aspects of objectoriented design (and, really, any good
design) is that you can easily replace one component of a program
with a component that can achieve similar goals. Static methods
make that approach much harder.
So, what should we do instead? We should create objects that know how to sort. How can we use them interchangably? We design a common interface. Then, each time we have a new sorting algorithm, we simply make it meet that interface. Our programs that need to sort can easily replace one sorter with another sorter.
Here’s the start of such an interface.
/**
* Things that know how to sort homogeneous collections.
*/
public interface Sorter<T> {
/**
* Sort an array in place.
*
* @param vals, an array to sort.
* @param order, the order by which to sort the values.
* @return
* The same array, now sorted.
* @pre
* order can be applied to any two values in vals.
* @pre
* VALS = vals.
* @post
* vals is a permutation of VALS.
* @post
* For all i, 0 < i < vals.length,
* order.compare(vals[i1], vals[i]) <= 0
*/
public T[] sort(T[] values, Comparator<T> order);
} // interface Sorter<T>
That’s not too bad, is it? And since there’s only one function in the interface, we can implement it with a lambda if we’d like.
Ah, if life (or at least program design) were only that simple. However, there are a number of other issues the designer of a sorting algorithm must consider, even if the algorithm is only sorting arrays.
The normal approach when specifying a generic sorting algorithm on arrays is to make the algorithm inplace and to make stability optional. People who implement stable sorting algorithms can specify in documentation that the algorithm is stable, and clients who need stable sorting algorithms must be careful to use only those.
The inplace/outofplace issue is a bit easier to resolve. We can turn an inplace sorting algorithm into an outofplace sorting algorithm by cloning the array before sorting. And we can turn an outofplace sorting algorithm into an inplace sorting algorithm by copying the values back when we are done. (We don’t save any space, but at least we can match the semantics that a client desires.)
Insertion sort is one of the simplest sorting algorithms. For inplace sorting of arrays, it conceptually partitions the array into two parts, the sorted values and the unsorted values.
+++
 Sorted  Unsorted 
+++
  
0 i vals.length
At each step, we take the first element in the unsorted section, find the correct space to put the element in the sorted section, shift things over to make room, and put it in place.
For example, consider the following array
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a l p h a b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++
Any oneelement subarray is sorted, so we can start our program in the following state.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a l p h a b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++

i
The first thing in the unsorted section is “l”, and it’s bigger than the largest thing in the sorted section, so we can just move the barrier over.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a l p h a b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++

i
The first thing in the unsorted section is “p”, and it’s bigger than the largest thing in the sorted section, so we can move the barrier over again.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a l p h a b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++

i
Okay, now things are getting a bit more interesting. The “h” is up next. It belongs in position 1, after the “a” and before the “l”. So we shift things over.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a  l p a b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++

i
And then we put the “h” in its proper place.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a h l p a b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++

i
To put that “a” in the right position, we have to shift elements once again.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a  h l p b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++

i
And then we put the “a” in place.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a a h l p b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++

i
Of course, there’s no magic operation that quickly shifts a whole subarray over. (Well, there are Java operations, but they still need to copy piece by piece.) Hence, when we implement the insertion sort algorithm, we typically just shift the element left again and again and again. Let’s look at what happens with the “b”
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a a h l p b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++
* 
i
The “b” is out of place, so we swap it left.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a a h l b p e t i c a l
+++++++++++++
* 
i
The “b” is still out of place, so we swap it left.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a a h b l p e t i c a l
+++++++++++++
* 
i
The “b” is still out of place, so we swap it left.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a a b h l p e t i c a l
+++++++++++++
* 
i
The “b” is now in place. We’re done with the insert step and are ready to move on to the next letter to insert.
Note that, in practice, we just want to shift elements, rather than writing the “b” into each spot, since we’re likely to just overwrite it again a moment later.
Let’s analyze insertion sort to see just how fast (or slow) it is.
The main step (insert a value from the unsorted section into the sorted section) runs n (or maybe n1) times, once for each element in the array. If we’re really lazy, we might say that each insertion could cause us to shift nelements. Hence, we have an O(n^{2}) algorithm.
But wait! Inserting the first element took 0 steps  after all, a one element array is sorted. And inserting the second element could have taken at most one swap. Similarly, inserting the third element could have taken at most two swaps. So, the running time (at least in terms of compare and swap) is bounded above by 0 + 1 + 2 + 3 + … + n1. But we all know that sum is equal to n(n1)/2. So, the algorithm is bounded above by (n^{2})/2  n/2. The n^{2} term dominates, so this analyis confirms that it’s O(n^{2}). Oh well.
One concern about insertion sort is that it seems to do a lot of swapping. Can we do better? The selection sort algorithm cuts down on swaps by only swapping elements into the correct position. How do we know the correct position for an element? We don’t. But we can quickly identify the correct element for a position. In particular, the smallest element goes at the front of the array. The next smallest element goes immediately after it. And so on and so forth. That is, we repeatedly select the smallest remaining element and swap it into the correct place.
How do we visualize the state of the system at the start of each round of selection sort? Something like the following.
+++
 sorted, smaller  unsorted, larger 
+++
  
0 i vals.length
When we say the things on the left are sorted, we mean that for all j, 0 <= j < i1, vals[j] <= vals[j+1]. (More formally, we mean that the compare returns a negative number when comparing vals[j] and vals[j+1].)
When we say that the things on the left are smaller and the things on the right are larger, we mean that any element on the left is less than or equal to any element on the right.
So, our algorithm looks something like the following.
For i = 0 to vals.length1
let s be the index of the smallest remaining element
swap(vals, i, s)</literallayout>
This algorithm is small and simple, as long as we can easily find the smallest remaining element. And that’s not so hard to do. We just keep going through the array, keeping track of what we’ve seen.
So, how does selection sort work on our sample array? Let’s look.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a l p h a b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++

i
The smallest element is in position 0 (or 4, or 10). To keep the algorithm stable, we’ll use the smallest position. We swap the element at position 0 with the element at position 0, and increment i.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a l p h a b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++

i
The smallest remaining element is in position 4 and 10. We swap the element at position 1 with the element at position 4 and then increment i.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a a p h l b e t i c a l
+++++++++++++

i
The smallest remaining element is in position 10. We swap again and advance i.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a a a h l b e t i c p l
+++++++++++++

i
The smallest element is at position 5. We swap and increment.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
+++++++++++++
 a a a b l h e t i c p l
+++++++++++++

i
And so on and so forth.
Is selection sort any faster than insertion sort? If we count only
calls to swap
, it’s much faster. Once we’ve swapped a value into
place, it stays there. Hence, we only do O(n) swaps. However,
finding the smallest element in an array of size n still requires
n comparisons. So, we do ncomparisons for the smallest item,
n1 for the next smallest, n2 for the next smallest, and so
on and so forth. Yes, it’s more or less the same sum! That is,
we do O(n^{2}) comparisons. The algorithm is still
quadratic. It may even be faster in practice because swapping is
likely to be more expensive than comparing. However, many other
issues are involved, so we can’t really say that one is much better
than the other.
So, how do we thoroughly test a sorting algorithm? We could choose a few sample arrays, sort the by hand and compare them to the result of sorting them by computer. That’s probably a good starting point, particularly if we’re thoughtful about the design of those arrays. For example, we might play with repeated elements, elements that are near to their correct spaces and far from their correct spaces, arrays that are mostly sorted and arrays that are not so sorted, and so on and so forth.
At some point, though, it becomes troublesome to generate arrays for testing by hand. What if we want to generate really large arrays (e.g., so that we can actually analyze the running time)? What if we don’t trust that we’ve really explored every edge and corner? In situations like these, it may be useful to write randomized tests. But how do we know that a sorting algorithm correctly sorts a randomized array? After all, an accident in coding might lead to the accidental duplication of one element and the loss of another. And, if the resulting array is in order, we might not detect the inappropriate modification of data.
There’s a surprisingly easy solution. Instead of starting with a completely random array, you start with an array that is already sorted, but has been generated “randomly”. You then permute the array, sort it, and compare it to the original. Magically, you’ve tested both that the result is sorted and that elements are neither added nor lost.
It’s also easy to generate a random sorted array. For example, we could put a random value in position 0 of the array and generate each subsequent value by adding a random number between 0 and 5 to the previous value.
Over the next few days, you’ll have a chance to explore unit tests that use this approach.
As the notes above may have suggested, designing a good infrastructure for sorting is a nontrivial task and draws upon your experience in algorithm design, nobjectoriented design, creative problem solving, and more. We’ll continue exploring these issues in future readings.
Portions of this reading are based closely on the reading on sorting designed for Grinnell’s CSC 151. Janet Davis, Samuel A. Rebelsky, John David Stone, Henry Walker, and Jerod Weinman all contributed to that reading.