Merge sort

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A merge sort algorithm used to sort an array of 7 integer values.  These are the steps a human would take to emulate merge sort.
A merge sort algorithm used to sort an array of 7 integer values. These are the steps a human would take to emulate merge sort.

In computer science, merge sort or mergesort is an O(n log n) comparison-based sorting algorithm. It is stable, meaning that it preserves the input order of equal elements in the sorted output. It is an example of the divide and conquer algorithmic paradigm. It was invented by John von Neumann in 1945.



[edit] Algorithm

Conceptually, merge sort works as follows:

  1. Divide the unsorted list into two sublists of about half the size
  2. Divide each of the two sublists recursively until we have list sizes of length 1, in which case the list itself is returned
  3. Merge the two sublists back into one sorted list.

Mergesort incorporates two main ideas to improve its runtime:

  1. A small list will take fewer steps to sort than a large list.
  2. Fewer steps are required to construct a sorted list from two sorted lists than two unsorted lists. For example, you only have to traverse each list once if they're already sorted (see the merge function below for an example implementation).

Example: Using mergesort to sort a list of integers contained in an array:

Suppose we have an array A with indices ranging from A’first to A’Last. We apply mergesort to A(A’first..A’centre) and A(centre+1..A’Last) - where centre is the integer part of (A’first + A’Last)/2. When the two halves are returned they will have been sorted. They can now be merged together to form a sorted array.

In a simple pseudocode form, the algorithm could look something like this:

function mergesort(m)
    var list left, right, result
    if length(m) ≤ 1
        return m
        var middle = length(m) / 2
        for each x in m up to middle
            add x to left
        for each x in m after middle
            add x to right
        left = mergesort(left)
        right = mergesort(right)
        result = merge(left, right)
        return result

There are several variants for the merge() function, the simplest variant could look like this:

function merge(left,right)
    var list result
    while length(left) > 0 and length(right) > 0
        if first(left) ≤ first(right)
            append first(left) to result
            left = rest(left)
            append first(right) to result
            right = rest(right)
    if length(left) > 0 
        append rest(left) to result
    if length(right) > 0 
        append rest(right) to result
    return result

[edit] C++ implementation

Here is an implementation using the STL algorithm std::inplace_merge to create an iterative bottom-up in-place merge sort:

#include <iostream>
#include <vector>
#include <algorithm>
#include <iterator>
int main()
  std::vector<unsigned> data;
  for(unsigned i = 0; i < 10; i++)
  std::random_shuffle(data.begin(), data.end());
  std::cout << "Initial: ";
  std::copy(data.begin(),data.end(),std::ostream_iterator<unsigned>(std::cout," "));
  std::cout << std::endl;
  for(unsigned m = 1; m <= data.size(); m *= 2)
    for(unsigned i = 0; i < data.size() - m; i += m * 2)
        data.begin() + i,
        data.begin() + i + m,
        data.begin() + std::min<unsigned>(i + m * 2, (unsigned)data.size()));
  std::cout << "Sorted:  ";
  std::copy(data.begin(),data.end(),std::ostream_iterator<unsigned>(std::cout," "));
  std::cout << std::endl;
  return 0;

[edit] Analysis

Example of merge sort sorting a list of random numbers.
Example of merge sort sorting a list of random numbers.

In sorting n items, merge sort has an average and worst-case performance of O(n log n). If the running time of merge sort for a list of length n is T(n), then the recurrence T(n) = 2T(n/2) + n follows from the definition of the algorithm (apply the algorithm to two lists of half the size of the original list, and add the n steps taken to merge the resulting two lists). The closed form follows from the master theorem.

In the worst case, merge sort does approximately[1] (n ⌈lg n⌉ - 2⌈lg n + 1) comparisons, which is between (n lg n - n + 1) and (n lg n + n + O(lg n)). [2]

For large n and a randomly ordered input list, merge sort's expected (average) number of comparisons approaches α·n fewer than the worst case where \alpha = -1 + \sum_{k=0}^\infty \frac1{2^k+1} \approx 0.2645.

In the worst case, merge sort does about 39% fewer comparisons than quicksort does in the average case; merge sort always makes fewer comparisons than quicksort, except in extremely rare cases, when they tie, where merge sort's worst case is found simultaneously with quicksort's best case. In terms of moves, merge sort's worst case complexity is O(n log n)—the same complexity as quicksort's best case, and merge sort's best case takes about half as many iterations as the worst case.

Recursive implementations of merge sort make 2n - 1 method calls in the worst case, compared to quicksort's n, thus has roughly twice as much recursive overhead as quicksort. However, iterative, non-recursive, implementations of merge sort, avoiding method call overhead, are not difficult to code. Merge sort's most common implementation does not sort in place; therefore, the memory size of the input must be allocated for the sorted output to be stored in. Sorting in-place is possible but is very complicated, and will offer little performance gains in practice, even if the algorithm runs in O(n log n) time.[3] In these cases, algorithms like heapsort usually offer comparable speed, and are far less complex.

Merge sort is more efficient than quicksort for some types of lists if the data to be sorted can only be efficiently accessed sequentially, and is thus popular in languages such as Lisp, where sequentially accessed data structures are very common. Unlike some (efficient) implementations of quicksort, merge sort is a stable sort as long as the merge operation is implemented properly. [citation needed]

As can be seen from the procedure MergeSort, there are some complaints. One complaint we might raise is its use of 2n locations; the additional n locations were needed because one couldn't reasonably merge two sorted sets in place. But despite the use of this space the algorithm must still work hard, copying the result placed into Result list back into m list on each call of merge . An alternative to this copying is to associate a new field of information with each key. (the elements in m are called keys). This field will be used to link the keys and any associated information together in a sorted list (keys and related informations are called records). Then the merging of the sorted lists proceeds by changing the link values and no records need to moved at all. A field which contains only a link will generally be smaller than an entire record so less space will also be used.

[edit] Merge sorting tape drives

Merge sort is so inherently sequential that it's practical to run it using slow tape drives as input and output devices. It requires very little memory, and the memory required does not change with the number of data elements. If you have four tape drives, it works as follows:

  1. Divide the data to be sorted in half and put half on each of two tapes
  2. Merge individual pairs of records from the two tapes; write two-record chunks alternately to each of the two output tapes
  3. Merge the two-record chunks from the two output tapes into four-record chunks; write these alternately to the original two input tapes
  4. Merge the four-record chunks into eight-record chunks; write these alternately to the original two output tapes
  5. Repeat until you have one chunk containing all the data, sorted --- that is, for log n passes, where n is the number of records.

For the same reason it is also very useful for sorting data on disk that is too large to fit entirely into primary memory. On tape drives that can run both backwards and forwards, you can run merge passes in both directions, avoiding rewind time.

[edit] Optimizing merge sort

This might seem to be of historical interest only, but on modern computers, locality of reference is of paramount importance in software optimization, because multi-level memory hierarchies are used. In some sense, main RAM can be seen as a fast tape drive, level 3 cache memory as a slightly faster one, level 2 cache memory as faster still, and so on. In some circumstances, cache reloading might impose unacceptable overhead and a carefully crafted merge sort might result in a significant improvement in running time. This opportunity might change if fast memory becomes very cheap again, or if exotic architectures like the Tera MTA become commonplace.

Designing a merge sort to perform optimally often requires adjustment to available hardware, eg. number of tape drives, or size and speed of the relevant cache memory levels.

M.A. Kronrod suggested in 1969 an alternative version of merge sort that used constant additional space.

[edit] Typical implementation bugs

A typical mistake made in many merge sort implementations is the division of index-based lists in two sublists. Many implementations determine the middle index as outlined in the following implementation example:

function merge(int left, int right)
    if (left < right) {
        int middle = (left + right) / 2;

While this algorithm appears to work very well in most scenarios, it fails for very large lists. The addition of "left" and "right" would lead to an integer overflow, resulting in a completely wrong division of the list. This problem can be solved by increasing the data type size used for the addition, or by altering the algorithm:

int middle = left + ((right - left) / 2);

Probably faster, and arguably as clear is:

int middle = (left + right) >>> 1;

In C and C++ (where you don't have the >>> operator), you can do this:

middle = ((unsigned) (left + right)) >> 1;

See more information here:

[edit] Comparison with other sort algorithms

Although heapsort has the same time bounds as merge sort, it requires only Θ(1) auxiliary space instead of merge sort's Θ(n), and is often faster in practical implementations. Quicksort, however, is considered by many to be the fastest general-purpose sort algorithm. On the plus side, merge sort is a stable sort, parallelizes better, and is more efficient at handling slow-to-access sequential media. Merge sort is often the best choice for sorting a linked list: in this situation it is relatively easy to implement a merge sort in such a way that it requires only Θ(1) extra space, and the slow random-access performance of a linked list makes some other algorithms (such as quicksort) perform poorly, and others (such as heapsort) completely impossible.

As of Perl 5.8, merge sort is its default sorting algorithm (it was quicksort in previous versions of Perl). In Java, the Arrays.sort() methods use mergesort or a tuned quicksort depending on the datatypes and for implementation efficiency switch to insertion sort when fewer than seven array elements are being sorted.

[edit] Utility in online sorting

Mergesort's merge operation is useful in online sorting, where the list to be sorted is received a piece at a time, instead of all at the beginning (see online algorithm). In this application, we sort each new piece that is received using any sorting algorithm, and then merge it into our sorted list so far using the merge operation. However, this approach can be expensive in time and space if the received pieces are small compared to the sorted list — a better approach in this case is to store the list in a self-balancing binary search tree and add elements to it as they are received.

[edit] References

[edit] Citations and notes

  1. ^ Due to the nature of implementation in computer programming, an exact approximation is a poor idea to display, and could be very misleading to less informed readers. Depending on what language the algorithm is implemented in, what the implementation actually is, and the fact that a perfect implementation of any given algorithm is nearly impossible to attain, then the writer here needs to give at least a percent error , although the data above should be removed entirely. There is a reason for Big-O and Theta notation. Thus the change in wording from "exactly" to "approximately"
  2. ^ The worst case number given here does not agree with that given in Knuth's Art of Computer Programming, Vol 3. The discrepancy is due to Knuth analyzing a variant implementation of merge sort that is slightly sub-optimal
  3. ^ Jyrki Katajainen. Practical In-Place Mergesort. Nordic Journal of Computing. 1996.

[edit] General

[edit] External links

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