Binary Search with Heterogeneous Comparison

Document number: J16-01/0027 = WG21 N1313

Author: David Abrahams

Date: 18-April-2001


The standard library provides the following powerful binary search algorithms which operate on sorted ranges. Each of these functions takes the following parameters:

Operation Effects
binary_search Return true iff [start, finish) contains an element matching value
lower_bound Find a value's first order-preserving position in [start, finish)
upper_bound Find a value's last order-preserving position in [start, finish)
equal_range Find a value's first andlast order-preserving positions in [start, finish)

If the comparison function is omitted, the search uses the less-than operator to compare the supplied value to elements of the range. Unfortunately, there is a large class of useful applications of binary searching for which the standard library algorithms are not guaranteed to work.


Suppose you tried to use these functions to implement a dictionary lookup. A dictionary is composed of entries which contain a word plus the word's definition. Well, you'd like to be able to look up a word's dictionary entry given just the word, and not be forced to build an entire dictionary entry just to do the search, since the definition part of the dictionary entry won't be used at all. To experienced users of hand-crafted binary searches, this usage is certainly familiar and reliable. For example:

// Type definitions
typedef std::string Word;
typedef std::string Definition;
typedef std::pair<Word, Definition> DictionaryEntry
typedef std::vector<DictionaryEntry> Dictionary;

// Binary search for the position of word in d.
// Almost exactly like std::lower_bound
Dictionary::const_iterator word_position(
    const Dictionary& d,
    const Word& word)
  Dictionary::const_iterator first = d.begin();
  std::size_t len = d.size();
  while (len > 0) {
    const std::size_t half = len >> 1;
    const Dictionary::const_iterator middle = first + half;
    if (*middle < word) {
      first = middle;
      len -= half + 1;
    else {
      len = half;
  return first;

// Return a pointer to the definition of the given word, or 0 if the
// word doesn't appear in the dictionary
const Definition*
find_definition(const Dictionary& d, const Word& word)
  Dictionary::const_iterator p = word_position(d, word);
  return (p == d.end() || p->first != word) ? 0 : &p->second;

// Define a word in the dictionary or throw if already defined
void define_word(
  Dictionary& d, 
  const Word& word, 
  const Definition& definition)
  Dictionary::const_iterator p = word_position(d, word);
  if (p != d.end() && p->first == word) {
    throw std::exception("duplicate definition");
  else {
    d.insert(d.begin() + (p - d.begin()),
             DictionaryEntry(word, definition));

The question is, instead of writing the word_position() function above, which is tedious and error-prone, can we reuse the generic algorithms in the standard library? This is what Scott Meyers was trying to accomplish in the comp.std.c++ thread entitled Heterogeneous comparison in binary search.

Certainly, with nearly all implementations[1] of the standard library, we can use the following comparison function object with std::lower_bound(), and it will give us the expected results:

// A "heterogeneous comparison object" struct
CompareEntryWord1 { bool operator()(const DictionaryEntry& e, const
Word& w) const { return e.first < w; } };

But is it legal? The standard's position on this question is not encouraging. For one thing, 25.3 says that for the algorithms to work correctly, the comparison object has to induce a strict weak ordering on the values. If we take ``the values" to mean the elements of the iterator range, then our comparison function clearly fails: you can't use it when both arguments are DictionaryEntrys. The standard also says the algorithms ``assume that the sequence being searched is in order according to the implied or explicit comparison function," which makes little sense when the comparison function can't compare the sequence elements.

Technically, though, we can satisfy the standard's requirements for the comparison function by adding an overloaded operator()() to ``keep the language lawyers happy":

struct CompareEntryWord2
  // Heterogeneous comparison actually gets used
  bool operator()(const DictionaryEntry& e, const Word& w) const
    { return e.first < w; }

  // Homogeneous comparison just to satisfy the legal requirements.
  bool operator()(
    const DictionaryEntry& e, const DictionaryEntry&& w) const
    { return e.first < w.first; }

This version is arguably legal, but it subverts the intent of the standard. The authors of that text clearly never meant to leave this loophole in there for us. One dead giveaway is that the EFFECTS: clause for lower_bound says ``Finds the first position into which value can be inserted without violating the ordering." Clearly, when the value doesn't have the same type as the rest of the range, the clause becomes nonsensical[2].

Dietmar Kuehl has suggested an alternative which doesn't suffer these problems: define a new iterator which wraps Dictionary::const_iterator, but returns a const Word& (instead of a const DictionaryEntry&) when dereferenced. This approach has two new problems, though:

  1. It won't work for many similar cases where the value to be compared with must be computed from the elements of the range, because an iterator used with the standard binary searches is required to return a reference type when dereferenced. It may well be that no appropriate lvalue exists to which a reference can be returned.
  2. it requires much more code than simply re-writing the binary search algorithm (this posting shows an example), and is correspondingly more error-prone.

I think ``the right answer" in the long run is to figure out how to loosen the standard's requirements so that CompareEntryWord1 can be guaranteed to work as expected. Matt Austern made a first stab at it in this posting, but was discouraged to find that his first attempt, though probably already too complicated, wasn't complicated enough to do the job. This is the formulation he ended up with:

comp is a function object whose first argument type is V and whose second argument type is T, and where comp(x, y) is equivalent to comp'(pi(x), y), where comp' is some strict weak ordering on T and where pi is some homomorphism from V to T. The sequence [first, last) must be sorted in ascending order by comp'', where comp''(x, y) is equivalent to comp'(pi(x), pi(y)).

Even if this is formally correct, it is probably beyond the ken of most committee members to verify its correctness, and beyond the ken of even most expert programmers to verify that their comparison functions satisfy these criteria. That makes it a bad choice for the standard on both counts.

The problem with both of these early attempts is that they focus on the sort order of the range. This is an obvious way to think of things if the range elements and the search key are the same type, but I think to solve the problem for the case we're interested in, a shift in thinking is required. Strict weak ordering is a great concept for sorting, but maybe it's not appropriate for searching.

Suppose, as a simplification, that we think about the search key as though it were bound to one of the arguments of the comparison function (say, using std::bind2nd for lower_bound()). That gives us a simple unary comparison function object operating on elements of the range and returning bool. In the lower_bound algorithm, we are searching for the first element for which the unary function object returns false (or the end position if no such element exists). For this to work, of course, the unary function object must return true for zero or more initial elements, and false for all the rest. That is, the sequence must be partitioned with respect to comp(e, value), where value is the search key. I believe this formulation captures what's actually going on with binary_search more generally, and to boot, is simpler to express.

This point-of-view is reflected in the currently proposed wording for library issue 270.


[1] SGI's library implementation actually has some fancy "concept checks" which try to make sure you're following all the rules at compile time, and it would fail to compile the use of the above comparison object with lower_bound.

[2] On the other hand, the EFFECTS: clause is arguably redundant, since the result of the algorithm is much more clearly specified by the RETURNS: clause, which still makes perfect sense:

Returns: The furthermost iterator i in the range [first, last] such that for any iterator j in the range [first, i) the following corresponding conditions hold: *j < value or comp(*j, value) != false

Revised 15 Feb 2001

Copyright David Abrahams 2001. Permission to copy, use, modify, sell and distribute this document is granted provided this copyright notice appears in all copies. This document is provided "as is" without express or implied warranty, and with no claim as to its suitability for any purpose.