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Sandor Dargo
Sandor Dargo

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The big STL Algorithms tutorial: comparison operations

In this next part of the big STL algorithm tutorial, we are going to talk about three comparison operations:

  • equal
  • lexicographical_compare
  • lexicographical_compare_three_way

equal

std::equal compares two ranges to each other and returns true if the ranges are equal, false otherwise.

There are mainly two different overloads of std::equal, but as each of them can be constexpr (since C++20), and all of them can be parallelized by passing an ExecutionPolicy as a "0th" parameter (since C++17) and a binary predicate as the last parameter in order to replace the default operator==, there are many different overloads.

So what are the different overloads?

The first one accepts three iterators. The first two iterators define the first range by its first and last element and the third iterator is to show where the second range starts.

In this case, the caller must make sure that after the third iterator there are least as many elements as there are in the range defined by the first two iterators. Otherwise, it's undefined behaviour.

The other overload takes four iterators, where the second pair fully defines the second range used in a comparison, and it's available since C++14.

It seems like a nice idea, first I was thinking that I might check whether the second range is the same size as the first one. But it's not the case.

On the other hand, let's say you have a larger range that you want to pass in the second position. With the 3 parameter version, std::equal will check if the first range is the subrange of the second one, which might mean equality. With the "full" version where you define both ranges by their beginning and end, you really check for the equality of two ranges.

Let's see it in an example.

#include <algorithm>
#include <iostream>
#include <vector>

int main() {
    std::vector nums {1, 2, 3, 4, 5};
    std::vector fewerNums {1, 2, 3, 4};

    std::cout << std::boolalpha;
    std::cout << std::equal(nums.begin(), nums.end(), fewerNums.begin()) << '\n';
    std::cout << std::equal(fewerNums.begin(), fewerNums.end(), nums.begin()) << '\n';
    std::cout << std::equal(nums.begin(), nums.end(), fewerNums.begin(), fewerNums.end()) << '\n';
    std::cout << std::equal(fewerNums.begin(), fewerNums.end(), nums.begin(), nums.end()) << '\n';
}
/*
false
true
false
false
*/

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lexicographical_compare

std::lexicographical_compare checks whether the first range is lexicographically less, smaller than the second range using the operator< unless the caller passes in a different comparison function.

Both of the two ranges are defined by their begin() and end() iterators and as mentioned you can pass in custom comparator and of course an execution policy.

But what is lexicographical comparison?

A lexicographical comparison is basically an alphabetical ordering where two ranges are compared sequentially, element by element:

  • if there is any mismatch, that defines the result
  • if one range is a subrange of the other, the shorter range is "less" than the other
  • an empty range is always "less" than the other

The returned value is true if the first range is "less" than the other, otherwise, we get false.

#include <algorithm>
#include <iostream>
#include <vector>

int main() {
    std::vector nums {1, 2, 3, 4, 5};
    std::vector fewerNums {1, 2, 3, 4};
    std::vector<int> empty{};

    std::cout << std::boolalpha;
    std::cout << std::lexicographical_compare(nums.begin(), nums.end(), fewerNums.begin(), fewerNums.end()) << '\n';
    std::cout << std::lexicographical_compare(fewerNums.begin(), fewerNums.end(), nums.begin(), nums.end()) << '\n';
    std::cout << std::lexicographical_compare(nums.begin(), nums.end(), nums.begin(), nums.end()) << '\n';
    std::cout << std::lexicographical_compare(empty.begin(), empty.end(), nums.begin(), nums.end()) << '\n';
    std::cout << std::lexicographical_compare(empty.begin(), empty.end(), empty.begin(), empty.end()) << '\n';
}
/*
false
true
false
true
false
*/
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lexicographical_compare_three_way

If you feel that it's impractical to get a true/false result for a comparison whereas there could be 3 outcomes (less, greater or equal), you should use std::lexicographical_compare_three_way- given that you work with a compiler supporting C++20.

By default it returns one of the constants of std::strong_ordering, but it can also return std::weak_ordering or std::partial_ordering depending on the return type of the custom comparator that you can also define. The default comparator is std::compare_three_way.

#include <algorithm>
#include <iostream>
#include <vector>

std::ostream& operator<<(std::ostream& out, std::strong_ordering ordering) {
    if (ordering == std::strong_ordering::less) {
        out << "less than";
    } else if (ordering == std::strong_ordering::equal) {
        out << "equal";
    } else if (ordering == std::strong_ordering::greater) {
        out << "greater than";
    }
    return out;
}

int main() {
    std::vector nums {1, 2, 3, 4, 5};
    std::vector fewerNums {1, 2, 3, 4};
    std::vector<int> empty{};

    std::cout << std::boolalpha;
    std::cout << std::lexicographical_compare_three_way(nums.begin(), nums.end(), fewerNums.begin(), fewerNums.end()) << '\n';
    std::cout << std::lexicographical_compare_three_way(fewerNums.begin(), fewerNums.end(), nums.begin(), nums.end()) << '\n';
    std::cout << std::lexicographical_compare_three_way(nums.begin(), nums.end(), nums.begin(), nums.end()) << '\n';
    std::cout << std::lexicographical_compare_three_way(empty.begin(), empty.end(), nums.begin(), nums.end()) << '\n';
    std::cout << std::lexicographical_compare_three_way(empty.begin(), empty.end(), empty.begin(), empty.end()) << '\n';
}
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As you can see, the possible outcomes are not printable, you have to convert them manually into something that can be streamed to the output stream.

When you think about non-equal results, they are always relative to the first range. The first is greater or less than the second.

Conclusion

This time, we learned about comparisons algorithms. They help us to compare ranges of elements. With std::equal we can compare if two ranges are equal or not and with std::lexicographical_compare or std::lexicographical_compare_three_way we can perform lexicographical comparison.

Next time we will discover permutation operations.

Stay tuned!

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Discussion (3)

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Pierre Gradot

Silly question: how do you generate the table with the list of articles? Don't tell me you edit 24 articles when you add a 25th article XD

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Sandor Dargo Author

God, no! You can use the "series" function of Dev.to!

You find it at the bottom of the editor.

Series

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Pierre Gradot

I did a table by hand for my series on CMake XD
Thanks a lot!