Writing min function, part 3: Weakening the ordering

Jul 15, 2014

This is the third article of the series called “Writing min function”.

Now we understand what Concepts are (do we?), I will try to complete the min function.

What do I mean with “complete”?

Well, first we need to see how to use our min function, for that purpose I want to use a real programming language.
So in this article I will write code in C++. Why C++?, it is a topic for another article.
But, don’t worry if you’re not a C++ programmer, the code will be easy to understand, and, the ideas that I want to talk here are very important for programming algorithms, beyond the programming language.
Later on, I will try to write the same code (and analyze it) using another programming languages.

This is the C++ equivalent of the min function code from Part 2:

//Note 1: this code is Concept-enabled C++.
//Note 2: Still has errors!
template <TotallyOrdered T>
T const& min(T const& a, T const& b) {
  if (a < b) return a;
  return b;

(We will see how to define the TotallyOrdered concept in C++ later. For now, think in the mathematical definition presented before )

And we use it in this way:

void usage_with_builtin_types_simple() {
  int a = 12;
  int b = 34;

  //using variables
  cout << min(a, b); //print the result on standard output

  //using integer-literals (base10)
  cout << min(1, 2);

  //using variables and literals
  cout << min(a, 2);

  //assigning the result (copying the result)
  int m1 = min(a, b);
  int m2 = min(1, 2);

These are very simple examples using the int builtin type, but our min function is supposed to be Generic, so it has to operate with all types that satisfy the TotallyOrdered concept. So let’s see a little more complicated example.

Suppose we maintain the employee database of a company and we want to take two employees and know which is the minimum of the two:

//A simplified Employee class written in C++
struct employee { string name; float salary; };

And now we use the min function with Employees:

void usage_with_employees() {
  employee e1 {"John", 5'000.0f};
  employee e2 {"Peter", 6'000.0f};
  employee e3 {"George", 4'500.0f};
  employee e4 {"Frank", 5'000.0f};

  employee m = min(e1, e2); // #1

What happend at #1?

Well, we should get a compile-time error saying that the employee type doesn’t satisfy the TotallyOrdered concept.


First, in C++, there is no way of comparing two Employees using the less-than-operator required by the TotallyOrdered concept.
If we use old-C++, without Concepts (or duck-typing templates) we will get a compile-time error pointing to the min function, saying that a < b could not be done.

min.cpp: In instantiation of 'const T& min(const T&, const T&) [with T = employee]':
min.cpp:23:26:   required from here
min.cpp:10:9: error: no match for 'operator<' (operand types are 'const employee' and 'const employee')
   if (a < b) return a;

The error message is not very instructive, right? The error message points to the min function, when the real problem is in the use of it, specifically in line marked as #1 in the usage_with_employees() function.

If we use a dynamic duck-typed programming language (like Python or Javascript) we will get a similar error but at runtime.

The compiler (or interpreter) doesn’t know how to do a < b for Employees, so this is the reason why we get the error.
So, how to make Employee to satisfy the TotallyOrdered concept? Let’s start satisfying the requirements imposed by the concept:

For now I want to skip the points 1 and 3, we will see them later. Let’s focus on point 2 (remember, it is a syntactic requirement), we have to give the compiler a way to compare two Employees.

bool operator<(employee const& a, employee const& b) {
  return ???????;

This is the canonical C++ way for implementing a less-than-operator, but … What should I put on line 2?

This should be answered by the designer of the Employee class. Well…, that’s me (?).

Remember that total ordering is, roughly speaking, some kind of Natural Ordering. So we need to know what is the natural ordering of Employees. Maybe the natural ordering of employees is by name, maybe by salary, … I don’t know. This depends on the domain of the application. In a company, I think, employees may have a unique identification number, which seems to be a good candidate for implement total ordering. So, let’s modify our Employee class:

struct employee { int id; string name; float salary; };

Now, let’s finalize our less-than-operator using id as the natural ordering:

bool operator<(employee const& a, employee const& b) {
  return a.id < b.id;

Now, we have an Employee class with a natural ordering (by id) that satisfies the TotallyOrdered concept (remember, we are ignoring the points 1 and 3).

But, what if we want to know who is the lowest paid employee, and then raise his salary. Should we modify the less-than-operator to compare by salary?

bool operator<(employee const& a, employee const& b) {
  return a.salary < b.salary;

Is it OK? No, we are imposing an unnatural ordering to employees by default, it is not the right way to do it.

Changing the Employee’s natural ordering is not an option, so, we need another way of selecting the minimum employee using an unnatural ordering relation.
What we need is another min function, one that takes a relation as parameter.
Let’s do it using the old-C++ way (without Concepts):

//Note: It compiles, but is incorrect, still, be patient!
template <typename T, typename C>
T const& min(T const& a, T const& b, C cmp) {
  if (cmp(a, b)) return a;
  return b;

Now we can write code like the following:

struct salary_comparator {
  bool operator()(employee const& a, 
                  employee const& b) const {
    return a.salary < b.salary;

void usage_with_employees() {
  employee e1 {1, "John", 5'000.0f};
  employee e2 {2, "Peter", 6'000.0f};
  employee e3 {3, "George", 4'500.0f};
  employee e4 {4, "Frank", 5'000.0f};

  // using natural employee ordering (by id)
  employee m = min(e1, e2);

  // using another (unnatural) ordering
  employee m2 = min(e1, e2, salary_comparator{});

  // using another (unnatural) ordering, with lambdas   
  employee m3 = min(e1, e2, [](employee const& a, 
                               employee const& b) {
          return a.name < b.name; 

But so far, I have not mentioned anything that an experienced programmer does not know, the use of predicates (the cmp comparator) is a common thing in practically all programming languages. What most programmers (and most of the APIs provided by programming languages) forget is to specify the semantics requirements of the predicate.

So, what are the semantic requirements? We need to answer: What our comparator (cmp) is?

A comparator is a Relation, that is, a binary Predicate. What kind of relation? It is an Ordering. What kind of ordering? Is it a Total Ordering relation? Well, let’s check it:

Remember, a Relation r is a Strict Total Ordering if:
For all a, b and c in the domain of r, the following must hold:
      Transitivity: if r(a, b) and r(b, c) then r(a, c)
      Trichotomy: only one of the following holds, r(a, b), r(b, a) or a = b

It’s easy to prove that the transitivity axiom holds, let’s leave it as an exercise for the reader.
What about trichotomy? Let’s prove it with an example.
Given our previous defined employees:

employee e1 { 1, "John", 5'000.0f };
employee e2 { 2, "Peter", 6'000.0f };
employee e3 { 3, "George", 4'500.0f };
employee e4 { 4, "Frank", 5'000.0f };

And our salary_comparator, here called r in order to abbreviate the text:

Then, the trichotomy axiom does not hold, that is, the salary_comparator relation is not a Total Ordering on the Employee Set. This means that Total Ordering is too restrictive.

So, what kind of ordering relation should be our Comparator?

Partial Ordering?
No, we saw in Part 1 that Partial Ordering is too weak to define min. We need something between Partial and Total Ordering: what we need is called Weak Ordering[1].

Roughly speaking, weak ordering says that if r(a, b) and r(b, a) are false, then, a and b are equivalents.

So, let’s modify the min function to introduce weak ordering:

//Note: yes! you guess it, it is incorrect, still!
template <typename T, StrictWeakOrdering Cmp>
   requires SameType<ArgumentType<Cmp>, T>
T const& min(T const& a, T const& b, Cmp cmp) {
  if (cmp(a, b)) return a;
  return b;

The code above means that we have a function called min, that takes two formal parameters, a and b, both of the same type, called T.
The funcion has a third formal parameter, cmp, that models the concept called StrictWeakOrdering. The “requires” clause means that T (the type of a and b) and the argument type of the Comparator (Cmp) must be the same.

Well, in this article I explained what Weak Ordering means and why it is important, I want to end it with a quote from Alex:

“Mathematicians are happy with Total and Partial ordering. But most of them don’t know what is Weak Ordering. It is not a common term in mathematics but it is essential in computer science, because when we want to order things, we want to order by something. For example by social security number, by name, by age”.

In the next article, finally, I will tell you what are the mistakes that remain to be addressed.

You can get the complete source code on my Github repository.

The Series

   Part 1: The rise of Concepts
   Part 2: Understanding Concepts
   Part 3: Weakening the ordering
   Part 4: Const-Correctness
   Part 5: Stabilizing the algorithm


[1] For a formal definition of Weak Ordering see: