CLRS Problem 2.1

2.1 Insertion sort on small arrays in merge sort

Although merge sort runs in $O(n\log(n))$ worst-case time and insertion sort runs in $O(n^2)$ worst-case time, the constant factors in insertion sort can make it faster in practice for small problem sizes on many machines. Thus, it makes sense to coarsen the leaves of the recursion by using insertion sort within merge sort when subproblems become sufficiently small. Consider a modification to merge sort in which $\frac{n}{k}$ sublists of length $k$ are sorted using insertion sort and then merged using the standard merging mechanism, where $k$ is a value to be determined.

Show that insertion sort can sort the $\frac{n}{k}$ sublists, each of length $k$, in $O(nk)$.

Insertion sort can sort a $k$ size sublist in $k^2$. We’ll be doing this $\frac{n}{k}$ times.

Show how to merge the sublists in $O(n\log(\frac{n}{k}))$ worst-case time.

There are many ways to look at this problem. I’ll start with a few I found to logically come about the answer and follow up with a formal proof.

Let’s briefly go over why merge sort takes $O(n\log(n))$ time. Here’s a table outlining the recursion tree produced by merge sort given an input array whose length, for simplicity, is a power of two. (Note this assumption does not change the actual asymptotic complexity).

There are always $n$ elements at play, we just have to split them up enough times to get to the trivial case, then merge them starting at the deepest level of the tree. It may seem like we’re not doing any work at the bottom level because the actual “merging” of elements begins at the next level up. However, the merging of 1 element is the base case telling us to stop and this “test” takes $O(1)$ time. Since the base case is hit $n$ times, the amount of work at this level is directly proportional to $n$. Basic knowledge of binary trees tells us that a tree with $n$ leaves has $\log(n) + 1$ levels. The point of the improved merge sort is to not go through all levels of recursion. Instead, we want to stop short when the length of the input array reaches some size $k$.

At this point, we’ll have $\frac{n}{k}$ subarrays of length $k$. These subarrays will be the final leaves of the recursion tree. We can again apply our knowledge of binary trees to say there are $\log(\frac{n}{k}) + 1$ levels of recursion, if we stop when the input array is of length $k$. Since we still have to do “$n$” amount of work at each level, this gives us $cn(\log(\frac{n}{k})+1)$ total work. Dropping the lower order term, as is customary with big $O$ notation, gives us the following merge complexity:

Using log rules

We know there are $\log(n) + 1$ levels in an entire binary tree whose input array is of length $n$. There are $\log(k) + 1$ levels underneath, and including, the level whose input array is of length $k$. All of the levels beneath this one will never be touched with our modified version of merge sort. This means we can take the total number of levels in the tree ($\log(n) + 1$) and subtract the number of levels we’ll never touch ($\log(k)$). This yields the following:

Dropping the lower order term and accounting for the “$n$” amount of work we do at each level gives us the same complexity calculated in the previous method.

Inductive proof of number of levels in binary tree with $n$ leaves

We want to prove that the number of levels in a binary tree with $n$ leaves $\log(n) + 1$.

Base case

The base case occurs when a binary tree with one leaf node has only one level.


For simplicity, let’s assume $n$ is a power of two such that $n = 2^i$ for $i >= 0$. We now assume that a binary tree with $2^i$ leaf nodes has $\log(2^i) + 1$, or $i+1$ levels.

Inductive step

Prove that a binary tree with $2^{i+1}$ leaf nodes has one more level than a binary tree with $2^i$ leaf nodes.

What is the largest value of $k$ as a function of $n$ for which the modified algorithm has the same running time as standard merge sort, in terms of $O$ notation?

Given that the modified algorithm runs in $O(nk + n\log(\frac{n}{k}))$ worst-case time, what is the largest value of $k$ as a function of $n$ for which the modified algorithm has the same running time as standard merge sort, in terms of $O$ notation?

The question is really asking, how large can $k$ get before $O(nk + n\log(\frac{n}{k}))$ ends up being more inefficient than $O(n\log(n))$. So, we must look at when $O(nk + n(\log(\frac{n}{k}))) > O(n\log(n))$. Let’s simplify our equation.

It’s obvious that when $k > log(n)$, $O(nk + \log(n))$ becomes more inefficient than $O(n\log(n))$ as the $nk$ term grows asymptotically larger than $\log(n)$.

How should we choose $k$ in practice?

The constant factors of insertion and merge sort will determine exactly when insertion sort is better than merge sort. Running tests will be necessary to determine this.

Written on June 26, 2016