Quicksort – follow-up

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This is a follow-up to

Quicksort function

Like the previous code, this does not optimize for containers with large numbers of duplicate elements. How can I improve this code, particularly with iterators?

template<typename C>
void insertion_sort(C low, C high) {
    for (auto i = low; i < high; ++i) {
        for (auto j = i; j != low && *j < *(j-1); --j) {
            std::swap(*j, *(j-1));

template<typename C, typename I>
I partition(C& c, I low, I high) {
    auto p = *low;
    I i = low;
    I j = high;
    while (true) {
        while (i+1 != std::end(c) && *(++i) < p) {
            if (i == high) {
        while (p < *(--j)) { }
        if (i >= j) {
        std::swap(*i, *j);
    std::swap(*low, *j);
    return j;

template<typename C, typename I>
void sort(C& c, I low, I high) {
    if (high <= low+15) {
        insertion_sort(low, high);
    I p = partition(c, low,high);
    sort(c, low, p);
    sort(c, p+1,high);

template<typename C>
void sort(C& c) {
    if (std::begin(c) == std::end(c)) {
        throw std::out_of_range("no size");
    if (c.size() == 1) {
    std::random_shuffle(std::begin(c), std::end(c));
    sort(c, std::begin(c), std::end(c));


Sorting an empty array is perfectly valid.

if (c.size() == 0) {
    throw std::out_of_range("no size");

The result id an empty array. An exception is not the correct way to go.

OK optimize. An array of size 0 or 1 is already sorted.

if (c.size() == 1) {  // I would make this c.size() <= 1 (as I would remove the exception)

Special casing the std::end(c) just looks wrong.

   while (i+1 != std::end(c) && *(++i) < p) {

I would say that if i+1 == high would be a better test. Also adding the ++ and * operators into the expression makes it really hard to read. I would go with:

    while ((i < high) && (*i < p)) { ++i;}

The decrementing the j pointer should look exactly the same as the increment.

This is not tested (so may have bugs).
But this is how I would write partition.

// Note: this function require std::distance(low, high) >= 3
// Note: it is called from sort when std::distance(low, high) > 15
template<typename I>
std::pair<I,I> partition(I low, I high) {
    I   pivot   = high;

    I   highBot = low;
    I   lowTop  = high;
    while (highBot < lowTop) {
        while ((highBot < high)  && (*highBot <= *pivot))   { ++highBot;}
        while ((lowTop >= low)   && (*pivot < *lowTop))     { --lowTop;}
        if (highBot < lowTop) {
            std::swap(*highBot, *lowTop);
    // At this point highBot and lowTop have just passed each other.
    // Thus highBot points to the first element greater than *pivot
    // and lowTop points to the last element smaller or equal to *pivot
    swap(*highBot, *pivot);

    // Now: highBot points to the pivot value and the value that was
    // at highBot is in the top end of the high range.

    // We want to to remove pivot value from the range of elements to be sorted.
    // so we want to sort the two ranges likes this:
    //      [low..lowTop+1)
    //      highBot                 The pivot point removed from further sorting.
    //                              Note: lopTop+1 == highBot
    //      [highBot+1..high)

    // Small optimization
    // If the value at lowTop is also equal to the pivot value
    // Then we can remove it from further sorting.
    for(; (lowTop >= low) && (*p == *lowTop); --lowTop) {}

    return std::make_pair(lowTop+1, highBot+1);


std::pair<I,I> part = partition(low, high);
sort(c, low, part.first);
sort(c, part.second, high);

@Loki already covered the most important points, but there are still a few things that you could change to improve the algorithm further (provided you’re still interested in this question one year later):

  • A well-designed sorting algorithm should be able to take advantage of user-defined swap functions instead of simply using std::swap everywhere; these user-defined overloads might be optimized. We can use argument-dependent lookup to do the job:

    using std::swap;
    swap(*it1, *it2);

    The first line tells the compiler to take std::swap into account for unqualified calls to swap. The second line makes an unqualified call to swap: the compiler will check the types of *it1 and *it2 and search for a swap function in their associated namespace. If the lookup finds such a function, it will use it, otherwise it will use std::swap instead. Note that you can also use std::iter_swap which does exactly that:

    std::iter_swap(it1, it2);
  • Algorithms that care about comparison generally allow to pass an additional compare parameter to use instead of operator<. It allows to sort types that do not define operator< and to sort things differently (for example, it allows to use std::greater<> to sort a collection in reverse order. Here is a comparison-enhanced insertion sort:

    template<typename C, typename Compare=std::less<>>
    void insertion_sort(C low, C high, Compare compare={}) {
        for (auto i = low; i < high; ++i) {
            for (auto j = i; j != low && compare(*j, *(j-1)); --j) {
                std::iter_swap(j, j - 1);
  • std::sort is required to work with move-only types, and quicksort generally requires to copy the pivot before the partitioning operation to avoid tricky problems. To implement a quicksort without compying the pivot, the trick either to choose std::prev(high) as the pivot or to swap the pivot with std::prev(high) before the partitioning step.

  • It’s a mere detail, but the condition if (high <= low+15) is not the easiest to reason about. I would use if (std::distance(low, high) <= 15), which tells more about the reasoning in my opinion.

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