From: (Chris Torek)
Newsgroups: comp.lang.c
Subject: Re: Sorting linked lists
Date: 10 Jan 1999 05:39:20 -0800
Message-ID: <77aai8$>

Martin ( wrote:
>> ... is there any better way to sort linked list?

In article <> fred smith <> wrote:
>Sorting a linked list which already exists can be tedious and

Actually, a merge sort is generally both simple and efficient. The hardest part about a merge sort is breaking a list in half. If you do not care about "stable" sorts, you can break it in half the easy way, by alternation:

	 * split the list (turning this into a function, or inserting
	 * it into mergesort() below, is left as an exercise to the reader,
	 * as are better methods of splitting).
	struct list *left, *right, **lp, **rp;

	/* input: list != NULL; it has an even or odd number of entries */
	lp = &left;
	rp = &right;
	do {
		/* put one node on the left-hand list */
		*lp = list;
		lp = &list->next;
		list = list->next;

		/* that could be the last node, so check */
		if (list == NULL)

		/* put another node on the right-hand list */
		*rp = list;
		rp = &list->next;
		list = list->next;
		/* and repeat until we run out of nodes */
	} while (list != NULL);

	 * Make sure the two lists are properly terminated.  One of
	 * these two assignments is unnecessary, but so what?
	*lp = NULL;
	*rp = NULL;

Once you have broken the list into two halves, the left and right halves should be merge-sorted independently, and then the two lists can be merged together. This is like taking a deck of cards that has been shuffled, giving each half to a friend and having him sort it, and then taking the two sorted piles and merging them pairwise:

/* merge left and right lists (of any length) */
struct list *merge(struct list *left, struct list *right,
    int (*compare)(struct list *, struct list *)) {
	struct list *new, **np;

	 * Build the new list by putting in the smaller of each pair.
	np = &new;
	while (left != NULL && right != NULL) {
		if (compare(left, right) > 0) {	/* left > right */
			*np = right;		/* so put the right node */
			np = &right->next;	/* onto the new list */
			right = right->next;
		} else {			/* left <= right */
			*np = left;		/* so put the left node */
			np = &left->next;	/* onto the new list */
			left = left->next;

	 * Now at least one of "left" and "right" is NULL, but not both.
	 * If the left list is non-empty, the right one is empty, and we
	 * just need to tack the left one on to the total list.  If the
	 * right list is non-empty, the left one is empty and we just need
	 * to tack on the right-hand one.  If both are empty, we need to
	 * set *np = NULL, but in this case, "*np = right" will do the
	 * trick too, so one single ?: expression suffices.
	*np = left != NULL ? left : right;
	return (new);

That leaves only the degenerate case of sorting an empty list at the top of the overall sort routine, and you get something like this:

	struct list *mergesort(struct list *list,
	    int (*compare)(struct list *, struct list *)) {
		struct list *left, *right;

		if (list == NULL)	/* nothing to split */
			return NULL;
		split(list, &left, &right);
		left = mergesort(left, compare);
		right = mergesort(right, compare);
		return merge(left, right, compare);

In other words, each friend who has to sort half the card-deck does his job by splitting that half-deck in half, having two more friends sort those, and then merging those back. (Given the construction above, unlike with people, it is easier to hand off "no cards" and take back "no cards" than it is to recognize that "one card" is already sorted. Other merge-sort implementations are possible, including doing an initial "count the nodes" pass; in this case, you can stop at "count < 2".)

>My preferred way is to make sure it is sorted when you build it.

In some applications, this is a good approach; however, it tends to be O(n^2), while merge sort is O(n log n). Generally, if something should be kept sorted as you go along, some kind of tree structure is appropriate.
In-Real-Life: Chris Torek, Berkeley Software Design Inc
El Cerrito, CA Domain: +1 510 234 3167 (not always up) I report spam to abuse@.