Linus Torvalds’ good taste argument for linked lists, explained

  • Introduction
  • The code
    • The CS101 version
    • A more tremendous acknowledge
  • How does it work?
    • Integrating the head pointer
    • Declaring a handle
  • Going past
    • Inserting sooner than present items
    • Rapid refactor
    • Implementing insert_before()
  • Conclusion


In a 2016 TED interview (14: 10) Linus Torvalds speaks about what he
considers factual fashion in coding. To illustrate, he items two
implementations of item elimination in singly linked lists (reproduced under). In
expose to determine out the first item from a checklist, definitely one of the implementations requires
a particular case, the opposite one would not. Linus, clearly, prefers the latter.

His comment is:

[…] I develop no longer favor you to designate why it would not grasp the if commentary.
But I want you to designate that in most cases you could perhaps well peep a scenario in a
various procedure and rewrite it in declare that a particular case goes away and turns into the
well-liked case, and that is the reason factual code. […] — L. Torvalds

The code snippets he items are C-vogue pseudocode and are straight forward sufficient to
note. However, as Linus mentions within the comment, the snippets lack a
conceptual clarification and it is no longer instantly evident how the more tremendous
acknowledge the truth is works.

The next two sections gaze on the technical methodology in ingredient and demonstrate
how and why the oblique addressing methodology is so tremendous. The final piece
extends the acknowledge from item deletion to insertion.

The code

The important data building for a singly linked checklist of integers is proven in
Figure 1.

linked list

Figure 1: Singly linked checklist of integers.

Numbers are arbitrarily chosen integer values and arrows demonstrate pointers.
head is a pointer of form IntListItem* and each of the boxes
is an event of an IntListItem struct, every with a member variable (known as
next within the code) of form IntListItem* that points to the subsequent item.

The C implementation of the facts building is:

struct IntListItem {
    int cost;
    struct IntListItemnext;
typedef struct IntListItem IntListItem;

struct IntList {
typedef struct IntList IntList;

We additionally embody a (minimal) API:

/* The textbook version */
void remove_cs101(IntListl, IntListItemaim);
/* A more tremendous acknowledge */
void remove_elegant(IntListl, IntListItemaim);

With that in dwelling, let’s grasp a secure out about on the implementations of
remove_cs101() and remove_elegant(). The code of these examples is fine
to the pseudocode from Linus’ instance and additionally compiles and runs.

The CS101 version

simple data model

Figure 2: The conceptual mannequin for the checklist data building within the CS101 algorithm.

void remove_cs101(IntList *l, IntListItem *aim)
    IntListItem *cur=l->head, *prev=NULL;
    while (cur !=aim) {
    if (prev) {
    } else {

The well-liked CS101 methodology makes exercise of two traversal pointers cur and
prev, marking primarily the most novel and old traversal dwelling within the checklist,
respectively. cur starts on the checklist head head, and advances unless the
aim is chanced on. prev starts at NULL and is subsequently up to this level with the
old cost of cur every time cur advances. After the aim is chanced on,
the algorithm tests if prev is non-NULL. If yes, the object is never any longer on the
foundation of the checklist and the elimination contains re-routing the linked checklist
spherical cur. If prev is NULL, cur is pointing to the first ingredient in
the checklist, all the procedure via which case, elimination methodology transferring the checklist head forward.

A more tremendous acknowledge

The more tremendous version has much less code and would not require a separate branch
to address deletion of the first ingredient in a checklist.

void remove_elegant(IntList *l, IntListItem *aim)
    IntListItem p=&l->head;
    while ((*p) !=aim) {

The code makes exercise of an oblique pointer p that holds the address of a pointer to a
checklist item, beginning with the address of head. In every iteration, that
pointer is evolved to preserve the address of the pointer to the subsequent checklist item,
i.e. the address of the next ingredient in primarily the most novel IntListItem.
When the pointer to the checklist item (*p) equals aim, we exit the search
loop and desire the object from the checklist.

How does it work?

The main perception is that using an oblique pointer p has two conceptual

  1. It enables us to interpret the linked checklist in a technique that makes the head
    pointer an integral piece the facts building. This eliminates the need
    for a particular case to determine out the first item.
  2. It additionally enables us to take into story the condition of the while loop without
    having to let scramble of the pointer that points to aim. This permits us to
    alter the pointer that points to aim and to salvage away with a single
    iterator reasonably than prev and cur.

Let’s gaze every of these points in turn.

Integrating the head pointer

The well-liked mannequin interprets the linked checklist as a chain of IntListItem
cases. The muse of the sequence could perhaps additionally additionally be accessed via a head
pointer. This outcomes within the conceptual mannequin illustrated in Figure 2 above. The head pointer is
merely conception to be a handle to salvage admission to the beginning up of the checklist. prev and cur
are pointers of form IntListItem* and always be conscious an item or NULL.

The tremendous implementation makes exercise of oblique addressing arrangement that yields a particular
seek for on the facts building:

Data model for indirect addressing

Figure 3: The conceptual mannequin for the checklist data building within the more
tremendous methodology.

Right here, p is of form IntListItem and holds the address of the pointer to
primarily the most novel checklist item. After we approach the pointer, we forward to the address
of the pointer to the subsequent checklist item.

In code, this translates to p=&(*p)->next, which methodology we

  1. (*p): dereference the address to the pointer to primarily the most novel checklist item
  2. ->next: dereference that pointer some other time and purchase the sphere that holds
    the address of the subsequent checklist item
  3. &: use the address of that address field (i.e. salvage a pointer to it)

This corresponds to an interpretation of the facts building where the checklist is a
a chain of pointers to IntListItems (cf. Figure 3).

Declaring a handle

An additional supreme thing about that loyal interpretation is that it helps
enhancing the next pointer of the predecessor of primarily the most novel item all the procedure via the
total traversal.

With p keeping the address of a pointer to a checklist item, the comparability within the
search loop turns into

while ((*p) !=aim) {

The hunt loop will exit if (*p) equals aim, and as soon because it does, we are
light ready to switch (*p) since we preserve its address p. Thus, no matter
iterating the loop unless we hit aim, we light preserve a handle (the
address of the next field or the head pointer) that would additionally additionally be used to instantly
alter the pointer that points to the object.

That is the clarification why we are able to switch the incoming pointer to an item to level
to a particular dwelling using *p=aim->next and why we attain no longer want prev
and cur pointers to traverse the checklist for item elimination.

Going past

It turns out that the foundation slack remove_elegant() could perhaps additionally additionally be applied to yield a
particularly concise implementation of one more arrangement within the checklist API:
insert_before(), i.e. inserting a given item sooner than one more one.

Inserting sooner than present items

First, let’s add the next declaration to the checklist API in checklist.h:

void insert_before(IntList *l, IntListItem *sooner than, IntListItem *item);

The arrangement will use a pointer to a checklist l, a pointer sooner than to an
item in that checklist and a pointer to a brand original checklist item item that the arrangement
will insert sooner than sooner than.

Rapid refactor

Sooner than we circulate on, we refactor the search loop correct into a separate

static inline IntListItem find_indirect(IntList *l, IntListItem *aim)
    IntListItem p=&l->head;
    while ((*p) && (*p) !=aim) {
    return p;

and exercise that arrangement in remove_elegant() love so

void remove_elegant(IntList *l, IntListItem *aim)
    IntListItem p=find_indirect(l, aim);

Implementing insert_before()

The exercise of find_indirect(), it is miles straight forward to implement insert_before():

void insert_before(IntList *l, IntListItem *sooner than, IntListItem *item)
    IntListItem p=find_indirect(l, sooner than);
    item->next=sooner than;

A particularly lovely final consequence is that the implementation has consistent
semantics for the sting cases: if sooner than points to the checklist head, the original item
would possibly be inserted within the foundation of the checklist, if sooner than is NULL or invalid
(i.e. the object would not exist in l), the original item would possibly be appended on the


The premise of the more tremendous acknowledge for item deletion is a single, straight forward
alternate: using an oblique IntListItem pointer to iterate over the pointers
to the checklist items. The entirety else flows from there: there is never any want for a
particular case or branching and a single iterator is sufficient to search out and
opt the aim item.
It additionally turns out that the same methodology presents an tremendous acknowledge for item
insertion in most cases and for insertion sooner than an present item in particular.

So, going relief to Linus’ preliminary comment: is it factual fashion? Hard to speak, nonetheless
or no longer it is completely a particular, ingenious and very tremendous acknowledge to a properly-identified
CS process.

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