6.18 — Introduction to standard library algorithms

New programmers typically spend a lot of time writing custom loops to perform relatively simple tasks, such as sorting or counting or searching arrays. These loops can be problematic, both in terms of how easy it is to make an error, and in terms of overall maintainability, as loops can be hard to understand.

Because searching, counting, and sorting are such common operations to do, the C++ standard library comes with a bunch of functions to do these things in just a few lines of code. Additionally, these standard library functions come pre-tested, are efficient, work on a variety of different container types, and many support parallelization (the ability to devote multiple CPU threads to the same task in order to complete it faster).

The functionailty provided in the algorithms library generally fall into one of three categories:

  • Inspectors -- Used to view (but not modify) data in a container. Examples include searching and counting.
  • Mutators -- Used to modify data in a container. Examples include sorting and shuffling.
  • Facilitators -- Used to generate a result based on values of the data members. Examples include objects that multiply values, or objects that determine what order pairs of elements should be sorted in.

These algorithms live in the algorithms library. In this lesson, we’ll explore some of the more common algorithms -- but there are many more, and we encourage you to read through the reference linked above to see everything that’s available!

Note: All of these make use of iterators, so if you’re not familiar with basic iterators, please review lesson %Failed lesson reference, id XX%.

Using std::find to find an element by value

std::find searches for the first occurrence of a value in a container. std::find takes 3 parameters: an iterator to the starting element in the sequence, an iterator to the ending element in the sequence, and a value to search for. It returns an iterator pointing to the element (if it is found) or the end of the container (if the element is not found).

For example:

Sample run when the element is found

Enter a value to search for and replace with: 5 234
13 90 99 234 40 80

Sample run when the element isn’t found

Enter a value to search for and replace with: 0 234
Could not find 0
13 90 99 5 40 80

Using std::find_if to find an element that matches some condition

Sometimes we want to see if there is a value in a container that matches some condition (e.g. a string that contains a specific substring) rather than an exact value. In such cases, std::find_if is perfect. The std::find_if function work similarly to std::find, but instead of passing in a value to search for, we pass in a callable object, such as a function pointer (or a lambda, which we’ll cover later) that checks to see if a match is found. std::find_if will call this function for every element until a matching element is found (or no more elements remain in the container to check).

Here’s an example where we use std::find_if to check if any elements contain the substring “nut”:


Found walnut

If you were to write the above example by hand, you’d need at least two loops (one to loop through the array, and one to match the substring). The standard library functions allow us to do the same thing in just a few lines of code!

Using std::count and std::count_if to count how many occurrences there are

std::count and std::count_if search for all occurrences of an element or an element fulfilling a condition.

In the following example, we’ll count how many elements contain the substring “nut”:


Counted 2 nut(s)

Using std::sort to custom sort

We previously used std::sort to sort an array in ascending order, but std::sort can do more than that. There’s a version of std::sort that takes a function as its third parameter that allows us to sort however we like. The function takes two parameters to compare, and returns true if the first argument should be ordered before the second. By default, std::sort sorts the elements in ascending order.

Let’s use std::sort to sort an array in reverse order using a custom comparison function named greater:


99 90 80 40 13 5

Once again, instead of writing our own custom loop functions, we can sort our array however we like in just a few lines of code!


Because sorting in descending order is so common, C++ provides a custom type (named std::greater) for that too (which is part of the functional header). In the above example, we can replace:


Note that the std::greater{} needs the curly braces because it is not a callable function. It’s a type, and in order to use it, we need to instantiate an object of that type. The curly braces instantiate an anonymous object of that type (which then gets passed as an argument to std::sort).

Using std::for_each to do something to all elements of a container

std::for_each takes a list as input, applies a custom function to every element. This is useful when we want to perform the same operation to every element in a list.

Here’s an example where we use std::for_each to double all the numbers in an array:


2 4 6 8

This often seems like the most unnecessary algorithm to beginners, because equivalent code with a range-based for-loop is shorter and easier. std::for_each allows the loop-body to be re-used and it can be parallelized, making it better suited for large projects and big data than a range-based for-loop.

Order of execution

Note that most of the algorithms in the algorithms library do not guarantee a particular order of execution. For such algorithms, take care to ensure any functions you pass in do not assume a particular ordering, as the order of invocation may not be the same on every compiler.

The following algorithms do guarantee sequential execution: std::for_each, std::copy, std::copy_backward, std::move, and std::move_backward.

Best practice

Unless otherwise specified, do not assume that standard library algorithms will execute in a particular sequence. std::for_each, std::copy, std::copy_backward, std::move, and std::move_backward have sequential guarantees.

Ranges in C++20

Having to explicitly pass arr.begin() and arr.end() to every algorithm is a bit annoying. But fear not -- C++20 adds ranges, which allow us to simply pass arr. This will make our code even shorter and more readable.


The algorithms library has a ton of useful functionality that can make your code simpler and more robust. We only cover a small subset in this lesson, but because most of these functions work very similarly, once you know how a few work, you can make use of most of them.

Best practice

Favor using functions from the algorithms library over writing your own functionality to do the same thing

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