1. What is a trie:

    You've probably already seen kinds of trees that store things more efficiently, such as a binary search tree. Here, we will examine another variant of a tree, called a trie.

    Aside: The name trie comes from its use for retrieval. It is pronounced like "try" by some, like "tree" (the pronunciation of "trie" in "retrieval") by others. Here, we will discuss a particular implementation of a trie, which may be somewhat different than how it is described elsewhere.

    We use a trie to store pieces of data that have a key (used to identify the data) and possibly a value (which holds any additional data associated with the key).

    Here, we will use data whose keys are strings.

    Suppose we want to store a bunch of name/age pairs for a set of people (we'll consider names to be a single string here).

    Here are some pairs:

    amy	56
    ann	15
    emma	30
    rob	27
    roger	52

    Now, how will we store these name/value pairs in a trie? A trie allows us to share prefixes that are common among keys. Again, our keys are names, which are strings.

    Let's start off with amy. We'll build a tree with each character in her name in a separate node. There will also be one node under the last character in her name (i.e., under y). In this final node, we'll put the nul character (\0) to represent the end of the name. This last node is also a good place to store the age for amy.

          .     <- level 0 (root)
          a     <- level 1
          m     <- level 2
          y     <- level 3
        \0 56   <- level 4

    Note that each level in the trie holds a certain character in the string amy. The first character of a string key in the trie is always at level 1, the second character at level 2, etc.

    Now, when we go to add ann, we do the same thing; however, we already have stored the letter a at level 1, so we don't need to store it again, we just reuse that node with a as the first character. Under a (at level 1), however, there is only a second character of m...But, since ann has a second character of n, we'll have to add a new branch for the rest of ann, giving:

       /   \
      m     n
      |     |
      y     n
      |     |
    \0 56 \0 15

    Note: Again, ann's data (an age of 15) is stored in her last node.

    Now, let's add emma. Remember e is the first character and should go at level 1. Since there is no node with character e at level 1, we'll have to add it. In addition, we'll have to add nodes for all the other characters of emma under the e. The first m will be a child of the e, the next m will be below the first m, etc., giving:

          /       \
         a         e
       /   \       |
      m     n      m
      |     |      |
      y     n      m
      |     |      |
    \0 56 \0 15    a
                 \0 30

    Now, let's add the last two names, namely rob and roger, giving:

          /       |      \
         a        e       r
       /   \      |       |
      m     n     m       o
      |     |     |     /   \
      y     n     m    b     g
      |     |     |    |     |
    \0 56 \0 15   a  \0 27   e
                  |          |
                \0 30        r
                           \0 52

    Because the key for each piece of data is a sequence of characters, we will sometimes refer to that sequence as the keys (plural) for that data. For example, ann's data is referenced using the keys a, n, n (in that order).

    To better understand how a trie works, answer the following questions.

  2. Trie operations:

    Here are the operations that we will concern ourselves with for this trie. You may need others for a particular use of the trie.

    We may want more operations depending on how we'll use the trie.

    Since our trie holds data with string keys, which of the operations need a key and value, and which just need keys?

  3. IsMember algorithm:

    Remember that a trie is a special kind of tree. Since a trie organizes its data via the keys (as specified above), it is easy to find whether a particular key is present.

    Finding a key can be done with iteration (looping).

    Here is an outline of such an algorithm. It looks in a particular trie and determines whether data with a particular string key is present.

    IsMember(trie, key) [iterative]

    1. Search top level for node that
       matches first character in key
    2. If none,
         return false
    3. If the matched character is \0?
         return true
    4. Move to subtrie that matched this character
    5. Advance to next character in key*
    6. Go to step 1

    * I.e., the new search key becomes the old one without its first character.

    The algorithm moves down the tree (to a subtree) at step 6. Thus, the top level in step 1 actually may refer to any level in the tree depending on what subtree the algorithm is currently at.

  4. Trie implementation:

    Now, let's think about how to actually implement a trie of name/age pairs in C.

    As usual, we'll put the data structure in its own module by producing the source files trie.h and trie.c.

    The functions needed for our trie are the operations we mentioned:


    However, we also need additional functions for setup and cleanup:


    Now, before we ponder the details of the trie functions, what must we decide on?

  5. Organization of data types for a trie:

    Let's think about the data types for a trie and how to divide them between the interface (in trie.h) and the implementation (in trie.c) using ADTs and CDTs.

    We'll start with the type of a value. Since our values are ages, we have the following:

    typedef int trieValueT;

    Since the type of values is something that people using the trie need to know, it goes in the interface (trie.h).

    Next, we decided that keys will always be strings. However, we will not construct elements that are made up of strings and values. The reason is that we do not store entire string keys in nodes of the trie. Remember, we store only the individual characters of the string key in the nodes.

    Thus, the type of a node begins as:

    typedef struct trieNodeTag {
      char key;
      trieValueT value;
    } trieNodeT;

    Since it is only a detail of the implementation, it goes in trie.c.

    Note: We could make the trie more generic, by allowing it to handle keys that are any type of array, i.e., arrays of things other than characters. For other types of arrays, we'd have to determine how to represent the end-of-key, which we currently do with the nul character (\0).

    For now, we'll just hardcode the use character for the key stored at each node, and string (i.e., array of character) for the entire key (or sequence of keys) associated with each piece of data.

    Now we need to complete the type of a node. How will we construct a tree whose nodes can have several children? One way is to have the children of a node be part of a linked list of nodes.


    If we view siblings at a level as being linked in a list, then the trie we saw above now could be viewed structurally as:
          a --------- e ----- r
          |           |       |
          m --- n     m       o
          |     |     |       |
          y     n     m       b ----- g
          |     |     |       |       |
        \0 56 \0 15   a     \0 27     e
                      |               |
                    \0 30             r
                                    \0 52

    First, the associated nodes at a given level form a linked list (e.g., a, e, r at level 1). Note, however, that each level may have more than one linked lists. For example, at the second level, m and n form their own list (as they are associated with a at the first level). Likewise, m (as it is associate with e at the first level) forms its own linked list. And finally, o, which is associated with r at the first level, forms its own list.

    Thus, each node (e.g., a at level 1) has a link to the next node at that level and a link to a list of its children. To implement this structure, we will need two pointers in a node, giving:

    typedef struct trieNodeTag {
      char key;
      trieValueT value;
      struct trieNodeTag *next, *children;
    } trieNodeT;

    Note: The value part of a node is unused in most cases since we only store the value in the node with the nul character (\0) as a key. If a value was something that was large, we would have to consider being smarter about our design.

    The only types left are those that keep track of the trie. Based on our choice for the structure of the trie implementation, we see we'll need a pointer to the top level's first node.

    Since this pointer has to do with the implementation of the trie, we put it in the concrete type, struct trieCDT:

    typedef struct trieCDT {
      trieNodeT *root;
    } trieCDT;

    In the interface, we must fill in what the abstract type is as follows:

    typedef struct trieCDT *trieADT;

    Finally, we have:

    trie.h                          trie.c
    ------				------
    				#include "trie.h"
    				typedef struct trieNodeTag {
    				  char key;
    				  trieValueT value;
    typedef int trieValueT;		  struct trieNodeTag *next,
    				} trieNodeT;		
    typedef struct trieCDT		typedef struct trieCDT {
    	*trieADT;		  trieNodeT *root;
    				} trieCDT;

  6. Using a trie:

    Now that we've decided on the data types for a trie, we can imagine how our trie will be used:

    trieADT trie;
    trie = TrieCreate();
    TrieAdd(trie, "amy", 56);
    TrieAdd(trie, "ann", 15);
    if (TrieIsMember(trie, "amy"))

    When someone needs a trie, they define a trieADT variable and set it up with TrieCreate().

    Note: Since we don't store entire string keys and values together (per our discussion above), you might pass a key and a value separately to TrieAdd().

  7. Filling in trie functions:

    Let's now consider the prototype for our TrieIsMember() function:

    int TrieIsMember(trieADT trie, char keys[]);

    It must take the trie in which to look for data and the string key (i.e., a sequence of character keys) used to find that data. In addition, it needs to return a true or false value based on whether it finds the key or not.

    Here is an implementation based on the algorithm we already discussed:

    int TrieIsMember(trieADT trie, char keys[])
      /* Start at the top level. */
      trieNodeT *level = trie->root;
      /* Start at beginning of key. */
      int i = 0;
      for (;;) {
        trieNodeT *found = NULL;
        trieNodeT *curr;
        for (curr = level; curr != NULL; curr = curr->next) {
           * Want a node at this level to match
           * the current character in the key.
          if (curr->key == keys[i]) {
            found = curr;
         * If either no nodes at this level or none
         * with next character in key, then key not
         * present.
        if (found == NULL)
          return 0;
        /* If we matched end of key, it's there! */
        if (keys[i] == '\0')
          return 1;
        /* Go to next level. */
        level = found->children;
        /* Advance in string key. */

    Fill in the prototypes for the rest of the trie functions:

    return-type TrieCreate(parameters);
    return-type TrieDestroy(parameters);
    return-type TrieAdd(parameters);
    int         TrieIsMember(trieADT trie, char keys[]);
    return-type TrieRemove(parameters);
    and then implement them.

  8. A more generic trie:

    We can easily redesign the trie so that it can use keys that are different kinds of arrays.

BU CAS CS - Trie
Copyright © 1993-2000 by Robert I. Pitts <rip at bu dot edu>. All Rights Reserved.