mwpb blog

Find kth largest element

(Elements of programming interviews 11.8.)

Consider the problem of finding the kth largest element in an unsorted array. We can use the following modification of heap sort.

import heapq
def kth_largest(l, k): # O(n log(k))
    min_heap = []
    for i in l:
        if len(min_heap) < k:
            heapq.heappush(min_heap, i)
        elif min_heap[0] < i:
            heapq.heappushpop(min_heap, i)
    return min_heap[0]

which runs in O(N*log(K)) time because each call to heappush or heappushpop is O(log(K)).

In fact if we use a variation of quicksort we can get an average-case time complexity of O(N) but a worst-case time complexity of O(N^2). The idea is that by partitioning the array around a pivot element we can eliminate many elements of the array at once. An extremely rough implementation might be as follows:

from random import randrange
def qs_imitation(l, k): # worst case O(N^2) average case O(N)
    print(f'qs_imitation({l}, {k})')
    m = randrange(len(l))
    pivot = l[m]
    above = []
    below = []
    same = []
    for i in l:
        if i > pivot:
        elif i < pivot:
    print(m, below, same, above)
    if len(above) == k-1:
        return pivot
    elif len(above) >= k:
        return qs_imitation(above, k)
    elif len(above) + len(same) > k:
        return pivot
        return qs_imitation(below, k-len(above)-len(same))

where the problem is that we have no way of guaranteeing that the randomly chosen element isn’t the largest element each time.