Different methods of search and insertion into std::map

January 29, 2022  [c++]  [programming] 

std::map is a widely-used container from the C++ Standard Template Library (STL) realizing the function of “dictionary”, with efficient insertion and lookup of values identified with their keys. The interface of this data type is quite flexible, in a sense that it allows for achieving seemingly the same task in several different ways. This also makes it a bit confusing how these varying methods differ from one another. This blog post provides a summary of insertion and lookup operations in std::map.

std::map is a part of the so-called associative containers in STL, and is structured internally as a balanced search tree. This is different from another associative container, namely std::unordered_map, which internally is realized as a hash table, in the same way as Python dictionary.

A canonical example of application of a std::map (and std::unordered_map for that matter) is counting frequencies of words. My first example of lookup/inserion logic with std::map is what I consider the most universal, namely using find and insert methods:

std::map<std::string, int> frequencies;

for (const auto& w : words) {
    auto search = frequencies.find(w);
    if (search == frequencies.end()) {
        frequencies.insert(search, {w, 1});
    } else {

The find method performs lookup in logarithmic running time, returning an iterator, either pointing to the std::pair of key/value if one exists, or to frequencies.end() if the key was not found.

The insert method can be used in several ways. In the example above, it takes the iterator as a hint to where the key/value pair should be inserted, and the key/value std::pair itself. Providing the hint, if optimal, will optimize the insertion operation. Alternatively, the hint can be skipped, with only the key/value pair provided:

frequencies.insert({w, 1});

A very similar way is to use emplace, without explicit creation of std::pair:

frequencies.emplace(w, 1);

This latter variant can be more efficient than its insert counterpart. emplace works also with hints, so the following call is also supported:

frequencies.emplace(search, w, 1);

Both insertion and lookup can also be realized with operator[], making the code more “Pythonic”, i.e. with calls like m[k] = v;. There is a catch, however: if the key does not exist, a call m[k] will create a new tree node for k and return the default value for the value data type (e.g. 0 for int).

An alternative for operator[] when it comes to lookup is the method at, used as follows:

auto value = m.at(k); // alternative to m[k]

The difference between the two manifests itself when the key doesn’t exist. A call to at will throw an out_of_range exception if the key is not found.

Some links to check out on the topic:

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