Why prefer start + (end - start) / 2 over (start + end) / 2 when calculating the middle of an array?

155

30

I've seen programmers use the formula

mid = start + (end - start) / 2

instead of using the simpler formula

mid = (start + end) / 2

for finding the middle element in the array or list.

Why do they use the former one?

Pallavi Chauhan

Posted 2016-07-31T20:13:51.173

Reputation: 619

Answers

212

There are three reasons.

First of all, start + (end - start) / 2 works even if you are using pointers, as long as end - start doesn't overflow1.

int *start = ..., *end = ...;
int *mid = start + (end - start) / 2; // works as expected
int *mid = (start + end) / 2;         // type error, won't compile

Second of all, start + (end - start) / 2 won't overflow if start and end are large positive numbers. With signed operands, overflow is undefined:

int start = 0x7ffffffe, end = 0x7fffffff;
int mid = start + (end - start) / 2; // works as expected
int mid = (start + end) / 2;         // overflow... undefined

(Note that end - start may overflow, but only if start < 0 or end < 0.)

Or with unsigned arithmetic, overflow is defined but gives you the wrong answer. However, for unsigned operands, start + (end - start) / 2 will never overflow as long as end >= start.

unsigned start = 0xfffffffeu, end = 0xffffffffu;
unsigned mid = start + (end - start) / 2; // works as expected
unsigned mid = (start + end) / 2;         // mid = 0x7ffffffe

Finally, you often want to round towards the start element.

int start = -3, end = 0;
int mid = start + (end - start) / 2; // -2, closer to start
int mid = (start + end) / 2;         // -1, surprise!

Footnotes

1 According to the C standard, if the result of pointer subtraction is not representable as a ptrdiff_t, then the behavior is undefined. However, in practice, this requires allocating a char array using at least half the entire address space.

Dietrich Epp

Posted 2016-07-31T20:13:51.173

Reputation: 151 237

16

We can take a simple example to demonstrate this fact. Suppose in a certain large array, we are trying to find the midpoint of the range [1000, INT_MAX]. Now, INT_MAX is the largest value the int data type can store. Even if 1 is added to this, the final value will become negative.

Also, start = 1000 and end = INT_MAX.

Using the formula: (start + end)/2,

the mid-point will be

(1000 + INT_MAX)/2 = -(INT_MAX+999)/2, which is negative and may give segmentation fault if we try to index using this value.

But, using the formula, (start + (end-start)/2), we get:

(1000 + (INT_MAX-1000)/2) = (1000 + INT_MAX/2 - 500) = (INT_MAX/2 + 500) which will not overflow.

Shubham

Posted 2016-07-31T20:13:51.173

Reputation: 1 906

15

To add to what others have already said, the first one explains its meaning clearer to those less mathematically minded:

mid = start + (end - start) / 2

reads as:

mid equals start plus half of the length.

whereas:

mid = (start + end) / 2

reads as:

mid equals half of start plus end

Which does not seem as clear as the first, at least when expressed like that.

as Kos pointed out it can also read:

mid equals the average of start and end

Which is clearer but still not, at least in my opinion, as clear as the first.

TheLethalCoder

Posted 2016-07-31T20:13:51.173

Reputation: 5 462