January 18, 2023

Algorithms: Bubble Sort



I’ve had the itch recently to write articles for all the algorithms and data structures I covered in my original Data Structures & Algorithms course and maybe a few others. There’s just something that tickles the pleasure centers of my brain to learn a new algorithm or review an old one. They might not always be useful in a practical sense, but I think practicing data structures & algorithms can help your brain improve its abilities to model problems well, and well-modeled problems are easier to solve.

I also wanted to play around with visualizing the algorithms with some React components, so double the fun for me, and hopefully for you, too.

A few words on algorithms, in general

Algorithms get an undeservedly bad rap these days because the word has been appropriated to describe the manipulations of social media companies to show us more ads. Let’s not allow that negative connotation to stop us from learning them.

An algorithm is simply a set of instructions to perform a task, to get a desired outcome. A recipe is an algorithm. How you tie your shoes is an algorithm. The way you brush your teeth, an algorithm. Algorithms are everywhere and unavoidable.

When we examine algorithms and enjoy the intricacies that make one slightly better than another, they might teach us a thing or two. Perhaps about the world around us, perhaps about ourselves.

So don’t let “algorithm” be a scary word for you just because of the media or the fact that it ends in a strange combination of consonants. Embrace them.

The bubble sort algorithm

We’re going to start by learning the “bubble sort” algorithm. Its typically the first sorting algorithm people learn because it’s a naive approach that’s remarkably similar to how one might actually sort a collection of items in real life. The algorithm, goes like this:

  • Given a list of items, begin looping through the them one at a time
  • For each item, compare it to the next item in the array
    • If they are out of order, swap them in place and track that a swap occurred
  • When the loop is complete:
    • If any swaps occurred, repeat the previous steps
    • else, the array is sorted

Simple, right? But simple, can be extremely inefficient! The bubble sort algorithm has a Big O of O(n^2), otherwise known as quadratic time. It’s not the absolute worst score you can get for an algorithm, but it’s pretty darn bad!

For those unfamiliar with Big O notation, let me break it down for this particular case quickly. Big O is how computer scientists describe the worst case performance of an algorithm. In the case of bubble sort, n represents the number of items we are sorting. Our algorithm requires that we loop through every item in the list. If we only had to do that, our Big O would be O(n), indicating that as n increases, the time it takes to sort them grows at the same rate.

However, in bubble sort, inside of our first loop we have an inner loop that compares each item with every other item. This results in doing n * n operations, or n^2. Think about this for a moment. This means that as n increases, the time to sort them quadratically increases. For example, if we have to sort 5x more items than a previous n, it will perform 25x worse!

Coding it up

Let’s write the code for this algorithm piece by piece. Now, it might seem odd, but I think it might be a bit easier to write if consider what we would have to do if we were given a perfectly sorted list. How would we know that the list is sorted?

In the case of bubble sort, we know a list is sorted when a loop through its items is completed without swapping any of them. Thus, even for a perfectly sorted array, we still have to make at least one loop all the items. If we have to do something at least once, but conditionally after that first loop, does that conjure up a particularly rare looping mechanism for you?

I hope you came up with the do..while loop.

So rarely do we get to use this looping mechanism but it’s quite useful for the right situation. We want to do at least one loop through the array, and continue looping through it while there were swaps in the previous loop. Let’s write that code.

function bubbleSort(items) {
  let swapped = false

  do {
    // Gotta reset `swapped` with every outer loop
    swapped = false

    // TODO: Our inner loop will go here
  } while (swapped)

  return items

Now, let’s add our inner loop. We need to take each item and check if it should swap with the nextItem. We’ll need the index of our item to get the next item and to do swaps, and I like to do that with a combo of for..of and Array.prototype.entries(), like so:

function bubbleSort(items) {
  let swapped = false

  do {
    swapped = false

    for (const [idx, item] of items.entries()) {
      const nextItem = items[idx + 1]

      if (item > nextItem) {
        items[idx] = nextItem
        items[idx + 1] = item
        swapped = true
  } while (swapped)

  return items

We can see how the algorithm works with a visual. This visual sorts 50 lines from shortest to tallest. It has two additional features not found in the code block above: it highlights the item currently being sorted, and it tracks the number of comparisons made by the algorithm. You can run the visual several times to see how close it gets to that n^2 performance number.

Comparisons: 0

You can see that sorting items with bubble sort is agonizingly slow. We will discuss much faster and more efficient sorting algorithms, but it’s useful to learn bubble sort all the same. Knowing poor performing algorithms can help us identify inefficient ones in our programs and guide us towards better solutions.

For egghead subscribers

If you enjoy learning from video content and have an egghead account, you can watch this lesson in the embed below or at https://egghead.io/lessons/javascript-sort-an-array-with-a-javascript-do-while-loop-using-bubble-sort.

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