Prefix search in a radix tree/patricia trie


I'm currently implementing a radix tree/patricia trie (whatever you want to call it). I want to use it for prefix searches in a dictionary on a severely underpowered piece of hardware. It's supposed to work more or less like auto-completion, i. e. showing a list of words that the typed prefix matches.

My implementation is based on this article, but the code therein doesn't include prefix searches, though the author says:

[...] Say you want to enumerate all the nodes that have keys with a common prefix "AB". You can perform a depth first search starting at that root, stopping whenever you encounter back edges.

But I don't see how that is supposed to work. For example, if I build a radix tree from these words:


I will get the exact same "best match" for the prefixes "i" and "in" so that it seems difficult to me to gather all matching words just by traversing the tree from that best match.

Additionally, there is a radix tree implementation in Java that has an implemented prefix search in That code explicitly checks all nodes (starting from a certain node) for a prefix match - it actually compares bytes.

Can anyone point me to a detailed description on implementing a prefix search on radix trees? Is the algorithm used in the Java implementation the only way to do it?

4/28/2009 7:14:08 AM

Accepted Answer

Think about what your trie encodes. At each node, you have the path that lead you to that node, so in your example, you start at Λ (that's a capital Lambda, this greek font kind of sucks) the root node corresponding to an empty string. Λ has children for each letter used, so in your data set, you have one branch, for "i".

  • Λ
  • Λ→"i"

At the "i" node, there are two children, one for "m" and one for "n". The next letter is "n", so you take that,

  • Λ→"i"→"n"

and since the only word that starts "i","n" in your data set is "in", there are no children from "n". That's a match.

Now, let's say the data set, instead of having "in", had "infindibulum". (What SF I'm referencing is left as an exercise.) You'd still get to the "n" node the same way, but then if the next letter you get is "q", you know the word doesn't appear in your data set at all, because there's no "q" branch. At that point, you say "okay, no match." (Maybe you then start adding the word, maybe not, depending on the application.)

But if the next letter is "f", you can keep going. You can short circuit that with a little craft, though: once you reach a node that represents a unique path, you can hang the whole string off that node. When you get to that node, you know that the rest of the string must be "findibulum", so you've used the prefix to match the whole string, and return it.

How your you use that? in a lot of non-UNIX command interpreters, like the old VAX DCL, you could use any unique prefix of a command. So, the equivalent of ls(1) was DIRECTORY, but no other command started with DIR, so you could type DIR and that was as good as doing the whole word. If you couldn't remember the correct command, you could type just 'D', and hit (I think) ESC; the DCL CLI would return you all the commands that started with D, which it could search extremely fast.

4/27/2009 8:58:30 PM

It turns out the GNU extensions for the standard c++ lib includes a Patricia trie implementation. It's found under the policy-based data-structures extension. See

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