Tree (data structure)

A tree data structure can be defined recursively as a collection of nodes (starting at a root node), where each node is a data structure consisting of a value, together with a list of references to nodes (the "children"), with the constraints that no reference is duplicated, and none points to the root.

The structures introduced in the previous subsection form just the core "hierarchical" part of tree data structures that appear in computing. In most cases, there is also an additional "horizontal" ordering between siblings. In search trees the order is commonly established by the "key" or value associated with each sibling, but in many trees that is not the case. For example, XML documents, lists within JSON files, and many other structures have order that does not depend on the values in the nodes, but is itself data â sorting the paragraphs of a novel alphabetically would lose information.

There is a distinction between a tree as an abstract data type and as a concrete data structure, analogous to the distinction between a list and a linked list. As a data type, a tree has a value and children, and the children are themselves trees; the value and children of the tree are interpreted as the value of the root node and the subtrees of the children of the root node. To allow finite trees, one must either allow the list of children to be empty (in which case trees can be required to be non-empty, an "empty tree" instead being represented by a forest of zero trees), or allow trees to be empty, in which case the list of children can be of fixed size (branching factor, especially 2 or "binary"), if desired.

As a data structure, a linked tree is a group of nodes, where each node has a value and a list of references to other nodes (its children). There is also the requirement that no two "downward" references point to the same node. In practice, nodes in a tree commonly include other data as well, such as next/previous references, references to their parent nodes, or nearly anything.

Due to the use of references to trees in the linked tree data structure, trees are often discussed implicitly assuming that they are being represented by references to the root node, as this is often how they are actually implemented. For example, rather than an empty tree, one may have a null reference: a tree is always non-empty, but a reference to a tree may be null.

This data structure defines a directed graph,[e] and for it to be a tree one must add a condition on its global structure (its topology), namely that at most one reference can point to any given node (a node has at most a single parent), and no node in the tree point to the root. In fact, every node (other than the root) must have exactly one parent, and the root must have no parents.

Allowing empty trees makes some definitions simpler, some more complicated: a rooted tree must be non-empty, hence if empty trees are allowed the above definition instead becomes "an empty tree, or a rooted tree such that ...". On the other hand, empty trees simplify defining fixed branching factor: with empty trees allowed, a binary tree is a tree such that every node has exactly two children, each of which is a tree (possibly empty).The complete sets of operations on tree must include fork operation.

The topmost node in a tree is called the root node. Depending on definition, a tree may be required to have a root node (in which case all trees are non-empty), or may be allowed to be empty, in which case it does not necessarily have a root node. Being the topmost node, the root node will not have a parent. It is the node at which algorithms on the tree begin, since as a data structure, one can only pass from parents to children. Note that some algorithms (such as post-order depth-first search) begin at the root, but first visit leaf nodes (access the value of leaf nodes), only visit the root last (i.e., they first access the children of the root, but only access the value of the root last). All other nodes can be reached from it by following 'edges' or 'links'. (In the formal definition, each such path is also unique.) In diagrams, the root node is conventionally drawn at the top. In some trees, such as heaps, the root node has special properties. Every node in a tree can be seen as the root node of the subtree rooted at that node.

Trees are often drawn in the plane. Ordered trees can be represented essentially uniquely in the plane, and are hence called plane trees, as follows: if one fixes a conventional order (say, counterclockwise), and arranges the child nodes in that order (first incoming parent edge, then first child edge, etc.), this yields an embedding of the tree in the plane, unique up to ambient isotopy. Conversely, such an embedding determines an ordering of the child nodes.

Indeed, a binary tree can be implemented as a list of lists (a list where the values are lists): the head of a list (the value of the first term) is the left child (subtree), while the tail (the list of second and subsequent terms) is the right child (subtree). This can be modified to allow values as well, as in Lisp S-expressions, where the head (value of first term) is the value of the node, the head of the tail (value of second term) is the left child, and the tail of the tail (list of third and subsequent terms) is the right child.