I am a learning algorithm analysis and came across a analysis tool for understanding the running time of an algorithm with widely varying performance which is called as amortization.

The autor quotes

An array with upper bound of n elements, with a fixed bound N, on it size. Operation clear takes O(n) time, since we should dereference all the elements in the array in order to really empty it.

The above statement is clear and valid. Now consider the next content:

Now consider a series of n operations on an initially empty array. if we take the worst case viewpoint, the running time is O(n^2), since the worst case of a sigle clear operation in the series is O(n) and there may be as many as O(n) clear operations in the series.

From the above statement how is the time complexity O(n^2)? I did not understand the logic behind it. if 'n' operations are performed how is it O(n ^2)? Please explain what the autor is trying to convey..

  • 1
    If clearing the array once is O(1*n), clearing the array n times is O(n*n) - at least according to the simplest possible analysis.
    – Patrick
    Nov 18, 2012 at 18:20
  • This is what i am not clear. If clearing the array once will take O(1) when n =1, then when there are n times its should be O(n). Hope I am clear on this.
    – Pradeep
    Nov 19, 2012 at 2:53

2 Answers 2


In your case, n is the size of the array. And the algorithm is running at most once over the array. Each time it runs, it performs an operation (or calls another function) that itself runs at most once over the array. Thus, if you assume that the worst cost of running the clear() algorithm is O(n) and that the outer algorithm does nothing more expensive or proportional to that algorithm, you will run an O(n) clear() function n times.

This means that the overall cost of the function will be n * O(n) or O(n^2).

One important thing to note is that your operation is not a constant operation. When one says that running an operation n times costs O(n) she simply means that that operation is a constant operation or O(1) --meaning one that does not increase in cost with increase in size. The clear() function does not fit this description and hence you cannot say that running the clear() function n times is an O(n) operation.

Post script:

O(n^2) means that the run time complexity of the examined function will not exceed square growth for sufficiently large values of n.

In simpler words, for large values of n, O(n^2) means that the time to execute the examined algorithm over an input of size n will not increase by more than four times when n is doubled. The keyword here is large because for smaller values of n, constant factors (even when they exist as coefficients) may be significant. Theoretically, large values of n mean approaching infinity.

  • This is not clear. for example if n=5, and we ignore the outer algorithm running time, if we run the clear function first time it takes O(5). At this point the the array is empty. ow can we run the clear function again on the empty array. It should be O(5) when n =5. After the first run, the array is already cleared.
    – Pradeep
    Nov 19, 2012 at 3:23
  • 1
    Can you post the code snippet or pseudo code so that we can see the full function? It is not clear what the author is writing about. Also, that is not how one interprets big O --O(5) does not mean cost to execute for 5 elements. Please read en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_O_notation for more details on what this function means as the comment box is too small. I will need
    – Apoorv
    Nov 19, 2012 at 15:54
  • Also it matters what the clear function does. If one dumbly codes clear() to set all references to null then one will have to iterate once even when the array is all null. Once again, need to see code to give more concrete explanation.
    – Apoorv
    Nov 19, 2012 at 15:58
  • Hi Monster Truck, I could not get a code for explanation but could get a theorem. Could you please explain me what the autor is trying to explain. Quote from the book:
    – Pradeep
    Nov 20, 2012 at 17:15
  • Theorem: A series of n operations on an initially empty array takes O(n) time: Proof: Let Mo.... Mn-1 be the series of operations performed on array S and Mio..... Mik-1 be the clear operations within the series. We have 0 <= io < .... <ik-1 <= n-1. Let us also define i-1 (i subscript -1). The running time of operation Mij (a clear operation) is O (ij (i subscript j) - ij-1 (i subscript (j-1))), because at most ij - ij-1-1 elements could have been added into the table (using the add operation) since the previous clear operation Mij-1 (M subscript i subscript j-1)
    – Pradeep
    Nov 20, 2012 at 17:25

"Now consider a series of n operations on an initially empty array. if we take the worst case viewpoint, the running time is O(n^2), since the worst case of a single clear operation in the series is O(n) and there may be as many as O(n) clear operations in the series."

if you perform n operations on an array with n elements (assuming that each operation is of order 1), you get n X O(n) --> O(n^2).


Say n=3, you want to perform 3 clears on the array. first clear process takes 3 operations second clear process takes 3 operations. third clear process takes 3 operations. total = 3x3=9=O(3^2).

The tricky part I can't justify though is the one in italics!

  • hey, how is it 9. when n=3, clear operation takes 3 operations. At this point of time, the array will become empty. why will it start for n=2 again?
    – Pradeep
    Nov 19, 2012 at 3:08
  • @Pradeep, thanks for your comment. The OP mentioned "series of n operations" one of them is the clear operation. As I mentioned, the sentence "initial empty array" is ambiguous to me. It is possible that with an initially empty array, you fill it in one operation, add a value to each element, then clear it. Each of these operations requires accessing 3 elements, hence we get 3x3. At least that is what I understand.
    – NoChance
    Nov 19, 2012 at 11:14
  • Hey. I understand what you are saying but you don't write O(9). You write just 9. P.S.:- I did not down vote.
    – Apoorv
    Nov 19, 2012 at 15:55
  • @MonsterTruck, thanks for your comment. I will edit accordingly.
    – NoChance
    Nov 20, 2012 at 1:39

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