When I write high-level documentation about what an algorithm does, I use the term "array" to refer to the data structure on which the algorithm operates even though the actual data structure is an std::vector. I feel that using the term "vector" in this context does not (to me) best convey the meaning I'm after which is "a sequence of elements with constant-time random access" or perhaps more generally "a dynamic array". Is there a convention or common documentation standard for this distinction of similar terms?

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    This is all confusing. C++'s map is not your LISP's Python's map. At the end of the day these are just words. I, for instance, really want to call some data structure a "ladder" ... just because.
    – Job
    Jun 9, 2011 at 23:14
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    The C++ standard uses the term Sequence to generically describe the sort of data structure you're talking about. A vector is both a Sequence and a RandomAccessContainer. Jun 9, 2011 at 23:45
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    I think I'd use "random access sequence." Jun 9, 2011 at 23:58
  • Does it have to be sequential? Except where necessary, I would use the term "container" or "collection" and let the implementations worry about the best technique for storing it. Jun 10, 2011 at 2:23

4 Answers 4


I don't know of any standard nomenclature, but like the OP, I prefer using "array" or "dynamic array" for something that has constant-time random access, without specifying the mechanism.

Even though STL uses the term "vector", I come from a mathematics/chemistry background, and do a lot of 2D/3D graphics. In those fields, when you say "vector" in a generic way, it has its linear algebra meaning: a point in an N-dimensional vector space. When I use "vector" in the STL sense, I'm always referring to that specific STL template container.

To me, "list" when applied to containers implies "linked list", which doesn't have constant-time random access. Like Neil Butterworth, I rarely use std::list.


First, know your audience!

I understand from where are you coming from, but If you are writing to C++ people, Use vector. A C++ programmer would know what you mean by vector. Within the C++ context, If you are calling a vector an array, it might be confusing to some folks. IF you still want to use the name "Array", then I will suggest to make a note that you make no distinction between static and dynamic array.

If you are talking to non-technical people, then use the word list or something easier than convey the message (I would still try to define vector because they might get technical later on.)

Good luck!

  • If you are writing to any decent programmer, Use array. May 8, 2013 at 20:06

We all have our little coding idiosyncrasies, but... come on man!

You're using a vector, why would you call it an array? They're two different things.

An "array" is not a universally known concept. That is, you can't walk up to a random person, ask them what an array is, and expect them to know. So how does that particular word convey the concept of "a collection of elements with constant-time random access" better than "vector"?

Have more faith in your colleagues. Anyone looking over your code who knows what an array is should know what a vector is. And if they don't, you have bigger problems.

  • I'm not sure why but I thought of "array" as a more universally known term, but you might be right on this. Thanks +1 Jun 10, 2011 at 0:35
  • Using vector to people who don't know C++ (or other languages that use this unfortunate terminology) for "a collection of elements with constant-time random access" is a joke. Vectors are canonically mathematical objects, often of a fixed dimension. Use array or list or sequence. Of course, this doesn't apply if you are actually coding in such a language. May 8, 2013 at 20:11

Interesting. I always use the term "list" as it is (almost) the most degenerate form of a collection, and so the most general. I almost never use std::list in my actual C++ code. however. As a real example from my own code:

 typedef std::vector <unsigned int> FieldList;
  • Why you don't use FieldVector? Keep in mind that the first thing that most people will not think is that you call "vector" as "list" or "string" as "int".
    – Armando
    Jun 9, 2011 at 23:56
  • @Armando Because I might want to turn it into a set? Or a deque? It's just a bunch of stuff, so I use the most general term - a list. Jun 10, 2011 at 0:00
  • @Neil, Keep in mind that List is a well defined data structure. I know where you are coming from and is a good idea to do typedef rather than hardcore the template type. I used typedef for STL containers as well. I think Scott Meyers used the word "Container" for generic data structure.
    – Armando
    Jun 10, 2011 at 0:06
  • Isn't the term "range" used a lot when talking about generic algorithms? Anything with a beginning and an end... is that too general for the OP's situation?
    – Kerrek SB
    Jun 12, 2011 at 9:52
  • @Kerrek Range is used to refer to that - a range inside a container, which might be over the entire contents, or might not. What's being asked about here is a name for the container itself. Jun 12, 2011 at 9:55

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