A $n$-item list can be verified as sorted by comparing every item to its neighbor. In my application, I will not be able to compare every item with its neighbor: instead, the comparisons will sometimes be between distant elements. Given that the list contains more than three items and also that comparison is the only supported operation, does there ever exist a "network" of comparisons that will prove that the list is sorted, but is missing at least one direct neighbor-to-neighbor comparison?

Formally, for a sequence of elements $e_i$, I have a set of pairs of indices $(j,k)$ for which I know whether $e_j > e_k$, $e_j = e_k$, or $e_j < e_k$. There exists a pair $(l,l+1)$ that is missing from the set of comparisons. Is it ever possible, then, to prove that the sequence is sorted?

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    $\begingroup$ A note in case anyone finds this page later with the question of whether you can verify a list is sorted without comparing anything; Only if you can put some limits on the inputs, and/or know something about the shape of the inputs; (e.g. radix sort). $\endgroup$ Commented May 10, 2019 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ There is, however, the possibility of optimizing the number of comparisons used in cases where it's not sorted. $\endgroup$ Commented May 10, 2019 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Acccumulation Is there actually such a possibility? Should be trivial to take any such program and cook up an adversarial list of length n that forces the program to do n-1 comparisons. See also A Killer Adversary for QuickSort, which takes this idea even further to forcing quicksort into the bad part of its asymptotic analysis. $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2019 at 1:47
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielWagner Yes, such optimization has to be done with respect to expected input of the particular application. $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2019 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ Probably not possible. But please clarify: did you mean that you only know the comparisons of the form (j,j+1), not general (j,k)? For example, do you ever know the comparison of two items of indices (j,j+3) ? $\endgroup$
    – Ron
    Commented May 11, 2019 at 21:04

1 Answer 1


It is impossible. Suppose that you have the result of all comparisons except for the pair $(i,i+1)$. Then you wouldn't be able to distinguish between the following two cases: $$ 1,2,\ldots,i-1,i,i+1,i+2,\ldots,n \\ 1,2,\ldots,i-1,i+1,i,i+2,\ldots,n $$


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