I'm using the book Introduction to Computer Science by John Zelle and at the end of Chapter 3 (Computing with numbers), I'm asked to find the nth term of a Fibonacci sequence presumably using a definitive for loop, as no other decision structure has been introduced yet.

Is this possible? I've tried everything I could think of.

**I know how to solve it using if statements and such. But the book hasn't yet covered decision structures, yet it asks me to find the nth term(given by the user). So I can only presume to know how to do this using "for" loops as this is all that has been covered so far

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What does "definitive for loop" mean? $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2012 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ Basically a counted loop. Eg, I take the nth term as input and say for i in range(input): $\endgroup$
    – qzxt
    Aug 7, 2012 at 20:26
  • $\begingroup$ I could remove if statements by moving the conditional expressions to for loops but that'd be just a completely useless hack, IMHO. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2012 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ So I'm not crazy, then, and there really isn't away to do this without conditionals? $\endgroup$
    – qzxt
    Aug 7, 2012 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ @qzxt not if you want to catch invalid input, no. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2012 at 21:04

2 Answers 2


If it is only the third chapter, I doubt the authors have covered dynamic programming, but I will illustrate what is going on when a for loop is used to compute the $n^\text{th}$ Fibonacci number, $F_n$.

Recall the definition, $$F_n = \begin{cases} 0 & n = 0\\ 1 & n = 1\\ F_{n-1} + F_{n - 2} & \text{otherwise} \end{cases}$$

We could naively compute this using a recursive function defined in Python as,

def fib(n):
    if n < 2:
        return n
        return fib(n - 1) + fib(n - 2)

However by recomputing the same sub-problem many times, this function requires exponential time to compute (illustrated below)! fibtree

There is a fix, though. We can use dynamic programming to do "smarter" recursion and keep our previous results around. This way, we don't need to recompute $F_i$. Our function call "tree" will collapse to a list and and will compute $F_n$ from the "bottom-up". fib2

def fib2(n):
    if n < 2:
        return n
        if not results[n]:
            results[n] = fib2(n - 1) + fib2(n - 2)
        return results[n]

Now we have our $O(n)$ time algorithm to compute $F_n$, but if you notice, we require $O(n)$ additional space (one spot in the array for each $F_i$). This can be cut down to $O(1)$ additional space because each $F_i$ requires only two other fibonacci numbers, namely $F_{i-1}$ and $F_{i-2}$.

def fib3(n):
    if n < 2:
        return n
    f_0 = 0
    f_1 = 1
    f_n = 0
    for _ in range(n - 1):
        f_n = f_0 + f_1
        f_0 = f_1
        f_1 = f_n

    return f_n
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Wow, great answer! Note that bringing this into a form compatible with primitive recursion -- that is, counting down in common definitions -- is easy by using $n-i$ inside the (counting-down) loop. $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Aug 8, 2012 at 7:19

If you only have to use a for loop that iterates until it finds the n-th Fibonacci number, you could use something like this:

int fib(int n)
    int p = 0;
    int c = 1;
    int r = 0; // The result is initialized to 0 (undefined). 
    for (int i = 0; i < n; i++)
        r = p + c; // Produce next number in the sequence.
        p = c;     // Save previous number.
        c = r;     // Save current number.

    return r;


In the solution above, I assume that the Fibonacci sequence is 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 ... and that n has the range 1, 2, 3, ... Since under these assumptions there is no Fibonacci number for n < 1, the function returns a 0 for n < 1 to indicate that the input parameter is out of range (see Tom's suggestions in the comments below).

  • $\begingroup$ Output for 0 should be 0, otherwise, a good, simple and concise answer. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2012 at 21:10
  • $\begingroup$ It depends on how you count, actually fib should be undefined for n < 1. Or do you mean that 0 represents undefined, and therefore fib(n) should return 0 for all n < 1? $\endgroup$
    – Giorgio
    Aug 7, 2012 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ That's true, it depends. If we include 0, the output should be 0. If we exclude it, the function should return a special value to indicate invalid input, which should be done for negative numbers as well... but the OP doesn't accept conditional expressions, much less throwing exceptions so I guess it's fine the way it is. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2012 at 21:18
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Giorgio Mathematically, the Fibonacci sequence is perfectly well-defined for $n\lt 0$; there's nothing that prevents you from running the sequence backwards, inverting $f_{n+1}=f_n+f_{n-1}$ to get $f_{n-1} = f_{n+1}-f_n$ - or, defining $g_n=f_{-n}$, $g_{n+1} = g_{n-1}-g_n$. $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2013 at 17:40

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