Sex and the Single Link

Now that I have your attention, let's have a serious talk about singly-linked lists. I love singly-linked lists. It's strictly a Platonic relationship, of course. But I love them. Let me count the ways.

Actually, let's back up a little and start with doubly-linked lists, of the sort that one finds in Java and most other object-oriented languages.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

A doubly-linked list is a collection of "Elements" that look something like this:

class Element {
      T       value;
      Element next;
      Element previous;

You never actually see list elements. Lists are always accessed through a LinkedList object, which implements the List interface, and has a lot of methods on it, including getFirst, getLast, addFirst, and addLast.

In order to operate on the first and last elements of the list, the LinkedList object has to contain a list head which is itself an element. That means that the list head's next field is pointing at the first element of the list, and in turn is pointed at by that element's previous field. And of course, the list head's previous field points to the last element in the list, which in turn has its next field pointing back at the head. All very symmetrical.

So a doubly-linked list is actually a ring -- you can follow pointers all the way around and back again. This symmetry is what makes operations like getLast and addLast efficient, but it comes at a terrible cost.

It gets worse, because these facts have consequences:

Joy of Singly-Linked Lists

In contrast, a singly-linked list is simplicity itself:

class List {
      final T first;
      final List rest;
      List(T first, List rest) {
          this.first = first;
 = rest;

That's it. The whole thing. No separate, hidden Element object. No list head. What you see is what you get. And you can't change it.

Brief digression: in this article we are talking about pure, immutable lists. Lisp actually has operations that modify the rest or first links of a list, but that's considered cheating, and pure lists don't cheat. So sex does come into it, after all.

Also, of course, if we were really implementing this in Java, we would might be tempted to hide the first and rest fields and provide access functions. In the interest of both readability and efficiency, we don't do that. In a functional language, they would both be functions anyway, not methods, and their implementation as fields would be hidden.

In Lisp, the operation that constructs a List object is called cons, and the resulting objects are called "cons cells". Out of respect for tradition, and because new List is terribly clumsy, we're going to define cons as follows:

    static List cons(T first, List rest) {
        return new List(first, rest);

And what about the empty list? Well, you only need one of them, because all empty lists are the same. There is no value associated with them, so they don't have any specific type. So take some arbitrary List instance, ignore the fact that it has a value field (because there's nothing in an empty list, and we're never going to look at it), and store it as the value of a well-known constant conventionally called either nil or (using Lisp's notation for lists) () -- which the compiler quietly converts to the appropriate object. In any case, we can add the following definition to our class:

    private static final List NIL = cons(null, null);

The way you test to see if a List-valued variable contains the empty list is to compare it to nil. You can use identity (the == operation), because there's only one empty list. That means that testing whether a list is empty is reduced from a method call to a single machine-language comparison instruction. So the isEmpty method just looks like

    boolean isEmpty() { return this == nil; }

And how does one add an element to a list? Strictly speaking, one doesn't. One simply constructs a new List with its rest field pointing to the list you're adding onto.

... and now, we really are done defining List. We don't need anything else. But the real fun has just begun.

More Joy

So let's look at some of the advantages of singly-linked lists:

First of all, we can see that adding an element to the front of a singly-linked list is marvelously efficient, because you don't have to change any links. But there's more: because you don't have to change any links, lists are immutable.. (I know, I already said that. I'll keep saying it until it sinks in.)

What that means is that the whole "copy vs. reference" problem goes away. You never have to copy a list -- you just copy the reference. That also means that many lists can share a common tail piece..

Because the rest field is, as the name suggests, a reference to the rest of the list, recursion becomes the obvious and natural way to operate on lists. If your compiler is smart enough to recognize tail recursion, most recursive operations on lists become as efficient as iteration.

Because lists are immutable, they are also thread-safe - if you have a variable that refers to a List object, nothing going on elsewhere in the program is going to change it. This is one reason why functional languages are great for high-throughput applications with a lot of concurrency.


I'm not going to say that there aren't a few disadvantages to singly-linked lists. You can't add onto the end, for example, or go backwards if you have a reference to the middle of some list. But that's not a fatal flaw, thanks to a clever trick called a "zipper". Here's how you reverse a list:

    List reverse(List list) {
	return reverse2(list, NIL);
    List reverse2(List list, List list2) {
	if (list == NIL) {
	    return list2;
	} else {
	    return reverse2(, cons(list.first,;

It's called a zipper because if you can use the same kind of forward-and-reverse pairing to go up and down the list, modifying or adding elements as you go.

Class Zipper {
    final List forward;
    final List reverse;
    Zipper insert(T v) {
         return new Zipper(cons(point, forward), reverse);
    Zipper previous() {
         return new Zipper(, cons(reverse.first, forwward));
    boolean atTop() {
         return reverse == NIL;
    List unzip() {
         return atTop()? forward : previous();

The atBottom, next, and zip operations are left as an exercise for the reader. You will also notice that Zipper is also immutable!

An equivalent structure, using an array of characters with a "gap" in it between the forward and reverse pieces, was used by Richard Stallman for Emacs[Stallman 1981].

Notes and References

[Stallman 1981]
Stallman, Richard, "EMACS: The Extensible, Customizable Display Editor", 1981.

Stephen R. Savitzky <steve @>