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What Is Pseudocode?

An algorithm is a sequence of instructions to solve a well-formulated computational

problem specified in terms of its input and output. An algorithm uses the input to
generate the output. For example, the algorithm PatternCount uses strings Text and
Pattern as input to generate the number Count(Text, Pattern) as its output.

In order to solve a computational problem, you need to carry out the instructions
specified by the algorithm. For example, if we want you to count how many times
Pattern appears in Text, we could tell you to do the following:

Counting a pattern in a text:
1. Start from the first position of Text and check whether Pattern appears in Text
starting at its first position.
2. If yes, draw a dot on a piece of paper.
3. Move to the second position of Text and check whether Pattern appears in Text
starting at its second position.
4. If yes, draw another dot on the same piece of paper.
5. Continue until you reach the end of Text.
6. Count the number of dots on the piece of paper.

Since humans are slow, make mistakes, and hate repetitive work, they invented
computers that are fast, do not mind repetitive work, and hardly ever make mistakes.
However, while you may find our instructions for counting a pattern in a text clear, no
computer in the world would be able to execute them. These instructions are imprecise,
and the only reason you can understand them is because you have been trained for
many years to understand human language. For example, we havent specified that you
should start from a blank piece of a paper (without any dots), but you have assumed it.
We havent specified what it means to reach the end of Text, i.e., at what position of
Text should we stop?

Because computers do not understand human language, algorithms must be rephrased
in a programming language (such as Python, Java, C++, Perl, Ruby, Go, or dozens of
others) in order to give specific instructions to the computer. However, we dont want
to describe algorithms in a specific language like Python because your favorite language
may be Java. Even more importantly, our focus is on algorithmic ideas rather than on
implementation details, which is why we want to meet you halfway between human
language and a programming language.

Pseudocode is a way to describe algorithms that emphasizes ideas rather than
implementation details and is neither too vague (like human languages) nor too formal
(like programming languages). Pseudocode ignores many of the details that are required

in a programming language, but it is more precise and less ambiguous than, say, a
cookbook recipe like the one below:

Pumpkin Pie Recipe:
1. Combine pumpkin (2 cups), sugar (1 teaspoon), salt (1 teaspoon), ginger (1
teaspoon), cinnamon (2 teaspoons), molasses (2 tablespoons), eggs (3) and milk
(12 ounces).
2. Mix thoroughly.
3. Pour into pie crust (1) and bake in oven (425 degrees Fahrenheit) until knife
inserted comes out clean.

A computer would be lost seeing a recipe like this: it does not even specify that you need
a bowl to mix the ingredients! How a computer would know this?

To illustrate the difference between pseudocode and human language, below is our
attempt at pseudocode for baking a pumpkin pie.

PumpkinPie(pumpkin, sugar, salt, spices, eggs, milk, crust, bowl)
Add(pumpkin, bowl)
Add(sugar, bowl)
Add(salt, bowl)
Add(spices, bowl)
Add(eggs, bowl)
Add(milk, bowl)
filling contents of bowl
pie Pour(crust, filling)
while knife inserted does not come out clean
output Pumpkin pie is ready!
return pie

STOP and Think: Why would PumpkinPie lead to a disaster in the kitchen?

Since computer scientists like brevity, most pseudocode in this book (even pseudocode
that describes a complex algorithm!) will be shorter than this pseudocode.

Programmers also break their programs into short bite-sized pieces called subroutines.
for example, the pseudocode above can be modularized by writing a subroutine
MixFilling to parse out the blue lines above into its own program.

PumpkinPie(pumpkin, sugar, salt, spices, eggs, milk, crust, bowl)
filling MixFilling(pumpkin, sugar, salt, spices, eggs, milk, bowl)

pie Pour(crust, filling)

while knife inserted does not come out clean
output Pumpkin pie is ready!
return pie
MixFilling(pumpkin, sugar, salt, spices, eggs, milk, bowl)
Put(pumpkin, bowl)
Put(sugar, bowl)
Put(salt, bowl)
Put(spaces, bowl)
Put(eggs, bowl)
Put(milk, bowl)
filling contents of bowl
return filling

After the subroutine MixFilling has been written, the main program PumpkinPie (the
chef in the kitchen) simply calls this subroutine (a sous-chef) to mix the ingredients. It
may appear that we have not reduced the number of lines of the codes by breaking one
program into two, but you will soon see that breaking a program into subroutines
greatly helps in revealing the logic of an algorithm and finding mistakes in your code.

Here is a simple program Distance, whose input is four numbers and whose output is
one number. Can you guess what it does?

Distance(x1, y1, x2, y2)
d (x2 x1)2 + (y2 y1)2
d d
return d

Distance(x1, y1, x2, y2) computes the Euclidean distance between points on the plane
with coordinates (x1, y1) and (x2, y2). For example, Distance(0, 0, 3, 4) returns

(3 0)2 + (4 0)2 = 5

as its output.

An algorithm in pseudocode is denoted by a name (Distance), followed by the list of
arguments that it requires (x1, y1, x2, y2); this is followed by the statements that describe
the algorithms actions. One can invoke an algorithm by passing it the appropriate
values for its arguments. For example, Distance(1, 3, 7, 5) would return the distance
between points (1, 7) and (3, 5) in two-dimensional space. The operation return reports
the result of the algorithm.

The pseudocode Distance uses the concept of a variable, written as x1, or d, or whatever

name you want to choose, to denote this variable. For example, the pseudocode below
works exactly like the pseudocode above:

Distance(x, y, z, t)
abracadabra (z x)2 + (t y)2
abracadabra abracadabra
return abracadabra

A variable contains some value and can be assigned a new value at different points
throughout the course of an algorithm. To assign a new value to a variable we use the

a b

that sets the variable a equal to the value b. For example, in the pseudocode above, if you
compute Distance(0, 0, 3, 4), then abracadabra is first assigned the value (3 0)2 + (4 0)2 =
25 and then is assigned the value 25 = 5.

Whereas computer scientists are accustomed to pseudocode, we fear that some
biologists reading it might decide that pseudocode is too cryptic and therefore useless.
Although modern biologists deal with algorithms on a daily basis, the language they use
to describe an algorithm might be closer to the language used in a cookbook.

Accordingly, some bioinformatics books are written in cookbook lingo as an effort to
make biologists feel at home with different bioinformatics concepts. Unfortunately, this
language is insufficient to describe the more complex algorithmic ideas behind various
bioinformatics tools.

We have thus far described pseudocode only generally. In the next section, we will delve
into the nuts and bolts that you can use to write your own pseudocode and that we use
throughout our text.

Nuts and Bolts of Pseudocode

This section will describe some but not all details of pseudocode; we will often avoid
tedious details in the specification of an algorithm by specifying parts of it in English,
using operations that are not listed among the nuts and bolts of the pseudocode, or by
omitting certain details. We assume that, in the case of confusion, you will fill in the
details using pseudocode operations in a sensible way.

If Statements

Exercise Break: The algorithm Minimum(a, b) shown below has two integers (a and b) as

its input and a single integer as its output. Can you guess what it does?

Minimum(a, b)
if a > b
return b
return a

This algorithm, which computes the minimum of a and b, uses the following

if statement X is true
execute instructions Y
execute instructions Z

If statement X is true, it executes instructions Y; otherwise, it executes instructions Z. For
example, Minimum(1, 9) returns 1 because the condition 1 > 9 is false. Sometimes we
will omit else C, in which case the pseudocode will either execute B or not, depending
on whether A is true.

The pseudocode below computes the minimum of three numbers:

Minimum3(a, b, c)
if a > b
if b > c
return c
return b
if a > c
return c
return a

Minimum3 is correct, but below is a more compact version that uses the Minimum
function we already wrote as a subroutine.

Minimum3(a, b, c)
if a > b
Minimum(b, c)
Minimum(a, c)

Exercise Break: Write pseudocode for an algorithm Minimum4(a, b, c, d) that computes
the minimum of four numbers.

For loops

Exercise Break: The algorithm Gauss(n), shown below, has one integer (n) as its input
and one integer as its output. Can you guess what it does?

sum 0
for i 1 to n
sum sum + i
return sum

This pseudocode computes the sum of the first n integers (e.g., Gauss(5) = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
5 = 15) and uses a for loop that has the following format:

for i a to b
execute X

The for loop first sets i to a and executes instructions X. Afterwards, it increases i by 1
and executes instructions X again. It further repeats this process by increasing i by 1
until it becomes equal to b, i.e., i varies through values a, a + 1, a + 2, a + 3, . . ., b 1, b
during execution of the for loop.

In other words, a function computing Gauss(5) could be alternatively written as shown
below, but we do not endorse this programming style!

sum 0
i 1
sum sum
i i+1
sum sum
i i+1
sum sum
i i+1
sum sum
i i+1
sum sum
return sum

+ i
+ i
+ i
+ i
+ i

Exercise Break: Can you write pseudocode for Gauss(n) that uses only a single line?

In 1785, a primary school teacher asked his class to add together all the numbers
from 1 to 100, assuming that this task would occupy them for the whole day. He was
shocked when an 8 year-old boy thought for a few seconds and wrote down the
answer 5,050. This boy was Karl Gauss, and he would go on to become one of the

greatest mathematicians of all time.

The following one-line algorithm implements Gauss idea for computing the sum of the
first n integers (why does it work?):

return (n+1)*n/2

Below is yet another algorithm computing the sum of the first n integers:

if n > 0
sum RecursiveGauss(n-1) + n
sum 0
return sum

Note that RecursiveGauss(n) asks RecursiveGauss(n-1) for help! Imagine that you
need to compute the sum of the first five integers, but you are lazy and ask your friend
to compute the sum of the first four integers for you. As soon as your friend has
computed it, you add 5 to the result, and you are done! Little do you know that your
friend is also lazy, and instead of computing the sum of the first four integers, she asks
her friend to compute the sum of the first three numbers, then she adds 4 to the result
and passes it to you. The story continues, and although everybody in this chain of
friends is lazy, they are able to compute the sum of the first five integers. In this book,
you will encounter recursive algorithms that, similarly to RecursiveGauss, subcontract
a job by calling themselves (on a smaller input).

Exercise Break: Do you see the pattern in the sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, )?
Write pseudocode for an algorithm that, given an integer n, computes the n-th number
in this sequence.

Exercise Break: Analyze the pseudocode Rabbits below. What does Rabbits(10) return?

a 1
b 1
for i 3 to n
new a+b
a b
b new
return b

Rabbits(n) computes the Fibonacci numbers 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, (Why do
you think we call this function Rabbits?)

While loops

Exercise Break: The pseudocode AnotherGauss below has one integer (n) as its input
and one integer as its output. Can you guess what it does?

sum 0
i 1
while i n
sum sum + i
i i+1
return sum

AnotherGauss solves exactly the same problem as Gauss by using a different type of a
loop, a while loop that has the following format:

while statement X is true
execute Y

The while loop checks condition X; if X is true, then it executes instructions Y. It then
checks X again; if X is true, it executes Y again. This process is repeated until X is false.
(If X winds up always being true, then the while loop enters an infinite loop, which you
should avoid at all costs, because your algorithm will never end.)


When we write pseudocode, in addition to the concept of a variable, we also use arrays.
An array of n elements is an ordered sequence of n variables a1, a2, . . . , an. We often use a
single letter to denote an array, e.g., a = (a1, a2, . . . , an).

Exercise Break: Why did we call the following algorithm Fibonacci? And what does
Fibonacci(10) return?

a1 1
a2 1
for i 3 to n
ai ai1 + ai2
return an