5 Best Ways to Find Minimum String Size Containing a Given Substring in Python

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πŸ’‘ Problem Formulation: The challenge is to devise methods in Python to find the smallest substring size that must include a specified sequence of characters. For instance, given the substring "abc", we seek the minimum size of a string from which this substring can be derived. If our string is "abcbcacabc", the minimum size containing "abc" would be 3 since the substring "abc" itself satisfies this criterion.

Method 1: Brute Force Search

This brute force method employs a simple strategy of testing every possible substring until the smallest containing the given substring is found. The function takes two arguments: the string to search within and the substring to find. It exhaustively checks every possible start and end point for the substring within the larger string.

Here’s an example:

def find_minimum_substring_brute_force(string, substring):
    min_size = len(string) + 1
    for start in range(len(string)):
        for end in range(start + len(substring), len(string) + 1):
            if substring in string[start:end]:
                min_size = min(min_size, end - start)
    return min_size if min_size <= len(string) else -1

# Example use case
result = find_minimum_substring_brute_force("abcbcacabc", "abc")



In this code snippet, we define a function find_minimum_substring_brute_force() which iterates over every possible starting index and for each, checks every possible ending index that could form a substring containing the search term. The smallest length found is returned. This method is straightforward but not efficient for large strings due to its O(n^2) complexity.

Method 2: Sliding Window Technique

The sliding window technique is more efficient for such problems. The basic idea is to expand the window until it includes the target substring, and then continually contract it from the left, keeping track of the minimum length found that still contains the substring.

Here’s an example:

def find_minimum_substring_sliding_window(string, substring):
    from collections import Counter
    count_sub = Counter(substring)
    count_s = Counter()
    min_size = len(string) + 1
    start = 0
    for end in range(len(string)):
        count_s[string[end]] += 1
        while all(count_s[char] >= count_sub[char] for char in count_sub):
            min_size = min(min_size, end - start + 1)
            count_s[string[start]] -= 1
            start += 1
    return min_size if min_size <= len(string) else -1

# Example use case
result = find_minimum_substring_sliding_window("abcbcacabc", "abc")



This example shows the sliding window technique in action. We use two counters: one for the substring and one for the current window in the string. We expand the window to the right and, when all required characters are inside, shrink it from the left. We keep updating the minimum size every time a valid window is contracted. This method is typically more efficient than brute force, especially on large strings, due to its O(n) complexity.

Method 3: Using Regular Expressions

An alternative way to tackle the problem is to utilize Python’s regular expressions to find substrings. Here, a loop isn’t required, but rather a clever regex pattern to capture the minimum string containing the desired substring.

Here’s an example:

import re

def find_minimum_substring_regex(string, substring):
    pattern = f"(?=(.*{substring}.*))"
    matches = re.finditer(pattern, string)
    lengths = [match.end() - match.start() for match in matches]
    return min(lengths) if lengths else -1

# Example use case
result = find_minimum_substring_regex("abcbcacabc", "abc")



The function find_minimum_substring_regex() constructs a regex pattern that uses a positive lookahead to find all overlapping instances of strings containing the substring. It then calculates the lengths of all matched instances and returns the minimum. While elegant, the use of regex can be less intuitive and often slower for very large strings compared to optimized algorithms like the sliding window.

Method 4: Dynamic Programming

Dynamic programming can be used to solve this problem by building up a solution from smaller sub-problems. This method creates a table of all possible substring lengths containing the search term and finds the minimum.

Here’s an example:

# This method is conceptual and more of a theoretical approach rather than a practical code snippet.

This section is left intentionally brief since dynamic programming solutions can be complex and specific to the nature of the substring and string. It’s not always the most practical approach due to the initialization and maintenance of a data structure to track the sub-problems, and thus is more of a theoretical approach.

Bonus One-Liner Method 5: Functional Approach

A more Pythonic one-liner using functional programming approaches like the min() function combined with a generator expression. This concise solution iterates over starting indices and directly computes the length of the minimum string containing the substring.

Here’s an example:

result = min((end - start for start in range(len(s)) for end in range(start + len(sub), len(s) + 1) if sub in s[start:end]), default=-1)

This one-liner is the condensed version of our brute force method, transforming it into a generator expression that computes the lengths on-the-fly and finds the minimum length eligible. It maintains the simplicity of the brute force approach but uses Python’s compact syntax to create a solution that’s both elegant and functional.


  • Method 1: Brute Force Search. Straightforward and easy to understand. Not efficient for large strings due to O(n^2) complexity.
  • Method 2: Sliding Window Technique. Efficient and commonly used in similar problems. Has linear time complexity O(n) and is more scalable.
  • Method 3: Using Regular Expressions. Elegant and concise. May not be as efficient or intuitive as a specific algorithm designed for this problem.
  • Method 4: Dynamic Programming. Theoretical approach, can be complex to implement and understand. Not commonly used for this particular problem.
  • One-Liner Method 5: Functional Approach. Pythonic and concise. Maintains brute force logic, but less readable and more suited to smaller codebases.