5 Best Ways to Find the kth Smallest n-Length Lexicographically Smallest String in Python

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πŸ’‘ Problem Formulation: The challenge involves writing a program in Python to determine the kth smallest string of length n, ordering strings in lexicographical order (i.e., dictionary order). For example, if n is 3 and k is 5, the desired output is ‘aae’ since this is the 5th string in lexicographical order with length 3 starting at ‘aaa’.

Method 1: Brute Force Generation

This method entails generating all possible strings of length n using a recursive approach, storing them in a list, and sorting the list lexicographically. Then, simply return the kth element. It’s straightforward but not memory efficient for large n or k.

Here’s an example:

def generate_strings(chars, current, n, result):
    if n == 0:
    for char in chars:
        generate_strings(chars, current + char, n - 1, result)

def kth_smallest_string(n, k):
    result = []
    generate_strings('abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz', '', n, result)
    return result[k-1]

print(kth_smallest_string(3, 5))

Output: ‘aae’

This code snippet utilizes recursion to build strings character by character until they reach the desired length. The base case appends the completed string to the result list. After generating all strings, it sorts the list and retrieves the kth element.

Method 2: Iterative Combinations

Method 2 uses itertools.product to iteratively generate combinations of characters up to length n and stops at the kth combination. It’s more efficient than brute force as it doesn’t require storing all combinations in memory.

Here’s an example:

import itertools

def kth_smallest_string_iter(n, k):
    for i, combination in enumerate(itertools.product('abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz', repeat=n)):
        if i == k-1:
            return ''.join(combination)
    return None

print(kth_smallest_string_iter(3, 5))

Output: ‘aae’

The code makes use of itertools.product to generate the required combinations on-the-fly, thereby saving memory. The combinations are not stored; the kth iteration is found and returned immediately, making this approach memory efficient.

Method 3: Mathematical Positioning

Method 3 involves calculating the position of each character mathematically, given n and k, assuming a 26-character alphabet. It significantly improves efficiency by avoiding needless iteration or storage.

Here’s an example:

def kth_smallest_string_math(n, k):
    result = ''
    k -= 1  # adjust for zero indexing
    while n > 0:
        n -= 1
        result += chr(97 + k // (26**n))
        k %= (26**n)
    return result

print(kth_smallest_string_math(3, 5))

Output: ‘aae’

The code snippet computes each character’s position by using mathematical division and modulo operations, iterating through this process for the string’s length. It avoids generative or search algorithms, making it computationally efficient particularly for large strings.

Method 4: Lexicographic Indexing

Method 4 creates a function to directly compute the kth lexicographic permutation without generating all permutations. It relies on knowledge of how permutations are structured lexicographically.

Here’s an example:

def kth_permutation(sequence, k):
    sequence = sorted(sequence)
    permutation = []
    while sequence:
        n = len(sequence)
        facto = math.factorial(n - 1)
        i, k = divmod(k, facto)
        if k == 0:
    return ''.join(permutation)

print(kth_permutation('abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz', 5))

Output: ‘a… (depends on the permutation size and k value)’

By using an arithmetic approach to figure out the index of each character in the permutation, this method circumvents the need to generate all permutations ahead of time. It’s more efficient than methods relying on sorting or iterating through permutations.

Bonus One-Liner Method 5: Using Next and Islice

This one-liner uses an itertools generator with islice for laziness and next to extract the exact needed permutation. It’s Pythonic and efficient for memory usage but not the most readable.

Here’s an example:

from itertools import islice, product

def kth_smallest_string_oneliner(n, k):
    return ''.join(next(islice(product('abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz', repeat=n), k-1, None)))

print(kth_smallest_string_oneliner(3, 5))

Output: ‘aae’

Using itertools to create a product generator and islice to skip to the kth element, this code snippet grabs the desired string without evaluating the entire search space. However, its conciseness can make it harder to understand at first glance.


  • Method 1: Brute Force Generation. Simplicity is its strength; it’s straightforward but can be very slow and memory-intensive for large n or k.
  • Method 2: Iterative Combinations. Memory-efficient, avoids storing unnecessary data but can become slow as k increases.
  • Method 3: Mathematical Positioning. Fast and memory efficient; the best method for very large n and k but requires understanding of mathematical reasoning.
  • Method 4: Lexicographic Indexing. Efficient for finding permutations without generating all possibilities, it can be complex to understand and implement.
  • Method 5: Using Next and Islice. Extremely concise and efficient for large datasets, the syntax may be complex for beginners or those new to itertools.