5 Best Ways to Program to Find Minimum Number of Operations Required to Make One String Substring of Another in Python

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πŸ’‘ Problem Formulation: How can we efficiently determine the minimum number of operations required to transform one string such that it becomes a substring of another? This algorithmic challenge involves string manipulation where insertions, deletions, or replacements may be necessary. For example, with the input strings “abc” and “yabcd”, the desired output is 2, indicating two insertions at the beginning.

Method 1: Dynamic Programming Approach

This method employs a dynamic programming approach, utilizing a table to record the minimum number of operations at each step when comparing substrings of varying lengths. It systematically reduces a complex problem into simple, solvable subproblems.

Here’s an example:

def min_operations(sub, main):
    len_sub = len(sub) + 1
    len_main = len(main) + 1
    dp = [[0] * len_main for _ in range(len_sub)]

    for i in range(1, len_sub):
        for j in range(1, len_main):
            if sub[i-1] == main[j-1]:
                dp[i][j] = dp[i-1][j-1]
                dp[i][j] = 1 + min(dp[i-1][j], dp[i][j-1])

    return dp[-1][-1]

print(min_operations("abc", "yabcd"))

The output of this code snippet is:


This algorithm constructs a 2D array that stores the minimum operations required to match each prefix of the ‘sub’ string with every prefix of the ‘main’ string. The final cell, which represents the full ‘sub’ string within the full ‘main’ string, contains the minimum number of operations required.

Method 2: Greedy Approach with Two Pointers

When the main string already contains the substring, a greedy approach with two pointers can efficiently find the minimal number of operations by skipping matching characters and counting mismatches.

Here’s an example:

def min_operations_greedy(sub, main):
    count, i, j = 0, 0, 0
    while i < len(sub) and j < len(main):
        if sub[i] == main[j]:
            i += 1
            count += 1
        j += 1
    return count + len(sub) - i

print(min_operations_greedy("abc", "yabcd"))

The output of this code snippet is:


This code snippet uses two pointers to traverse both ‘sub’ and ‘main’ strings. Every time a mismatch is found, the count is incremented. The pointer is only moved in ‘sub’ when a match occurs, ensuring that subsequences are accounted for greedily.

Method 3: Recursive Solution

This solution uses a recursive function that compares characters and decides whether to insert, delete, or replace based on whether characters match or not, thus exploring all possible combinations to find the minimum.

Here’s an example:

def min_operations_recursive(sub, main, len_sub, len_main):
    if len_sub == 0:
        return len_main
    if len_main == 0:
        return len_sub

    if sub[len_sub-1] == main[len_main-1]:
        return min_operations_recursive(sub, main, len_sub-1, len_main-1)

    return 1 + min(
        min_operations_recursive(sub, main, len_sub, len_main-1),  # Insert
        min_operations_recursive(sub, main, len_sub-1, len_main),  # Delete

print(min_operations_recursive("abc", "yabcd", len("abc"), len("yabcd")))

The output of this code snippet is:


The recursive code checks the last characters of each string and counts operations only when these characters don’t match, reducing the problem size in each recursive call by either reducing the ‘sub’ or the ‘main’ string.

Method 4: Using Python’s difflib Module

Python’s standard library includes the difflib module which can be used to compute differences and is handy for getting the number of operations needed by analyzing its difference sequence output.

Here’s an example:

import difflib

def min_operations_difflib(sub, main):
    sm = difflib.SequenceMatcher(None, sub, main)
    operations = sum(1 for opcode in sm.get_opcodes() if opcode[0] != 'equal')
    return operations

print(min_operations_difflib("abc", "yabcd"))

The output of this code snippet is:


The difflib.SequenceMatcher() function finds the longest contiguous matching subsequence between ‘sub’ and ‘main’, and the operation count excludes ‘equal’ match blocks, thus giving the number of non-matching operations required.

Bonus One-Liner Method 5: Leveraging List Comprehensions and zip

This approach uses a list comprehension and zip function to compare both strings side-by-side. It’s a compact and Pythonic way to identify positions with non-matching characters that need operations.

Here’s an example:

def min_operations_oneliner(sub, main):
    return len(sub) - sum(1 for x, y in zip(sub, main) if x == y)

print(min_operations_oneliner("abc", "yabcd"))

The output of this code snippet is:


This one-liner succinctly captures the logic by directly comparing characters via zip, summing matches, and subtracting from the length of ‘sub’ to find the number of operations required.


  • Method 1: Dynamic Programming Approach. Robust and handles complex cases with a clear optimality guarantee. It may be overkill for simpler cases and can be memory-intensive for large strings.
  • Method 2: Greedy Approach with Two Pointers. Efficient for situations where the substring exists within the string. It’s not a general solution for all cases.
  • Method 3: Recursive Solution. Conceptually simple but computationally expensive due to its exponential time complexity; Not practical for long strings without optimizations like memoization.
  • Method 4: Using Python’s difflib Module. Utilizes built-in functions, which simplifies the implementation. It’s not the most efficient as it’s not designed for this specific task.
  • Bonus Method 5: One-Liner with List Comprehension and zip. Elegant and concise, but its applicability is limited to cases where the substring is entirely within the main string from the beginning.