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Prefix sum

Algorithms2 min read


Very useful for calculating sum ranges in an array. We can access the sum up to K elements by looking up the prefix sum of the Kth number.

For example, suppose this int array: nums = [1,2,3,4,5]

Prefix sum allows us to calculate the sum up to the last element by calling prefix_sum[5] = 15.

The prefix sum of the example int array would look like this: p_sum = [0,1,3,6,10,15].

Note: We use 1-indexed version of the prefix sum array, therefore it stores n+1 elements where n is the size of the initial array - [1,2,3,4,5] is our case.

Useful formulas

Since we use 1-indexed version of the prefix sum, we need to calculate with some index offset.

Build a 1-indexed prefix sum

To build the prefix sum array, we would then use this formula on each iteration of i:

nums = [1,2,3,4,5]
n = len(nums)
prefix_sum = [0] * (n+1)
for i in range(1, n+1):
prefix_sum[i] = nums[i-1] + prefix_sum[i-1]

Note: Iteration starts at index 1, so we are within the bounds and goes all the way to the n+1 since we are in the 1-indexed array. This takes O(n) time to build.

Sum queries

Probably the most common usage of the prefix sum is for answering sum queries on a given range. Suppose again we have an int array nums = [1,2,3,4,5] (0 indexed) and we want to calculate the sum of numbers at indexes 2-4 - let's call them R and L pointers, where R = 2 and L = 4.

We can just simply build the prefix sum using the previous formula and then subtract R+1 from the L pointer values. We use R+1 because remember, we use 1-indexed prefix sum, therefore, the offset is necessary.

Therefore, the formula for answering the queries on a given range is this:

range_sum = prefix_sum[R+1] - prefix_sum[L]

Note: You can certainly use 0-indexed prefix sum, however, you need to be careful with the indexes. I find using the 1-indexed prefix sum a bit more intuitive though as we can just say to get the prefix sum of first K elements.

Don't forget sums are not the only use case - products, frequency counts can also be solved by using the prefix sum.