Note: parts of this page are taken (sometimes word for word) from Algorithms by Dasgupta, Papadimitriou, and Vazirani.


Formally, a graph is specified by a set of vertices (also called nodes) \(V\) and by edges \(E\) between select pairs of vertices. In the example below, \(V = \{1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6\}\) and \(E = \{\{1, 1\}, \{1, 2\}, \{1, 4\}, \{2, 4\}, \{2, 5\}, \{3, 5\}, \{4, 6\}\}\).


An edge means that "x is connected with y." This is a symmetric relation - it implies also that y is connected with x - and we denote it using set notation, \(e = \{x, y\}\). Such edges are undirected and are part of an undirected graph.

Sometimes graphs depict relations that do not have this reciprocity, in which case it is necessary to use edges with directions on them. There can be directed edges \(e\) from x to y (written \(e = (x, y)\)), or both. Directed graphs contain directed edges. Directed edges are drawn with arrows on them.


Adjacency Matrix

We can represent a graph by an adjacency matrix; if there are \(n = |V|\) vertices \(v_1,...,v_n\), this is an \(nxn\) array whose \((i, j)\) th entry is:

\begin{equation} a_{ij} = \begin{cases} \text{1} &\quad\text{if there is an edge from $v_i$ to $v_j$}\\ \text{0} &\quad\text{otherwise.} \ \end{cases} \end{equation}

For undirected graphs, the matrix is symmetric since an edge \(\{u, v\}\) can be taken in either direction.

Here's the adjacency matrix for the graph above:

1 1 0 1 0 0
1 0 0 1 1 0
0 0 0 0 1 0
1 1 0 0 0 1
0 1 1 0 0 0
0 0 0 1 0 0

The biggest convenience of this format is that the presence of a particular edge can be checked in constant time, with just one memory access. On the other hand the matrix takes up \(O(|V|^2)\) space, which is wasteful if the graph does not have very many edges.

Adjacency List

An alternative representation to the adjacency matrix, with size proportional to the number of edges, is the adjacency list. It consists of \(|V|\) linked lists, one per vertex. The linked list for vertex \(u\) holds the names of vertices to which \(u\) has an outgoing edge - that is, vertices \(v\) for which \((u, v) \in E\). Therefore, each edge appears in exactly one of the linked lists if the graph is directed or two of the lists if the graph is undirected. Either way, the total size of the data structure is \(O(|E|)\). Checking for a particular edge \((u, v)\) is no longer constant time, because it requires sifting through \(u\)'s adjacency list. But it is easy to iterate through all neighbors of a vertex (by running down the corresponding linked list), and, as we shall soon see, this turns out to be a very useful operation in graph algorithms. Again, for undirected graphs, this representation has a symmetry of sorts: \(v\) is in \(u\)'s adjacency list if and only if \(u\) is in \(v\)'s adjacency list.

Adjacency Matrix vs. Adjacency List

Which of the two representations is better? Well, it depends on the relationship between \(|V|\), the number of nodes in the graph, and \(|E|\), the number of edges. \(|E|\) can be as small as \(|V|\) (if it gets much smaller, then the graph degenerates - for example, has isolated vertices), or as large as \(|V|^2\) (when all possible edges are present). When \(|E|\) is close to the upper limit of this range, we call the graph dense. At the other extreme, if \(|E|\) is close to \(|V|\), the graph is sparse. Exactly where \(|E|\) lies in this range is usually a crucial factor in selecting the right graph algorithm.

[see World Wide Web example in the shaded box of page 82]


Depth-first search in undirected graphs

Depth-first search (DFS) addresses the question "what parts of the graph are reachable from a given vertex?" DFS works by exploring deep before going wide. In other words, the algorithm looks at the entirety of a child before moving to the next child. Since graphs can be cyclic, DFS must maintain a set of visited vertexes.

Sample Code

def depth_first_search(vertex, visited=None):
    if visited is None:
        visited = set()
    for neighbor in vertex.neighbors():
        if neighbor not in visited:
            depth_first_search(graph, neighbor, visited)
    return visited

Note that to search an entire graph one would need to apply this function to each vertex in the graph.

Breadth-first search in undirected graphs

Breadth-first search (BFS) is similar to DFS. Both algorithms give vertexes reachable from a given vertex. Unlike DFS though, BFS explores wide before going deep. In other words, the algorithm looks at each child before looking at any of the children's children. BFS (like DFS) maintains a set of visited vertexes.

DFS and BFS can both be modified to find paths between vertexes. An advantage of BFS over DFS is that BFS is guaranteed to return the shortest path first.

Sample Code

def breadth_first_search(vertex):
    queue = [vertex]
    visited = set()
    while queue:
        current = queue.pop(0)
        if current not in visited:
    return visited

Note that to search an entire graph one would need to apply this function to each vertex in the graph.

TODO Glossary of Terms

Taken from Algorithms by Sedgewick and Wayne. See

  • A self-loop is an adge that connects a vertex to itself.
  • When an edge connects two vertices, we say that the vertices are adjacent to one another and that the edge is incident on both vertices.
  • The degree of a vertex is the number of edges incident to it.
  • A path in a graph is a sequence of vertices connected by edges.
  • A cycle is a path (with at least one edge) whose first and last vertices are the same.
  • We say that one vertex is connected to another if there exists a path that contains both of them.
  • A graph is connected if there is a path from every vertex to every other vertex.
  • An acyclic graph is a graph with no cycles.
  • A tree is a acyclic connected graph.
  • A forest is a disjoint set of trees.