I would like to understand the implementation that allows MemberQ and FreeQ to be as fast as they are.

I noticed this thanks to this fine answer.

I start with a list of True|False values:

lst = Insert[Table[True, {500000}], False, 499000];

It is not packed:



I compare timings:

Scan[Identity, lst] ~Do~ {100} // Timing
MemberQ[lst, False] ~Do~ {100} // Timing
FreeQ[lst, False]   ~Do~ {100} // Timing

{4.93, Null}

{0.405, Null}

{0.25, Null}

What allows these functions to be more than an order of magnitude faster than simply Scanning the list?


1 Answer 1


What you observed seems to be an instance of the general behavior of the pattern-matcher when used with what I call "syntactic patterns" - patterns which only reflect the rigid structure of an expression, like e.g. _f. The speed-up with respect to the scanning is because the main evaluation loop is avoided - for FreeQ and MemberQ, the scannng is done all inside the pattern-matcher, which is lower-level compared to the main evaluator.

In this answer, and also here, there are some examples of this behavior, and further discussion. I think that a good rule of thumb is that you gain an order and a half of magnitude speed-up by clever use of syntactic patterns in place of top-level scanning code (pushing all work into the pattern-matcher), and you gain 2-3 orders of magnitude speed-up if you manage to recast the problem as a vectorized numerical problem on packed arrays.

  • $\begingroup$ Would you add some examples to this, please? $\endgroup$
    – Mr.Wizard
    Feb 6, 2012 at 22:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Spartacus I added links to two relevant questions / answers, containing some examples - will this satisfy you? I am afraid that otherwise right now I'd have to just copy those example and paste here, which doesn't make much sense IMO. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2012 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Spartacus Most functions that do their job "in one go" (Union, Split, etc.) seems to be fast too. $\endgroup$
    – Szabolcs
    Feb 6, 2012 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Szabolcs they are only fast with default comparison etc. functions, and that is also because they bypass the main evaluator with default functions (not to mention that Union switched to a pairwise comparisons for explicit comparison function, which leads to a quadratic-time algorithm, so Union, as well as DeleteDuplicates, are bad examples here. Sort and Split are good examples). This is probably what you meant by "in one go" - they don't have to oscillate between the kernel code and high-level evaluations. It is these oscillations that kill the performance. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2012 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Leonid, it is good. Szabolcs yes I suppose so. I guess I saw FreeQ / MemberQ (in the basic form) as more general than e.g. DeleteDuplicates (also in the basic form). Perhaps that was a mistake. I would not have posted this question except that it seemed like a slow day, but I did not honestly know the answer beforehand. $\endgroup$
    – Mr.Wizard
    Feb 6, 2012 at 22:26

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