When you attempt to define a SparseArray with elements that have the head List it complains:

SparseArray[{1 -> {1, 2, 3}, 2 -> {"a", "b"}}]

SparseArray::valnl: The value specified by the rule 1->{1,2,3} should not be a List. >>

SparseArray[{1 -> {1, 2, 3}, 2 -> {"a", "b"}}]

Nevertheless (other) arbitrary expressions are accepted:

SparseArray[{1 -> foo[1, 2, 3], 2 -> bar["a", "b"]}]

enter image description here

There does not appear to be any actual limitation of SparseArray that prevents it from storing List elements.

In fact with a bit of fiddling we can get SparseArray to hold List elements! First wrap the Lists an additional head so that SparseArray accepts them, then use Part to extract the first part of every element, essentially stripping the arbitrary extra heads (foo):

sa1 = SparseArray[{1 -> foo@{1, 2, 3}, 2 -> foo@{"a", "b"}}];

sa2 = sa1[[All, 1]];

We now have a SparseArray with List elements:

sa2 // Head
sa2[[1]] // Head
Head /@ Normal[sa2]


{List, List}

{{1, 2, 3}, {"a", "b"}}

However if we try to use the InputForm of the expression (as input) it does not work:

ToString[sa2, InputForm] // ToExpression
SparseArray[Automatic, {2}, 0, {1, {{0, 2}, {{1}, {2}}}, {{1, 2, 3}, {"a", "b"}}}]

Sadly this false equivalence breaks the use of Save and pattern-based manipulation of the object.

Why would SparseArray be blocking the use of List when apparently any other head is accepted, and when there is internal support for List itself?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Inserting @Rojo into a SparseArray[] seems utterly cruel $\endgroup$ Sep 5, 2014 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Bill The strange thing is that as I show they can be lists if you work around what appears to be an intentional block. I can't yet figure out why such functionality would/should be disabled however. $\endgroup$
    – Mr.Wizard
    Sep 5, 2014 at 23:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @belisarius they just cloned me and put me in there without attribution $\endgroup$
    – Rojo
    Sep 24, 2014 at 21:46

1 Answer 1


The basic reason is that once you convert a tensor expression into a SparseArray, you've "given control" of all levels of that expression to SparseArray to manage on your behalf in an efficient way (the number of levels is the rank of the tensor, to mix jargon).

SparseArray will then try to maintain the illusion that those levels are still really there. But that illusion will fall apart if you're allowed to mess around with the rank of the SparseArray after it has been constructed. Putting lists inside an existing SparseArray is really telling you that you got the dimension of the SparseArray wrong (too small) to begin with.

So it's not a technical limitation, it's a conceptual one. If you start messing with the rank of the SparseArray, you're going to run into trouble at some point, e.g. Dimensions will give the wrong answer. So we do the best we can to enforce the rank stays the same by insisting you don't store lists (e.g., you're only storing 'scalars').

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Thank you as always for your attention. I am having trouble understanding this explanation however. Certainly I could see value in a warning message indicating possible misuse, but if you otherwise allow arbitrary expressions to be SparseArray elements I don't see why Lists are any "worse" a compromise of the intended function. You wrote: "Putting lists inside an existing SparseArray is really telling you that you got the dimension of the SparseArray wrong (too small) to begin with." I think this view limits the application of SparseArray and I am not yet convinced beneficially so. $\endgroup$
    – Mr.Wizard
    Sep 6, 2014 at 7:05
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Quite often I find it useful to store arbitrary elements in a SparseArray, and it is inconvenient not to be able to store List objects without a container. The existence of List elements need not imply a two dimensional array; rather a sparse vector with elements, some of which are lists if varying length. I am trying to see why it is necessary to block that flexibility rather than merely cautioning against its misapplication. $\endgroup$
    – Mr.Wizard
    Sep 6, 2014 at 7:09
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Mr.Wizard yes, I happen to agree with you, and some other people in the company see it as a mistake, too. But I presented the argument for the current behavior. I'll see if we can revisit that decision. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2014 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ Any chance this could be made a System Option? $\endgroup$
    – Mr.Wizard
    May 1, 2015 at 20:49

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