Big O Notation


In computer science, Big O notation is a mathematical notation used to describe the limiting behavior of a function as its argument tends towards a particular value or infinity. It is primarily used to characterize the complexity of algorithms, specifically their runtime or space requirements (memory usage) in relation to the input size.

Formal Definition

Let \(f\) and \(g\) be two functions defined on the set of real numbers. We say that \(f(x) = O(g(x))\) (read as "f of x is big O of g of x") if there exist positive constants \(c\) and \(x_0\) such that:

\(|f(x)| \leq c * |g(x)| \quad \text{for all } x > x_0\)

This means that, for sufficiently large values of \(x\), the function \(f(x)\) will grow no faster than a constant multiple of \(g(x)\).

Common Big O Classes

Here are some of the most frequently encountered complexity classes in algorithm analysis, listed in order of increasing growth rate:

  • \(O(1)\): Constant time - the algorithm's runtime does not depend on the input size. (Example: Accessing an element in an array by its index)
  • \(O(\log n)\): Logarithmic time – the runtime grows proportionally to the logarithm of the input size. (Example: Binary search)
  • \(O(n)\): Linear time – the runtime grows proportionally to the input size. (Example: Traversing a linked list)
  • \(O(n \log n)\): Log-linear time – the runtime is a product of a linear and a logarithmic term. (Example: Efficient sorting algorithms like merge sort or heap sort)
  • \(O(n^2)\): Quadratic time – the runtime grows proportionally to the square of the input size. (Example: Naive nested loop algorithms)
  • \(O(n^c)\): Polynomial time (where c is a constant) – the runtime grows as a polynomial function of the input size.
  • \(O(2^n)\): Exponential time – the runtime grows exponentially with respect to the input size. (Example: Solving the traveling salesman problem by brute-force)

Importance in Algorithm Analysis

Big O notation provides a simplified and standardized way to talk about algorithm efficiency:

  • Predicting performance: It helps estimate how an algorithm's runtime or memory usage will scale with input size, allowing the comparison of different algorithms.
  • Focusing on worst-case scenarios: Big O notation usually represents the worst-case time complexity, giving an upper bound on the algorithm's resource consumption.
  • Abstraction: By focusing on the dominant growth rate, Big O notation simplifies analysis and helps identify the core factors influencing an algorithm's performance.


Consider a function that finds the maximum element in an array of size n. If the array is unsorted, we need to examine all elements. This algorithm has a runtime complexity of O(n), indicating that the runtime grows linearly with the input size.


Big O notation is considered an upper bound for the following reasons:

1. Worst-Case Focus:

  • Big O notation expresses the maximum potential growth rate of an algorithm's runtime or resource usage.
  • It inherently captures the worst-case scenario of an algorithm's behavior, meaning the scenario where the algorithm takes the longest to run or consumes the most resources for a given input size.

2. Asymptotic Behavior:

  • Asymptotic analysis, of which Big O is a central part, focuses on the behavior of algorithms as the input size (n) approaches infinity.
  • For large input sizes, dominant terms in the algorithm's complexity function begin to overshadow constant factors and lower-order terms. Big O expresses this dominant term, giving a sense of how inefficient the algorithm can get as inputs grow.

3. Mathematical Definition:

  • Formally, a function f(n) is said to be O(g(n)) if there exist constants c and n₀ such that: f(n) ≤ c * g(n) for all n ≥ n₀
  • This means that eventually (n ≥ n₀), the growth of f(n) is always less than or equal to a constant multiple of g(n). In other words, g(n) acts as a ceiling for f(n)'s growth.


Consider an algorithm with a runtime complexity of T(n) = 3n² + 5n + 8.

  • Big O Representation: This algorithm would be represented as O(n²). This is because the n² term dominates the growth of the function as n gets large.
  • Upper Bound Reasoning: For sufficiently large input values, the lower-order terms (5n + 8) and the constant factor (3) become less significant compared to n². Thus, the function's growth can be bounded by a constant multiple of n².

Why It Matters:

By understanding the upper bound, you can:

  • Predict scalability: Assess how an algorithm's performance will degrade with increasingly large input sizes.
  • Compare algorithms: Make informed choices between algorithms based on their worst-case complexity, especially when dealing with large datasets.

Important Note: Big O doesn't tell you the exact runtime of an algorithm. It provides a way to compare growth rates and reason about an algorithm's efficiency in the long run.