Stacks in Code

How do we implement stacks in code? One way would be to use something we already understand, an array. Remember that arrays allow us to store multiple items, where each entry in the array has a unique index number. This is a great way to implement stacks. We can store items directly in the array and use a special top variable to hold the index of the top of the stack.

The following figure shows how we might implement a stack with an array. First, we define our array myStack to be an array that can hold 10 numbers, with an index of 0 to 9. Then we create a top variable that keeps track of the index at the top of the array.

Empty Stack Empty Stack

Notice that since we have not put any items onto the stack, we initialize top to be -1. Although this is not a legal index into the array, we can use it to recognize when the stack is empty, and it makes manipulating items in the array much simpler. When we want to push an item onto the stack, we follow a simple procedure as shown below. Of course, since our array has a fixed size, we need to make sure that we don’t try to put an item in a full array. Thus, the precondition is that the array cannot be full. Enforcing this precondition is the function of the if statement at the beginning of the function. If the array is already full, then we’ll throw an exception and let the user handle the situation. Next, we increment the top variable to point to the next available location to store our data. Then it is just a matter of storing the item into the array at the index stored in top.

function PUSH(ITEM)
    if MYSTACK is full then
        throw exception
    end if
    TOP = TOP + 1
end function

If we call the function push(a) and follow the pseudocode above, we will get an array with a stored in myStack[0] and top will have the value 0 as shown below.

One Item One Item

As we push items onto the stack, we continue to increment top and store the items on the stack. The figure below shows how the stack would look if we performed the following push operations.


Partial Stack Partial Stack

Although we are implementing our stack with an array, we often show stacks vertically instead of horizontally as shown below. In this way the semantics of top makes more sense.

Vertical Stack Vertical Stack

Of course, the next question you might ask is “how do we get items off the stack?”. As discussed above, we have a special operation called pop to take care of that for us. The pseudocode for the pop operation is shown below and is similar in structure to the push operation.

function POP
    if TOP == -1 then
        throw exception
    end if
    TOP = TOP - 1
    return MYSTACK[TOP + 1]
end function

However, instead of checking to see if the stack is full, we need to check if the stack is empty. Thus, our precondition is that the stack is not empty, which we evaluate by checking if top is equal to -1. If it is, we simply throw an exception and let the user handle it. If myStack is not empty, then we can go ahead and perform the pop function. We simply decrement the value of top and return the value stored in myStack[top+1].

Now, if we perform three straight pop operations, we get the following stack.

Popped Stack Popped Stack