Interview Questions: Loops in Linked Lists

by Jesse Farmer on Wednesday, May 14, 2008

This is part of my series on interview questions, so welcome aboard!

This installment deals with a common question about linked lists — how do we detect when one has a loop?

Linked Lists

Linked lists are one of the most simple data structures and most aspiring programmers learn them early on. But for completeness' sake let's cover that ground.

A linked list is a sequence of nodes. Each node contains a piece of data and a reference to the next node in the list. Graphically it looks like this

Loopy Linked Lists

It's possible, though, that a node in a linked list might point to a previous element in the list. This is bad for many reasons, not the least of which is that any loop which iterates over all the nodes in the list by accessing the next node will never terminate.

So, it becomes important to detect when linked lists have loops. Here's what one such errant linked list looks like.

The Easy Solution

The easy solution is to keep track of every node seen so far and check if the current node is in that list. Here's a very simple linked list implementation in Ruby.

class Node
  attr_accessor :data, :next
  def initialize(data = nil)
    @data = data
    @next = nil

Here is the simple solution for detecting loops using the above implementation

def has_loop?(node)
  seen = []
  until do
    return true if seen.include? node
    seen << node
    node =

This solution is workable but sub-optimal (surprise!). This has O(n2) complexity in CPU and O(n) complexity in memory, but a solution with O(n) complexity in CPU and O(1) complexity in memory is possible. In fact, this question is usually posed to preclude the above solution.

The Tortoise and the Hare

The better solution involves a bit of mathematical thinking. If there is a loop then that means any iterator, no matter how many steps it takes per iteration, must hit the offending node.

So, if we have two iterators, one of which has a length that is a multiple of the other, they'll eventually land on the same node. The usual solution is to have one iterator advance one at a time ("the tortoise") and a second iterator advance two at a time ("the hare").

That algorithm looks like this

def has_loop?(node)
  slow = node
  fast = node
  until or do
    slow =
    fast =
    return true if (slow == fast)

More Questions

Assuming you answer the above correctly and quickly the interviewer will probably follow up with some related questions. How do you fix the linked list when you detect a loop? What is the linked list has multiple loops? How do you determine the size of the loop?

I'll leave you to ponder these questions. Cheers!