All partitions of a set into same-sized subsets


Finding all distinct partitions of a set into same-sized subsets. Almost there!

As we observed in previous post All partitions of a set - preliminary considerations, partitioning a set into same-sized subsets is a bit more challenging because we must avoid repeating creating the same configurations over and over.

There are two ways to accomplish this:

  • rejection method: go through all possible arrangements, keep track of the new ones and reject the duplicates as the appear;
  • minimal generation: find a way to only generate unique items in the first place.

Previous posts about finding all the ways to partition an integer and gruoping them should give an hint that… we’re going the second route 😄

In this post, we will concentrate on what happens when we want to partition a set into same-sized subsets. As an example, let’s consider a starting set of $4$ items, partitioned into $2$-items subsets:

\[\{\{a, b\}, \{c, d\}\} \\ \{\{a, c\}, \{b, d\}\} \\ \{\{a, d\}, \{b, c\}\} \\\]

It’s clear that we have to stop here: any other possible layout will just be a variation upon one of the arrangements above, e.g.:

\[\{\{b, a\}, \{c, d\}\} \iff \{\{a, b\}, \{c, d\}\} \iff \{\{c, d\}, \{a, b\}\}\]

because in each subset (or set of subsets) we only care about the items that are inside, not how they are ordered when we write them down.

How should we move on? A key insight in this case comes from trying to actually impose an ordering, making sure that we only take the “lowest” representative in all equivalent representations. This is easily done in the code, because we will pass the sets around represented as lists, which naturally carry an ordering of the items in the sets (i.e. their position in the list).

So, for example, in whatever partition of an $n \cdot k$ items set into $n$ subsets of size $k$, it makes sense to only consider the partitions where the very first item in the big set appears as the first item of the first subset:

\[\{a, b, c, ...\} \to \{\{a, ...\}, ...\} \\\]

After fixing this item, we then draw all possible distinct $k-1$ subsets from the remaining $n \cdot k - 1$ items in the starting set, to fill in the rest of the first subset:

\[\{a, b, c, ...\} \to \{\{a, X_2, X_3, ..., X_k\}, ...\} \\\]

At each step, this leaves us with a set of $(n - 1) \cdot k$ items, that we can partition using the same approach recursively, landing on a $(n - 2) \cdot k$ set of remaining items, and so on until we use all items in the original set.

Lost? Let’s take a look at the code:

sub equalsets_partition_iterator ($k, @items) {
   if ($k == 1) { # there's only one way to do this... let's do it!
      my @retval = map { [$_] } @items;
      return sub {
         (my @rv, @retval) = @retval;
         return @rv;
   if ($k == @items) {
      my @retvals = ([@items]);
      return sub { @retvals ? shift @retvals : () };
   my @leader = shift @items;
   my $cit = combinations_iterator($k - 1, @items);
   my $rit;
   return sub {
      return unless $cit;
      while ('necessary') {
         $rit //= do {
            my ($lref, $rref) = $cit->() or do {
               $cit = undef;
            splice @leader, 1; # keep first item (only)
            push @leader, $lref->@*;
            equalsets_partition_iterator($k, $rref->@*);
         my @sequence = $rit->() or do {
            $rit = undef;
         return ([@leader], @sequence);

Our inputs are:

  • the size of the subsets $k$, as variable $k;
  • the list of @items representing the set we want to partition. Its size represents $n \cdot $k$.

The initial two if checks take care of the two corner cases which provide a trivial solution:

  • if $k$ is one, there is only one single partition (i.e. the one composed of all singletons);
  • if $k$ is equal to the number of items, there is only one single partition (i.e. the set of all items).

Admittedly, we should also check for wrong inputs, like the number of items not being a multiple of $k$, or being $0$. It’s an easy exercise for the reader 🙄

If there are more items than $k$, it’s time to apply our algorithm above. Our variable @leader will hold our “first” subset; we pre-load it with the very first item in @items, as explained. During the rest of the execution in this iterator, we will always preserve this item, and fill the rest with a suitable combination from the remaining @items (note that we do a shift to remove this initial item from the extraction of combinations).

The iterator follows a typical pattern: an indefinite loop that will either emit a new partitioning, or the empty list.

There are two iterators of interest here:

  • $cit iterates through the combinations of $k - 1$ items over the @items that remain after removing the very first one. It is initialized just after @leader;
  • $rit is the recursion iterator that takes care to iterate through all the partitions of $(n - 1) \cdot k$ items; it is initialized every time we take out a new combination, using the items from @items that were not chosen for the combination to fill in the @leader (this thanks to the interface provided by combinations_iterator).

Funny, uh?

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