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Comparator example: sorting Strings by length

We introduced the notion of a Comparator in Java, which is used to specify the sort order of a particular class. Let's start with an example to sort Strings by their length. We thus want to write a Comparator that compares Strings. So the general format of our Comparator will be as follows:

public class StringLengthComparator implements Comparator<String> {
  public int compare(String o1, String o2) {
    return ...

Now, we just need to make the compare() return method return an appropriate value to indicate the ordering. Effectively, the logic of this method should be o1.compareTo(o2). That is– as discussed when we reviewed sorting_comparable_compareto.shtml the compareTo() method– it should return:

  • a negative number if (and only if) o1 comes before o2;
  • a positive number if (and only if) o1 comes after o2;
  • else 0.

So a simple implementation would be1:

public class StringLengthComparator implements Comparator<String> {
  public int compare(String o1, String o2) {
    if (o1.length() < o2.length()) {
      return -1;
    } else if (o1.length() > o2.length()) {
      return 1;
    } else {
      return 0;

Now, armed with our Comparator and some vital string data that we need ordering by length:

String[] strs = {"boxer shorts", "grundies", "boxers",
  "elasticated Y-fronts", "underpants", "briefs"};

we can sort our string data by length with a simple call to Arrays.sort(), this time passing in an instance of our parameter:

// Sort
Arrays.sort(strs, new StringLengthComparator());
// Print the results
for (String s : strs)

And lo and behold, our garments are sorted in correct lengthwise order:

boxer shorts
elasticated Y-fronts

Note that, as discussed in our section on the Java sort algorithm, the sort is stable. That is, strings with the same length are guaranteed not to be reversed, and so our boxers correctly precede our briefs.

1. Some programmers prefer the more succinct version return o1.length() < o2.length() ? -1 : (o1.length() > o2.length() ? 1 : 0);. It is also presumably safe to use a subtraction– on 32-bit architecture at least, it's impossible to have Java Strings long enough to overflow when doing the subtraction!

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Written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2012. All rights reserved. If you have any feedback on the Java collections tutorials in this section or about the content of this site in general, please leave a message on the Javamex forum.