Strings in Computer Science

You have probably stumbled upon a string data type in some programming language. In C it’s <string.h>, in C++ std::string, Python has them even PHP! They’re useful, pretty straight-forward. And the most beautiful thing is, that there is a theoretical foundation for them! These operations e.g. reversation, concatenation, making sub-string and of course the string itself! Let’s have a look.

Definition 1. String is a finite ordered sequence of characters. Let Σ be an alphabet, then s ∈ Σ* is a string over Σ.

The mysterious Σ* is an alphabet iteration. That is a set of all existing strings over Σ. Which makes it a infinite set, unless the alphabet is empty. You see, all the strings fall within this definition. s = “abcc” might be a string over alphabet Σ = {a, b, c}. One, sort of special case exists – an empty string, that is usually denoted by ε and its length is 0. Now, let’s proceed to some string operations. One of the most important is concatenation.

Definition 2. Let w and x be strings over Σ. Then string y = wx is a concatenation of these two. It’s also a string over Σ. You see, that concatenation is not commutative. You cannot switch the strings and expect to get the same result. Length of the new string |y| = |w| + |x| i.e. is equal to a sum of lengths of the concatenated strings.

Concatenation is very important string operation. It allows you to connect multiple strings together. When you have two or multiple strings connected, for instance w, x, y, z ∈ Σ* , z = wxy, you can say that w is a prefix of z, y is a suffix of z and x is a substring of z. A proper prefix of a string is not equal to the string itself, i.e. xy != ε and equivalently y is a proper suffix if wx != ε.

Definition 3. Let x = a1a2…an be a string over Σ. Reversal of the string, y = reverse(x) = an…a2a1.

One rather trivial definition in the end, reverse string is the same sequence of characters backwards. The thing is, why can string reversal be defined this rather intuitive way? It’s because we can be absolutely sure, that each string has a finite number of symbols, i.e. we know the n.


It’s important to point out, that we’re talking about theoretical strings. You can apply this theory to string literals in programming (like I did) and it will work, but the strings in theory are far more abstract than that. It actually depends on what is your alphabet. Let’s say, that a every symbol in Σ represent a single processor instruction. If you create a string over that Σ, you’ll get a sequence of instructions. You can do it multiple times and get programs x, y ∈ Σ*. Now, you can use concatenation, right? Then y = xz, where y is also a program in which x and z are subroutines!


Strings are useful, when you need to model any sequential behavior. Computers are sequential machines (well, not that much lately, but in principle) so there is plenty to cover with these couple of definitions!


  • Češka M., Vojnar T., Smrčka A., Teoretická informatika, Studijní opora.