In this post I’ll talk about Rust’s BTreeSet and tell a sad story about its methods.

The nice things (that we can’t have)

So, BTreeSet is an ordered collection that has an element with the maximum value (if it isn’t empty) and an element with the minimum value (again, if not empty). And there are methods that return references to these elements. In a similar fashion to other Rust collections (that have their own “extremes“), these methods have signature &Self -> Option<&T>, that is, they take a reference to the set and return a reference to the element with the minimum/maximum value (if the set is not empty).


So far so good, right? And how are these methods named?

The methods are named first and last.


And which of them is the minimum and which of them is the maximum?

Well… that’s “the problem” of this blog post, I don’t remember! checks docs. Ok, so first is the minimum and last is the maximum, thus the order is ascending. I would probably accept this, if it was consistent through the whole std… but no, of course there is BinaryHeap that works the other way around and now everything is even more confusing…


But wait, the methods are unstable, so can’t we just… rename them to min & max?

Turns out we can’t! And for a completely stupid reason. I’ll explain everything in a moment, but first (pun unintended),

A short detour to all the “extremes” methods

In Rust standard library there are quite a few collections that have some notion of order and they all have these getter methods for the “extremes”. The names, for the most part, make sense, but they are quite inconsistent. Here is the table

Type(s)The min-ishThe max-ishHas &mut versions?Has inherent order
[T] slices and VecfirstlastYes ✅No ❌
BTreeSet and BTreeMapfirstlastNo ❌Yes ✅
VecDeque and LinkedListfrontbackYes ✅No ❌
BinaryHeap-peek*Yes ✅Yes ✅


  1. For collections that do not have inherent order, min-ish and max-ish methods were chosen on the basis of the sorted state — in the sorted slice <[T]>::first returns the minimum element, so it’s categorized as “min-ish”. Note that when the collection is not sorted min-ish methods may return not the smallest element and max-ish methods mey return not the largest element.
  2. BTreeSet and BTreeMap don’t have &mut versions because changing an element would change its order
    • BinaryHeap sidesteps this issue by having peek_mut return Option<PeekMut<’_, T>> instead of Option<&mut T> and fixing the order in drop
    • Really, the BinaryHeap is the weirdo here…
  3. BTreeSet and BTreeMap have some additional methods like pop_, _key_value, _entry, see the tracking issue
  4. It’s nice that all min-ish methods use 5 letters and all the max-ish methods use 4 letters, I hadn’t noticed it until I wrote this
  5. Vec actually has its first/last methods via Deref<Target = [T]>
  6. This list is too long

So, BTreeSet/BTreeMap method names were chosen to be consistent with slice. But still, why can’t we have BTreeSet::{min, max}?

The reason why we can’t have nice things

So, me being me, I’ve tried to rename the BTreeSet methods to min/max and… failed. Here is the error (not the actual error I’ve gotten while renaming, that was more than 2 5 months ago, but it’s a good enough reenactment for today):

error[E0061]: this function takes 1 argument but 0 arguments were supplied
   --> src/
11  |     assert_eq!(set.min(), Some(&-1));
    |                    ^^^- supplied 0 arguments
    |                    |
    |                    expected 1 argument

error[E0308]: mismatched types
  --> src/
11 |     assert_eq!(set.min(), Some(&-1));
   |     ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ expected struct `BTreeSet`, found enum `Option`
   = note: expected struct `BTreeSet<i32>`
                found enum `Option<&{integer}>`
   = note: this error originates in the macro `assert_eq` (in Nightly builds, run with -Z macro-backtrace for more info)

Why does the compiler expect min to have an argument, why does it think it returns BTreeSet<i32> when it’s clearly declared as pub fn min(&self) -> Option<&T>, what is going on?

After some digging I’ve figured out that set.min() is resolved by the compiler to Ord::min, not BTreeSet::min. But don’t inherent methods take precedence over trait methods?

I couldn’t find the place from where I’ve taken the fact that “inherent methods” take precedence, but it is indeed the case:

struct A;
impl A  { fn f(&self) -> &'static str { "inherent" } }
trait T { fn f(&self) {} }
impl T for A {}

// This works
assert_eq!(A.f(), "inherent");

So in this case inherent method takes precedence, so what’s the difference with the BTreeSet::min & Ord::min? The secret is in their signatures:

// trait Ord
fn min(self, other: Self) -> Self where Self: Sized { ... }

// impl BTreeSet
fn min(&self) -> Option<&T> { ... }

Do you see the problem? BTreeSet::min takes self by reference (&self) while Ord::min takes self by value (self). And methods with receivers that are “less distant from the original type” always “win” by the autoref rules. It’s been the behavior since forever and it’s documented:

When looking up a method call, the receiver may be automatically dereferenced or borrowed in order to call a method. This requires a more complex lookup process than for other functions, since there may be a number of possible methods to call. The following procedure is used:

The first step is to build a list of candidate receiver types. Obtain these by repeatedly dereferencing the receiver expression’s type, adding each type encountered to the list, then finally attempting an unsized coercion at the end, and adding the result type if that is successful. Then, for each candidate T, add &T and &mut T to the list immediately after T.

For instance, if the receiver has type Box<[i32;2]>, then the candidate types will be Box<[i32;2]>, &Box<[i32;2]>, &mut Box<[i32;2]>, [i32; 2] (by dereferencing), &[i32; 2], &mut [i32; 2], [i32] (by unsized coercion), &[i32], and finally &mut [i32].

Then, for each candidate type T, search for a visible method with a receiver of that type in the following places:

  1. T’s inherent methods (methods implemented directly on T).
  2. Any of the methods provided by a visible trait implemented by T. If T is a type parameter, methods provided by trait bounds on T are looked up first. Then all remaining methods in scope are looked up.

For the case of BTreeSet, .min() would result in the following list: BTreeSet<T> (hit! it’s Ord::min), &BTreeSet<T> (BTreeSet::min, but it’s too late), &mut BTreeSet<T> (BTreeSet doesn’t implement Deref or Unsize).

So here we are, min doesn’t work as a name of a method that takes self by ref on a type that implements Ord, get_min and minumum were rejected by the libs-api team, we are stuck with the confusing first/last.

And the saddest part? I don’t even think Ord::{min, max} are good methods. They don’t make much sense as methods (I think min(a, b) is nicer and more symmetric than a.min(b)) and they have too-generic names (as seen by this whole issue with BTreeSet) for methods of the trait that is in the prelude and is implemented for a large amount of types.

But, it’s too late to change anything.

That was the reason why we can’t have nice things, bye.