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Tree structure

tree structure, tree structure diagram
A tree structure or tree diagram is a way of representing the hierarchical nature of a structure in a graphical form It is named a "tree structure" because the classic representation resembles a tree, even though the chart is generally upside down compared to an actual tree, with the "root" at the top and the "leaves" at the bottom

A tree structure is conceptual, and appears in several forms For a discussion of tree structures in specific fields, see Tree data structure for computer science: insofar as it relates to graph theory, see tree graph theory, or also tree set theory Other related pages are listed below


  • 1 Terminology and properties
  • 2 Examples of tree structures
  • 3 Representing trees
    • 31 Classical node-link diagrams
    • 32 Nested sets
    • 33 Layered "icicle" diagrams
    • 34 Outlines and tree views
    • 35 Nested parentheses
    • 36 Radial trees
  • 4 See also
  • 5 References
  • 6 Further reading
  • 7 External links

Terminology and properties

The tree elements are called "nodes" The lines connecting elements are called "branches" Nodes without children are called leaf nodes, "end-nodes", or "leaves"

Every finite tree structure has a member that has no superior This member is called the "root" or root node The root is the starting node But the converse is not true: infinite tree structures may or may not have a root node

The names of relationships between nodes model the kinship terminology of family relations The gender-neutral names "parent" and "child" have largely displaced the older "father" and "son" terminology, although the term "uncle" is still used for other nodes at the same level as the parent

  • A node's "parent" is a node one step higher in the hierarchy ie closer to the root node and lying on the same branch
  • "Sibling" "brother" or "sister" nodes share the same parent node
  • A node's "uncles" are siblings of that node's parent
  • A node that is connected to all lower-level nodes is called an "ancestor" The connected lower-level nodes are "descendants" of the ancestor node

In the example, "encyclopedia" is the parent of "science" and "culture", its children "Art" and "craft" are siblings, and children of "culture", which is their parent and thus one of their ancestors Also, "encyclopedia", as the root of the tree, is the ancestor of "science", "culture", "art" and "craft" Finally, "science", "art" and "craft", as leaves, are ancestors of no other node

Tree structures can depict all kinds of taxonomic knowledge, such as family trees, the biological evolutionary tree, the evolutionary tree of a language family, the grammatical structure of a language a key example being S → NP VP, meaning a sentence is a noun phrase and a verb phrase, with each in turn having other components which have other components, the way web pages are logically ordered in a web site, mathematical trees of integer sets, et cetera

The Oxford English Dictionary records use of both the terms "tree structure" and "tree-diagram" from 1965 in Noam Chomsky's Aspects of the Theory of Syntax

In a tree structure there is one and only one path from any point to any other point

Computer science uses tree structures extensively see Tree data structure and telecommunications

For a formal definition see set theory, and for a generalization in which children are not necessarily successors, see prefix order

Examples of tree structures

A tree map used to represent a directory structure as a nested set
  • Internet:
    • usenet hierarchy
    • Document Object Model's logical structure, Yahoo! subject index, DMOZ
  • Operating system: directory structure
  • Information management: Dewey Decimal System, PSH, this hierarchical bulleted list
  • Management: hierarchical organizational structures
  • Computer Science:
    • binary search tree
    • Red-Black Tree
    • AVL tree
    • R-tree
  • Biology: evolutionary tree
  • Business: pyramid selling scheme
  • Project management: work breakdown structure
  • Linguistics:
    • Syntax Phrase structure trees
    • Historical Linguistics Tree model of language change
  • Sports: business chess, playoffs brackets
  • Mathematics: Von Neumann universe
  • Group theory: descendant trees

Representing trees

There are many ways of visually representing tree structures Almost always, these boil down to variations, or combinations, of a few basic styles:

Classical node-link diagrams


Classical node-link diagrams, that connect nodes together with line segments

Nested sets

art   craft

Nested sets that use enclosure/containment to show parenthood, examples include TreeMaps and fractal maps

Layered "icicle" diagrams

culture science
art craft

Layered "icicle" diagrams that use alignment/adjacency

Outlines and tree views

encyclopedia culture art craft science
  • encyclopedia
    • culture
      • art
      • craft
    • science

Lists or diagrams that use indentation, sometimes called "outlines" or "tree views"

Nested parentheses


See also: Newick format and Dyck language

A correspondence to nested parentheses was first noticed by Sir Arthur Cayley

Radial trees

See also: Radial tree

Trees can also be represented radially

See also

Kinds of trees
  • B-tree
  • Dancing tree
  • Decision tree
  • Left-child right-sibling binary tree
  • Tree data structure
  • Tree graph theory
  • Tree set theory
Related articles
  • Data drilling
  • Hierarchical model: clustering and query
  • Tree testing


  1. ^ "tree" Oxford English Dictionary 3rd ed Oxford University Press September 2005  Subscription or UK public library membership required
  2. ^ "What is the Document Object Model" W3C Architecture domain Retrieved 2006-12-05 

Further reading

Identification of some of the basic styles of tree structures can be found in:

  • Jacques Bertin, Semiology of Graphics, 1983, University of Wisconsin Press 2nd edition 1973, ISBN 978-0299090609;
  • Donald E Knuth, The Art of Computer Programming, Volume I: Fundamental Algorithms, 1968, Addison-Wesley, pp 309–310;
  • Brian Johnson and Ben Shneiderman, Tree-maps: A space-filling approach to the visualization of hierarchical information structures, in Proceedings of IEEE Visualization VIS, 1991, pp 284–291, ISBN 0-8186-2245-8;
  • Peter Eades, Tao Lin, and Xuemin Lin, Two Tree Drawing Conventions, International Journal of Computational Geometry and Applications, 1993, volume 3, number 2, pp 133–153
  • Manuel Lima, The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge 2014, Princeton Architectural Press, ISBN 978-1-616-89218-0

External links

  • Visualization of phylogenetic trees on the T-REX server
  • Using a tree structure to design a business process - from the Society for Technical Communication

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