Creating and Using Sort Descriptors

A sort descriptor describes a comparison used to sort a collection of objects. You create an instance of NSSortDescriptor that specifies the property key to be sorted, and whether the comparison should be in ascending, or descending order. A sort descriptor can also specify a method to use when comparing the property key values, rather than the default of compare:.

It is important to remember that NSSortDescriptor does not sort objects. It provides the description of how to sort objects. The actual sorting is done by other classes, often NSArray or NSMutableArray.

Specifying Sorts Using NSSortDescriptor

Let’s assume, as an example, that we have an array (an instance of NSArray) containing instances of a custom class, Employee (that meets the requirements set out in “Requirements of Collection Objects”). The Employee class has attributes for an employee’s first and last name (instances of NSString), date of hire (an instance of NSDate), and age (an instance of NSNumber).

Our first task is to return an NSArray object sorted using the age. The example in Listing 1 illustrates how to create an NSSortDescriptor that can be used to sort the array contents in ascending order by the age key.

Listing 1  Sorting the array by the age key

NSSortDescriptor *ageDescriptor = [[NSSortDescriptor alloc] initWithKey:@"age" ascending:YES];
NSArray *sortDescriptors = @[ageDescriptor];
NSArray *sortedArray = [employeesArray sortedArrayUsingDescriptors:sortDescriptors];

You’ll note that when sorting the array it was necessary to provide an array of NSSortDescriptor instances. Each of the sort descriptors are applied in sequence, providing a means of sorting on multiple property keys.

If we also wanted to sort by the date of hire, we can add another descriptor to the array we provide to sortedArrayUsingDescriptors:. The example in Listing 2 demonstrates using multiple sort descriptors to sort on the age, and then sort employees of the same age by their date of hire.

Listing 2  Sorting the array by the age and date of hire keys

NSSortDescriptor *ageDescriptor = [[NSSortDescriptor alloc] initWithKey:@"age" ascending:YES];
NSSortDescriptor *hireDateDescriptor = [[NSSortDescriptor alloc] initWithKey:@"hireDate" ascending:YES];
NSArray *sortDescriptors = @[ageDescriptor, hireDateDescriptor];
NSArray *sortedArray = [employeesArray sortedArrayUsingDescriptors:sortDescriptors];

In each of these cases, the default comparison method, compare:, is used. When sorting by age (where the age values are instances of NSNumber), the compare: method implemented by NSNumber is used; when sorting by date of hire (where the date of hire values are instances of NSDate), the compare: method implemented by NSDate is used.

If we want to sort the employees by name, however, since the names are strings the results should be ordered alphabetically according to the user’s locale, and perhaps without case sensitivity. The default compare: method of NSString does not do this, so we need to specify a custom method to perform the comparison.

Specifying Custom Comparisons

The preceding examples all rely on the default compare: method to sort by age and date of hire. Names are strings, and when you sort strings to present to the user you should always use a localized comparison (see “Searching, Comparing, and Sorting Strings” in String Programming Guide). Often you also want to perform a case insensitive comparison. The example in Listing 3 shows how to specify a suitable comparison method (localizedStandardCompare:) to order the array by last and first name.

Listing 3  Sorting the array using a localized standard comparison

NSSortDescriptor *lastNameDescriptor = [[NSSortDescriptor alloc]
              initWithKey:@"lastName" ascending:YES selector:@selector(localizedStandardCompare:)];
NSSortDescriptor * firstNameDescriptor = [[NSSortDescriptor alloc]
              initWithKey:@"firstName" ascending:YES selector:@selector(localizedStandardCompare:)];
NSArray *sortDescriptors = @[lastNameDescriptor, firstNameDescriptor];
NSArray *sortedArray = [peopleArray sortedArrayUsingDescriptors:sortDescriptors];

The Foundation classes that have methods that can be used with sort descriptors are listed in Table 1.

Table 1  Common Foundation classes and comparison methods

Comparison Method

Supporting Classes


NSString, NSMutableString, NSDate, NSCalendarDate, NSValue (scalar types and unsigned char only), NSNumber


NSString, NSMutableString


NSString, NSMutableString


NSString, NSMutableString


NSString, NSMutableString

You can add comparison support to their classes by implementing a compliant compare method as described in “Requirements of Collection Objects.”

Requirements of Collection Objects

In order for a collection to be able to sort its contents using NSSortDescriptor, the objects must conform to the following expectations.

Attempting to sort a collection containing objects that fail any of these requirements will raise an exception.