Tail Recursive Functions (in Scala)

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Video link (open on YouTube.com)

Turning imperative algorithms to tail-recursive functions isn’t necessarily obvious. In this article (and video) I’m showing you the trick you need, and in doing so, we’ll discover the Zen of Functional Programming.

Choose between watching the video on YouTube (linked above), or reading the article (below), or both.

The Trick #

Let’s start with a simple function that calculates the length of a list:

def len(l: List[_]): Int =
  l match {
    case Nil => 0
    case _ :: tail => len(tail) + 1

It’s a recursive function with a definition that is mathematically correct. However, if we try to test it, this will fail with a StackOverflowError:


The problem is that the input list is too big. And because the VM still has work to do after that recursive call, needing to do a + 1, the call isn’t in “tail position”, so the call-stack must be used. A StackOverflowError is a memory error, and in this case it’s a correctness issue, because the function will fail on reasonable input.

First let’s describe it as a dirty while loop instead:

def len(l: List[_]): Int = {
  var count = 0
  var cursor = l

  while (cursor != Nil) {
    count += 1
    cursor = cursor.tail

THE TRICK for turning such functions into tail-recursions is to turn those variables, holding state, into function parameters.

def len(l: List[_]): Int = {
  // Using an inner function to encapsulate this implementation
  def loop(cursor: List[_], count: Int): Int =
    cursor match {
      // Our end condition, copied after that while
      case Nil => count
      case _ :: tail =>
        // Copying the same logic from that while statement
        loop(cursor = tail, count = count + 1)
  // Go, go, go
  loop(l, 0)

Now this version is fine. Note the use of the @tailrec annotation — all this annotation does is to make the compiler throw an error in case the function is not actually tail-recursive. That’s because that call is error-prone, and it needs repeating, this is an issue of correctness.

Let’s do a more complex example to really internalize this. Let’s calculate the N-th number in the Fibonacci sequence — here’s the memory unsafe recursive version:

def fib(n: Int): BigInt = 
  if (n <= 0) 0
  else if (n == 1) 1
  else fib(n - 1) + fib(n - 2)

fib(0) // 0
fib(1) // 1
fib(2) // 1
fib(3) // 2
fib(4) // 3
fib(5) // 5

fib(100000) // StackOverflowError (also, really slow)

First turn this into a dirty while loop:

def fib(n: Int): BigInt = {
  // Kids, don't do this at home 😅
  if (n <= 0) return 0
  // Going from 0 to n, instead of vice-versa  
  var a: BigInt = 0 // instead of fib(n - 2)
  var b: BigInt = 1 // instead of fib(n - 1)
  var i = n

  while (i > 1) {
    val tmp = a
    a = b
    b = tmp + b
    i -= 1

Then turn its 3 variables into function parameters:

def fib(n: Int): BigInt = {
  def loop(a: BigInt, b: BigInt, i: Int): BigInt =
    // first condition
    if (i <= 0) 0
    // end of while loop
    else if (i == 1) b     
    // logic inside while loop statement
    else loop(a = b, b = a + b, i = i - 1)

  loop(0, 1, n)

(Actual) Recursion #

Tail-recursions are just loops. But some algorithms are actually recursive, and can’t be described via a while loop that uses constant memory. What makes an algorithm actually recursive is usage of a stack. In imperative programming, for low-level implementations, that’s how you can tell if recursion is required … does it use a manually managed stack or not?

But even in such cases we can use a while loop, or a @tailrec function. Doing so has some advantages. Let’s start with a Tree data-structure:

sealed trait Tree[+A]

case class Node[+A](value: A, left: Tree[A], right: Tree[A])
  extends Tree[A]
case object Empty
  extends Tree[Nothing]

Defining a fold, which we could use to sum-up all values for example, will be challenging:

def foldTree[A, R](tree: Tree[A], seed: R)(f: (R, A) => R): R =
  tree match {
    case Empty => seed
    case Node(value, left, right) =>
      // Recursive call for the left child
      val leftR = foldTree(left, f(seed, value))(f)
      // Recursive call for the right child
      foldTree(right, leftR)(f)

This is the simple version. And it should be clear that the size of the call-stack will be directly proportional to the height of the tree. And turning it into a @tailrec version means we need to manually manage a stack:

def foldTree[A, R](tree: Tree[A], seed: R)(f: (R, A) => R): R = {
  @tailrec def loop(stack: List[Tree[A]], state: R): R =
    stack match {
      // End condition, nothing left to do
      case Nil => state
      // Ignore empty elements
      case Empty :: tail => loop(tail, state)
      // Step in our loop
      case Node(value, left, right) :: tail =>
        // Adds left and right nodes to stack, evolves the state
        loop(left :: right :: tail, f(state, value))
  // Go, go, go!
  loop(List(tree), seed)

If you want to internalize this notion — recursion == usage of a stack — a great exercise is the backtracking algorithm. Implement it with recursive functions, or with dirty loops and a manually managed stack, and compare. The plot thickens for backtracking solutions using 2 stacks 🙂

Does this manually managed stack buy us anything?

Well yes, if you need such recursive algorithms, such a stack can take up your whole heap memory, which means it can handle a bigger input. But note that with the right input, your process can still blow up, this time with an out-of-memory error (OOM).

NOTE — in real life, shining examples of algorithms using manually managed stacks are Cats-Effect’s IO and Monix’s Task, since they literally replace the JVM’s call-stack 😄

Zen of Functional Programming? #

In FP, you turn variables into (immutable) function parameters. And state gets evolved via function calls 💡

That’s it, that’s all there is to FP (plus the design patterns, and the pain of dealing with I/O 🙂).


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