Recursion: How Recursive Scala Function Calls Work

This is a page from my book, Functional Programming, Simplified

An important point to understand about recursive function calls is that just as they “wind up” as they are called repeatedly, they “unwind” rapidly when the function’s end condition is reached.

In the case of the sum function, the end condition is reached when the Nil element in a List is reached. When sum gets to the Nil element, this pattern of the match expression is matched:

case Nil => 0

Because this line simply returns 0, there are no more recursive calls to sum. This is a typical way of ending the recursion when operating on all elements of a List in recursive algorithms.

Lists end with Nil

As I wrote in the earlier List lesson, a literal way to create a List is like this:

1 :: 2 :: 3 :: 4 :: Nil

This is a reminder that with any Scala List you are guaranteed that the last List element is Nil. Therefore, if your algorithm is going to operate on the entire list, you should use:

case Nil => ???

as your function’s end condition.

This is the first clue about how the unfolding process works.

Note 1: This is a feature of the Scala List class. You’ll have to change the approach if you work with other sequential collection classes like Vector, ArrayBuffer, etc. (More on this later in the book.)

Note 2: Examples of functions that work on every element in a list are map, filter, foreach, sum, product, and many more. Examples of functions that don’t operate on every list element are take and takeWhile.

Understanding how the sum example ran

A good way to understand how the sum function example ran is to add println statements inside the case expressions.

First, change the sum function to look like this:

def sum(list: List[Int]): Int = list match {
    case Nil => {
        println("case1: Nil was matched")
        0
    }
    case head :: tail => {
        println(s"case2: head = $head, tail = $tail")
        head + sum(tail)
    }
}

Now when you run it again with a List(1,2,3,4) as its input parameter, you’ll see this output:

case2: head = 1, tail = List(2, 3, 4)
case2: head = 2, tail = List(3, 4)
case2: head = 3, tail = List(4)
case2: head = 4, tail = List()
case1: Nil was matched

That output shows that sum is called repeatedly until the list is reduced to List() (which is the same as Nil). When List() is passed to sum, the first case is matched and the recursive calls to sum come to an end. (I’ll demonstrate this visually in the next lesson.)

The book, Land of Lisp states, “recursive functions are list eaters,” and this output shows why that statement is true.

How the recursion works (“going down”)

Keeping in mind that List(1,2,3,4) is the same as 1::2::3::4::Nil, you can read the output like this:

  1. The first time sum is called, the match expression sees that the given List doesn’t match the Nil element, so control flows to the second case statement.
  2. The second case statement matches the List pattern, then splits the incoming list of 1::2::3::4::Nil into (a) a head element of 1 and (b) the remainder of the list, 2::3::4::Nil. The remainder — the tail — is then passed into another sum function call.
  3. A new instance of sum receives the list 2::3::4::Nil. It sees that this list does not match the Nil element, so control flows to the second case statement.
  4. That statement matches the List pattern, then splits the list into a head element of 2 and a tail of 3::4::Nil. The tail is passed as an input parameter to another sum call.
  5. A new instance of sum receives the list 3::4::Nil. This list does not match the Nil element, so control passes to the second case statement.
  6. The list matches the pattern of the second case statement, which splits the list into a head element of 3 and a tail of 4::Nil. The tail is passed as an input parameter to another sum call.
  7. A new instance of sum receives the list 4::Nil, sees that it does not match Nil, and passes control to the second case statement.
  8. The list matches the pattern of the second case statement. The list is split into a head element of 4 a tail of Nil. The tail is passed to another sum function call.
  9. The new instance of sum receives Nil as an input parameter, and sees that it does match the Nil pattern in the first case expression. At this point the first case expression is evaluated.
  10. The first case expression returns the value 0. This marks the end of the recursive calls.

At this point — when the first case expression of this sum instance returns 0 — all of the recursive calls “unwind” until the very first sum instance returns its answer to the code that called it.

How the unwinding works (“coming back up”)

That description gives you an idea of how the recursive sum function calls work until they reach the end condition. Here’s a description of what happens after the end condition is reached:

  1. The last sum instance — the one that received List() — returns 0. This happens because List() matches Nil in the first case expression.
  2. This returns control to the previous sum instance. The second case expression of that sum function  has return 4 + sum(Nil) as its return value. This is reduced to return 4 + 0, so this instance returns 4. (I didn’t use a return statement in the code, but it’s easier to read this now if I say “return.”)
  3. Again, this returns control to the previous sum instance. That sum instance has return 3 + sum(List(4)) as the result of its second case expression. You just saw that sum(List(4)) returns 4, so this case expression evaluates to return 3 + 4, or 7.
  4. Control is returned to the previous sum instance. Its second case expression has return 2 + sum(List(3,4)) as its result. You just saw that sum(List(3,4)) returns 7, so this expression evaluates to return 2 + 7, or 9.
  5. Finally, control is returned to the original sum function call. Its second case expression is return 1 + sum(List(2,3,4)). You just saw that sum(List(2,3,4)) returns 9, so this call is reduced to return 1 + 9, or 10. This value is returned to whatever code called the first sum instance.

Initial visuals of how the recursion works

One way to visualize how the recursive sum function calls work — the “going down” part — is like this:

Recursion - Going down

After that, when the end condition is reached, the “coming back up” part — what I call the unwinding process — looks like this:

Recursion - Coming back up

If this isn’t clear, fear not, in the next lesson I’ll show a few more visual examples of how this works.

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