In this chapter, we will look at how recursive functions can be used to structure algorithms. Recursion is a basic technique used in functional programming, which we will use throughout this book.
We will also cover some standard functions from PureScript's standard libraries. We will see the
fold functions, as well as some useful special cases, like
The motivating example for this chapter is a library of functions for working with a virtual filesystem. We will apply the techniques learned in this chapter to write functions which compute properties of the files represented by a model of a filesystem.
The source code for this chapter is contained in
Data.Path module contains a model of a virtual filesystem. You do not need to modify the contents of this module. Implement your solutions to the exercises in the
Test.MySolutions module. Enable accompanying tests in the
Test.Main module as you complete each exercise and check your work by running
The project has the following dependencies:
maybe, which defines the
arrays, which defines functions for working with arrays
foldable-traversable, which defines functions for folding arrays and other data structures
console, which defines functions for printing to the console
Recursion is an important technique in programming in general, but particularly common in pure functional programming, because, as we will see in this chapter, recursion helps to reduce the mutable state in our programs.
Recursion is closely linked to the divide and conquer strategy: to solve a problem on certain inputs, we can break down the inputs into smaller parts, solve the problem on those parts, and then assemble a solution from the partial solutions.
Let's see some simple examples of recursion in PureScript.
Here is the usual factorial function example:
fact :: Int -> Int fact n = if n == 0 then 1 else n * fact (n - 1)
Here, we can see how the factorial function is computed by reducing the problem to a subproblem - that of computing the factorial of a smaller integer. When we reach zero, the answer is immediate.
Here is another common example, which computes the Fibonacci function:
fib :: Int -> Int fib n = if n == 0 || n == 1 then 1 else fib (n - 1) + fib (n - 2)
Again, this problem is solved by considering the solutions to subproblems. In this case, there are two subproblems, corresponding to the expressions
fib (n - 1) and
fib (n - 2). When these two subproblems are solved, we assemble the result by adding the partial results.
Note that, while the above examples of
fib work as intended, a more idiomatic implementation would use pattern matching instead of
else. Pattern matching techniques are discussed in a later chapter.
We are not limited to defining recursive functions over the
Int type! We will see recursive functions defined over a wide array of data types when we cover pattern matching later in the book, but for now, we will restrict ourselves to numbers and arrays.
Just as we branch based on whether the input is non-zero, in the array case, we will branch based on whether the input is non-empty. Consider this function, which computes the length of an array using recursion:
import Prelude import Data.Array (null, tail) import Data.Maybe (fromMaybe) length :: forall a. Array a -> Int length arr = if null arr then 0 else 1 + (length $ fromMaybe  $ tail arr)
In this function, we use an
if .. then .. else expression to branch based on the emptiness of the array. The
null function returns
true on an empty array. Empty arrays have length zero, and a non-empty array has a length that is one more than the length of its tail.
tail function returns a
Maybe wrapping the given array without its first element. If the array is empty (i.e. it doesn't have a tail)
Nothing is returned. The
fromMaybe function takes a default value and a
Maybe value. If the latter is
Nothing it returns the default, in the other case it returns the value wrapped by
- (Easy) Write a recursive function
trueif and only if its input is an even integer.
- (Medium) Write a recursive function
countEvenwhich counts the number of even integers in an array. Hint: the function
head(also available in
Data.Array) can be used to find the first element in a non-empty array.
map function is an example of a recursive function on arrays. It is used to transform the elements of an array by applying a function to each element in turn. Therefore, it changes the contents of the array, but preserves its shape (i.e. its length).
When we cover type classes later in the book we will see that the
map function is an example of a more general pattern of shape-preserving functions which transform a class of type constructors called functors.
Let's try out the
map function in PSCi:
$ spago repl > import Prelude > map (\n -> n + 1) [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] [2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
map is used - we provide a function which should be "mapped over" the array in the first argument, and the array itself in its second.
map function can also be written between the mapping function and the array, by wrapping the function name in backticks:
> (\n -> n + 1) `map` [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] [2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
This syntax is called infix function application, and any function can be made infix in this way. It is usually most appropriate for functions with two arguments.
There is an operator which is equivalent to the
map function when used with arrays, called
<$>. This operator can be used infix like any other binary operator:
> (\n -> n + 1) <$> [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] [2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
Let's look at the type of
> :type map forall a b f. Functor f => (a -> b) -> f a -> f b
The type of
map is actually more general than we need in this chapter. For our purposes, we can treat
map as if it had the following less general type:
forall a b. (a -> b) -> Array a -> Array b
This type says that we can choose any two types,
b, with which to apply the
a is the type of elements in the source array, and
b is the type of elements in the target array. In particular, there is no reason why
map has to preserve the type of the array elements. We can use
<$> to transform integers to strings, for example:
> show <$> [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] ["1","2","3","4","5"]
Even though the infix operator
<$> looks like special syntax, it is in fact just an alias for a regular PureScript function. The function is simply applied using infix syntax. In fact, the function can be used like a regular function by enclosing its name in parentheses. This means that we can used the parenthesized name
(<$>) in place of
map on arrays:
> (<$>) show [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] ["1","2","3","4","5"]
Infix function names are defined as aliases for existing function names. For example, the
Data.Array module defines an infix operator
(..) as a synonym for the
range function, as follows:
infix 8 range as ..
We can use this operator as follows:
> import Data.Array > 1 .. 5 [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] > show <$> (1 .. 5) ["1","2","3","4","5"]
Note: Infix operators can be a great tool for defining domain-specific languages with a natural syntax. However, used excessively, they can render code unreadable to beginners, so it is wise to exercise caution when defining any new operators.
In the example above, we parenthesized the expression
1 .. 5, but this was actually not necessary, because the
Data.Array module assigns a higher precedence level to the
.. operator than that assigned to the
<$> operator. In the example above, the precedence of the
.. operator was defined as
8, the number after the
infix keyword. This is higher than the precedence level of
<$>, meaning that we do not need to add parentheses:
> show <$> 1 .. 5 ["1","2","3","4","5"]
If we wanted to assign an associativity (left or right) to an infix operator, we could do so with the
infixr keywords instead.
Data.Array module provides another function
filter, which is commonly used together with
map. It provides the ability to create a new array from an existing array, keeping only those elements which match a predicate function.
For example, suppose we wanted to compute an array of all numbers between 1 and 10 which were even. We could do so as follows:
> import Data.Array > filter (\n -> n `mod` 2 == 0) (1 .. 10) [2,4,6,8,10]
- (Easy) Write a function
squaredwhich calculates the squares of an array of numbers. Hint: Use the
- (Easy) Write a function
keepNonNegativewhich removes the negative numbers from an array of numbers. Hint: Use the
- Define an infix synonym
filter. Note: Infix synonyms may not be defined in the REPL, but you can define it in a file.
- Write a
keepNonNegativeRewritefunction, which is the same as
keepNonNegative, but replaces
filterwith your new infix operator
- Experiment with the precedence level and associativity of your operator in PSCi. Note: There are no unit tests for this step.
- Define an infix synonym
Another standard function on arrays is the
concat function, defined in
concat flattens an array of arrays into a single array:
> import Data.Array > :type concat forall a. Array (Array a) -> Array a > concat [[1, 2, 3], [4, 5], ] [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
There is a related function called
concatMap which is like a combination of the
map functions. Where
map takes a function from values to values (possibly of a different type),
concatMap takes a function from values to arrays of values.
Let's see it in action:
> import Data.Array > :type concatMap forall a b. (a -> Array b) -> Array a -> Array b > concatMap (\n -> [n, n * n]) (1 .. 5) [1,1,2,4,3,9,4,16,5,25]
Here, we call
concatMap with the function
\n -> [n, n * n] which sends an integer to the array of two elements consisting of that integer and its square. The result is an array of ten integers: the integers from 1 to 5 along with their squares.
concatMap concatenates its results. It calls the provided function once for each element of the original array, generating an array for each. Finally, it collapses all of those arrays into a single array, which is its result.
concatMap form the basis for a whole range of functions over arrays called "array comprehensions".
Suppose we wanted to find the factors of a number
n. One simple way to do this would be by brute force: we could generate all pairs of numbers between 1 and
n, and try multiplying them together. If the product was
n, we would have found a pair of factors of
We can perform this computation using an array comprehension. We will do so in steps, using PSCi as our interactive development environment.
The first step is to generate an array of pairs of numbers below
n, which we can do using
Let's start by mapping each number to the array
1 .. n:
> pairs n = concatMap (\i -> 1 .. n) (1 .. n)
We can test our function
> pairs 3 [1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,3]
This is not quite what we want. Instead of just returning the second element of each pair, we need to map a function over the inner copy of
1 .. n which will allow us to keep the entire pair:
> :paste … pairs' n = … concatMap (\i -> … map (\j -> [i, j]) (1 .. n) … ) (1 .. n) … ^D > pairs' 3 [[1,1],[1,2],[1,3],[2,1],[2,2],[2,3],[3,1],[3,2],[3,3]]
This is looking better. However, we are generating too many pairs: we keep both [1, 2] and [2, 1] for example. We can exclude the second case by making sure that
j only ranges from
> :paste … pairs'' n = … concatMap (\i -> … map (\j -> [i, j]) (i .. n) … ) (1 .. n) … ^D > pairs'' 3 [[1,1],[1,2],[1,3],[2,2],[2,3],[3,3]]
Great! Now that we have all of the pairs of potential factors, we can use
filter to choose the pairs which multiply to give
> import Data.Foldable > factors n = filter (\pair -> product pair == n) (pairs'' n) > factors 10 [[1,10],[2,5]]
This code uses the
product function from the
Data.Foldable module in the
Excellent! We've managed to find the correct set of factor pairs without duplicates.
However, we can improve the readability of our code considerably.
concatMap are so fundamental, that they (or rather, their generalizations
bind) form the basis of a special syntax called do notation.
Note: Just like
concatMap allowed us to write array comprehensions, the more general operators
bind allow us to write so-called monad comprehensions. We'll see plenty more examples of monads later in the book, but in this chapter, we will only consider arrays.
We can rewrite our
factors function using do notation as follows:
factors :: Int -> Array (Array Int) factors n = filter (\xs -> product xs == n) $ do i <- 1 .. n j <- i .. n pure [i, j]
do introduces a block of code which uses do notation. The block consists of expressions of a few types:
- Expressions which bind elements of an array to a name. These are indicated with the backwards-facing arrow
<-, with a name on the left, and an expression on the right whose type is an array.
- Expressions which do not bind elements of the array to names. The
doresult is an example of this kind of expression and is illustrated in the last line,
pure [i, j].
- Expressions which give names to expressions, using the
This new notation hopefully makes the structure of the algorithm clearer. If you mentally replace the arrow
<- with the word "choose", you might read it as follows: "choose an element
i between 1 and n, then choose an element
n, and return
In the last line, we use the
pure function. This function can be evaluated in PSCi, but we have to provide a type:
> pure [1, 2] :: Array (Array Int) [[1, 2]]
In the case of arrays,
pure simply constructs a singleton array. In fact, we could modify our
factors function to use this form, instead of using
factorsV2 :: Int -> Array (Array Int) factorsV2 n = filter (\xs -> product xs == n) $ do i <- 1 .. n j <- i .. n [[i, j]]
and the result would be the same.
One further change we can make to the
factors function is to move the filter inside the array comprehension. This is possible using the
guard function from the
Control.MonadZero module (from the
import Control.MonadZero (guard) factorsV3 :: Int -> Array (Array Int) factorsV3 n = do i <- 1 .. n j <- i .. n guard $ i * j == n pure [i, j]
pure, we can apply the
guard function in PSCi to understand how it works. The type of the
guard function is more general than we need here:
> import Control.MonadZero > :type guard forall m. MonadZero m => Boolean -> m Unit
In our case, we can assume that PSCi reported the following type:
Boolean -> Array Unit
For our purposes, the following calculations tell us everything we need to know about the
guard function on arrays:
> import Data.Array > length $ guard true 1 > length $ guard false 0
That is, if
guard is passed an expression which evaluates to
true, then it returns an array with a single element. If the expression evaluates to
false, then its result is empty.
This means that if the guard fails, then the current branch of the array comprehension will terminate early with no results. This means that a call to
guard is equivalent to using
filter on the intermediate array. Depending on the application, you might prefer to use
guard instead of a
filter. Try the two definitions of
factors to verify that they give the same results.
- (Easy) Write a function
isPrimewhich tests if its integer argument is prime or not. Hint: Use the
- (Medium) Write a function
cartesianProductwhich uses do notation to find the cartesian product of two arrays, i.e. the set of all pairs of elements
ais an element of the first array, and
bis an element of the second.
- (Medium) Write a function
triples :: Int -> Array (Array Int)which takes a number
nand returns all Pythagorean triples whose components (the
cvalues) are each less than or equal to
n. A Pythagorean triple is an array of numbers
[a, b, c]such that
a² + b² = c². Hint: Use the
guardfunction in an array comprehension.
- (Difficult) Write a function
factorizewhich produces the prime factorization of
n, i.e. the array of prime integers whose product is
n. Hint: for an integer greater than 1, break the problem down into two subproblems: finding the first factor, and finding the remaining factors.
Left and right folds over arrays provide another class of interesting functions which can be implemented using recursion.
Start by importing the
Data.Foldable module, and inspecting the types of the
foldr functions using PSCi:
> import Data.Foldable > :type foldl forall a b f. Foldable f => (b -> a -> b) -> b -> f a -> b > :type foldr forall a b f. Foldable f => (a -> b -> b) -> b -> f a -> b
These types are actually more general than we are interested in right now. For the purposes of this chapter, we can assume that PSCi had given the following (more specific) answer:
> :type foldl forall a b. (b -> a -> b) -> b -> Array a -> b > :type foldr forall a b. (a -> b -> b) -> b -> Array a -> b
In both of these cases, the type
a corresponds to the type of elements of our array. The type
b can be thought of as the type of an "accumulator", which will accumulate a result as we traverse the array.
The difference between the
foldr functions is the direction of the traversal.
foldl folds the array "from the left", whereas
foldr folds the array "from the right".
Let's see these functions in action. Let's use
foldl to sum an array of integers. The type
a will be
Int, and we can also choose the result type
b to be
Int. We need to provide three arguments: a function
Int -> Int -> Int, which will add the next element to the accumulator, an initial value for the accumulator of type
Int, and an array of
Ints to add. For the first argument, we can just use the addition operator, and the initial value of the accumulator will be zero:
> foldl (+) 0 (1 .. 5) 15
In this case, it didn't matter whether we used
foldr, because the result is the same, no matter what order the additions happen in:
> foldr (+) 0 (1 .. 5) 15
Let's write an example where the choice of folding function does matter, in order to illustrate the difference. Instead of the addition function, let's use string concatenation to build a string:
> foldl (\acc n -> acc <> show n) "" [1,2,3,4,5] "12345" > foldr (\n acc -> acc <> show n) "" [1,2,3,4,5] "54321"
This illustrates the difference between the two functions. The left fold expression is equivalent to the following application:
((((("" <> show 1) <> show 2) <> show 3) <> show 4) <> show 5)
whereas the right fold is equivalent to this:
((((("" <> show 5) <> show 4) <> show 3) <> show 2) <> show 1)
It is easy to verify this problem, with the following code in PSCi:
> f 0 = 0 > f n = 1 + f (n - 1) > f 10 10 > f 100000 RangeError: Maximum call stack size exceeded
This is a problem. If we are going to adopt recursion as a standard technique from functional programming, then we need a way to deal with possibly unbounded recursion.
PureScript provides a partial solution to this problem in the form of tail recursion optimization.
Note: more complete solutions to the problem can be implemented in libraries using so-called trampolining, but that is beyond the scope of this chapter. The interested reader can consult the documentation for the
The key observation which enables tail recursion optimization is the following: a recursive call in tail position to a function can be replaced with a jump, which does not allocate a stack frame. A call is in tail position when it is the last call made before a function returns. This is the reason why we observed a stack overflow in the example - the recursive call to
f was not in tail position.
In practice, the PureScript compiler does not replace the recursive call with a jump, but rather replaces the entire recursive function with a while loop.
Here is an example of a recursive function with all recursive calls in tail position:
factTailRec :: Int -> Int -> Int factTailRec 0 acc = acc factTailRec n acc = factTailRec (n - 1) (acc * n)
Notice that the recursive call to
factTailRec is the last thing that happens in this function - it is in tail position.
One common way to turn a function which is not tail recursive into a tail recursive function is to use an accumulator parameter. An accumulator parameter is an additional parameter which is added to a function which accumulates a return value, as opposed to using the return value to accumulate the result.
For example, consider again the
length function presented in the beginning of the chapter:
length :: forall a. Array a -> Int length arr = if null arr then 0 else 1 + (length $ fromMaybe  $ tail arr)
lengthTailRec :: forall a. Array a -> Int lengthTailRec arr = length' arr 0 where length' :: Array a -> Int -> Int length' arr' acc = if null arr' then acc else length' (fromMaybe  $ tail arr') (acc + 1)
In this case, we delegate to the helper function
length', which is tail recursive - its only recursive call is in the last case, and is in tail position. This means that the generated code will be a while loop, and will not blow the stack for large inputs.
To understand the implementation of
lengthTailRec, note that the helper function
length' essentially uses the accumulator parameter to maintain an additional piece of state - the partial result. It starts out at 0, and grows by adding 1 for every element in the input array.
Note also that while we might think of the accumulator as "state", there is no direct mutation going on.
If we can write our recursive functions using tail recursion, then we can benefit from tail recursion optimization, so it becomes tempting to try to write all of our functions in this form. However, it is often easy to forget that many functions can be written directly as a fold over an array or similar data structure. Writing algorithms directly in terms of combinators such as
fold has the added advantage of code simplicity - these combinators are well-understood, and as such, communicate the intent of the algorithm much better than explicit recursion.
For example, we can reverse an array using
> import Data.Foldable > :paste … reverse :: forall a. Array a -> Array a … reverse = foldr (\x xs -> xs <> [x])  … ^D > reverse [1, 2, 3] [3,2,1]
reverse in terms of
foldl will be left as an exercise for the reader.
- (Easy) Write a function
foldlto test whether an array of boolean values are all true.
- (Medium - No Test) Characterize those arrays
xsfor which the function
foldl (==) false xsreturns
true. In other words, complete the sentence: "The function returns
- (Medium) Write a function
fibTailRecwhich is the same as
fibbut in tail recursive form. Hint: Use an accumulator parameter.
- (Medium) Write
reversein terms of
In this section, we're going to apply what we've learned, writing functions which will work with a model of a filesystem. We will use maps, folds and filters to work with a predefined API.
Data.Path module defines an API for a virtual filesystem, as follows:
- There is a type
Pathwhich represents a path in the filesystem.
- There is a path
rootwhich represents the root directory.
lsfunction enumerates the files in a directory.
filenamefunction returns the file name for a
sizefunction returns the file size for a
Pathwhich represents a file.
isDirectoryfunction tests whether a
Pathis a file or a directory.
In terms of types, we have the following type definitions:
root :: Path ls :: Path -> Array Path filename :: Path -> String size :: Path -> Maybe Int isDirectory :: Path -> Boolean
We can try out the API in PSCi:
$ spago repl > import Data.Path > root / > isDirectory root true > ls root [/bin/,/etc/,/home/]
Test.Solutions module defines functions which use the
Data.Path API. You do not need to modify the
Data.Path module, or understand its implementation. We will work entirely in the
Let's write a function which performs a deep enumeration of all files inside a directory. This function will have the following type:
allFiles :: Path -> Array Path
We can define this function by recursion. First, we can use
ls to enumerate the immediate children of the directory. For each child, we can recursively apply
allFiles, which will return an array of paths.
concatMap will allow us to apply
allFiles and flatten the results at the same time.
Finally, we use the cons operator
: to include the current file:
allFiles file = file : concatMap allFiles (ls file)
Note: the cons operator
: actually has poor performance on immutable arrays, so it is not recommended in general. Performance can be improved by using other data structures, such as linked lists and sequences.
Let's try this function in PSCi:
> import Test.Solutions > import Data.Path > allFiles root [/,/bin/,/bin/cp,/bin/ls,/bin/mv,/etc/,/etc/hosts, ...]
Great! Now let's see if we can write this function using an array comprehension using do notation.
Recall that a backwards arrow corresponds to choosing an element from an array. The first step is to choose an element from the immediate children of the argument. Then we simply call the function recursively for that file. Since we are using do notation, there is an implicit call to
concatMap which concatenates all of the recursive results.
Here is the new version:
allFiles' :: Path -> Array Path allFiles' file = file : do child <- ls file allFiles' child
Try out the new version in PSCi - you should get the same result. I'll let you decide which version you find clearer.
(Easy) Write a function
onlyFileswhich returns all files (not directories) in all subdirectories of a directory.
(Medium) Write a function
whereIsto search for a file by name. The function should return a value of type
Maybe Path, indicating the directory containing the file, if it exists. It should behave as follows:
> whereIs root "ls" Just (/bin/) > whereIs root "cat" Nothing
Hint: Try to write this function as an array comprehension using do notation.
(Difficult) Write a function
largestSmallestwhich takes a
Pathand returns an array containing the single largest and single smallest files in the
Path. Note: consider the cases where there are zero or one files in the
Pathby returning an empty array or a one-element array respectively.
In this chapter, we covered the basics of recursion in PureScript, as a means of expressing algorithms concisely. We also introduced user-defined infix operators, standard functions on arrays such as maps, filters and folds, and array comprehensions which combine these ideas. Finally, we showed the importance of using tail recursion in order to avoid stack overflow errors, and how to use accumulator parameters to convert functions to tail recursive form.