At times, you want to do things again and again and again. For example, you might want to do something with each value in a list. In general, the term used for doing things again and again is called repetition. In Scheme, the primary form used for repetition is called recursion, and involves having procedures call themselves.
As we have already seen, it is commonplace for the body of a procedure to
include calls to another procedure, or even to several others. For example,
we might write our
find one root of the quadratic equation as
(define root1 (lambda (a b c) (/ (+ (- 0 b) (sqrt (- (* b b) (* 4 a c)))) (* 2 a))))
Here, there are calls to addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, and
square root in the definition of
Direct recursion is the special case of this construction in which the body of a procedure includes one or more calls to the very same procedure -- calls that deal with simpler or smaller arguments.
For instance, let's define a procedure called
sum that takes
one argument, a list of numbers, and returns the result of adding all of
the elements of the list together:
> (sum (list 91 85 96 82 89)) 443 > (sum (list -17 17 12 -4)) 8 > (sum (list 19/3)) 19/3 > (sum null) 0
Because the list to which we apply
sum may have any number of
elements, we can't just pick out the numbers using
and add them up -- there's no way to know in general whether an element
even exists at the position specified by the second argument to
list-ref. One thing we do know about lists, however, is that
every list is either (a) empty, or (b) composed of a first
element and a list of the rest of the elements, which we can obtain with
Moreover, we can use the predicate
null? to distinguish
between the (a) and (b) cases, and conditional evaluation to
make sure that only the expression for the appropriate case is chosen. So
the structure of our definition is going to look something like this:
(define sum (lambda (ls) (if (null? ls) ; The sum of an empty list ; The sum of a non-empty list )))
The sum of the empty list is easy -- since there's nothing to add, the total is 0.
And we know that in computing the sum of a non-empty list, we can use
(car ls), which is the first element, and
ls), which is the rest of the list.
So the problem is to find the sum of a non-empty list, given
the first element and the rest of the list. Well, the rest of the list is
one of those
simpler or smaller arguments mentioned above.
Since Scheme supports direct recursion, we can invoke the
procedure within its own definition to compute the sum of the elements of
the rest of a non-empty list. Add the first element to this sum, and we're
;;; Procedure: ;;; sum ;;; Parameters: ;;; ls, a list of numbers. ;;; Purpose: ;;; Find the sum of the elements of a given list of numbers ;;; Produces: ;;; total, a number. ;;; Preconditions: ;;; All the elements of ls must be numbers. ;;; Postcondition: ;;; total is the result of adding together all of the elements of ls. ;;; total is a number. ;;; If all the values in ls are exact, total is exact. ;;; If any values in ls are inexact, total is inexact. (define sum (lambda (ls) (if (null? ls) 0 (+ (car ls) (sum (cdr ls)))))
At first, this may look strange or magical, like a circular definition: If
Scheme has to know the meaning of
sum before it can process
the definition of
sum, how does it ever get started?
The answer is what Scheme learns from a procedure definition is not so much the meaning of a word as the algorithm, the step-by-step method, for solving a problem. Sometimes, in order to solve a problem, you have to solve another, somewhat simpler problem of the same sort. There's no difficulty here as long as you can eventually reduce the problem to one that you can solve directly.
Another way to think about it is in terms of the way we normally write
instructions. We often say
go back to the beginning and do the
steps again. Given that we've named the steps in the algorithm,
the recursive call is, in one sense, a way to tell the computer to go
back to the beginning.
The repeatedly solving simpler problems strategy is how
Scheme proceeds when it deals with a call to a recursive
procedure -- say,
(sum (cons 38 (cons 12 (cons 83 null)))).
First, it checks to find out whether the list it is given is empty. In
this case, it isn't. So we need to determine the result of adding together
the value of
(car ls), which in this case is 38, and the sum
of the elements of
(cdr ls) -- the rest of the given list.
The rest of the list at this point is the value of
(cons 12 (cons 83
null)). How do we compute its sum? We call the
procedure again. This list of two elements isn't empty either, so again we
wind up in the alternate of the
if-expression. This time we
want to add 12, the first element, to the sum of the rest of the list. By
rest of the list, this time, we mean the value of
null) -- a one-element list.
To compute the sum of this one-element list, we again invoke the
sum procedure. A one-element list still isn't empty,
so we head once more into the alternate of the
adding the car, 83, to the sum of the elements of the cdr,
rest of the list this time around is empty, so
when we invoke
sum yet one more time, to determine the sum of
this empty list, the test in the
if-expression succeeds and
the consequent, rather than the alternate, is selected. The sum of
null is 0.
We now have to work our way back out of all the procedure calls that have
been waiting for arguments to be computed. The sum of the one-element
list, you'll recall, is 83 plus the sum of
null, that is, 83 +
0, or just 83. The sum of the two-element list is 12 plus the sum of the
(cons 83 null), that is, 12 + 83, or 95. Finally, the sum of
the original three-element list is 38 plus the sum of
(cons 12 (cons
83 null)) that is, 38 + 95, or 133.
Here's a summary of the steps in the evaluation process.
(sum (cons 38 (cons 12 (cons 83 null)))) => (+ 38 (sum (cons 12 (cons 83 null))))) => (+ 38 (+ 12 (sum (cons 83 null)))) => (+ 38 (+ 12 (+ 83 (sum null)))) => (+ 38 (+ 12 (+ 83 0))) => (+ 38 (+ 12 83)) => (+ 38 95) => 133
Talk about delayed gratification! That's a while to wait before we can do the first addition.
The process is exactly the same, by the way, regardless of whether we
construct the three-element list using
cons, as in the example
above, or as
(list 38 12 83) or
'(38 12 83).
Since we get the same list in each case,
sum takes it apart in
exactly the same way no matter what mechanism was used to build it.
The method of recursion works in this case because each time we invoke the
sum procedure, we give it a list that is a little shorter and
so a little easier to deal with, and eventually we reach the base
case of the recursion -- the empty list -- for which the answer can be
If, instead, the problem became harder or more complicated on each
recursive invocation, or if it were impossible ever to reach the base case,
we'd have a runaway recursion -- a programming error that shows up
in DrScheme not as a diagnostic message printed in red, but as an endless
wait for a result. The designers of DrScheme's interface provided a
Break button above the definition window so that you can
interrupt a runaway recursion: Move the mouse pointer onto it and click the
left mouse button, and DrScheme will abandon its attempt to evaluate the
expression it's working on.
As you may have noted, there are three basic parts to these kinds of recursive functions.
You'll come back to these three parts for each function you write.
As you may have noted, an odd thing about the
is that it works from right to left. Traditionally, we sum from left
to right. Can we rewrite
sum to work from left to right?
Certainly, but we may need a helper procedure (another procedure
whose primary purpose is to assist our current procedure) to do so.
If you think about it, when you're summing a list of numbers from left to write, you need to keep track of two different things:
Hence, we'll build our helper procedure with two parameters,
remaining. We'll start
the body with a template for recursive procedures (a test to
determine whether to use the base case or recursive case, the base
case, and the recursive case). We'll then fill in each part.
(define new-sum-helper (lambda (sum-so-far remaining) (if (test) base-case recursive-case)))
The recursive case is fairly easy. We add the first element of
sum-so-far and continue
with the new
sum-so-far and the rest of remaining.
continue, we simply call
(define new-sum-helper (lambda (sum-so-far remaining) (if (test) base-case (new-sum-helper (+ sum-so-far (car remaining)) (cdr remaining)))))
The recursive case then gives us a clue as to what to use for the test. We need to stop when there are no elements left in the list.
(define new-sum-helper (lambda (sum-so-far remaining) (if (null? remaining) base-case (new-sum-helper (+ sum-so-far (car remaining)) (cdr remaining)))))
We're almost done. What should the base case be? In the previous version, it was 0. However, in this case, we've been keeping a running sum. When we run out of things to add, the value of the complete sum is the value of the running sum.
(define new-sum-helper (lambda (sum-so-far remaining) (if (null? remaining) sum-so-far (new-sum-helper (+ sum-so-far (car remaining)) (cdr remaining)))))
Now we're ready to write the primary procedure whose responsibility it is
new-sum will take a list as a parameter. That list will
remaining. What value should
begin with? Since we have not yet added anything when we start, it
begins at 0.
(define new-sum (lambda (ls) (new-sum-helper 0 ls)))
Putting it all together, we get the following.
;;; Procedure: ;;; new-sum ;;; Parameters: ;;; ls, a list of numbers. ;;; Purpose: ;;; Find the sum of the elements of a given list of numbers ;;; Produces: ;;; total, a number. ;;; Preconditions: ;;; All the elements of ls must be numbers. ;;; Postcondition: ;;; total is the result of adding together all of the elements of ls. ;;; total is a number. ;;; If all the values in ls are exact, total is exact. ;;; If any values in ls are inexact, total is inexact. (define new-sum (lambda (ls) (new-sum-helper 0 ls))) ;;; Procedure: ;;; new-sum-helper ;;; Parameters: ;;; sum-so-far, a number. ;;; remaining, a list of numbers. ;;; Purpose: ;;; Add sum-so-far to the sum of the elements of a given list of numbers ;;; Produces: ;;; total, a number. ;;; Preconditions: ;;; All the elements of remaining must be numbers. ;;; sum-so-far must be a number. ;;; Postcondition: ;;; total is the result of adding together sum-so-far and all of the ;;; elements of remaining. ;;; total is a number. ;;; If both sum-so-far and all the values in remaining are exact, ;;; total is exact. ;;; If either sum-so-far or any values in remaining are inexact, ;;; total is inexact. (define new-sum-helper (lambda (sum-so-far remaining) (if (null? remaining) sum-so-far (new-sum-helper (+ sum-so-far (car remaining)) (cdr remaining)))))
Does this change make a difference in the way in which the sum is evaluated? Let's watch.
(new-sum (cons 38 (cons 12 (cons 83 null)))) => (new-sum-helper 0 (cons 38 (cons 12 (cons 83 null)))) => (new-sum-helper (+ 0 38) (cons 12 (cons 83 null))) => (new-sum-helper 38 (cons 12 (cons 83 null))) => (new-sum-helper (+ 38 12) (cons 83 null)) => (new-sum-helper 50 (cons 83 null)) => (new-sum-helper (+ 50 83) null) => (new-sum-helper 133 null) => 133
Note that the intermediate results for
new-sum were different,
new-sum operates from left to right.
Often the computation for a non-empty list involves making another test.
Suppose, for instance, that we want to define a procedure that takes a list
of integers and
filters out the negative ones, so that if, for
instance, we give it a list consisting of -13, 63, -1, 0, 4, and -78, it
returns a list consisting of 63, 0, and 4. We can use direct recursion to
develop such a procedure:
consto attach the car to the new list.
Translating this algorithm into Scheme yields the following definition:
(define filter-out-negatives (lambda (ls) (if (null? ls) null (if (negative? (car ls)) (filter-out-negatives (cdr ls)) (cons (car ls) (filter-out-negatives (cdr ls)))))))
Sometimes the problem that we need an algorithm for doesn't apply to the empty list, even in a vacuous or trivial way, and the base case for a direct recursion instead involves singleton lists -- that is, lists with only one element. For instance, suppose that we want an algorithm that finds the greatest element of a given non-empty list of real numbers.
> (greatest-of-list (list -17 38 62/3 -14/9 204/5 26 19)) 204/5
The assumption that the list is not empty is a precondition for
the meaningful use of this procedure, just as a call to Scheme's built-in
quotient procedure requires that the second argument, the
divisor, be non-zero. You should form the habit of noting and detailing
such preconditions as you write the initial comment for a procedure:
;;; Procedure: ;;; greatest-of-list ;;; Parameters: ;;; numbers, a list of real numbers. ;;; Purpose: ;;; Find the greatest element of a given list of real numbers ;;; Produces: ;;; greatest, a real number. ;;; Preconditions: ;;; ls is not empty. ;;; All the values in numbers are real numbers. That is, ls contains ;;; only numbers, and none of those numbers are complex. ;;; Postconditions: ;;; greatest is an element of numbers (and, by implication, is real). ;;; greatest is greater than or equal to every element of ls.
If a list of real numbers is a singleton, the answer is trivial -- its only
element is its greatest element. Otherwise, we can take the list apart
into its car and its cdr, invoke the procedure recursively to find the
greatest element of the cdr, and use Scheme's built-in procedure
max to compare the car to the greatest element of the cdr,
returning whichever is greater.
We can test whether the given list is a singleton by checking whether its
cdr is an empty list. The value of the expression
ls is a singleton,
ls has two or more elements.
Here, then, is the procedure definition:
(define greatest-of-list (lambda (numbers) (if (null? (cdr numbers)) (car numbers) (max (car numbers) (greatest-of-list (cdr numbers))))))
If someone who uses this procedure happens to violate its precondition, applying the procedure to the empty list, DrScheme notices the error and prints out a diagnostic message:
> (greatest-of-list null) cdr: expects argument of type <pair>; given ()
When we define a predicate that uses direct recursion on a given list, the
definition is usually a little simpler if we use
or-expressions rather than
instance, consider a predicate
all-even? that takes a given
list of integers and determines whether all of them are even. As usual, we
consider the cases of the empty list and non-empty lists separately:
vacuously truethat all of its elements are even -- there is certainly no counterexample that one could use to refute the assertion. So
#twhen given the empty list.
all even, the car must clearly be even, and in addition the cdr must be an all-even list. We can use a recursive call to determine whether the cdr is all-even, and we can combine the expressions that test the car and cdr conditions with
andto make sure that they are both satisfied.
all-even? should return
#t when the given
list either is empty or has an even first element and all even elements
after that. This yields the following definition:
;;; Procedure: ;;; all-even? ;;; Parameters: ;;; values, a list of integers. ;;; Purpose: ;;; Determine whether all of the elements of a list of integers ;;; are even. ;;; Produces: ;;; result, a Boolean. ;;; Preconditions: ;;; All the values in the list are integers. ;;; Postconditions: ;;; result is #t if all of the elements of values are even, ;;; #f if any of them is not even. (define all-even? (lambda (values) (or (null? values) (and (even? (car values)) (all-even? (cdr values))))))
values is the empty list,
all-even? applies the
first test in the
or-expression, finds that it succeeds, and
#t. In any other case, the first test fails,
all-even? proceeds to evaluate the first test in the
and-expression. If the first element of
odd, the test fails, so
all-even? stops, returning
#f. However, if the first element of
values is even,
the test succeeds, so
all-even? goes on to the recursive
procedure call, which checks whether all of the remaining elements are
even, and returns the result of this recursive call, however it turns out.
September 2, 1997 [John David Stone]
March 17, 2000 [John David Stone]
Monday, 5 September 2000 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]
Friday, 9 February 2001 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]
Wednesday, 14 February 2001 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]
Thursday, 19 September 2002 [Sameul A. Rebelsky]
Monday, 27 January 2003 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]
Wednesday, 28 January 2004 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]
I usually create these pages
on the fly, which means that I rarely
proofread them and they may contain bad grammar and incorrect details.
It also means that I tend to update them regularly (see the history for
more details). Feel free to contact me with any suggestions for changes.
This document was generated by
Siteweaver on Fri May 7 09:44:39 2004.
The source to the document was last modified on Wed Jan 28 06:31:12 2004.
This document may be found at