Functional Programming

We now turn our attention to procedural abstraction, a strategy for decomposing complex programs into smaller pieces of code in the form of functions (also called procedures or subroutines; there are subtle differences in how these terms are used in various contexts, but for our purposes, we will treat them as synonyms). A function encapsulates some computation behind an interface, and as with any abstraction, the user of a function need only know what the function does and not how it accomplishes it. A function also generalizes computation by taking in arguments that affect what it computes. The result of the computation is the function’s return value.

In this unit, we start by discussing aspects of functions that are relevant to all procedural languages. We then take a closer look at functional programming, a programming paradigm that models computation after mathematical functions.


We first consider various schemes that are used for passing data to functions in the form of parameters and arguments. We make a distinction between the parameters that appear in a function definition, which are also called formal parameters, and the actual values that are passed to the function when it is called. The latter are often called actual parameters, but we will use the term argument to refer to these values and the shorthand parameter for formal parameters.

Keyword Arguments

Some languages allow, or even require, parameter names to be provided when calling a function. This strategy is called named parameters or keyword arguments.

Keyword arguments generally allow arguments to be provided in a different order than the parameter list of a function. In Python, for example, a keyword argument can be used for any parameter. Consider the following code:

def foo(x, y):
    print(x, y)

Calling foo() without keyword arguments passes the first argument as the first parameter, and the second argument as the second parameter:

>>> foo(1, 2)
1 2

However, the arguments can be reordered using the parameter names:

>>> foo(y = 1, x = 2)
2 1

A handful of languages require names to be provided for all or most arguments by default, as well as requiring that they be given in the same order as the parameters. The following is an example in Swift 3:

func greet(name: String, withGreeting: String) {
  print(withGreeting + " " + name)

greet(name: "world", withGreeting: "hello")

Calling greet() with the arguments in reverse order is erroneous.

Swift is also rare in that it allows different argument and parameter names to be specified for a parameter. This means that the name provided for an argument when calling a function can differ from the internal name of the parameter used in the body of the function.

Default Arguments

In some languages, a function declaration or definition may be provided with a default argument value that allows the function to be called without that argument. This can be an alternative to overloading, where separate function definitions are written to handle the cases where an argument is present or missing.

The following is an example in Python:

def power(base, exponent=2):
    return base ** exponent

The power() function can be called with a single argument, in which case the default argument 2 is used to compute the square of the number. It can also be called with two arguments to compute an arbitrary power:

>>> power(3)
>>> power(3, 4)

Parameters that have default arguments generally must appear at the end of the parameter list. Languages differ on when and in which environment they evaluate the default argument. The most common strategy is to evaluate a default argument every time a function is called, but to do so in the definition environment (static scope). Python is rare in that it only evaluates default arguments once, when the function definition statement is executed. This means that if the value of the parameter is modified in the function, subsequent calls to the same function could have different default values for the same parameter. For example:

def test(x=[]):


This will print:

[1, 1]

C and C++ have numerous rules concerning default arguments, necessitated by the fact that an entity can be declared multiple times. Default arguments can be provided in both stand-alone declarations as well as definitions. However, it is illegal for multiple visible declarations of the same entity to provide a default argument for the same parameter, even if the provided value is the same. The set of default arguments is the union of all visible declarations within the same scope, and a declaration may only introduce a default argument for a parameter if all following parameters have been supplied with default arguments by the previous and current declarations. Names used in a default argument are resolved at the point of declaration, but the argument expressions are evaluated when the function is called.

The following is a legal example of multiple declarations in C++:

int foo(int x, int y = 4);
int foo(int x = 3, int y) {
  return x + y;

C++ allows default arguments for template parameters in addition to function parameters, with similar validity rules.

Variadic Functions

A language may provide a mechanism for a function to be called with a variable number of arguments. This feature is often referred to as varargs, and functions that make use of it are variadic. The mechanism may provide type safety, or it may permit unsafe uses that result in erroneous or undefined behavior. A variadic parameter generally must appear at the end of a parameter list, and it matches arguments that remain once the non-variadic parameters are matched. Usually, only a single variadic parameter is allowed.

In languages that provide safe variadic functions, a common mechanism for doing so is to automatically package variable arguments into a container, such as an array or tuple. For example, the following Python function computes the product of its arguments:

def product(*args):
    result = 1
    for i in args:
        result *= i
    return result

The * in front of a parameter name indicates a variadic parameter, and the variable arguments are passed as a tuple bound to that name. The function above iterates over the elements of the tuple, updating the total product. In order to call product(), 0 or more arguments must be provided:

>>> product()
>>> product(1, 2, 3)

Python also provides variadic keyword arguments, which are packaged into a dictionary. Placing ** in front of a parameter specifies that it is a variadic keyword parameter, and such a parameter must be the last one. As an example, the following function has both a non-keyword variadic parameter and a variadic keyword parameter, printing out the tuple corresponding to the former and the dictionary for the latter:

def print_args(*args, **kwargs):
>>> print_args(3, 4, x = 5, y = 6)
(3, 4)
{'x': 5, 'y': 6}

Finally, Python allows a sequence or dictionary to be “unpacked” using the * or ** operator, allowing the unpacked values to be used where a list of values is required. For example, the following unpacks a list to make a call to product():

>>> product(*[1, 2, 3])

In Python, a variadic parameter can match arguments with any type because Python is dynamically typed. In statically typed languages, however, variadic parameters are usually restricted to a single type, though that type may be polymorphic. For example, the following is a variadic method in Java:

public static void print_all(String... args) {
  for (String s : args) {

The arguments to print_all() must be Strings, and they are packaged into a String array. Java also allows a single String array to be passed in as an argument:

print_all("hello", "world");
print_all(new String[] { "good", "bye" });

C and C++ also have a mechanism for variadic arguments, but it poses significant safety issues. In particular, it provides no information about the number of arguments and their types to the function being called. The following is an example of a function that returns the sum of its arguments:

#include <stdarg.h>

int sum(int count, ...) {
  va_list args;
  int total = 0;
  int i;
  va_start(args, count);
  for (i = 0; i < count; i++) {
    total += va_arg(args, int);
  return total;

In this function, the first argument is assumed to be the number of remaining arguments, and the latter are assumed to have type int. Undefined behavior results if either of these conditions is violated. Another strategy is to use a format string to determine the number and types of arguments, as used in printf() and similar functions. The lack of safety of variadic arguments enables vulnerabilities such as format string attacks.

C++11 provides variadic templates that are type safe. We will discuss them later in the text.

Parameter Passing

Another area in which languages differ is in the semantics and mechanism used in order to communicate arguments between a function and its caller. A function parameter may be unidirectional (used for only passing input to a function or only passing output from a function to its caller), or it may be bidirectional. These cases are referred to as input, output, and input/output parameters. A language need not support all three parameter categories.

Different parameter passing techniques, or call modes, are used by languages. These affect the semantics of arguments and parameters as well as what parameter categories are supported. The following are specific call modes used by different languages:

  • Call by value. A parameter represents a new variable in the frame of a function invocation. The argument value is copied into the storage associated with the new variable. Call-by-value parameters only provide input to a function, as in the following example in C++:

    void foo(int x) {
      cout << x << endl;
    int main() {
      int y = 3;
      foo(y);              // prints 4
      cout << y << endl;   // prints 3

    Even though foo() modifies the input value, the modified value is not propagated back to the caller.

  • Call by reference. An l-value must be passed as the argument, as the parameter aliases the object that is passed in. Any modifications to the parameter are reflected in the argument object. Thus, call by reference parameters provide both input and output. In C++, reference parameters provide call by reference, and they may be restricted to just input by declaring them const 1. The following C++ example uses call by reference to swap the values of two objects:

    void swap(int &x, int &y) {
      int tmp = x;
      x = y;
      y = tmp;
    int main() {
      int x = 3, y = 4;
      swap(x, y);
      cout << x << " " << y << endl;   // prints 4 3

    The const qualification further allows r-values to be passed as an argument, since C++ allows const l-value references to bind to r-values.

    Call by reference is sometimes used to refer to passing objects indirectly using pointers. The following C/C++ function swaps object values using pointers:

    void swap(int *x, int *y) {
      int tmp = *x;
      *x = *y;
      *y = tmp;
    int main() {
      int x = 3, y = 4;
      swap(&x, &y);
      printf("%d %d\n", x, y);   // prints 4 3

    Technically speaking, however, the arguments and parameters are separate pointer objects that are passed by value. That being said, the effect emulates call by reference, enabling both input and output to be achieved through a parameter.

  • Call by result. In this mode, a parameter represents a new variable that is not initialized with a value from the caller. Instead, the caller specifies an l-value for the argument, and when the function call terminates, the final value of the parameter is copied to the l-value. Thus, call by result only provides output parameters. The following is an example, using C-like syntax with call by result:

    void foo(result int x) {
      x = 3;
      x++;      // x is now 4
    int y = 5;
    foo(y);     // y is now 4
    print(y);   // prints 4
  • Call by value-result. This is the combination of call by value and call by result. The argument value is copied into a new variable corresponding to the parameter, and then upon return from the function, the value of the parameter is copied back to the l-value provided by the caller. This differs from call by reference in that copies are made upon entry and exit to the function. This can be illustrated by passing the same l-value to multiple parameters, as in the following example using C-like syntax with call by value-result:

    int foo(value-result int x, value-result int y) {
      return x - y;
    int z = 3;
    print(foo(z, z));   // prints 1
    print(z);           // prints 3 or 4, depending on the semantics

    In this code, x and y are new variables that are initialized to the value of z, i.e. 3. The increment of x does not affect y, since they are separate variables, so the call to foo() returns 1. Thus, 1 is printed. (The final value of z depends on the semantics of the language as to whether it is copied from x or y.) If call by reference were used instead, then x and y would alias the same object, and the call to foo() would return 0.

  • Call by name. In this mode, a full expression can be provided as an argument, but it is not evaluated at the time a function is called. Instead, the parameter name is replaced by the expression where the name occurs in the function, and the expression is evaluated at the time that it is encountered in the body. This is a form of lazy evaluation, where a value is not computed until it is needed. The following is an example using C-like syntax with call by name:

    void foo(name int x) {
      print(x);   // becomes print(++y)
      print(x);   // becomes print(++y)
    int y = 3;
    foo(++y);     // prints 4, then 5; y is now 5
    print(y);     // prints 5

    There is a subtle issue that arises in call by name. Consider the following code that uses C-like syntax with call by name:

    void bar(name int x) {
      int y = 3;
      print(x + y);
    int y = 1;
    bar(y + 1);

    If we replace the occurrence of the parameter x in bar() with the argument expression, we get y + 1 + y as the argument to print(). If this is evaluated in the environment of bar(), the result is 7. This is undesirable, since it means that the implementation detail of a local declaration of y changes the behavior of the function.

    Instead, the argument expression should be evaluated in the environment of caller. This requires passing both the argument and its environment to the function invocation. Languages that use call by name often use a compiler-generated local function, called a thunk, to encapsulate the argument expression and its environment. This thunk is then passed to the invoked function, and it is the thunk that is called when the parameter is encountered.

    In some languages, the expression corresponding to a call-by-name parameter is only evaluated the first time the parameter is referenced, caching the result. The cached result is then used in each subsequent occurrence of the parameter.

Call by value is the call mode used by most modern languages, including C, C++ (for non-reference parameters), Java, and Python. Programmers often mistakenly believe the latter two languages use call by reference, but in reality, they combine call by value with reference semantics. This combination is sometimes called call by object reference. The following example illustrates that Python is call by value:

def swap(x, y):
    tmp = x
    x = y
    y = tmp
>>> x, y = 1, 2
>>> swap(x, y)
>>> x, y
(1, 2)

The erroneous swap() function merely changes the values of the local variables, which changes the objects they refer to, without affecting the variables used as arguments. This demonstrates that the storage for the global x and y is distinct from that of the parameters, so Python does not use call by reference. In fact, Python cannot even emulate call by reference in the manner that C and C++ pointers do.

Evaluation of Function Calls

We proceed to summarize to evaluation process of a function call.

The first step is to determine the non-local environment of a call to a nested function. In languages with nested functions and static scope, a reference to the non-local environment is stored in the associated function object when the nested-function definition itself is executed. Under dynamic scope with deep binding, the non-local environment is determined when the function is referenced by name. Finally, in dynamic scope with shallow binding, the non-local environment is the environment that is active when the function is called.

The next step is to pass the arguments to the function, using a newly created activation record for the function call. The arguments are evaluated in the existing environment and passed to the callee as follows:

  1. Call by value and call by value-result: the argument is evaluated to obtain its r-value. The r-value is copied into the storage for the corresponding parameter in the new activation record.

  2. Call by reference: the argument is evaluated to obtain its l-value. The corresponding parameter is bound to the object associated with the l-value.

  3. Call by result: the argument is evaluated to obtain its l-value. Storage is allocated but not initialized within the new activation record.

  4. Call by name: the argument expression is packaged into a thunk with the current environment. The parameter is bound to a reference to the thunk.

Once the parameters have been passed, execution of the caller pauses, and the body of the callee is executed in an environment consisting of the newly created activation record along with the callee’s non-local environment. For call by name, an occurrence of a call-by-name parameter invokes the corresponding thunk either the first time the parameter is named or every time, according to the semantics of the language.

When the called function returns, its return value, if there is one, is placed in a designated storage location, generally in the activation record of the caller. For a call-by-result or call-by-value-result parameter, the current r-value of the parameter is copied into the object associated with the l-value of the corresponding function-call argument. The activation record for the callee is then destroyed, and execution resumes in the caller at the point following the function call. The evaluation result of the function call itself is the return value of the function.

Introduction to Scheme

In this section, we introduce a high-level programming language that encourages a functional style. Our object of study, the R5RS Scheme language, employs a very similar model of computation to Python’s, but uses only expressions (no statements) and specializes in symbolic computation.

Scheme is a dialect of Lisp, the second-oldest programming language that is still widely used today (after Fortran). The community of Lisp programmers has continued to thrive for decades, and new dialects of Lisp such as Clojure have some of the fastest growing communities of developers of any modern programming language. To follow along with the examples in this text, you can download a Scheme interpreter or use an online interpreter.


Scheme programs consist of expressions, which are either simple expressions or combinations in the form of lists. A simple expression consists of a literal or a symbol. A combination is a compound expression that consists of an operator expression followed by zero or more operand sub-expressions. Both the operator and operands are contained within parentheses:

> (quotient 10 2)

Scheme exclusively uses prefix notation. Operators are often symbols, such as + and *. Compound expressions can be nested, and they may span more than one line:

> (+ (* 3 5) (- 10 6))
> (+ (* 3
        (+ (* 2 4)
           (+ 3 5)
     (+ (- 10 7)

Evaluating a combination requires first examining the operator to see if it represents a special form 2, which has its own evaluation procedure. If the operator is not a special form, then the operator and operand expressions are evaluated in some arbitrary order. The function that is the value of the operator is then applied to the arguments that are the values of the operands.


Scheme also allows the definition of macros, which perform code transformations to a combination before evaluating it. We will revisit Scheme macros later.

The if expression in Scheme is an example of a special form. While it looks syntactically like a call expression, it has a different evaluation procedure. The general form of an if expression is:

(if <predicate> <consequent> <alternative>)

To evaluate an if expression, the interpreter starts by evaluating the <predicate> part of the expression. If the <predicate> evaluates to a true value, the interpreter then evaluates the <consequent> and returns its value. Otherwise it evaluates the <alternative> and returns its value. The <alternative> may be elided.

Numerical values can be compared using familiar comparison operators, but prefix notation is used in this case as well:

> (>= 2 1)

Truth values in Scheme, including the boolean values #t (for true) and #f (for false), can be combined with boolean special forms, which have evaluation procedures as follows:

  • (and <e1> ... <en>) The interpreter evaluates the expressions <e> one at a time, in left-to-right order. If any <e> evaluates to a false value, the value of the and expression is that false value, and the rest of the <e>’s are not evaluated. If all <e>’s evaluate to true values, the value of the and expression is the value of the last one.

  • (or <e1> ... <en>) The interpreter evaluates the expressions <e> one at a time, in left-to-right order. If any <e> evaluates to a true value, that value is returned as the value of the or expression, and the rest of the <e>’s are not evaluated. If all <e>’s evaluate to false values, the value of the or expression is the value of the last one.

Truth values can also be manipulated with the not procedure:

  • (not <e>) The value of a not expression is #t when the expression <e> evaluates to a false value, and #f otherwise.


Values can be named using the define special form:

> (define pi 3.14)
> (* pi 2)

New functions (usually called procedures in Scheme) can be defined using a second version of the define special form. For example, to define squaring, we write:

(define (square x) (* x x))

The general form of a procedure definition is:

(define (<name> <formal parameters>) <body>)

The <name> is a symbol to be associated with the procedure definition in the environment. The <formal parameters> are the names used within the body of the procedure to refer to the corresponding arguments of the procedure. The <body> is an expression that will yield the value of the procedure application when the formal parameters are replaced by the actual arguments to which the procedure is applied. The <name> and the <formal parameters> are grouped within parentheses, just as they would be in an actual call to the procedure being defined.

Having defined square, we can now use it in call expressions:

> (square 21)

> (square (+ 2 5))

> (square (square 3))

User-defined functions can take multiple arguments and include special forms in their bodies:

> (define (average x y)
    (/ (+ x y) 2))
> (average 1 3)
> (define (abs x)
    (if (< x 0)
        (- x)
> (abs -3)

Scheme supports local function definitions with static scope. We will defer discussion of this until we cover higher-order functions.

Anonymous functions, also called lambda functions, are created using the lambda special form. A lambda is used to create a procedure in the same way as define, except that no name is specified for the procedure:

(lambda (<formal-parameters>) <body>)

The resulting procedure is just as much a procedure as one that is created using define. The only difference is that it has not been associated with any name in the environment. In fact, the following expressions are equivalent:

> (define (plus4 x) (+ x 4))
> (define plus4 (lambda (x) (+ x 4)))

Like any expression that has a procedure as its value, a lambda expression can be used as the operator in a call expression:

> ((lambda (x y z) (+ x y (square z))) 1 2 3)

We will examine lambda functions in more detail later.

Compound Values

Pairs are built into the Scheme language. For historical reasons, pairs are created with the cons built-in function, and the elements of a pair are accessed with car and cdr:

> (define x (cons 1 2))
> x
(1 . 2)
> (car x)
> (cdr x)

Recursive lists are also built into the language, using pairs. A special value denoted '() represents the empty list. A recursive list value is rendered by placing its elements within parentheses, separated by spaces:

> (cons 1
        (cons 2
              (cons 3
                    (cons 4 '())
(1 2 3 4)
> (list 1 2 3 4)
(1 2 3 4)
> (define one-through-four (list 1 2 3 4))
> (car one-through-four)
> (cdr one-through-four)
(2 3 4)
> (car (cdr one-through-four))
> (cons 10 one-through-four)
(10 1 2 3 4)
> (cons 5 one-through-four)
(5 1 2 3 4)

Whether a list is empty can be determined using the primitive null? predicate. Using it, we can define the standard sequence operations for computing length and selecting elements:

> (define (length items)
    (if (null? items)
        (+ 1 (length (cdr items)))
> (define (getitem items n)
    (if (= n 0)
        (car items)
        (getitem (cdr items) (- n 1))
> (define squares (list 1 4 9 16 25))
> (length squares)
> (getitem squares 3)

Symbolic Data

All the compound data objects we have used so far were constructed ultimately from numbers. One of Scheme’s strengths is working with arbitrary symbols as data.

In order to manipulate symbols we need a new element in our language: the ability to quote a data object. Suppose we want to construct the list (a b). We can’t accomplish this with (list a b), because this expression constructs a list of the values of a and b rather than the symbols themselves. In Scheme, we refer to the symbols a and b rather than their values by preceding them with a single quotation mark:

> (define a 1)
> (define b 2)
> (list a b)
(1 2)
> (list 'a 'b)
(a b)
> (list 'a b)
(a 2)

In Scheme, any expression that is not evaluated is said to be quoted. This notion of quotation is derived from a classic philosophical distinction between a thing, such as a dog, which runs around and barks, and the word “dog” that is a linguistic construct for designating such things. When we use “dog” in quotation marks, we do not refer to some dog in particular but instead to a word. In language, quotation allow us to talk about language itself, and so it is in Scheme:

> (list 'define 'list)
(define list)

Quotation also allows us to type in compound objects, using the conventional printed representation for lists. We have already seen that '() denotes an empty list. Here are other examples:

> (car '(a b c))

> (cdr '(a b c))
(b c)

Quotation in Scheme is distinct from strings: the latter represent raw, unstructured data in character format, while the former represents structured data:

> "(- 3)"  ; a string containing the characters #\( #\- #\space #\3 #\)
"(- 3)"
> '(- 3)   ; produces a list containing the symbol - and number 3
(- 3)
> (car '(- 3))
> (cdr '(- 3))
> (- 3)    ; calls the - procedure on the number 3

In the examples above, the string literal "(- 3)" evaluates to itself. The quoted expression '(- 3) evaluates to a list containing the symbol - as its first element and the number 3 as its second. The last example evaluates the symbol - to obtain the corresponding procedure, evaluates the number 3 to itself, and then calls the - procedure on the number 3, producing -3. Put another way, data in a string literal remains as character data, neither evaluated nor parsed. A quoted expression is parsed but not evaluated, producing a structured representation of the data. An unquoted expression is both parsed and evaluated by the interpreter.

The full Scheme language contains additional features, such as mutation operations, vectors, and maps. However, the subset we have introduced so far provides a rich functional programming language capable of implementing many of the ideas we have discussed so far.


Recursion is a mechanism for repetition that makes use of functions and function application. It involves a function calling itself directly or indirectly, usually with arguments that are in some sense “smaller” than the previous arguments. A recursive computation terminates when it reaches a base case, an input where the result can be computed directly without making any recursive calls.

It is sufficient for a language to provide recursion and conditionals in order for it to be Turing complete.

Activation Records

On a machine, recursion works due to the fact that each invocation of a function has its own activation record that maps its local variables to values. Consider the following recursive definition of factorial:

def factorial(n):
    if n == 0:
        return 1
    return n * factorial(n - 1)

Calling factorial(4) results in five invocations of factorial(), with arguments from 4 down to 0. Each has its own activation record with its own binding for the parameter n:

factorial(4):   n --> 4
factorial(3):   n --> 3
factorial(2):   n --> 2
factorial(1):   n --> 1
factorial(0):   n --> 0

Figure 18 is an illustration of the set of activation records as produced by Python Tutor.


Figure 18 Activation records used to compute factorial(4).

When n is looked up while executing the body of factorial(), each invocation obtains its own value of n without being affected by the other activation records.

An activation record requires more than just storage for parameters and local variables in order for function invocation to work. Temporary values also need to be stored somewhere, and since each invocation needs its own storage for temporaries, they are generally also placed in the activation record. An invocation also needs to know where to store its return value, usually in temporary storage in the frame of the caller. Finally, a function needs to know how to return execution to its caller. Details are beyond the scope of this text, but included in this information is the instruction address that follows the function call in the caller and the address of the caller’s activation record.

The set of temporary objects can be conservatively determined statically, so the size of an activation record, as well as the placement of objects within it, can be determined at compile time. For factorial() above, temporary storage is required for n - 1 as well as the result of the recursive call to factorial(). The location of the latter in the caller is used by a recursive call to store its return value. Depending on the implementation, the invocation of factorial(0) may still have space for these temporary objects in its activation record even though they will not be used.

Tail Recursion

A recursive computation uses a separate activation record for each call to a function. The amount of space required to store these records is proportional to the number of active function calls. In factorial(n) above, when the computation reaches factorial(0), all n + 1 invocations are active at the same time, requiring space in O(n). Contrast this with the following iterative implementation that uses constant space:

def factorial_iter(n):
    result = 1
    while n > 0:
        result *= n
        n -= 1
    return result

The space requirements of the recursive version of factorial(), however, is not intrinsic to the use of recursion but is a result of how the function is written. An invocation of factorial(k) cannot complete until the recursive call to factorial(k - 1) does, since it has to multiply the result by k. The fact that the invocation has work that needs to be done after the recursive call requires its activation record to be retained during the recursive call, leading to the linear space requirement.

Consider an alternative recursive computation of factorial:

def factorial_tail(n, partial_result = 1):
    if n == 0:
        return partial_result
    return factorial_tail(n - 1, n * partial_result)

Observe that the factorial_tail() function does not do any work after the completion of its recursive call. This means that it no longer needs the storage for parameters, local variables, or temporary objects when the recursive call is made. Furthermore, since factorial(n, k) directly returns the result of the recursive call factorial(n - 1, n * k), the latter can store its return value in the location meant for the return value of factorial(n, k) in the caller of factorial(n, k), and it can return execution directly to that caller. Thus, an optimizing implementation can reuse the space for the activation record of factorial_tail(n, k) for factorial_tail(n - 1, n * k) since the activation record of the former is no longer required.

This process can be generalized to any function call, not just recursive calls. A function call is a tail call if its caller directly returns the value of the call without performing any additional computation. A function is tail recursive if all of its recursive calls are tail calls. Thus, factorial_tail() is tail recursive.

A tail-recursive computation uses only a constant number of activation records, so its space usage matches that of an equivalent iterative computation. In fact, many functional languages do not provide constructs for iteration, since they can be expressed equivalently using tail recursion. These languages often require that implementations perform tail-call optimization, reusing the space for activation records where possible.

Since a tail call requires that no computation be performed after it returns, calls that syntactically appear to be tail calls may not be when implicit computation may occur at the end of a function. A specific example of this is scope-based resource management, as in the example below:

int sum(vector<int> values, int index, int partial_result = 0) {
  if (values.size() == index) {
    return 0;
  return sum(values, index + 1, partial_result + values[index])

While it appears that this code does not do computation after the recursive call, the local vector<int> object has a destructor that must run after the recursive call completes. Thus, the recursive call to sum() is not a tail call, and this computation is not tail recursive.

Another situation that prevents tail-call optimization is when a function contains a function definition within it, in languages that use static scope and support the full power of higher-order functions. The nested function requires access to its definition environment, so that environment must be retained if the nested function can be used after the invocation of its enclosing function completes or within a tail call.

Higher-Order Functions

Recall that a first-class entity is one that supports the operations that can be done on other entities in a language, including being passed as a parameter, returned from a function, and created dynamically. In a language in which functions are first class, it is possible to write higher-order functions that take in another function as a parameter or return a function. Other languages may also support higher-order functions, even if functions are not first-class entities that can be created at runtime.

Function Objects

In some languages, it is possible to define objects that aren’t functions themselves but provide the same interface as a function. These are known as function objects or functors. In general, languages enable functors to be written by allowing the function-call operator to be overloaded. Consider the following example in C++:

class Counter {
  Counter : count(0) {}

  int operator()() {
    return count++;

  int count;

The Counter class implements a functor that returns how many times it has been called. Multiple Counter objects can exist simultaneously, each with their own count:

Counter counter1, counter2;
cout << counter1() << endl;  // prints 0
cout << counter1() << endl;  // prints 1
cout << counter1() << endl;  // prints 2
cout << counter2() << endl;  // prints 0
cout << counter2() << endl;  // prints 1
cout << counter1() << endl;  // prints 3

Functors allow multiple instances of a function-like object to exist, each with their own state that persists over the lifetime of the functor. This is in contrast to functions, where automatic objects do not persist past a single invocation, and static objects persist over the entire program execution.

Python also allows functors to be written by defining the special __call__ method:

class Counter:
    def __init__(self):
        self.count = 0

    def __call__(self):
        self.count += 1
        return self.count - 1

In general, additional parameters can be specified when overloading the function-call operator, emulating functions that can take in those arguments.

Some languages do not allow the function-call operator itself to be overloaded but specify conventions that allow functor-like objects to be defined and used. For example, the following is an implementation of Counter in Java using the Supplier<T> interface, which specifies a zero-argument method that produces a T:

class Counter implements Supplier<Integer> {
  public Integer get() {
    return count++;

  private int count = 0;

This functor-like object is then invoked by explicitly calling the get() method:

Supplier<Integer> counter1 = new Counter();
Supplier<Integer> counter2 = new Counter();
System.out.println(counter1.get()); // prints 0
System.out.println(counter1.get()); // prints 1
System.out.println(counter1.get()); // prints 2
System.out.println(counter2.get()); // prints 0
System.out.println(counter2.get()); // prints 1
System.out.println(counter1.get()); // prints 3

As another example, the Predicate interface in Java is implemented by functor-like objects that take in an argument and return a boolean value:

interface Predicate<T> {
  boolean test(T t);

class GreaterThan implements Predicate<Integer> {
  public GreaterThan(int threshold) {
    this.threshold = threshold;

  public boolean test(Integer i) {
    return i > threshold;

  private int threshold;

Code that uses these functor-like objects calls the test() method rather than calling the object directly:

GreaterThan gt3 = new GreaterThan(3);
System.out.println(gt3.test(2));    // prints out false
System.out.println(gt3.test(20));   // prints out true

Separate interfaces are provided for common patterns in the java.util.function library package.

Functions as Parameters

A higher-order function may take another function as a parameter. We first examine languages that only have top-level functions and allow a pointer or reference to a function to be passed as an argument. We then examine how passing a function as an argument can affect the environment in which the function’s code is executed.

Function Pointers

In some languages, functions can be passed as parameters or return values but cannot be created within the context of another function. In these languages, all functions are defined at the top level, and only a pointer or reference to a function may be used as a value. Consider the following example in C, a language that provides function pointers:

void apply(int *array, size_t size, int (*func)(int)) {
  for (; size > 0; --size, ++array) {
    *array = func(*array);

int add_one(int x) {
  return x + 1;

int main() {
  int A[5] = { 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 };
  apply(A, 5, add_one);
  printf("%d, %d, %d, %d, %d\n", A[0], A[1], A[2], A[3], A[4]);
  return 0;

The apply() function takes in an array, its size, and a pointer to a function that takes in an int and returns an int. It applies the function to each element in the array, replacing the original value with the result. The add_one() function is passed as an argument to apply() (C automatically converts a function to a function pointer), and the result is that each element in A has been incremented.

Binding Policy

In the code above, there are three environments associated with the add_one() function: its definition environment, the environment where it was referenced (in main()), and the environment where it was called (in apply()). Depending on the semantics of the language, any of these three environments may be components of the environment in which the body of add_one() is executed.

Recall that in static scope, the code in a function has access to the names in its definition environment, whereas in dynamic scope, it has access to the names in the environment of its use. Considering dynamic scope, is the non-local environment of a function the one where the function was referenced or the one where it was called? The following is an example where this distinction is relevant:

int foo(int (*bar)()) {
  int x = 3;
  return bar();

int baz() {
  return x;

int main() {
  int x = 4;

In dynamic scope, a function has access to the environment of its use. In the example above, however, the result is different depending on if the use environment of baz() is where the function was referenced or where it was called. In the former case, the non-local environment of baz() is the environment of main(), and the x in the body of baz() would refer to the one defined in main(). This is known as deep binding. In the latter case, the non-local environment of baz() is the environment of foo(), and x in baz() would refer to the one defined in foo(). This is called shallow binding. Both approaches are valid, and the binding policy of a language determines which one is used.

Binding policy can also make a difference when static scope is used in the case of functions defined locally inside of a recursive function. However, deep binding is universally used in languages with static scope, so that the environment established at the time of a function’s definition is the one the function has access to.

Nested Functions

A key feature of functional programming is the ability to define a function from within another function, allowing the dynamic creation of a function. In languages with static scoping, such a nested function has access to its definition environment, and the combination of a function and its definition environment is called a closure. Variables used in the nested function but defined in the enclosing environment are said to be captured by the closure. If a nested function is returned or otherwise leaks from the enclosing function, the environment of the enclosing function generally must persist after the function returns, since bindings within it may be accessed by the nested function.

As an example, consider the following higher-order function in Python that returns a nested function:

def make_greater_than(threshold):
    def greater_than(x):
        return x > threshold

    return greater_than

The make_greater_than() function takes in a threshold value and constructs a nested function that determines if its input is greater than the threshold value. The threshold variable is located in the activation record of make_greater_than() but is captured by greater_than(). Since the latter is returned, the activation record must persist so that invocations of greater_than() can access the binding for threshold.

Observe that each time make_greater_than() is called, a different instance of greater_than() is created with its own enclosing environment. Thus, different invocations of make_greater_than() result in different functions:

>>> gt3 = make_greater_than(3)
>>> gt30 = make_greater_than(30)
>>> gt3(2)
>>> gt3(20)
>>> gt30(20)
>>> gt30(200)

Figure 19 from Python Tutor shows the state when gt3(2) is called.


Figure 19 Environment for multiple instances of a nested function.

The parent frame of the invocation is that in which threshold is bound to 3, so x > threshold evaluates to false.

Languages that are not purely functional may allow modification of a captured variable. For example, the following defines a data abstraction for a bank account using nested functions:

def make_account(balance):
    def deposit(amount):
        nonlocal balance
        balance += amount
        return balance

    def withdraw(amount):
        nonlocal balance
        if 0 <= amount <= balance:
            balance -= amount
            return amount
            return 0

    return deposit, withdraw

The nonlocal statements are required in Python, since it assumes that assignments are to local variables by default. We can then use the created functions as follows:

>>> deposit, withdraw = make_account(100)
>>> withdraw(10)
>>> deposit(0)
>>> withdraw(20)
>>> deposit(0)
>>> deposit(10)
>>> withdraw(100)
>>> deposit(0)

We will return to data abstraction using functions later.


A common pattern in Python is to transform a function (or class) by applying a higher-order function to it. Such a higher-order function is called a decorator, and Python has specific syntax for decorating functions:

def <name>(<parameters>):

This is largely equivalent to:

def <name>(<parameters>):

<name> = <decorator>(<name>)

The decorated function’s definition is executed normally, and then the decorator is called on the function. The result of this invocation is then bound to the name of the function.

As an example, suppose we wanted to trace when a function is called by printing out the name of the function as well as its arguments. We could define a higher-order function that takes in a function and returns a new nested function that first prints out the name of the original function and its arguments and then calls it:

def trace(fn):
    def tracer(*args):
                              ', '.join(str(arg) for arg in args)))
        return fn(*args)

    return tracer

Here, we make use of variadic arguments to pass any number of arguments to the original function. (For simplicity, we ignore keyword arguments.) We can then use decorator syntax to apply this to a function:

def factorial(n):
    return 1 if n == 0 else n * factorial(n - 1)

Now whenever a call to factorial() is made, we get a printout of the arguments:

>>> factorial(5)

Notice that the recursive calls also call the transformed function. This is because the name factorial is now bound to the nested tracer function in the enclosing environment of factorial(), so looking up the name results in the tracer function rather than the original one. A side effect of this is that we have mutual recursion where a set of functions indirectly make recursive calls through each other. In this case, the tracer calls the original factorial(), which calls the tracer, as shown in the diagram in Figure 20 for factorial(2) from Python Tutor.


Figure 20 Mutual recursion resulting from decorating a recursive function.

Lambda Functions

Nested function definitions allow the construction of functions at runtime, fulfilling one of the requirements for functions to be a first-class entity. So far, however, we’ve only seen nested function definitions that are named, introducing a binding into the definition environment. This is in contrast to other first-class entities, such as data values, that can be created without being bound to a name. Just like it can be useful to construct a value without a name, such as when passing it as an argument or returning it, it can be useful to construct unnamed functions. These are called anonymous or lambda functions.

Lambda functions are ubiquitous in functional languages, but many common imperative languages also provide some form of lambda functions. The syntax and capabilities differ between different languages, and we will examine a few representative examples.


Lambdas are a common construct in the Lisp family of languages, those languages being primarily functional, and Scheme is no exception. The lambda special form constructs an anonymous function:

(lambda (<parameters>) <body>)

A function definition using the define form can then be considered a shorthand for a variable definition and a lambda:

(define (<name> <parameters>) <body>)
(define <name> (lambda (<parameters>) <body>))

As an example, consider the following function that creates and returns an anonymous function that adds a given number to its argument:

(define (make-adder n)
  (lambda (x)
    (+ x n)

This is simpler and more appropriate than an equivalent definition that only uses define:

(define (make-adder n)
  (define (adder x)
    (+ x n)

We can then call the result of make-adder on individual arguments:

> (define add3 (make-adder 3))
> (add3 4)
> (add3 5)
> ((make-adder 4) 5)

Nested functions in Scheme use static scope, so the anonymous function has access to the variable n in its definition environment. It then adds its own argument x to n, returning the sum.

Scheme is not purely functional, allowing mutation of variables and compound data. Nested functions, whether anonymous or not, can modify variables in their non-local environment. The following function creates a counter function that returns how many times it has been called:

(define (make-counter)
  (let ((count 0))
    (lambda ()
      (set! count (+ count 1))
      (- count 1)

The set! form mutates a variable to the given value. We can then use the make-counter function as follows:

> (define counter (make-counter))
> (counter)
> (counter)
> (counter)


Python supports anonymous functions with the lambda expression. This takes the following form:

lambda <parameters>: <body expression>

The syntax of lambda expressions in Python produce a constraint on anonymous functions that is not present in named nested functions: the body must be a single expression, and the value of that expression is automatically the return value of the function. In practice, this limitation is usually not a problem, since lambdas are often used in functional contexts where statements and side effects may not be appropriate.

The following is a definition of the greater_than() higher-order function that uses a lambda:

def make_greater_than(threshold):
    return lambda value: value > threshold

As can be seen in this example, simple nested functions that are used in only a single place can be written more succinctly with a lambda expression than with a definition statement.

While lambda functions in Python have access to their definition environment, they are syntactically prevented from directly modifying bindings in the non-local environment.


Java does not allow nested function definitions, but it does have syntax for what it calls “lambda expressions.” In actuality, this construct constructs an anonymous class with a method corresponding to the given parameters and body, and the compiler infers the base type of this class from the context of its use.

The following example uses a lambda expression to construct a functor-like object:

public static IntPredicate makeGreaterThan(int threshold) {
  return value -> value > threshold;

We can then use the result as follows:

IntPredicate gt3 = makeGreaterThan(3);
System.out.println(gt3.test(2));    // prints out false
System.out.println(gt3.test(20));   // prints out true

Java allows a lambda to take in any number of arguments, and providing types for the parameters is optional. The body can be a single expression or a block containing arbitrary statements.

On the other hand, Java places a significant restriction on lambda expressions. A lambda can only access variables in its definition environment that are never reassigned, and it cannot modify them itself. This is because lambdas are not implemented as closures, but rather as functor-like objects that store “captured” variables as members. The following is effectively equivalent to the code above, but using named classes and methods:

public static IntPredicate makeGreaterThan(int threshold) {
  return Anonymous(threshold);

class Anonymous implements IntPredicate {
  Anonymous(int threshold) {
    this.threshold = threshold;

  public boolean test(int value) {
    return value > threshold;

  private final int threshold;


Like Java, C++ has lambda expressions, but they provide more functionality than those in Java. A programmer can specify which variables in the definition environment are captured, and whether they are captured by value or by reference. The former creates a copy of a variable, while the latter allows a captured variable to be modified by the lambda.

The simplest lambda expressions are those that do not capture anything from the enclosing environment. Such a lambda can be written as a top-level function instead 3, and C++ even allows a captureless lambda to be converted to a function pointer. For example, the following code passes a lambda function to a higher-order function that takes in a function pointer:


A captureless lambda is actually implemented as a functor, avoiding an indirection when the lambda is invoked without first converting it to a function pointer.

int max_element(int *array, size_t size, bool (*less)(int, int)) {
  assert(size > 0);
  int max_so_far = array[0];
  for (size_t i = 1; i < size; i++) {
    if (less(max_so_far, array[i])) {
      max_so_far = array[i];
  return max_so_far;

int main() {
  int array[5] = { 3, 1, 4, 2, 5 };
  cout << max_element(array, 5,
                      [](int a, int b) {
                        return a > b;
       << endl;

The code constructs a lambda function that returns true if the first element is bigger than the second, and passing that to max_element() finds the minimum rather than the maximum element.

Lambdas that capture variables, whether by value or by reference, have state that is associated with a specific evaluation of a lambda expression, and this state can differ between different calls to the enclosing function. As a result, such a lambda is not representable as a top-level function. Instead, C++ implicitly defines a functor type for a capturing lambda. Evaluating a capturing lambda expression constructs an instance of this functor type, with the captured values and references stored as non-static members. Since the functor type is implicitly defined, type deduction with the auto keyword is usually used where the type of the functor is required.

The following is an example that uses a lambda to define a greater-than functor:

auto make_greater_than(int threshold) {
  return [=](int value) {
    return value > threshold;

int main() {
  auto gt3 = make_greater_than(3);
  cout << gt3(2) << endl;                      // prints 0
  cout << gt3(20) << endl;                     // prints 1
  cout << make_greater_than(30)(20) << endl;   // prints 0

The = in the capture list for the lambda specifies that all variables from the enclosing environment that are used by the lambda should be captured by value. The code above is equivalent to the following that explicitly uses a functor:

class GreaterThan {
  GreaterThan(int threshold_in) : threshold(threshold_in) {}

  bool operator()(int value) const {
    return value > threshold;

  const int threshold;

auto make_greater_than(int threshold) {
  return GreaterThan(threshold);

As indicated in the code above, a variable captured by value is implicitly qualified as const.

An enclosing variable may also be captured by reference. However, a variable that is captured by reference does not have its lifetime extended. The reasoning for this is twofold. The first, practical reason is that C++ implementations generally use stack-based management of automatic variables, and when a function returns, its activation record on the stack is reclaimed. Requiring that a variable live past its function invocation prevents activation records from being managed using a stack. The second, more fundamental reason is that the RAII (i.e. scope-based resource management) paradigm in C++ requires that when an automatic variable goes out of scope, the destructor for its corresponding object is run and the object reclaimed. Relaxing this requirement would result in undesirable effects similar to those of finalizers in garbage-collected languages.

The end result is that a lambda functor that captures by reference should not be used past the existence of its enclosing function invocation. The following counter definition is therefore erroneous:

auto make_counter() {
  int count = 0;
  return [&]() {
    return count++;

The lifetime of the count variable ends when make_counter() returns, so that calling the lambda functor afterwards erroneously uses a dead object.

An alternative is to capture count by value, which stores a copy as a member of the lambda, and then mark the lambda as mutable. This removes the implicit const qualification from variables captured by value, allowing them to be modified:

auto make_counter() {
  int count = 0;
  return [=]() mutable {
    return count++;

This definition is equivalent to the Counter functor we defined in Function Objects.

Common Patterns

We now take a look at some common computational patterns in functional programming. We will look at how to abstract these patterns as higher-order functions, as well as how to use them with lambda functions.

Sequence Patterns

A number of functional patterns operate over sequences. These patterns take in a sequence and a function and apply the function to elements of the sequence, producing a new sequence or value as a result. Since these are functional patterns, the original sequence is left unchanged.


The map pattern takes a sequence and a function and produces a new sequence that results from applying the function to each element of the original sequence. For example, the following adds 1 to each element of a Scheme list:

> (map (lambda (x) (+ x 1)) '(1 2 3))
(2 3 4)

We can define the map higher-order function as follows:

(define (map func lst)
  (if (null? lst)
      (cons (func (car lst))
            (map func (cdr lst)))

Applying map to an empty list results in an empty list. Otherwise, map applies the given function to the first item in the list and recursively calls map on the rest of the list.

Python has a built-in map() function that takes in a function and an iterator and returns an iterator that results from applying the function to each item in the original iterator.


In the reduce pattern, a two-argument function is applied to the first two items in a sequence, then it is applied to the result and the next item, then to the result of that and the next item, and so on. A reduction may be left or right associative, but the former is more common. Figure 21 illustrates the difference between left- and right-associative reductions.


Figure 21 Left-associative and right-associative reductions.

Often, if only a single item is in the sequence, that item is returned without applying the function. Some definitions allow an initial value to be specified as well for the case in which the sequence is empty.

The following examples compute the sum and maximum element of a Scheme list:

> (reduce-right (lambda (x y) (+ x y)) '(1 2 3 4))
> (reduce-right (lambda (x y) (if (> x y) x y)) '(1 2 3 4))

We can define a right-associative reduction as follows, which assumes that the given list has at least one element:

(define (reduce-right func lst)
  (if (null? (cdr lst))
      (car lst)
      (func (car lst) (reduce-right func (cdr lst)))

Python includes a left-associative reduce() function in the functools module.


The filter pattern uses a predicate function to filter items out of a list. A predicate is a function that takes in a value and returns true or false. In filter, elements that test true are retained while those that test false are discarded.

The following example filters out the odd elements from a list:

> (filter (lambda (x) (= (remainder x 2) 0)) '(1 2 3 4))
(2 4)

The following is a definition of filter:

(define (filter pred lst)
  (if (null? lst)
      (if (pred (car lst))
          (cons (car lst) (filter pred (cdr lst)))
          (filter pred (cdr lst))

Python provides a built-in filter() function as well.


The any pattern is a higher-order version of or (disjunction). It takes a predicate and applies the predicate to each successive item in a list, returning the first true result from the predicate. If no item tests true, then false is returned. Some languages use the name find for this pattern rather than any.

The following examples search a list for an even value:

> (any (lambda (x) (= (remainder x 2) 0)) '(1 2 3 4))
> (any (lambda (x) (= (remainder x 2) 0)) '(1 3))

A short-circuiting any function can be defined as follows:

(define (any pred lst)
  (if (null? lst)
      (let ((result (pred (car lst))))
        (or result
            (any pred (cdr lst))

The every pattern can be similarly defined as the higher-order analogue of conjunction.


Programs often compose functions, applying a function to the result of applying another function to a value. Wrapping these two function applications together in a single function enables both operations to be done with a single call. For example, the following multiplies each item in a list by three and then adds one:

> (map (compose (lambda (x) (+ x 1))
                (lambda (x) (* 3 x)))
       '(3 5 7)
(10 16 22)

We can define compose as follows:

(define (compose f g)
  (lambda (x)
    (f (g x))

Partial Application and Currying

Partial application allows us to specify some arguments to a function at a different time than the remaining arguments. Supplying \(k\) arguments to a function that takes in \(n\) arguments results in a function that takes in \(n-k\) arguments.

As an example, suppose we want to define a function that computes powers of two. In Python, we can supply 2 as the first argument to the built-in pow() function to produce such a function. We need a partial-application higher-order function such as the following:

def partial(func, *args):
    def newfunc(*nargs):
        return func(*args, *nargs)

    return newfunc

We can then construct a powers-of-two function as follows:

>>> power_of_two = partial(pow, 2)
>>> power_of_two(3)
>>> power_of_two(7)

Python actually provides a more general implementation of partial() that works for keyword arguments as well in the functools module. C++ provides partial application using the bind() template in the <functional> header.

A related but distinct concept is currying, which transforms a function that takes in \(n\) arguments to a sequence of \(n\) functions that each take in a single argument. For example, the pow() function would be transformed as follows:

>>> curried_pow(2)(3)

The curried version of the function takes in a single argument, returning another function. The latter takes in another argument and produces the final value. Since the original pow() takes in two arguments, the curried function chain has length two.

We can define currying for two-parameter functions as follows in Python:

def curry2(func):
    def curriedA(a):
        def curriedB(b):
            return func(a, b)

        return curriedB

    return curriedA

Then we can call curry2(pow) to produce a curried version of pow().

We can also define an “uncurry” operation that takes in a function that must be applied to a sequence of \(n\) arguments and produce a single function with \(n\) parameters. The following does so for a sequence of two arguments:

def uncurry2(func):
    def uncurried(a, b):
        return func(a)(b)

    return uncurried
>>> uncurried_pow = uncurry2(curried_pow)
>>> uncurried_pow(2, 3)

Some functional languages, such as Haskell, only permit functions with a single parameter. Functions that are written to take in more than one parameter are automatically curried.


An running program encompasses two types of state: the data that the program is using and the control state of the program, such as the stack of active functions and the code locations in each of those functions. This control state can be represented in the form of a continuation.

A continuation can be invoked in order to return control to a previous state. Since a continuation only represents control state, invoking a continuation does not return data to their previous state. Instead, data retain the values they had at the time the continuation was invoked. The following is an analogy of invoking a continuation by Luke Palmer:

Say you’re in the kitchen in front of the refrigerator, thinking about a sandwitch [sic]. You take a continuation right there and stick it in your pocket. Then you get some turkey and bread out of the refrigerator and make yourself a sandwitch, which is now sitting on the counter. You invoke the continuation in your pocket, and you find yourself standing in front of the refrigerator again, thinking about a sandwitch. But fortunately, there’s a sandwitch on the counter, and all the materials used to make it are gone. So you eat it. :-)

In most non-functional languages, a continuation only exists in implicit form, and there is a restricted set of operations that can be done to invoke a continuation. In many functional languages, however, continuations are first-class entities that can be passed as parameters and returned from functions. We first examine restricted forms of continuations before considering the more general, first-class version.

Restricted Continuations

Simple forms of control flow, such as conditionals and loops, do not involve continuations, since they do not return to a previous state of control. Subroutines and exceptions, on the other hand, do revert control to a previous state and thus make implicit use of continuations.


Subroutines involve transfer of control between a caller and callee. When a subroutine is called, the control state of the caller must be saved, so that when the subroutine completes, control can be transferred back to the caller. Implementations make use of activation records and call stacks that record the sequence of active calls as well as information about how to return execution to a previous call. These data structures represent the control state of a program and thus constitute a continuation.

Languages restrict how the implicit continuation representing a caller’s state can be invoked. In some languages, including many functional languages such as Scheme, the caller’s continuation is only invoked when the subroutine completes normally. Other languages have a mechanism to terminate a subroutine early, sometimes called abrupt termination, and invoke the continuation of the caller. In imperative languages, this usually takes the form of a return statement. For example, the following Python function uses a return to immediately invoke the caller’s continuation:

def foo(x):
    return x   # invoke caller's continuation
    # more code, but not executed
    if x < 0:

As with any continuation, invoking a caller’s continuation does not restore the previous state of data. For example, consider the following Python code:

def outer():
    x = 0

    def inner():
        nonlocal x
        x += 1


When the call to inner() completes, the continuation of outer() is resumed, but the value of x is not restored to its state before the call to inner(). Instead, it retains its modified value, and the code prints 1.

A more general concept provided by some languages is a coroutine, which involves two routines passing control to each other by invoking each other’s continuation. Coroutines differ from mutual recursion in that each routine’s control state is resumed when it is invoked rather than creating a fresh function invocation with its own state.

The following is pseudocode for coroutines that pass control to each other, with one producing items and the other consuming them:

var q := new queue

coroutine produce
        while q is not full
            create some new items
            add the items to q
        yield to consume

coroutine consume
        while q is not empty
            remove some items from q
            use the items
        yield to produce

Both coroutines yield control to the other. Unlike with subroutines, when a coroutine is passed control, execution resumes from where it previously paused and in the context of the same environment.

Python provides an implementation of coroutines over a tasking layer, with several abstractions for passing data between running coroutines and waiting for completion of an action. The following implements the producer/consumer model using an asyncio.Queue for passing values between the producer and consumer:

import asyncio

q = asyncio.Queue(2)     # queue capacity of 2

async def produce():
    for i in range(5):
        print('[producer] putting', i)
        await q.put(i)
        print('[producer] done putting', i)

async def consume():
    for i in range(5):
        print('[consumer] got:', await q.get())

loop = asyncio.get_event_loop()
loop.run_until_complete(asyncio.gather(produce(), consume()))

The latter two statements start the producer and consumer coroutines running and wait for their completion. The producer passes control to the coroutine returned by q.put(i), which places an item into the queue. Execution will not return to the producer until this completes, so the producer will be forced to wait if the queue is full. The consumer extracts items from the queue using the q.get() coroutine, waiting if no items are available. The following is the output when the code is run:

[producer] putting 0
[producer] done putting 0
[producer] putting 1
[producer] done putting 1
[producer] putting 2
[consumer] got: 0
[consumer] got: 1
[producer] done putting 2
[producer] putting 3
[producer] done putting 3
[producer] putting 4
[consumer] got: 2
[consumer] got: 3
[producer] done putting 4
[consumer] got: 4

This demonstrates how execution passes back and forth between the consumer and producer coroutines.


Exceptions also cause control to be passed from one execution state to an earlier one, but unlike returning from a subroutine, the receiver of control need not be the direct caller of a function. Upon entering a try block, the control state is saved and the associated exception handlers are added to a stack of active handlers. When an exception is raised, the handler stack is searched for a handler that can accommodate the exception type, the continuation of the associated function is invoked, and the handler code is executed.

As a concrete example, consider the following Python code:

def foo(x):

def bar(x):

def baz(x):
    raise Exception


When the try statement in the invocation of foo(3) is reached. the associated exception handler is added to the handler stack. Execution proceeds to the call to bar(3) and then to baz(3), which raises an exception. This passes control to the first exception handler that can handle an exception of type Exception, which was located in the call to foo(3). Thus, the latter’s continuation is invoked and the exception handler is run.

The specific mechanisms used to provide exceptions vary between languages and implementations. Some languages don’t incorporate exceptions directly but provide a control mechanism that enables an exception mechanism to be built on top of it. For example, the C standard library header setjmp.h defines a setjmp() function that saves the execution state of a function, and a corresponding longjmp() function that restores the state at the time of the call to setjmp(). Exceptions can also be implemented with first-class continuations, as we will see below.


A generator is a generalization of a subroutine, allowing its execution to be paused and later resumed. A subroutine is always executed from its entry point, and every entry into a subroutine creates a new activation record. On the other hand, a generator can suspend its execution, and the programmer can resume execution of the generator at the point where its execution state was suspended and using the same activation record. Thus, the paused state of a generator is a form of continuation.

Generators are usually used to write iterators that compute their values lazily. When a generator computes an item, it yields the item to its caller by invoking the continuation of the caller, much like a subroutine. Upon resumption of the generator, the next value is computed and yielded to its caller, which need not be the same function as the previous caller.

The following is a generator in Python that produces an infinite sequence of natural numbers:

def naturals():
    num = 0
    while True:
        yield num
        num += 1

Generators in Python implement the same interface as an iterator, so the next item can be obtained by calling the next() function on a generator:

>>> numbers = naturals()
>>> next(numbers)
>>> next(numbers)
>>> next(numbers)

We can use a generator to represent a range, computing each value as the generator is resumed:

def range2(start, stop, step = 1):
    while start < stop:
        yield start
        start += step

The sequence of values produced by this generator is finite, and after the last value is produced and the body of range2() exits, a StopIteration exception is automatically raised:

>>> values = range2(0, 10, 3)
>>> next(values)
>>> next(values)
>>> next(values)
>>> next(values)
>>> next(values)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>

A StopIteration is used by the Python for loop to determine the end of an iterator:

>>> for i in range2(0, 10, 3):
...     print(i)

Python also has generator expressions, similar to list comprehensions, that succinctly produce a generator. The following produces a generator of negative integers from naturals():

>>> negatives = (-i for i in naturals() if i != 0)
>>> next(negatives)
>>> next(negatives)
>>> next(negatives)

As with list comprehensions, the filtering conditional is optional in a generator expression.

Generators are also called semicoroutines, since they involve a standard routine that passes control to a resumable routine. Unlike a coroutine, however, a generator can only return control to its caller, while a full coroutine can pass control to any other coroutine.

First-Class Continuations

In some languages, continuations are first-class entities, allowing the current control state to be saved in an explicit data structure, passed as a parameter, and invoked from arbitrary locations. First-class continuations can be used to emulate any of the restricted forms of continuations above. Depending on the language, it may only be permitted to invoke a continuation once, or a continuation may be resumed any number of times.

In Scheme, the call-with-current-continuation procedure, often abbreviated as call/cc, creates a continuation object representing the current control state. The call/cc procedure must be passed an argument:

(call-with-current-continuation <procedure>)

Here, <procedure> must be a Scheme procedure that takes an argument, and call/cc invokes this procedure with the newly created continuation object as the argument. The called procedure may use the continuation like any other data item, including discarding it, saving it in a data structure, and returning it, as well as invoking it. For example, in the following code, the procedure discards the continuation and returns a value normally:

> (+ 1
     (call/cc (lambda (cc)

The continuation object constructed by the invocation of call/cc above represents the following execution state:

(+ 1 <value>)

Here, <value> replaces the call to call/cc, and it will be replaced by the value with which the continuation is invoked.

If the procedure invoked by call/cc returns a value normally, the invocation of call/cc evaluates to that same value, the same behavior as a standard function call. In the example above, the procedure returns the value 3, which replaces the call to call/cc, resulting in a final value of 4.

On the other hand, if the continuation created by call/cc is invoked, then control resumes at the location of the call/cc. A continuation must be passed a value when it is invoked, and the call/cc evaluates to that value:

> (+ 1
     (call/cc (lambda (cc)
                (cc 5)

In the code above, the continuation represents the same execution state of (+ 1 <value>). The function argument of call/cc invokes the continuation with value 5, causing execution to immediately resume at the point where call/cc is called, with the value 5 replacing the call to call/cc, as if it were a standard function call that produced the given value. This results in the execution (+ 1 5), resulting in a final value of 6.

More interesting behavior can occur when a continuation is saved in a variable or data structure. Consider the following:

> (define var
    (call/cc (lambda (cc)

The procedure called by call/cc returns the continuation, so the call/cc invocation evaluates to the continuation, which is then bound to var. The continuation itself represents the execution:

(define var <value>)

We can bind another variable to the same object:

> (define cont var)

Now we can use this new variable to invoke the continuation:

> (cont 3)   ; executes (define var 3)
> var
> (cont 4)   ; executes (define var 4)
> var

Invoking the continuation with a value causes evaluation to resume at the call/cc, with the given value replacing the call/cc. Thus, invoking cont with the value 3 results in the following:

(define var
  (call/cc (lambda (cc)
(define var <value>)
(define var 3)

Thus, var is bound to 3. If we invoke cont with 4, we get:

(define var
  (call/cc (lambda (cc)
(define var <value>)
(define var 4)

The result is that var is now bound to 4.

As a more complex example, consider the following definition of a factorial procedure:

(define cont '())

(define (factorial n)
  (if (= n 0)
      (call/cc (lambda (cc)
                 (set! cont cc)
      (* n (factorial (- n 1)))

The base case is a call to call/cc. Then when (factorial 3) is called, the execution state when the base case is reached is:

(* 3 (* 2 (* 1 <value>)))

As before, <value> represents the call to call/cc. The argument to call/cc sets the global variable cont to refer to the newly created continuation and then evaluates normally to 1. The value 1 thus replaces the call/cc, resulting in a final value of 6:

> (factorial 3)

If we then invoke the continuation with the value 3, the 3 replaces the call/cc in the execution state represented by the continuation:

> (cont 3)   ; executes (* 3 (* 2 (* 1 3)))

If we call (factorial 5), cont is modified to refer to a continuation representing the execution:

(* 5 (* 4 (* 3 (* 2 (* 1 <value>)))))

Invoking the continuation on 4 then results in 480:

> (factorial 5)
> (cont 4)   ; executes (* 5 (* 4 (* 3 (* 2 (* 1 4)))))

Signaling Errors

We can use first-class continuations to implement a basic mechanism for aborting a computation and signaling an error. We begin with a simple procedure to print an error message:

(define (report-error message)
  (begin (display "Error: ")
         (display message)

This procedure expects to be called with a message string, and it prints out Error: followed by the message to standard out. However, invoking the procedure does not abort the computation in the caller. Thus, if we encounter an error in a larger computation, invoking report-error causes a message to print but continues where the computation left off. The following is an example:

(define (inverse x)
  (if (= x 0)
      (report-error "0 has no inverse")
      (/ 1 x)

The inverse procedure reports an error if the argument x is zero. However, it still returns the (undefined) result of calling report-error to the caller of inverse. This can result in an error at the interpreter level:

> (+ (inverse 0) 1)
Error: 0 has no inverse
+: contract violation
  expected: number?
  given: #<void>
  argument position: 1st
  other arguments...:
    [context elided]

In this Scheme implementation, the newline procedure returns a special #void value, which gets returned by report-error and then by inverse. The caller of inverse then attempts to add 1 to this result, resulting in an interpreter error.

In order to abort the computation entirely once an error has been signaled, we can make use of a continuation. We arrange for the continuation to save the control state at the top level of a program. but with a following invocation to report-error if an error message is provided:

(define error-continuation
  (let ((message (call/cc
                   (lambda (c) c)
    (if (string? message)
        (report-error message)

Here, the call to call/cc saves the control state with the program about to bind the name message within a let to the result of invoking the continuation. In the initial computation, the continuation object is passed to the lambda, which immediately returns it. The call to call/cc evaluates to this value, so message is bound to the continuation object itself, and the body of the let is evaluated. This checks if message is a string, calling report-error if this is the case. The let as a whole evaluates to the value of message, which is then bound to error-continuation in the global frame.

If we invoke error-continuation again, execution will resume at the point of binding message, and it will eventually result in error-continuation being rebound to something other than the continuation object. To avoid losing the continuation, we can bind another name to it:

(define error error-continuation)

Now even if error-continuation is rebound, the name error still refers to the continuation object.

If we invoke error with a string, the continuation is invoked with that value, and the value is plugged into where the continuation was created. Thus, message is bound to the string, and the body of the let is evaluated. Since message is a string, report-error is called, printing an error message. The let evaluates to the message string, which is then bound to the name error-continuation in the global frame. At this point, execution has reached the top level, so computation is completed without causing an error in the interpreter.

If we repeat our previous example, but invoking error rather than report-error, we get the following:

(define (inverse x)
  (if (= x 0)
      (error "0 has no inverse")
      (/ 1 x)

> (+ (inverse 0) 1)
Error: 0 has no inverse

We no longer have an error reported by the interpreter itself.

Call and Return

First-class continuations can be used to emulate the more restricted control constructs provided by imperative languages. For instance, Scheme does not provide a specific mechanism that allows a procedure to terminate abruptly, returning a value to the caller. However, we can emulate call and return, including abrupt returns, with continuations. We do so by explicitly representing the call stack in a data structure that provides push and pop operations:

(define call-stack '())
(define (push-call call)
  (set! call-stack (cons call call-stack))
(define (pop-call)
  (let ((caller (car call-stack)))
     (set! call-stack (cdr call-stack))

We will use this call stack to store a procedure’s continuation when it calls another procedure. A return just pops a continuation off the stack and invokes it with the given return value:

(define (return value)
  ((pop-call) value)

We then provide a mechanism for saving a caller’s continuation, by pushing it onto the call stack, and invoking the callee. For simplicity, we restrict ourselves to single-argument functions here, but this can be generalized using Scheme’s variadic arguments.

(define (call func x)
  (call-with-current-continuation (lambda (cc)
                                    (push-call cc)
                                    (func x)

We can then write procedures that use the call stack to terminate abruptly:

(define (foo x)
  (if (<= x 10)
      (return x)             ; return x if <= 10
  (let ((y (- x 10)))
    (return (+ x (/ x y)))   ; otherwise return x + x / (x - 10)
  (some more stuff here)     ; control never reaches here

(define (bar x)
  (return (- (call foo x)))  ; call foo and return the negation
  (dead code)                ; control never reaches here

We can then call foo and bar:

> (+ 1 (call foo 3))
> (+ 1 (call foo 20))
> (+ 2 (call bar 3))
> (+ 2 (call bar 20))


We can simulate exception handling with a handler stack, using the same approach as call and return above. The following is a complete implementation:

(define handler-stack '())
(define (push-handler handler)
  (set! handler-stack (cons handler handler-stack))
(define (pop-handler)
  (let ((handler (car handler-stack)))
    (set! handler-stack (cdr handler-stack))

(define exception-state #f)
(define (set-exception)
  (set! exception-state #t)
(define (clear-exception x)
  (set! exception-state #f)

(define (throw exception)
  ((pop-handler) exception)

(define (try func x handler_func)
  (let ((result (call-with-current-continuation (lambda (cc)
                                                  (push-handler cc)
                                                  (func x)
    (if exception-state
        (clear-exception (handler_func result))

We can then define functions that use exceptions:

(define (foo x)
  (if (= x 0)
      (throw "invalid argument: 0\n")
      (/ 10 x)

(define (bar x)
  (+ (foo x) 1)

(define (baz x)
  (try bar x (lambda (exception)
               (display exception)

Now we can invoke baz with a valid and an erroneous argument:

> (baz 2)
> (baz 0)
illegal argument: 0