[Haskell-beginners] Understanding Haskell fcn calls

Daniel Fischer daniel.is.fischer at googlemail.com
Thu Feb 17 01:09:57 CET 2011

On Wednesday 16 February 2011 23:49:51, blackcat at pro-ns.net wrote:
> Is there a good reference that gives a simple explanation of how
> Haskell function calls work?

I don't know one.

> This seems crucial to understanding how
> to efficiently use the language,

No, fortunately it's not necessary. To use the language efficiently, you 
must understand (not necessarily completely, though) laziness, where that's 
a Good Thing™ and where bad.

> given what I've read about tail call optimization.

Which is far less important in Haskell than in strict languages.
Due to laziness, a recursive (but not tail-recursive) function can deliver 
partial results before entering a recursive call, which often is better 
than tail-recursion.


map :: (a -> b) -> [a] -> [b]
map f (x:xs) = f x : map f xs
map _ [] = []

When you call map f on a nonempty list (x:xs), you immediately get the 
result, a cons cell with two children, one is the thunk (how to calculate f 
x), the other is the thunk (how to calculate map f xs).
Thus, when you consume the result sequentially, the computation can run in 
constant space, each list element can be garbage collected as soon as it is 
consumed, before the next element comes alive (of course, ordinarily the 
garbage collector will not run that frequently, so there'll be a handful of 
values lingering after being consumed).

With a tail-recursive function, the entire result has to be in memory at 
once, since it can only be returned after the computation is complete.

Tail-recursion is however good if no partial results are possible, as for 
the sum of a list of Ints (but then you need to make sure that the 
accumulator is sufficiently evaluated or you'll just create a huge thunk 
which eats your stack when it is finally evaluated).

As a rule of thumb, tail-recursion is for strict stuff, not for lazy 
things. There are lots of lazy things in Haskell, so tail-recursion plays a 
comparatively small role.

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