Understanding Recursion


Recursion is often regarded as the one of the most complex concepts to understand in computer programming. IMHO, recursion is the “building block” of Functional programming, creating highly used data structures like Tree and an elegant way of writing code in general. So in this blog I’ll try to go through the basics and later solve a few problems to explain the concept in a better way. So, let’s get started!

What is Recusion

Recursion is a methodology of problem solving, where we get the solution of a problem by breaking it down to sub-problems and keep breaking it till we reach a point where we can’t break it any further (also known as base condition). Once base condition is reached, we handle it then start returning the solution of the sub-problem state that we are in, to the caller sub-problem state (i.e the parent). Hence, this way we can solve the overall problem, by solving the sub-problems.
This is implemented by writing a function that calls itself, with a subset of problem set passed as argument each time, and hence keep breaking the problem.

Applications of Recursion

  1. Dynamic Programming
  2. Divide and Conquer
  3. Backtracking
  4. Tree traversal

Some problems on recursion

Now let’s solve some problems based on recursion, because often examples are best way to understand a concept.

  • Write a recursive function to print all numbers from N to 1 for a given number N.

    def printN(N):
        if N == 0:
    N = int(input("Enter N:"))

    In the above code, we pass number N by subtracting 1 from it each time, as argument to the function printN and it keeps printing it, untill it hits the base condition when N becomes equal to 1.

    This is also the case of tail recursion since we are performing some operation (in this case printing) before we recursively call the funtion printN. So tail recursive functions are those functions in which recursive calls are last thing that happens in the function. Tail recursion is similar to loop.
    If we wanted to print 1 to N, then we would place print after the recursive call, so that the function stack reaches the based condition when N == 1, then starts performing the operations (here printing) as stored in the function stack. This is called head recursion. In head recursion state is saved before making next call.

    def print_one_to_n(N):
        if N == 0:

    Tail recursion is faster than head recursion because of a concept called tail call elimination (or Tail Call Optimization), in which the compiler essentially converts the recursion to a loop. Quick sort uses tail recursion, hence is faster than Merge sort.

    Hence, making the above print_one_to_n function a tail recursive one by this way:-

    def print_one_to_n(n,i=1):
        if n == 0:
  • Write a recursive function to check if a string is palindrome or not.

    def palindrome(s):
        if len(s) <= 1:
            return True
        if s[0] != s[-1]:
            return False
        return palindrome(s[1:len(s)-1])
  • Write a recursive function to calculate the nth number in the Finonacci sequence.

    def fib(n):
        if n <= 1:
            return n
        return fib(n-1)+fib(n-2)

    In the above solution it is important to analyse the recursion. Let’s try to understand this by taking example if fib(5) i.e 5th element in the Fibonacci sequence. When we call fib(5) it recursively makes call to fib(4) then fib(3) then fib(2) then hits the base condition when it calls fib(1) as when n<=1 fib returns n i.e 1 in this case.

    Now the control goes back to fib(2) when it recursively makes call to fib(0) which is again a base condition and returns 0. So, fib(2) returns 1+0 back to fib(3) when fib(3) will further make recursive call to fib(1) which return 1. Hence fib(3) returns 1+1 back to fib(4). Now fib(4) makes another recursive call to fib(2) which recursively calls fib(1) and fib(0) to essentially returns 1+0, hence fib(4) returns 2+1 to fib(5). Now fib(5) recursively makes call to fib(3) which upon makes further calls would essentially return (1+0)+1 i.e 2. So, finally fib(5) returns 3+2 back to the caller, which is the 5th element in the Fibonacci sequence.

    (image courtesy- mycodeschool, which has arguably the best videos on DSA on the entire internet)

  • Write a recursive function to find the sum of the digits of a number.

    def sum_of_digits(n,sum):
        if n <= 0:
            return sum
        sum += n %10
        return sum_of_digits(n//10,sum)