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How can you be sure that an OCaml function you wrote is actually tail-recursive? You can certainly compile the code and look at the generated assembly code, but that’d be quite the overkill, given there is a much simpler way to do this.

OCaml 4.03 introduced the @tailcall attribute which will trigger a compiler warning if it’s not placed at an actual tail-call.1 It should be used like this:

(f [@tailcall]) x y warns if f x y is not a tail-call

Here are a couple of trivial examples to help illustrate this:

(* tail-recursive factorial function *)
let rec fact1 acc x =
  if x <= 1 then acc else (fact1 [@tailcall]) (acc * x) (x - 1)

(* non tail-recursive factorial function *)
let rec fact2 x =
  if x <= 1 then 1 else x * (fact2 [@tailcall]) (x - 1)

Save the code above in a file named tailcall.ml and compile it with ocamlc:

$ ocamlc tailcall.ml
File "./tailcall.ml", line 5, characters 28-55:
5 |   if x <= 1 then 1 else x * (fact2 [@tailcall]) (x - 1)
Warning 51 [wrong-tailcall-expectation]: expected tailcall

As you can see the compiler properly detected that fact2 is not tail-recursive, as the tail-call is * instead of fact2. Small, but handy feature that helps you ensure your code works the way you intended it to work.

That’s all I have for you today. Keep hacking!

  1. Basically the tail-call is the call that triggers the recursion in the function and for a function to be tail-recursive the last call has to be an invocation of the recursive function itself.