Tail-call optimization

uLisp has been designed to include tail-call optimization. This means that where the final action in a function is a call to another function, that tail call is replaced by a goto, ensuring that space is not wasted on the stack for storing the return address. Tail-call optimization is especially important in applications written using recursive functions, because it means that they can be as efficient as using iteration.

For example, a simple implementation of the standard Arduino blink function could be written:

(defun b (x) 
  (pinmode 13 t)
  (digitalwrite 13 x)
  (delay 1000)
  (b (not x)))

Running it, by evaluating:

> (b t)

causes the LED of pin 13 to flash indefinitely. Without tail-recursion each flash would allocate more space on the stack for the return address of b, and eventually the stack would run out. With tail-recursion this version is just as efficient as a version using loop.

How tail-recursion is implemented

There is a separate set of special forms, called tail forms, which return their result unevaluated. These have names starting with "tf_". For example, the definition of if is:

object *tf_if (object *args, object *env) {
  if (eval(first(args), env) != nil) return second(args);
  return third(args);

This function is called in eval() as follows (a bit simplified):

object *eval (object *form, object *env) {


  // It's a list
  object *function = car(form);
  object *args = cdr(form);

  // List starts with a symbol?
  if (function->type == SYMBOL) {
    unsigned int name = function->name;
    if (name > SPECIAL_FORMS && name < TAIL_FORMS) {
      return ((fn_ptr_type)lookupfn(name))(args, env);

    if (name > TAIL_FORMS && name < FUNCTIONS) {
      form = ((fn_ptr_type)lookupfn(name))(args, env);
      goto EVAL;

If it's a standard special form the C function is called by lookupfn and the value is returned.

It it's a tail-recursive function, like tf_if(), the C function is called by lookupfn, the value is assigned to form, and a goto jumps back to the start of eval() to evaluate the new value without an additional function call.

The following uLisp structures support tail-call optimization:

progn, letlet*, return, if, cond, when, and unless.