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Tail Call Extension



  • Currently, the Wasm design explicitly forbids tail call optimisations

  • Want support to enable

    • the correct and efficient implementations of languages that require tail call elimination
    • the compilation of control constructs that can be implemented with it (e.g., forms of coroutines, continuations)
    • compilation and optimization techniques that require it (e.g., dynamic recompilation, tracing, CPS)
    • other sorts of computation being expressed as Wasm functions, e.g., FSMs


Conceptually, tail-calling a function unwinds the current call frame before performing the actual call. This can be applied to any form of call, that is:

  • Caller and callee can differ
  • Caller and callee type can differ
  • Callee may be dynamic (e.g., call_indirect)

Design Space


  • Tail calls are performed via separate, explicit call instructions (existing call instructions explicitly disallow TCE)

  • The proposal thus introduces a tail version of every call instruction

  • An alternative scheme introducing a single instruction prefix applicable to every call instruction was considered but rejected by the CG

    • WebAssembly will likely get a few more call instructions in the future, e.g., call_ref
    • otoh, instruction prefixes as modifiers are not used anywhere else in Wasm


  • Tail calls behave like a combination of return followed by a respective call

  • Hence they unwind the operand stack like return does

  • Only keeps the necessary call arguments

  • Tail calls to host functions cannot guarantee tail behaviour (outside the scope of the spec)


  • Typing rule for tail call instruction is derived by their nature of merging call and return

  • Because tail calls transfer control and unwind the stack they are stack-polymorphic

  • Previously open question: should tail calls induce different function types? Possibilities:

    1. Distinguish tail-callees by type
    2. Distinguish tail-callers by type
    3. Both
    4. Neither
  • Considerations:

    • Option 1 (and 3) allows different calling conventions for non-tail-callable functions, which may reduce constraints on ABIs.
    • On the other hand, it creates a bifurcated function space, which can lead to difficulties e.g. when using function tables or other forms of dynamic indirection.
    • Benefit of option 2 (and thus 3) unclear.
    • Experimental validation revealed that there isn't a notable performance benefit to option 1 either.
  • CG resolution was to go with option 4 as the conceptually simplest.


A simple boring example of a tail-recursive factorial funciton.

(func $fac (param $x i64) (result i64)
  (return_call $fac-aux (get_local $x) (i64.const 1))

(func $fac-aux (param $x i64) (param $r i64) (result i64)
  (if (i64.eqz (get_local $x))
    (then (return (get_local $r)))
      (return_call $fac-aux
        (i64.sub (get_local $x) (i64.const 1))
        (i64.mul (get_local $x) (get_local $r))

Spec Changes


Add two instructions:

  • return_call <funcidx>, the tail-call version of call
  • return_call_indirect <tableidx> <typeidx>, the tail-call version of call_indirect

Other language extensions like typed function refereces that introduce new call instructions will also introduce tail versions of these new instructions.


Validation of the new instructions is simply a combination of the typing rules for return and those for basic calls (and thus is stack-polymorphic).

  • If x refers to a function of type [t1*] -> [t2*], then the instruction return_call x has type [t3* t1*] -> [t4*], for any t3* and t4*, provided that the current function has return type [t2*].

  • If x refers to a function type [t1*] -> [t2*], then the instruction return_call_indirect x has type [t3* t1* i32] -> [t4*], for any t3* and t4*, provided that the current function has return type [t2*].

Note that caller's and callee's parameter types do not need to match.


Execution semantics of the new instructions would

  1. pop the call operands
  2. clear and pop the topmost stack frame in the same way return does
  3. push back the operands
  4. delegate to the semantics of the respective plain call instructions

Binary Format

Use the reserved opcodes after existing call instructions, i.e.:

  • return_call is 0x12
  • return_call_indirect is 0x13

Text Format

The text format is extended with two new instructions in the obvious manner.

Open Questions

  • Can tail calls across module boundaries guarantee tail behaviour?