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Clojure Tail Call Optimizer (CTCO)

An embedded source-to-source compiler for Clojure that provides the benefit of full tail-call optimization (TCO) to Clojure code.

Due to Clojure's adherence to Java calling conventions, Clojure is unable to provide full support for constant-space tail calls as is guaranteed by languages like Scheme or Standard ML. Standard Clojure provides some support via the recur form and the trampoline function. The recur form is limited to self-recursion and using trampoline requires manual code modification such that each trampolined piece of code returns a function of no arguments (or a "thunk"). Additionally, trampoline doesn't allow functions to be return values.

CTCO aims to expand support for constant-space tail calls to include self-recursion and arbitrary n-way mutual recursion returning any value type, including function expressions disallowed by trampoline. It has been designed from the ground up to interoperate with existing code, so it is a primary goal to allow non-CTCO-compiled code to be able to call into CTCO-compiled code and vice versa.

CTCO works by applying a first-order one-pass CPS algorithm (via Danvy 2007), then transforming the code to return thunks, and finally creating a custom trampoline to be used when the code is executed. Thanks to the properties of the CPS transformation, CTCO will make all function calls into tail calls, thereby even making non-tail code compiled by CTCO use constant space.

Note: the subset of Clojure currently accepted by CTCO is very small and will continue to grow. The grammar of the current language is as follows:

Expr    :=      Num  
        |       Bool  
        |       Sym  
        |       Var  
        |       String
        |       Keyword
        |       (def Var Expr)
        |       (fn [Var*] Expr*)  
        |       (fn ([Var*] Expr*)*)
        |       (defn Name [Var*] Expr*)  
        |       (defn Name ([Var*] Expr*)*)  
        |       (if Expr Expr Expr)  
        |       (cond Expr*)
        |       (let [Var Expr ...] Expr*)
        |       (Prim Expr*)
        |       (Expr Expr*)


  • Num is a valid numeric type in Clojure
  • Bool is a boolean (true or false)
  • Sym is a quoted symbol
  • Var is a legal Clojure variable identifier
  • String is a Clojure string
  • Keyword is a Clojure keyword
  • Prim is a primitive operator/predicate in the set
    (+ - * / mod < <= = >= > and or not inc dec zero? true? false? nil? instance? fn? type ref ref-set deref cons conj with-meta meta)


The key component of CTCO is the ctco macro. With CTCO on your classpath, include it with the following code:

(use '(ctco.core :only (ctco)))

Note: This is different than previous versions (and is a breaking change), but avoids using a single-segment namespace as before.

Then simply wrap any piece of code that you want transformed with (ctco ...).

For example, consider the following (tail recursive) definition of factorial:

(defn fact
  [n a]
  (if (zero? n)
      (fact (dec n) (* n a))))

This can be compiled to use constant stack space recursive calls by simply wrapping it in a call to ctco:

 (defn fact
   [n a]
   (if (zero? n)
       (fact (dec n) (* n a)))))

This will define fact in terms of the code transformations used by CTCO. Simply call fact as you would have without the CTCO transformations, and the rest is done for you. For reference, the (somewhat simplified) output of the ctco call above generates the following code:

(letfn [(tramp4580 [thunk4584]
          (if (:thunk (meta thunk4584))
              (recur (thunk4584))
   (def fact
     (fn fn4581
       ([n a]
             #(fn4581 n a (with-meta (fn [x4582] x4582) {:kont true}))
             {:thunk true})))
       ([n a k4583]
          (if (zero? n)
              (k4583 a)
              (recur (dec n) (* n a) k4583)))))))

Bonus: 'recurify' macro

CTCO also provides a recurify macro which takes any expression accepted by the CTCO grammar and replaces all self-recursive tail calls that explicitly use a function name to instead use the recur form. It simply leverages the mechanism for doing the same transformation within the full CTCO transformation.

For example:

 (defn fact
   [n a]
   (if (zero? n)
       (fact (dec n) (* n a)))))

This will expand to the following:

(defn fact
  [n a]
  (if (zero? n)
      (recur (dec n) (* n a))))


Simply fork and use pull requests.


A list of the resources for CTCO transformations is as follows:


  • Alan Dipert (@alandipert)


Copyright (c) 2012 Chris Frisz, Daniel P. Friedman

Distributed under the MIT License. See accompanying LICENSE file