In this series, we've examined object-oriented and functional programming techniques used to create algorithms and data structures. However another method to consider is recursion. In a nutshell, recursion is a specific technique that provides an indeterminate set of references to one's self. In this essay, we'll review the concept of recursion and will demonstrate how to write recursive code with Swift.


Recursion is best understood when compared to traditional object-oriented programming. With most solutions, code is comprised of different objects that are often interchangeable. As such, programmers reference different objects (i.e., classes) to build a model. The recursive technique, however, builds a model with an object that refers to itself:

 Traditional approach - objects reference other objects

Recursive approach - an object refers to itself


They are a few ways recursion can be expressed in Swift. If you are accustomed to C-based languages, an interesting differentiator is how Swift handles types. To date, many Swift objects are considered first-class citizens including structs and enums. As such, most operations normally reserved for a class can be replaced with a struct:

//simple struct example - methods & properties

struct Car {
    var color: String
    var make: String
    init(color: String, make: String) {        
        self.color = color
        self.make = make
    func buildCar() {
        print("a \(color) \(make) has been built..")

Swift structs are lightweight components that act as value types. In contrast, classes in Swift are reference types. Because struct instances are copied (not referenced), they can't be used to build recursive data models:

//simple usable class
class LLNode<T> {  
    var key: T!
    var previous: LLNode!
    var next: LLNode!

//gives compilation error
struct Tree<T> {    
    var key: T!
    var left: Tree!
    var right: Tree!


Recursion can also be seen with the popular fibonacci sequence. The idea being a numerical sequence can be built by adding the two preceding numbers. Let's compare a traditional and recursive technique:

    //fibonacci sequence - traditional approach
    func fibNormal(n: Int) -> Array<Int>! {
        //check trivial condition
        guard n > 2 else {
            return nil
        //initialize the sequence
        var sequence: Array<Int> = [0, 1]            
        var i: Int = sequence.count
        while i != n {            
            let results: Int = sequence[i - 1] + sequence[i - 2]
            i += 1

      return sequence
    //fibonacci sequence - recursive approach
    func fibRecursive(n: Int, sequence: Array<Int> = [0, 1]) {
        //check trivial condition
        guard n > 2 else {
        //mutated copy
        var output = sequence        
        let i: Int = output.count
        //set base condition
        if i == n {
        let results: Int = output[i - 1] + output[i - 2]
        //set iteration
        fibRecursive(n, sequence: output)    

Note the function differences. At first glance, we see fibRecursive employs a base-case and a call to one's self. To contrast, fibNormal maintains control logic in a while-loop. As shown, recursive logic often leads to increased complexity, as an entire class, function or method is often used as a control structure.


While recursion tends to add complexity, consider the algorithm for depth-first search. As discussed in a previous essay, this code works in conjunction with the call stack to traverse a binary search tree. While it would be possible to refactor the algorithm to support an iterative technique, recursion provides an effective solution:

    //recursive depth-first search 
    func traverse() {   
        guard self.key != nil else {
        //process left side
        if self.left != nil {
        print("...node \(self.key!) visited..")

        //process the right side
        if self.right != nil {


Like structs, many Swift objects act as first-class citizens, including enumerations. Like enums used in other languages, the enum type Algorithm is used to model behavior. The model will help manage four specific cases. The enum is said to be recursive because it contains associated values that are also of type Algorithm:

//recursive enumeration

indirect enum Algorithm {
    case Empty
    case Sequence(Array<Int>)
    case InsertionSort(Algorithm)
    case BubbleSort(Algorithm)

One goal of enums is to enhance code readability. In our case, we can use Algorithm to provide type-safety support for an implementation and can easily extend it to support additional scenarios:

    //build an algorithm model
    let numberList = Algorithm.Sequence([8, 2, 10, 9, 7, 5])
    let result = Algorithm.InsertionSort(numberList)

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