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JavaScript Concepts: Recursion

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It’s my hope that by rambling on about JavaScript here in the blog while I do my best to learn it, eventually, some of it will stick. 

So I’ve taken a quick break from FreeCodeCamp because I was concerned that I was moving a bit too quickly and not understanding key concepts. So I’m continuing to work through Treehouse, started some Udemy courses I purchased a while ago, and am working through Eloquent JavaScript, which is really kicking my butt. One of the things that I’m trying to wrap my head around is the concept of recursion.

Recursion occurs when a function that calls itself.

When to Use Recursion

From what I understand, recursion is useful when an elegant solution to a complex problem is needed and when that problem involves a pattern.

One example of a good use of recursion is finding the factorial of a given number. I took the opportunity to redo my FreeCodeCamp solution (which, by the looks of it, I took from code I found on the interwebs) in a recursive fashion. Astonishingly, it only took a couple of minutes. Look ma, I’m learnin’!

Original Solution

function factorialize(num) {
  var tmp = num;
    tmp *= num;
  return tmp;


Recursive Solution

function factorialize(num) {
 //recursive version
 if (num === 1){
 return num;
 } else {
 return num *= factorialize(num-1);


Another use of recursion is to going through levels of nesting in an object or array.

However, I still sometimes struggle with when to use recursion, especially when faced with a code challenge that specifically asks for a recursive solution. My mind automatically seeks out an iterative solution (probably because that’s what I have he most practice with) so shifting my thinking can be hard.

When Not to Use Recursion

After reading a few articles, I stumbled upon a really helpful Medium post that talks about the practical uses of recursion. It was really good to reflect that there’s nothing wrong with using an iterative solution and as I understand it, iteration is, normally, faster though recursion can be more human readable. Still, I have to keep plugging away on recursion until I get best at distinguishing when it’s best to use.

1 Comment

  1. Sean Seagren
    August 30, 2017 - Reply

    Talking about code is an important part of learning!

    Recursion is a powerful if tricky concept. Efficiency is subject to a lot of compiler optimizations- if the compiler supports PTC (proper tail call optimization) and your code is written to take advantage, you don’t run into stack issues (each call adding to the function list) and can be similar to a loop solution.

    Honestly, for where time is actually lost with JS I’d focus more on the readability and expressiveness of the code. Having something easier to understand will save a lot of time and the run time difference is probably nothing compared to, say, DOM manipulation. YMMV, and if you have some seriously heavy recursion with taking advantage of PTC bad things definitely could happen.

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