Josef “Jeff” Sipek

Tail Call Optimization

I just had an interesting realization about tail call optimization. Often when people talk about it, they simply describe it as an optimization that the compiler does whenever you end a function with a function call whose return value is propagated up as is. Technically this is true. Practically, people use examples like this:

int foo(int increment)
	if (increment)
		return bar() + 1; /* NOT a tail-call */
	return bar(); /* a tail-call */

It sounds like a very solid example of a tail-call vs. not. I.e., if you “post process” the value before returning it is not a tail-call.

Going back to my realization, I think people often forget about one type of “post processing” — casts. Consider the following code:

extern short bar();

int foo()
        return bar();

Did you spot it? This is not a tail-call.

The integer promotion from short to int is done after bar returns but before foo returns.

For fun, here’s the disassembly:

$ gcc -Wall -O2 -c test.c
$ dis test.o
    foo:     55                 pushl  %ebp
    foo+0x1: 89 e5              movl   %esp,%ebp
    foo+0x3: 83 ec 08           subl   $0x8,%esp
    foo+0x6: e8 fc ff ff ff     call   -0x4	<foo+0x7>
    foo+0xb: c9                 leave  
    foo+0xc: 98                 cwtl   
    foo+0xd: c3                 ret    

For completeness, if we change the return value of bar to int:

$ gcc -Wall -O2 -c test.c
$ dis test.o
    foo:       e9 fc ff ff ff     jmp    -0x4	<foo+0x1>

I wonder how many people think they are tail-call optimizing, but in reality they are “wasting” a stack frame because of this silly reason.


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