Recursion occurs when a function contains within it a call to itself. Recursion can result in very neat, elegant code that is intuitive to follow. It can also result in a very large amount of memory being used if the recursion gets too deep.

Common examples of where recursion is used :

  • Walking recursive data structures such as linked lists, binary trees, etc.
  • Exploring possible scenarios in games such as chess

Recursion always consists of two main parts. A terminating case that indicates when the recursion will finish and a call to itself that must make progress towards the terminating case.

For example, this function will perform multiplication by recursively adding :

#include <stdio.h>

unsigned int multiply(unsigned int x, unsigned int y)
    if (x == 1)
        /* Terminating case */
        return y;
    else if (x > 1)
        /* Recursive step */
        return y + multiply(x-1, y);

    /* Catch scenario when x is zero */
    return 0;

int main() {
    printf("3 times 5 is %d", multiply(3, 5));
    return 0;


Define a new function called factorial() that will compute the factorial by recursive multiplication (5! = 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1). Note that by convention, the factorial of 0 is equal to 1 (0! = 1).

Copyright © Read our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy