Glad Chinda Full-stack web developer learning new hacks one day at a time. Web technology enthusiast. Hacking stuffs @theflutterwave.

isPalindrome(): A recursive approach

6 min read 1862

isPalindrome(): A Recursive Approach

A palindrome is a sequence of characters that reads the same backwards as forwards. This sequence of characters could be a word, phrase, number, etc. For example, the word rotor remains the same even when the characters are read backwards.

In this tutorial, we will write a simple function called isPalindrome(chars) that takes a sequence of characters as input and returns true if the sequence is a palindrome, and false if it isn’t.

We will implement the algorithm for this function in JavaScript using recursion, but it can also be implemented in any other language of your choosing.

Normalize the string

For a start, let’s assume the sequence of characters passed to the function is a string. The string may contain non-alphanumeric characters like spaces, underscores, etc. In such cases, the string needs to be cleaned up and normalized.

Therefore, for most algorithms, the logical first step will be to remove all non-alphanumeric characters from the string and convert the string to lowercase. This makes it possible for palindrome phrases that may contain spaces, for example, to also pass the check.

In JavaScript, we can use this regular expression (/[^a-z0-9]/i) to strip off non-alphanumeric characters from the string. Given a string string, here is how we can get its normalized form:

// remove non-alphanumeric characters and
// change the string to lowercase
string.replace(/[^a-z0-9]/i, '').toLowerCase()

Popular algorithms

There are a number of algorithms for checking whether a string is a palindrome, using built-in language methods and loops. Here are two of the most popular ones:

Reversed string comparison

The simplest algorithm will be to compare the string with its reversed string. If they match, the string is a palindrome; otherwise, it is not. This implementation of this algorithm can be achieved using built-in JavaScript methods and utilities.

The algorithm is as follows:

  • Reverse the normalized string: Create a copy of the normalized string and reverse the characters. JavaScript strings don’t have a built-in reverse mechanism, but arrays do. So, we use a little hack to convert the string to an array of its characters, reverse the array, and glue the characters in the reversed array back to a string
  • Compare the strings: Compare the reversed string to the normalized string and return a boolean based on the result of the comparison — true if they match and false otherwise

Here is the implementation of this algorithm:

function isPalindrome (str) {
  // remove non-alphanumeric characters and
  // change the string to lowercase
  str = str.replace(/[^a-z0-9]/i, '').toLowerCase();

  // compare the string to the reversed string (if not empty)
  // `Array.from(str)` is ES6 syntax for creating array of string characters.
  // The ES5 equivalent will be to use: `str.split('')`
  return (str.length > 0) && Array.from(str).reverse().join('') === str;
}

Loop with character comparisons

Another very popular algorithm is to loop through the characters of the string starting from the first character up to the character at the midpoint, comparing each character with the character at the corresponding position from the end of the string.

The algorithm is as follows:

  • Get string midpoint position: Get the midpoint position of the normalized string by performing an integer division of the string’s length by two. This means that for a normalized string of length 20–21 characters, the midpoint position will be 10. This can be achieved in JavaScript in a couple of ways:
    // Using Math.floor()
    Math.floor(string.length / 2)
    
    // Using Math.ceil()
    Math.ceil((string.length - 1) / 2)
    
    // Using Bitwise Sign-Propagating Right Shift (>>)
    string.length >> 1
  • Loop through characters and compare: Loop through the characters from the first position to the midpoint position, comparing each character with the character at a corresponding position from the end of the string. If there is a mismatch at any point of the loop, terminate the loop and return false. If the loop reaches the end and the function hasn’t returned already, return true

Here is the implementation of this algorithm:

function isPalindrome (str) {
  let len = 0;

  // remove non-alphanumeric characters and
  // change the string to lowercase
  // and get the length of the string
  str = str.replace(/[^a-z0-9]/i, '').toLowerCase();
  len = str.length;

  // calculate the string midpoint position and
  // loop through the characters up to the midpoint
  // comparing characters in corresponding positions
  // from the start of the string and the end of the string
  for (let i = 0, mid = len >> 1; i < mid; i++) {
    if (str[i] !== str[len - i - 1]) return false;
  }  

  // if execution reaches here, the character comparisons matched
  // and the string (if not empty) must be a palindrome
  return len > 0;
}

Recursive algorithm

As you may already know, a good number of algorithms that can be implemented using a loop can also be implemented using some form of recursion. Let’s go through how we can re-implement the isPalindrome() function using recursion.

Terminal conditions

For our recursive solution, we can identify two terminal conditions that can cause the recursion to stop and return a result immediately:

  • First, we know that the string should be considered a palindrome if it contains just one character. Hence, a reasonable terminal condition would be when the string length is less than or equal to 1 (<=1), for which we return true.
  • Second, we know that if the first and last characters do not match for a start, the string cannot be considered a palindrome. Hence, the recursion should be terminated and false should be returned from the function.

Basic implementation

For a basic implementation of our recursive solution, the following steps are executed in order when the function is invoked with a given string:

  1. Replace the value of the string with its normalized form
  2. Store the length of the string (needed for the terminal conditions)
  3. Check if any of the terminal conditions are met by the string; if so, return from the function with the appropriate result
  4. If none of the conditions were met in step no. 3 above, call the function again with a substring of the original string as argument (without the first and last characters) — and the cycle continues

Here is what the implementation described above looks like:

function isPalindrome (str) {
  // remove non-alphanumeric characters and
  // change the string to lowercase
  str = str.replace(/[^a-z0-9]/i, '').toLowerCase();

  // and get the length of the string
  const len = str.length;

  if (len <= 1) return true;
  if (str[0] !== str[len - 1]) return false;

  // proper tail call optimized recursion
  return isPalindrome(str.slice(1, -1));
}

Implementation improvements

Our function works as expected, but it still has a few issues we should fix, and we can make some optimizations to further improve it:

  • First, when an empty string is passed, our function currently returns true instead of false
  • Secondly, for each invocation of the function, we are trying to normalize the input string again even after it has been normalized in the first invocation. Also, we are scanning the string for matches of a regular expression during the normalization, which could be a little more expensive for longer strings

We can use an immediately invoked function expression (IIFE) to return an isPalindrome() function that implements workarounds for these issues.

Inside the returned isPalindrome() function, we will normalize the string only once and also return false immediately if the normalized string is empty. Otherwise, we will pass the normalized string to an internal recursive _isPalindrome() function that is only accessible within the scope of the IIFE via closure.

Enough of the technical jargon — here is the modified version of the previous isPalindrome() function with some optimizations:

const isPalindrome = (() => {
  /**
   * This function is returned immediately
   * from the invocation of the outer arrow function
   * and is assigned to the `isPalindrome` identifier.
   */
  return function isPalindrome (str) {
    // remove non-alphanumeric characters and
    // change the string to lowercase
    str = str.replace(/[^a-z0-9]/i, '').toLowerCase();

    // call the recursive _isPalindrome function with string (if not empty)
    // and return the result
    return (str.length > 0) && _isPalindrome(str);
  };

  /**
   * Internal recursive `_isPalindrome()` function
   * optimized for recursion with proper tail call.
   *
   * A single reference to this function is created and stored
   * after the immediate invocation of the outer arrow function,
   * not accessible outside the scope of the outer arrow function,
   * but accessible to `isPalindrome()` via closure.
   */
  function _isPalindrome (str) {
    const len = str.length;

    if (len <= 1) return true;
    if (str[0] !== str[len - 1]) return false;

    // proper tail call
    return _isPalindrome(str.slice(1, -1));
  }
})();

Further optimization

So far, our recursive solution works fine and is already optimized for tail call elimination (Proper Tail Calls). Tail call optimization is a new addition to JavaScript functions in the ES6 specification, meant to eliminate the issue of the JavaScript engine creating too many stack frames for recursive functions.

As far as support goes, tail call elimination is lagging behind across the major browsers. At the time of writing, Safari is the only browser that offers reasonable support for it.

However, if we are paranoid and want an optimized version of our recursive function that will work across all browsers, we can wrap our function in a trampoline. A trampoline can be used to wrap a function such that it runs as though it was tail call-optimized.

The trampoline is a higher-order function — it accepts the recursive function as its argument and returns another function. The returned function uses a while loop to repeatedly invoke the function returned from the last function invocation (starting with the recursive function) until a function is no longer returned.

Here is a typical trampoline:

const trampoline = fn => (...args) => {
  let result = fn(...args);
  while (typeof result === 'function') {
    result = result();
  }
  return result;
}

For the trampoline to work with our recursive function, we will have to return a function from our recursive function. So instead of this:

{
  /* other code here */
  return _isPalindrome(str.slice(1, -1));
}

We will have this:

{
  /* other code here */
  // return a function that calls the recursive function
  return () => _isPalindrome(str.slice(1, -1));
}

The following code snippet shows the new, optimized version of our recursive function that uses a trampoline:

const isPalindrome = (() => {
  return function isPalindrome (str) {
    str = str.replace(/[^a-z0-9]/i, '').toLowerCase();
    // wrap the recursive _isPalindrome function with _trampoline()
    return (str.length > 0) && _trampoline(_isPalindrome)(str);
  };

  // trampoline() — higher-order function
  function _trampoline (fn) {
    return function _trampolined (...args) {
      let result = fn(...args);
      while (typeof result === 'function') {
        result = result();
      }
      return result;
    }
  }

  function _isPalindrome (str) {
    const len = str.length;

    if (len <= 1) return true;
    if (str[0] !== str[len - 1]) return false;

    // return a function that calls the recursive function
    return () => _isPalindrome(str.slice(1, -1));
  }
})();

Conclusion

Practically speaking, it is very unlikely to run into stack overflow issues with isPalindrome() like you could with a typical recursive function like factorial(), for example.

Thus, the recursive solution we came up with for the isPalindrome() function in this tutorial may not seem to benefit much from the optimization techniques used. That’s not to discourage you or trivialize our efforts in any way, however, because the optimization techniques we highlighted here could be used to delay stack overflow for most recursive functions.

Thanks for making time to go through this tutorial. I am really glad that you made it to the end, and do hope it was worth your time.

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Glad Chinda Full-stack web developer learning new hacks one day at a time. Web technology enthusiast. Hacking stuffs @theflutterwave.

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