Suppose we have a list implementation in which every element (or node) in the list contains a head, which is the item at this node and a tail, which is rest of the list. I’ve used Scala here, but most of the code looks almost like pseudocode.

trait List {
def isEmpty: Boolean
def tail: List
}

class Cons(val head: Int, val tail: List) extends List {
def isEmpty = false
}

object Nil extends List {
def isEmpty = true
def tail = throw new NoSuchElementException("Nil.tail")
}


One way to reverse this without any mutation is:

def reversed(xs: List): List = {
def aux(xs: List, acc: List) =
if (xs.isEmpty) acc
aux(xs, Nil)
}


Here is how this works. Suppose we have a list [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]. This is represented in our scheme as:

                []
/  \
1   []
/  \
2   []
/  \
3   []
/  \
4   []
/  \
5   Nil


Here, each node is a Cons and the left child of a node is the value at that node and the right child is the tail, which can either be another Cons or Nil.

The Scala code to create this list is:

val l = new Cons(1, new Cons(2, new Cons(3, new Cons(4, new Cons(5, Nil)))))


Now, in the reversed function, all the work is done by the auxilliary inner function aux. If the argument xs to aux is empty(meaning a Nil), return the accumulator argument acc. Otherwise, add the head of xs to the accumulator and recursively call reversed with just the tail of xs. It is clear that the recursion always terminates, as xs.tail will always have one element less than xs and eventually, a call to reversed(Nil, ...) will be made, which just returns the second argument, breaking the recursion. Let us trace the execution of reversed:

val l = new Cons(1, new Cons(2, new Cons(3, new Cons(4, new Cons(5, Nil)))))
reversed(l)
\_ aux([1, 2, 3, 4, 5], Nil)
\_ aux([2, 3, 4, 5], )
\_ aux([3, 4, 5], [2, 1])
\_ aux([4, 5], [3, 2, 1])
\_ aux(, [4, 3, 2, 1])
\_ aux(Nil, [5, 4, 3, 2, 1])
|
<------------------[5, 4, 3, 2, 1]