next up previous contents
Next: An Interpreter with Lazy Up: Variations on a Scheme Previous: Variations on a Scheme

Normal Order and Applicative Order

In section [*], where we began our discussion of models of evaluation, we noted that Scheme is an applicative-order language, namely, that all the arguments to Scheme procedures are evaluated when the procedure is applied. In contrast, normal-order languages delay evaluation of procedure arguments until the actual argument values are needed. Delaying evaluation of procedure arguments until the last possible moment (e.g., until they are required by a primitive operation) is called lazy evaluation. [*] Consider the procedure

(define (try a b)
  (if (= a 0) 1 b))
Evaluating (try 0 (/ 1 0)) generates an error in Scheme. With lazy evaluation, there would be no error. Evaluating the expression would return 1, because the argument (/ 1 0) would never be evaluated.

An example that exploits lazy evaluation is the definition of a procedure unless

(define (unless condition usual-value exceptional-value)
  (if condition exceptional-value usual-value))
that can be used in expressions such as

(unless (= b 0)
        (/ a b)
        (begin (display "exception: returning 0")
This won't work in an applicative-order language because both the usual value and the exceptional value will be evaluated before unless is called (compare exercise [*]). An advantage of lazy evaluation is that some procedures, such as unless, can do useful computation even if evaluation of some of their arguments would produce errors or would not terminate.

If the body of a procedure is entered before an argument has been evaluated we say that the procedure is non-strict in that argument. If the argument is evaluated before the body of the procedure is entered we say that the procedure is strict in that argument. [*] In a purely applicative-order language, all procedures are strict in each argument. In a purely normal-order language, all compound procedures are non-strict in each argument, and primitive procedures may be either strict or non-strict. There are also languages (see exercise [*]) that give programmers detailed control over the strictness of the procedures they define.

A striking example of a procedure that can usefully be made non-strict is cons (or, in general, almost any constructor for data structures). One can do useful computation, combining elements to form data structures and operating on the resulting data structures, even if the values of the elements are not known. It makes perfect sense, for instance, to compute the length of a list without knowing the values of the individual elements in the list. We will exploit this idea in section [*] to implement the streams of chapter 3 as lists formed of non-strict cons pairs.

Exercise. Suppose that (in ordinary applicative-order Scheme) we define unless as shown above and then define factorial in terms of unless as

(define (factorial n)
  (unless (= n 1)
          (* n (factorial (- n 1)))
What happens if we attempt to evaluate (factorial 5)? Will our definitions work in a normal-order language?

Exercise. Ben Bitdiddle and Alyssa P. Hacker disagree over the importance of lazy evaluation for implementing things such as unless. Ben points out that it's possible to implement unless in applicative order as a special form. Alyssa counters that, if one did that, unless would be merely syntax, not a procedure that could be used in conjunction with higher-order procedures. Fill in the details on both sides of the argument. Show how to implement unless as a derived expression (like cond or let), and give an example of a situation where it might be useful to have unless available as a procedure, rather than as a special form.  

next up previous contents
Next: An Interpreter with Lazy Up: Variations on a Scheme Previous: Variations on a Scheme
Ryan Bender