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Promise: Lambdas

Lambdas in Promise, like other languages, are anonymous functions and first-class values. They act as closures over the scope they are defined in and can capture the free variables in their current lexical scope. Promise uses lambdas for all function definitions, going further even than javascript which has both named and anonymous functions. In Promise there are no named functions. Just slots that lambdas get assigned to for convenient access.

Straddling the statically/dynamically typed divide by allowing arguments and return values to optionally declare a Type, Promise mimicks C# lambda syntax more than say, LISP, javascript, etc. A simple lambda example looks like this:

var i = 0;
var incrementor = { ++i; };
print incrementor(); // => 1

This declaration doesn't have any input arguments to declare, so it uses a shortform of simply assigning a block to a variable. The standard form uses the lambda operator =>, so the above lambda could just as well be written as:

var incrementor = () => { ++i; };

I'm currently debating whether I really need the =>. It's mostly that i'm familiar with the form from C#. But given that there are no named functions, parentheses followed by a block can't occur otherwise, so there is no ambiguity. So, i'm still deciding whether or not to drop it:

var x = (x,y) => { x + y };
// vs.
var x = (x,y) { x + y };


The signature definition of lambdas borrows heavily from C#, using a left-hand side in parantheses for the signature, followed by the lambda operator. Input arguments can be typed, untyped or mixed:

var untypedAdd = (x,y) => { x + y; };
var typedAdd = (Num x, Num y) => { x + y; };
var mixedtypeAdd = (Num x, y) => { x + y; };


In dynamic languages, lambda definitions do not need a way to express whether they return a value--there is no type declaration so whether or not to expect a value is convention and documentatio driven. In C# on the other hand, a lambda can either not return a value, a void method, which uses one of the Action delegates, or return a value and declare it as the last type in the declaration using the Func delegates. In Promise all lambdas return a value, even if that value is nil (more about the special singleton instance nil later). Values can be returned by explicitly using the return keyword, otherwise it defaults simply to the value of the last statement executed before exiting the closure. Since return values can be typed, we need a way to declare that Type. Unlike C#, our lambdas aren't a delegate signature, so instead of reserving the last argument Type as the return Type, which would be ambiguous, Promise uses the pipe '|' character to optionally declare a return type:

var returnsUntyped = (x,y) => { x + y; };
var returnsTyped = (x,y|Num) => { x + y; };
var explicitReturn = (|Num) => { returnsTyped(1,2); };

Default values

Lambdas can also declare default values for arguments, which can be simple values or expressions:

var simple = (x=2,y=3) => { x + y; };
var complex= (x=simple()) => { x; };

Calling Conventions

Promise supports three different method calling styles. The first is the standard parentheses style as shown above. In this style, optional values can only be used by leaving out trailing arguments like this:

var f = (x=1,y=2,z=3) => { x + y +z; };
print f(2,2,2); // => 6
print f(2,2);   // => 7
print f(4);     // => 9
print f();      // => 6

If you want to omit a leading argument, you have to use the named calling style, using curly brackets, which was inspired by DekiScript. The curly bracket style uses json formatting, and since json is a first-class construct in Promise, calling the function by hand with {} or providing a json value behaves the same, allowing for simple dynamic argument construction:

print f{y: 1};       // => 5
print f{z: 1, y: 1}; // => 3
var args = {z: 5};
print f args;        // => 8

Finally there is the whitespace style, which replaces parentheses and commas with whitespace. This style exists primarily to make DSL creation more flexible:

print f 2 2 2; // => 6 print f 2 2; // => 7 print f 4; // => 9 print f; // => 6

Note the final call simply uses the bare variable f. This is possible because in Promise a lambda requiring no arguments can take the place of a value and accessing the variable executes the lambda. Sometimes it's desirable to access or pass a reference to a lambda, not execute it, in which case the reference notation '&' is needed. Using reference notation on a value is harmless (at least that's my current thinking), since Promise has no value types, so the reference of a value is the value:

var x = 2;
var y = () => { x+10; };
var x2 = &x;
var y2 = &y;
var y3 = y;
print x2; // => 3;
print y2; // => 13;
print y3; // => 12;

The output of y3 is only 12, because assignment of y3 evaluated y, capturing x before it was incremented.

Closures and Scope

As mentioned above, Lambdas can capture variables from their current scope. Scopes are nested, so a lambda can capture variables from any of the parent scopes

var x = 1;
var l1 = (y) => {
  return () => { x++; y++; x + y; };
print l1(2); // => 5
print l1(2); // => 6
print x;     // => 3

Similar to javascript, a block is not a new scope. This is done primarily for scoping simplicity, even if it introduces some side-effects:

() => {
  var x = 5;
  if( x ) {
    var x = 5; // illegal
    var y = 10;
  return y; // legal since the variable declaration was in the same scope

Using anonymous functions

As I've said that lambdas are the basic building block, meaning there is no other type of function definition. You can use them as lazily evaluated values, you can pass them as blocks to be invoked by other blocks and as I will discuss next time, Methods are basically polymorphic, named slots defined inside the closure of the class (i.e. capturing the class definition's scope), which is why there is no need for explicitly named functions.

More about Promise

This is a post in an ongoing series of posts about designing a language. It may stay theoretical, it may become a prototype in implementation or it might become a full language. You can get a list of all posts about Promise, via the Promise category link at the top.