A Simple Function: Distance#

To get the flavor of the language, let us first consider a few simple Pascal subroutines and their equivalents in Dylan. Here we have a Pascal function for calculating the distance between two points in a two dimensional plane, using the Pythagorean theorem:

function distance(x1: real; y1: real; x2: real; y2: real): real;
begin
  distance := sqrt((x2-x1) * (x2-x1) + (y2-y1) * (y2-y1))
end;

and here’s an equivalent function in Dylan:

define method distance (x1 :: <real>, y1 :: <real>, x2 :: <real>, y2 :: <real>)
 => distance :: <real>;
  sqrt((x2 - x1) * (x2 - x1) + (y2 - y1) * (y2 - y1))
end method distance;

Let’s first look at the syntactic differences between the two functions. First, Pascal introduces the definition with the keyword function where Dylan uses the phrase define method. Define is used in Dylan when defining all module variables, which are the equivalent of program variables, types, functions, and procedures in Pascal. We’ll see later why Dylan calls this function a method; for now, it is useful to think of methods in Dylan as the same as functions in Pascal.

The next thing to notice is that Dylan uses the double colon symbol (::) to separate variables from their types; we’ll see later that a single colon is used for another purpose, which is why the double colon is used in type declarations. Also note that the Dylan program has a space between the variable name and the double colon.

The next important difference between the two examples is that the name of the type, real, is enclosed in “angle brackets” (the less-than and greater-than signs) in the Dylan version. The reason for this is that, unlike in Pascal, types and variables live in the same name space in Dylan. For example, in Pascal, one can have a type named list and a variable named list at the same time, and the meaning of the identifier list refers to one or the other depending on context. In Dylan, there isn’t always enough context to know whether something is a type or value – and, in fact, types are values in Dylan – so a convention is used to separate types from non-types in order to avoid confusion and name clashes. That convention is putting angle brackets around the names of types. (C programmers face a similar problem, and at least two distinct conventions have evolved: using identifiers with the first letter capitalized or with a suffix of _t for type names.)

The convention for type names brings up another difference between Dylan and Pascal: What characters are legal in names? Pascal, C, and many traditional languages restrict the set of characters allowed in names to the letters, digits, and perhaps a few graphical characters, such as the underscore or dollar sign. Dylan is more flexible: all those characters are legal, but so are many graphical characters, such as hyphens, asterisks, question marks, exclamation marks, and, as we have seen, the greater-than and less-than signs. The general rule is that a Dylan identifier can’t start with a digit and should contain at least one letter, but any characters that don’t otherwise have special meaning are allowed.

This flexibility does come at some cost: because the character set for variable names overlaps with the character set for operators, we need to put spaces between variable names and operators. For example, x2 - x1 is two two-character long variables separated by the minus operator and means the same thing as it does in Pascal, but x2-x1 is a single five-character long variable name in Dylan. This may seem confusing or awkward at first to programmers not used to putting space between variables and operators, but it adds flexibility in the choice of names.

Now back to the example function. In Pascal, the return type of the function is declared with a colon, just like the type of a variable, where Dylan uses an arrow (=>) combined with what looks like a variable declaration. The return description for our function says that the function returns the distance, and that the result has the type <real>. The name used in a return description is for documentation purposes only. Upon reflection, one might come to the conclusion that the name is unnecessary as documentation, since the function name should describe the meaning of the return value. Later, we’ll see a reason why Dylan puts the name in the result.

Let’s skip the contents of the function body of the function for a moment, and notice that Pascal surrounds the body with the words begin and end. Dylan is similar, except that the word begin is omitted. All methods must have bodies, so where it begins is implicit: right after the declaration of parameters and return values. The word method and the name of the method are repeated after the word end; both method and the name are optional after the end, but I personally prefer to put them in, so I’ve done that here. Individual styles vary, and people who think that the words after end clutter the program are free to leave them out.

Now, let’s look at the bodies of the functions. Aside from the spaces separating the operators from the variable names in the Dylan version, there is one major difference. In Pascal, the pseudo-variable with the same name as the function, distance, is assigned the value to return from the function. In Dylan, on the other hand, the body is treated as an expression, and the value of that expression is returned by the function. If that body contains multiple statements or expressions separated by semicolons, the function returns whatever the last expression returns. (C is different from both Dylan and Pascal in this regard: it uses the return statement to both return the value and exit immediately from the function.)

The last important detail to notice is that, aside from the issue of spaces, the expression used to calculate the distance is the same in both Dylan and Pascal.


In Pascal, the programmer has to declare types for all variables, parameters, and functions. In Dylan, type declarations may be omitted; if no type is declared for a variable, any value may be used. Similarly, the description of what a method returns may be left out. Thus a more concise version of distance would be:

define method distance (x1, y1, x2, y2)
  sqrt((x2 - x1) * (x2 - x1) + (y2 - y1) * (y2 - y1))
end method distance;

When used with four real numbers, this distance function produces the same result as the original. But this version will work just as well on integers. (In fact, the original version also works on integers, because the type <integer> is a subtype of <real>; that is, all integers are also reals, which matches our mathematical intuition. The type <float> in Dylan corresponds more directly with Pascal’s real type.)

Since any value can be used as an argument to distance, what happens if we use something which doesn’t make sense, like distance(0, 0, 3, "four")? The function starts as normal, but when it tries to subtract 0 from "four", the program stops with an error, since it makes no sense to subtract a number from a string. If we had used the original version of the distance function, we would have gotten the error when we tried to call distance.

For now, we’ll omit most type declarations in our Dylan examples. Later, we’ll see some of the reasons for using them other than catching errors.


Looking back at the distance function, we see that the subtraction x2 - x1 is done twice in order to multiple the result by itself; the same is then done for the y values. To reduce the work that the function does, we can store the results of the subtractions in local variables. (Many compilers will do this kind of optimization – known as common subexpression elimination – without requiring the code to be rewritten.) In Pascal, that might look like:

function distance(x1: real; y1: real; x2: real; y2: real): real;
var
  deltaX, deltaY: real;
begin
  deltaX := x2 - x1;
  deltaY := y2 - y1;
  distance := sqrt(deltaX * deltaX + deltaY * deltaY)
end;

which could be written in Dylan as

define method distance (x1, y1, x2, y2)
  let delta-x = x2 - x1;
  let delta-y = y2 - y1;
  sqrt(delta-x * delta-x + delta-y * delta-y)
end method distance;

First, we see that where Pascal puts the definition of the local variables in a separate section of the function definition, Dylan puts them in the body. Next, we see that the definition of the local variables includes the initialization. In general, when you define a variable in Dylan, you give it a value at the same time – in this way, you do not have to worry about initialized variables.

Also notice that where, in Pascal, mixedCaseNames are often used to separate words in long identifiers, Dylan conventionally uses hyphen-separated-names.


Another way to rewrite the distance function to only do the subtractions once would be to abstract out the squaring operation as a local function. In Pascal, this would look like:

function distance(x1: real; y1: real; x2: real; y2: real): real;
  function square(n: real): real;
  begin
    square := n * n
  end;
begin
  distance := sqrt(square(x2 - x1) + square(y2 - y1))
end;

which could be written in Dylan as

define method distance (x1, y1, x2, y2)
  local method square (n :: <real>)
          n * n
        end method square;
  sqrt(square(x2 - x1) + square(y2 - y1))
end method distance;

Like local variables created with let, local methods can appear anywhere inside a body.


Next – Conditions and Multiple Values: The Quadratic Formula

Copyright © 1995 Paul Haahr. All rights reserved.