TITLE: It's Okay to Talk About Currying! AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 13, 2013 3:01 PM DESC: ----- BODY: James Hague offers some sound advice for writing functional programming tutorials. I agree with most of it, having learned the hard way by trying to teach functional style to university students for many years. But I disagree with one of his suggestions: I think it's okay to talk about currying. Hague's concern with currying is practical:
Don't get so swept up in that theory that you forget the obvious: in any programming language ever invented, there's already a way to easily define functions of multiple arguments. That you can build this up from more primitive features is not useful or impressive to non-theoreticians.
Of course, my context is a little different. We teach functional programming in a course on programming languages, so a little theory is important. We want students not only to be able to write code in a functional style but also to understand some of the ideas at the foundation of the languages they use. We also want them to understand a bit about how different programming styles relate to one another. But even in the context of teaching people to think functionally and to write code in that style, I think it's okay to talk about currying. Indeed, it is essential. Currying is not simply a theoretical topic. It is a valuable programming technique. Here is an example. When we write a language interpreter, we often write a procedure names eval-exp. It takes two arguments: an expression to evaluate, and a list of variable/value bindings.
   (define eval-exp
     (lambda (exp env)
The binding list, sometimes called an environment, is a map of names declared in the local block to their values, along with the bindings from the blocks that contain the local block. Each time the interpreter enters a new block, it pushes a new set of name/value pairs onto the binding list and recurses. To evaluate a function call for which arguments are passed by value, the interpreter must first evaluate all of the function's arguments. As the arguments are all in the same block, they are evaluated using the same binding list. We could write a new procedure to evaluate the arguments recursively, but this seems like a great time to map a procedure over a list: (map eval-exp args), get a list of the results, and pass them to the code that applies the function to them. We can't do that, though, because eval-exp is a two-argument procedure, and map works only with a one-argument procedure. But the same binding list is used to evaluate each of the expressions, so that argument to eval-exp is effectively a constant for the purposes of the mapping operation. So we curry eval-exp:
   (define eval-exp-with
     (lambda (bindings)
       (lambda (exp)
         (eval-exp exp bindings))))
... to create the one-argument evaluator that we need, and we use it to evaluate the arguments with map:
   ; in eval-exp
   (map (eval-exp-with env) arguments)
In most functional languages, we can use a nameless lambda to curry eval-exp "in place" and avoid writing an explicit helper function:
   ; an alternative approach in eval-exp
   (map (lambda (exp)
          (eval-exp exp bindings))
This doesn't look much like currying because we never created the procedure that takes the bindings argument. But we can reach this same piece of code by writing eval-exp-with, calling it in eval-exp, and then using program derivation to substitute the value of the call for the call itself. This is actually a nice connection to be able to make in a course about programming languages! When I deliver short tutorials on functional style, currying often does not make the cut, because there are so many cool and useful ideas to cover. But it doesn't take long writing functional code before currying becomes useful. As this example shows, currying is a practical tool for the functional programmer to have in his or her pocket. In FP, currying isn't just theory. It's part of the style. -----