URL: http://www.complang.tuwien.ac.at/ulrich/Prolog-inedit/ISO-Hiord
Comments welcome!
[Traditional HOP, Lambdas, Syntax, Comparison-[Warren, Hiord], Implementation, Compilation, Errors, Simpler setof/3]

Lambdas in ISO Prolog

Higher order programming is possible in Prolog. There is no need to extend the language for that. See Richard O'Keefe's arguments in comp.lang.prolog more than ten years ago. What is missing are lambda expressions.

We present a very simple implementation of lambda expressions in ISO Prolog that fits into the existing conventions for higher order predicates based on call/N. No syntax or compiler extension is needed.

Traditional higher order programming

This session runs in SWI or YAP with a recent version of Markus Triska's CLPFD.
?- use_module(library(clpfd)).
?- use_module(library(apply)).
How to say that Y is different from all elements in a list? So Y #\= X for all X in list Xs.
?- Xs = [1,2], maplist(#\=(Y), Xs).
Xs = [1, 2],
Y in inf..0\/3..sup.
And in a list of lists?
?- Xss= [[1,2],[3]], maplist(maplist(#\=(Y)), Xss).
Xss = [[1, 2], [3]],
Y in inf..0\/4..sup.
And that they are all greater Y?
That cannot be formulated directly. But we have luck. We can reformulate
X #> Y for all elements X
into the equivalent
Y #< X for all elements X
Now, X is the last argument. We can therefore use the goal without the last argument: #<(Y). Such goals with missing arguments are called continuations. Unfortunately, we are not always that lucky.
?- Xss= [[1,2],[3]], maplist(maplist(#<(Y)), Xss).
Xss = [[1, 2], [3]],
Y in inf..0.
And that Xss + Yss = Zss with pointwise addition?

This time we went too far. We have to use an auxiliary definition like zplus/3. Welcome to the world of superfluous use-once predicate names!

zplus(X,Y,Z) :-
   X + Y #= Z.

?- Xss= [[1,2],[3]], maplist(maplist(zplus), Xss, Yss, Zss).
Xss = [[1, 2], [3]],
Yss = [[_G2492, _G2495], [_G2501]],
Zss = [[_G2513, _G2516], [_G2522]],

Can't we do this without the extra definition? After all, predicate definitions are global which means we have to remember that name. And finding a good name in Prolog isn't easy. For instance, z_z_sum/3 would have been a more relational name. Or 'x + y = z'/3, but that would have been ambiguous: Are we talking about elements in N, Z or R? I can ponder such questions for days. What we would like to have, is some device for describing all this within the argument of maplist/4.

That's what lambda expressions are for. There have been many attempts to include them in Prolog, but they do not fit into ISO Prolog. They require syntax and compiler extensions. Fortunately, it is possible to respect ISO Prolog's syntax and get nice lambdas that collaborate with the existing higher order programming conventions. A simple library is all we need. Here is how:


?- use_module(lambda).
?- Xss= [[1,2],[3]], maplist(maplist(\X^Y^Z^(X+Y#=Z)), Xss, Yss, Zss).
Xss = [[1, 2], [3]],
Yss = [[_G3804, _G3807], [_G3813]],
Zss = [[_G3825, _G3828], [_G3834]],
The underlined part is the lambda expression. It starts with a backslash and adds a caret after each argument. The scope of variables within lambdas is local. To get a global variable, i.e. a variable that is free within the expression, consider Xss + Y = Zss:
?- Xss= [[1,2],[3]], maplist(maplist(Y+\X^Z^(X+Y#=Z)), Xss, Zss).
Xss = [[1, 2], [3]],
Zss = [[_G2965, _G2968], [_G2974]],
Instead of a simple backslash, we use now +\. The variables in the term before the +\ have a global scope. For more details see the manual.


Our notation can be seen as a decomposition of the lambda symbol (λ). It consists of a \ together with a ^ for each argument. The \ is responsible for appropriate renaming, whereas the ^ is responsible for parameter passing. The (^)/2 is frequently used for lambda-like parameter passing. See Pereira and Shieber's (undervalued) 1987 book which justifies the choice of the symbol (1st ed. p.96, digital ed.p.75, PDF p.85):
Thus the lambda expression λ x. x + 1 would be encoded in Prolog as X^(X+1). Similarly, the lambda expression λ x. λ y.wrote(y, x) would be encoded as the Prolog term X^Y^wrote(Y,X), assuming right associativity of "^".3

3 There is precedent for the use of the caret to form lambda expressions. The notation that Montague himself used for the lambda expression λ x.φ was (ignoring details of intensionality operators) x^φ, which we have merely linearized.
Remark: the x^ should look like a circumflex, e.g. â
In Pereira and Shieber's book the ^-notation is only used for passing parameters. No copying takes place. It therefore resembles very closely our use of ^.

A remark to the remark about Montague using x^ for lambda expressions: This notation is already used in Quine's Mathematical Logic.

A line-by-line comparison


Warren's pioneering 1981 work on higher order extensions addresses already all uses.

Simple application

First, apply/2,3... is defined much in the same way as the still uninvented call/2,3... The examples below are given in their original syntax. Note, that have_property/2 does not facilitate nesting, due to the argument order.
have_property([], P).
have_property([X|L], P) :- apply(P,X), have_property(L, P).


Warren suggests to compile lambdas to unique identifiers. Variable scoping remains implicit and is therefore sensible to the time of translation. In our approach R and Y must be declared explicitly.
common(R,L,Y) :- have_property(L, lambda(X).R(X,Y)).
common(R,L,Y) :- maplist([R,Y]+\X^call(R,X,Y),L).
common(R, L, Y) :- have_property(L, foo(R,Y)).

apply(foo(R,Y),X) :- apply(R,X,Y).
apply(pastime,X,Y) :- pastime(X,Y).
Note, that foo/2 corresponds closely to the continuation call/2.

Partial continuations

The second use of apply is for explicitly constructing partial expressions.
apply(twice(F),X,Z) :- apply(F,X,Y), apply(F,Y,Z).
apply(succ,X,Y) :- Y is X + 1.

?- apply(twice, twice, F1), apply(F1,twice,F2), apply(F2,succ,F3), apply(F3,0,Ans).
F1 = twice(twice),
F2 = twice(twice(twice)),
F3 = twice(twice(twice(twice(succ)))),
Ans = 16.
How can we obtain such terms without the ad hoc facts in apply/3 above? We would have to use (=..)/2, a.k.a. boum(2) to transform twice/0 to twice/1. But there is a simpler way. Remark that a continuation twice(QQ) can also be represented as call(twice,QQ)! This is much in the same way, as a goal p(X) could be written as call(p,X). For a more detailed discussion, see Richard O'Keefe's elaboration.
twice(Cont,S0,S) :- call(Cont,S0,S1), call(Cont,S1,S).

?- call(call(twice,call(twice,call(twice,call(twice,call(succ))))),0,N).
N = 16.


@@@ DCG example of NACLP 1989


@@@ Discussion in comp.lang.prolog.


In his Draft Prolog library proposal, O'Keefe discusses lambda-expressions. He concludes, that
without compiler assistance, lambda-expressions either don't work or require more, and more error-prone, annotation than I think the average programmer would be happy with. I do not want to recommend anything which requires compiler support or even that there be a compiler.
We completely agree with his distrust in compiler based approaches. Compilers in this context should reduce resource consumption and should detect certain errors statically, but they should not be required to implement variable scoping.
?- all((\(X, Y) :- Body), Xs, Ys).
?- maplist(\X^Y^Body, Xs, Ys).
common_prefix(Front, Xs, Ys) :-
    all((\(X, Y) :- append(Front)), Xs, Ys).
common_prefix(Front, Xs, Ys) :-
    maplist(Front+\append(Front), Xs, Ys).
Above code is a shorthand for:
common_prefix(Front, Xs, Ys) :-
    maplist(Front+\X^Y^append(Front,X,Y), Xs, Ys).


Hiord contains two different mechanisms to represent continuations. A notation for lambdas using the syntax of a rule for the predicate ''/N. This corresponds to our \-notation. The major difference is that Hiord-lambdas do not permit partial application. The other notation using positional parameters has no direct counterpart. It is a slight generalization of the traditional higher order approach. Both depend on argument ordering. The extensions of Hiord are incompatible with ISO Prolog and require extensions in various parts of a Prolog system. We compare our approach with Hiord following the ASIAN 2004 paper, since no implementation is available. The programs are colored as follows:
list([], _).
list([X|Xs], P) :- P(X), list(Xs, P).
:- meta_predicate maplist(1,?).
maplist(_, []).
maplist(P, [X|Xs]) :- call(P, X), maplist(P, Xs).
all_less(L1, L2) :- map(L1, {''(X,Y) :- X < Y}, L2).
all_less(L1, L2) :- maplist(\X^Y^(X < Y), L1, L2).
same_mother(L) :- list(L, {M-> ''(S) :- child_of(S,M,_)}).
same_mother(L) :- maplist(M+\S^child_of(S,M,_), L).
same_parents(L) :- list(L, {M,F -> ''(S) :- child_of(S,M,F)}, L).
same_parents(L) :- maplist( [M,F] +\S^child_of(S,M,F), L).
same_parents(L) :- list(L, {child_of(#,_M,_F)}).
parents_of(M, F, C) :- child_of(C, M, F).
same_parents(L) :- maplist(parents_of(_M,_F), L).
all_less(L1, L2) :- map(L1, {# < #}, L2).
all_less(L1, L2) :- maplist(<, L1, L2).
closure(R,X,Y) :- R(X,Y).
closure(R,X,Y) :- R(X,Z), closure(R,Z,Y).
:- meta_predicate closure(2, ?,?).
closure(R,S0,S) :- call(R,S0,S).
closure(R,S0,S) :- call(R,S0,S1), closure(R,S1,S).
same_father(L) :- list(L, {F -> ''(S) :- child_of(S,_,F)}).
same_father(L) :- maplist(F +\ S ^ child_of(S,_,F), L).
father(F, S) :- child_of(S,_,F).
same_father(L) :- list(L, {father(_,#)}).
same_father(L) :- maplist(father(_), L).
descendent_Y(X,Y) :- closure({father(#,#)},X,Y).
descendent_Y(X,Y) :- closure(father, X,Y).
descendent_Y(X,Y) :- closure({''(F,S) :- child_of(S,_,F)},X,Y).
descendent_Y(X,Y) :- closure(\F^S^child_of(S,_,F), X,Y).
We omit the first program on this page, as it creates infinite terms. Fortunately, the authors provide also a clean version. When typing it in, I encountered several typos of my part. SWI's :- set_prolog_flag(occurs_check,error). was very helpful to locate those errors. I can only hope that also other systems will adopt this feature, which nicely fits into ISO Prolog's approach to unification (see 13211-1:7.3).
lists_mod(Member, List /*, Reverse*/) :-
    Me =     { ''(X, L, R) :- L = [X|_]
                           ;  L = [_|Xs], R(X, Xs, R)
    Member = { Me ->
               ''(X,L) :- Me(X, L, Me)
    Li     = { ''(L, P, R) :- L = []
                           ;  L = [X|Xs], P(X), R(Xs,P,R)
    List   = { Li ->
               ''(L,P) :- Li(L, P, Li)
lists_mod(Member, List) :-
    Me =     \X^L^R^ ( L = [X|_]
                     ; L = [_|Xs], call(R, X, Xs, R)
    Member = Me +\Xr1^Lr1^ call(Me, Xr1, Lr1, Me),
    Li     = \Lr1^P^Rr1^ ( Lr1 = []
                         ; Lr1 = [X|Xs], call(P,X), call(Rr1,Xs,P,Rr1)
    List   = Li +\Lr2^Pr1^call(Li,Lr2,Pr1,Li).
main(X) :-
main(X) :-
To make above program run I needed to rename some variables (those with the suffix r1x). Compiler support (actually term expansion would suffice) could produce appropriate error messages to avoid accidental clashes.

Further uses

main_member(X,Xs) :-
    call(Member, X, Xs).

main_list(Xss) :-

main_list2(Xss) :-


Here is the full implementation including manual.

The lambda is realized in two steps corresponding to different predicates. The first step creates a new instance with variables renamed appropriately. The second step is responsible for argument passing.

(+\)/2,.. Instantiation with free variables.
(\)/1,... Instantiation without free variables.
(^)/3,.. Argument passing
^(V1, G_0, V1) :-                             call(G_0).
^(V1, G_1, V1, V2) :-                         call(G_1, V2).
^(V1, G_2, V1, V2, V3) :-                     call(G_2, V2, V3).
^(V1, G_3, V1, V2, V3, V4) :-                 call(G_3, V2, V3, V4).
^(V1, G_4, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5) :-             call(G_4, V2, V3, V4, V5).
^(V1, G_5, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6) :-         call(G_5, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6).
^(V1, G_6, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6, V7) :-     call(G_6, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6, V7).
^(V1, G_7, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6, V7, V8) :- call(G_7, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6, V7, V8).

:- op(201,xfx,+\).

+\(GV, FC_0) :-                             copy_term(GV+FC_0,GV+C_0), call(C_0).
+\(GV, FC_1, V1) :-                         copy_term(GV+FC_1,GV+C_1), call(C_1, V1).
+\(GV, FC_2, V1, V2) :-                     copy_term(GV+FC_2,GV+C_2), call(C_2, V1, V2).
+\(GV, FC_3, V1, V2, V3) :-                 copy_term(GV+FC_3,GV+C_3), call(C_3, V1, V2, V3).
+\(GV, FC_4, V1, V2, V3, V4) :-             copy_term(GV+FC_4,GV+C_4), call(C_4, V1, V2, V3, V4).
+\(GV, FC_5, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5) :-         copy_term(GV+FC_5,GV+C_5), call(C_5, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5).
+\(GV, FC_6, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6) :-     copy_term(GV+FC_6,GV+C_6), call(C_6, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6).
+\(GV, FC_7, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6, V7) :- copy_term(GV+FC_7,GV+C_7), call(C_7, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6, V7).

\(FC_0) :-                             copy_term(FC_0,C_0), call(C_0).
\(FC_1, V1) :-                         copy_term(FC_1,C_1), call(C_1, V1).
\(FC_2, V1, V2) :-                     copy_term(FC_2,C_2), call(C_2, V1, V2).
\(FC_3, V1, V2, V3) :-                 copy_term(FC_3,C_3), call(C_3, V1, V2, V3).
\(FC_4, V1, V2, V3, V4) :-             copy_term(FC_4,C_4), call(C_4, V1, V2, V3, V4).
\(FC_5, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5) :-         copy_term(FC_5,C_5), call(C_5, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5).
\(FC_6, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6) :-     copy_term(FC_6,C_6), call(C_6, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6).
\(FC_7, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6, V7) :- copy_term(FC_7,C_7), call(C_7, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6, V7).
Above code should run immediately for systems without constraints. With constraints make sure that copy_term/2 does not copy constraints. Since current Prolog systems differ here quite significantly, consider one of the following implementations:

Compilation of lambdas

The meaning of our lambdas is defined by executing the library above. I.e., all issues of variable scoping are resolved by executing the lambda dynamically. Compilation is therefore only possible, if there is no difference to dynamic execution.

E.g. lambdas occurring in maplist/2 can be expanded similarly to library(apply_macros), if all variables are correctly scoped statically. A clause

   p(...) :- ... X ..., maplist(\Y^p(X,Y), L), ...
must not compile the lambda, due to the variable X. Ideally an error is produced in this case.

Systems that perform semantics altering translations when converting a term to a clause (13211-1:7.6) do not preserve the equivalence between a goal and the same goal wrapped with call/1. They should better refuse incorrectly scoped lambda expressions altogether. Note that otherwise the only semantics altering effect of 13211-1:7.6 w.r.t. wrapping a goal with call/1 is the scope of cuts.


  1. Variable scoping. There is currently no checking for incorrectly scoped variables. Many errors could be detected with expand_term.
  2. Variable renaming. It is tempting to consider an automatic static renaming of variables. However, this does not seem to fit into the dynamic nature of many Prolog programs. Instead, some misuses could be detected during term-expansion based on meta_predicate declarations.
  3. Superfluous arguments. They are detected and lead to an error. For the moment it is a 13211-1:7.12f Representation error, which is never wrong - one can always claim that such things cannot be represented. But a more specific error like a type error (which type?) would be preferable. Without the error checking the accidental presence of a predicate (^)/2 would lead to skipping the remaining arguments. Note that the ISO standard does not define a predicate (^)/2. It is rather an artefact in most current implementations.
    ?- maplist(\X^Y^Z^(Z #= X+Y), [1], [3]).
    ERROR: user://3:324:
            Cannot represent due to `lambda_parameters'

Improving setof/3

Have you ever used setof/3 for a predicate of larger arity? With something like country/10? You must have noticed the big problem with existential variables. In Chat-80 a country's currency is in the last argument of country/10. What are the currencies on this planet? We could try
?- country(_,_,_,_,_,_,_,_,_,Currency).
Currency = afghani ;
Currency = lek ;
Currency = dinar 
But we want them in an ascending list without duplicates like the popular dinar. So...
?- setof(Currency,country(_,_,_,_,_,_,_,_,_,Currency),Currencies).
Currencies = [afghani] ;
Currencies = [lek] ;
Currencies = [dinar] 
Not exactly what we wanted. See it? Now, correct that compactly! I wish you luck. You would have to give all those anonymous variables a name! With lambdas things remain compact:
?- setof(Currency,Currency+\country(_,_,_,_,_,_,_,_,_,Currency),Currencies).
Currencies = [?, afghani, ariary, australian_dollar, bahamian_dollar, baht, balboa, bolivar, ... ].


There is no need for higher order extensions to bloat ISO Prolog's syntax. The traditional call/N and this library are sufficient. The real challenge is an effective error detection and an efficient compilation scheme. But all this can be done within 13211-1 and 13211-2.


Helpful comments have been given by Péter Szeredi on error checking, by Tamás Schmidt, Markus Triska, Jens Knoop. Instantaneous help for YAP by Vitor Santos Costa.

Normative references

  1. ISO/IEC 13211-1 Programming languages - Prolog - Part 1: General core. Published 1995-06-01.
  2. ISO/IEC 13211-2 Programming languages - Prolog - Part 2: Modules. Published 2000-06-01.
  3. ISO/IEC 13211-1:1995/Cor.1:2007. Technical Corrigendum 1. Published 2007-11-15.
  4. ISO/IEC 13211-1:1995/Cor.2:2012. Technical Corrigendum 2. Published 2012-02-15.


  1. D. H. D. Warren.
    Higher-Order Extensions to Prolog - Are They Needed?, In Hayes, Michie and Pao, Machine Intelligence 10. Ellis Horwood, 1982.

    Originally: International Machine Intelligence Workshop, Cleveland, April 1981, DAI Research Paper 154.

  2. D. L. Bowen (ed.), L. Byrd, F. C. N. Pereira, L. M. Pereira and D. H. D. Warren.
    Decsystem-10 Prolog User's Manual. Occasional Paper 27, Dept. of Artificial Intelligence, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, 10 November, 1982. (Corresponds to version 3.47).
  3. R. O'Keefe.
    Draft Prolog library proposal online.
  4. F. C. N. Pereira, St. M. Shieber
    Prolog and Natural-Language Analysis. (CSLI Lecture Notes 10, ISBN 0-937073-18-0), 1987. Digital version
  5. L. Naish.
    Higher-order logic programming in Prolog. Workshop on multi-paradigm logic programming, JICSLP'96. Research report #96-28, TU Berlin. 1996.
  6. D. Cabeza, M. Hermenegildo, and J. Lipton
    Hiord: A Type-Free Higher-Order Logic Programming Language with Predicate Abstraction
    ASIAN 2004, LNCS 3321, pp. 93-198, 2004. PDF
History: 2009-06-23 Announcement of final version