Author: Richard A. O'Keefe <ok(at)cs(dot)otago(dot)ac(dot)nz>
Status: Draft
Type: Standards Track
Erlang-Version: R12B-4
Created: 08-Aug-2008
Post-History:

EEP 23: Allow variables in fun M:F/A

Abstract

fun M:F/A should allow M, F, and/or A to be a variable.

Specification

The form fun M:F/A currently requires M to be an atom, F to be an atom, and A to be a non-negative integer. This is generalised to allow any or all of them to be variables.

Motivation

Representing functions by tuples {M,F,A} is now deprecated. Yet there are times when some of this information is not available until run time. For example, a behaviour's author might wish to refer to the start/0 function in the Callback module, but there might be any number of Callback modules at run time.

It is absurd that the module name and function name in a call of the form M:F(E1, ..., En) may be either atoms or variables, but that they may not be variables in fun M:F/A.

It turns out that fun M:F/A is currently implemented as a call to erlang:make_fun(M, F, A), so the ability to create such funs given run-time data already exists. All that is missing is to wrap some syntax around it.

Rationale

The gap that's being filled here is one that has been felt in practice. See a September 2008 thread in the Erlang mailing list. The proposal generalises an existing form, but not more than the existing function call syntax has already been generalised.

It is perhaps the limits of this proposal that need explaining.

First, the extension is from constants to constants or variables, not to arbitrary expressions. This is mainly to avoid confusing parsers and people. The effect of fun (E1):(E2)/(E3) can be had by writing M = E1, F = E2, A = E3, fun M:F/A, so there is no loss of expressiveness. Since Erlang's equivalent of a lambda form begins with "fun (", fun (E1):... would be tricky to parse and very confusing to people.

Second, the extension is for fun M:F/A only, and not for fun F/A. That's because there is no erlang:make_fun/2 to call; the implementation of fun F/A is surprisingly tricky and involves creating a special-purpose glue function. For many purposes, fun ?MODULE:F/A will serve instead.

Backwards Compatibility

All existing Erlang code remains acceptable with unchanged semantics. No new functions or instructions are added, so BEAM files produced with the new parser will work in older releases.

Reference Implementation

The auxiliary file eep-0023-1.diff is a patch file to be applied to erl_parse.yrl. The patched file has been checked by yecc, which is happy with it, and the resulting .erl file compiles cleanly. However, that's all the testing that has been done.

All that the implementation does is to

  1. accept fun M:F/A where M, F, and A are constants or variables,
  2. generate the same abstract syntax term that was generated in the past when they are all constants,
  3. pretend that erlang:make_fun(M, F, A) had been written when at least one is a variable. Only the parser is involved.

Copyright

This document has been placed in the public domain.

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