Author: Richard A. O'Keefe <ok(at)cs(dot)otago(dot)ac(dot)nz>
Status: Draft
Type: Standards Track
Erlang-Version: R12B-4
Created: 28-Nov-2008
Post-History:

EEP 25: Unnesting cases

Abstract

Erlang 'case' expressions should adopt/adapt an idea from Algol 68 that in Erlang would strictly generalise 'cond'.

Specification

Currently a 'case' expression has the form

'case' Expression 'of'
      Pattern ['when' Guard] '->' Expression
 {';' Pattern ['when' Guard] '->' Expression}...
'end'

It is well known that Algol 68 had

if .. then .. {elif .. then ..}... [else ..] fi

expressions. It is less well known that it had a similar construction for case expression,

case .. in ... {ouse .. in ..}... [out ..] esac

where "ouse" (from "OUt caSE") let you iterate the case matching process and only need one 'esac'.

This proposal adopts the Algol 68 idea. The revised form is

'case' Expression 'of'
      Pattern ['when' Guard] '->' Expression
 {';' Pattern ['when' Guard] '->' Expression}...
{';' 'or' 'case' Expression 'of'    
      Pattern ['when' Guard] '->' Expression
 {';' Pattern ['when' Guard] '->' Expression}...}...
'end'

Motivation

Consider this example:

suffix(P, Suffix, List)
  when is_function(P, 2), is_list(Suffix) ->
suffix_loop(P, Suffix, List).

suffix_loop(P, Suffix, List) ->
case equal(P, Suffix, List)
  of true  -> true
   ; false -> case List
        of [_|Tail] -> suffix_loop(P, Suffix, Tail)
         ; []       -> false
          end
end.

With this proposal we could write

suffix_loop(P, Suffix, List) ->
case equal(P, Suffix, List)
  of true     -> true
; or case List
      of [_|Tail] -> suffix_loop(P, Suffix, Tail)
   ; []       -> false
end.

where all the alternatives to be selected have the same indentation.

The old proposal for a Lisp-like 'cond' is no longer really needed. Instead of

cond
    C1 -> B1
  ; C2 -> B2
  ...
  ; Cn -> Bn
end

one writes

case      C1 of true -> B1
; or case C2 of true -> B2
...
; or case Cn of true -> Bn
end

What one loses here is the check that a result that is not 'true' must be 'false', but that job can these days be done by the Dialyzer. This is certainly clumsier than 'cond', but it achieves the main aim, that of selecting from a bunch of choices at the same logical (and therefore at the same indentation) level by means of a series of Boolean-valued expressions, but it is strictly more general. It allows you to combine Boolean-valued expressions with guards (including any future generalisations of guards), and it allows you to make a choice based on any kind of pattern matching, not just Boolean.

This is clumsier than 'cond', but over-using Boolean when some more intention-revealing enumeration should be used is an anti-pattern that has been recognised for over 20 years. If 'cond' existed, there would be a strong pressure for people to write functions that return a Boolean result when something else might be more useful, just so they could use 'cond'.
As an example, suppose that we want to continue if the voltage is nominal, shut the device off if the voltage is low and there is not an emergency, or set the speed slow if the voltage is low and there is an emergency.

With cond:

cond voltage_nominal() -> continue_operations()
   ; in_emergency()    -> set_speed_slow()
   ; true              -> shut_device_down()
end

With case:

case      voltage() of nominal  -> continue_operations()
; or case status() of emergency -> set_speed_slow()
                    ; normal    -> shut_device_down()
end

When expressed this way, I for one find it easier to realise that "low" is not the opposite of "nominal"; a voltage that is not nominal might be high. So we really should have

case      voltage() of nominal   -> continue_operations()
                     ; high      -> WHAT DO WE DO HERE?
; or case status()  of emergency -> set_speed_slow()
             ; normal    -> shut_device_down()
end

So an approach that gives you the "flat" structure of 'cond' while subtly encouraging the multiway thinking of 'case' has merit. You could say that I am not so much for 'ouse' as against 'cond' and over-use of Boolean.

Rationale

I read one too many "why doesn't Erlang have an if" e-message, and suddently remember "Algol 68 could do that with 'case'".

The main issue is how to spell 'ouse' in Erlang. My first preference was for 'or case', but that can't work. I do not love "; or case", and would be very happy to see something better. Indeed, "; case" might do the job, I just felt that that was a bit too error-prone.

Backwards Compatibility

All existing Erlang code remains acceptable with unchanged semantics. The implementation will be entirely in the parser, so even tools that examine ASTs will be unaffected.

Reference Implementation

None yet. It will be entirely in the parser.

Copyright

This document has been placed in the public domain.

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