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6.2.2. Language Guide

6.2.2. Language Guide


Lisp code interpreted by elps is given as a sequences of expressions encoded as utf-8 text.


An expression is either an atom or a sequence of expressions delimited by parenthesis (...). An environment evaluates one expression at a time, evaluating each sub-expression before evaluating the main expression. Expressions may also be quoted by prefixing it with an single quote '. Quoted expressions are discussed in depth along with expression evaluation.


Atoms can be symbols, numbers, and strings.


Symbols (identifiers) may consist of utf-8 letters, numbers, and many symbols (symbols not used for language syntax). Identifiers cannot start with a number. Symbols are currently case sensitive although this may change.


Numbers can be either int or floating point and will be converted between the two forms as necessary.


Strings are a sequence of utf-8 text delimited by double quotes ". Strings cannot contain line breaks. A codepoint in a string may be escaped with a preceding backslash .

Expression Evaluation


The empty expression () is a special expression called "nil" and evaluates to itself. The value nil is used in the language to represent a false boolean value (while anything non-nil represents a true boolean value).

Atomic Expressions

Symbols evaluate to the last value bound to that symbol at the deepest scope at which that symbol is bound. Numbers and strings evaluate to themselves.

Quoted Expressions

Quoted expressions evaluate to themselves. Quoted numbers and strings are equivalent to their unquoted counterparts. But a quoted nil value is not equivalent to nil.

Compound Expressions (Function Calls)

An expression containing sub-expressions is typically evaluated by evaluating all its sub-expressions from left to right (top-down). And then evaluating the main expression by invoking the function resulting from the first sub-expression with arguments bound the results of remaining sub-expressions.

(expr1 expr2 expr3)

In evaluating the above expression expr1 is evaluated first (and must evaluate to a function). Then expr2 is evaluated, followed by expr3. A new scope is created, binding expr1's function arguments to the values of expr2 and expr3, and then the expr1's function in that scope.


A function is a symbolic expression that utilizes some number of unbound argument symbols.


The above expression evaluates to an anonymous function (a lambda function) which has one argument x and evaluates to the expression (- x) when x is bound to a value through expression evaluation.


The built-in macro defun is provided to bind names to functions.


If the complete list of arguments for a function cannot be known ahead of time there are functions which you can use to assist in calling other functions.


Let's decompose the call to negative-sum?. The function negative sum has its argument bound to '(1 2 -2). When funcall calls sum-list, it passes this list verbatim. When sum-list passes this list to apply, the list is unpacked as if the list contents had been passed to + as its arguments. Other than this distinction the two functions, apply and funcall operate the same way.

Optional function arguments


The above function may be called with either zero or one argument. If the function is called without any arguments the optional argument x is bound to the value nil.


Functions can have multiple optional arguments. Arguments are bound to optional arguments in the order the arguments are defined and any left over symbols are bound to the value nil.


There is no limit to the number of optional arguments a function can have. But if the number of optional arguments is too large it may be better to use keyword arguments instead.

Variable argument (variadic) functions

A function's formal argument list may use the special symbol &rest before the final argument to denote that the final argument should be bound to a list containing all arguments not bound by previous argument symbols.


The above function can evaluate with one or more arguments. The symbol x will be bound to the first argument and xs will be bound to the remaining (possibly empty) list of arguments.


Variadic functions are prohibited from having keyword arguments due to confusing semantics when mixing the two styles. When keyword arguments are needed avoid using &rest and just pass the variable argument as an additional keyword argument.

Keyword arguments

If a function's formal argument list contains the special symbol &key the following symbols are keyword arguments. Keyword arguments are like optional arguments, in that they are not required to invoke the function. Furthermore they are bound to nil values when not provided. However, keyword arguments are unordered and when passed must be preceded by a keyword symbol indicating which are follows.


The above function defines two keyword arguments and may be called specifying values for both, one, or neither.


Keyword arguments are useful but they can also lead to some confusing errors. Keywords are values. And as values keywords can be passed to functions as normal, required arguments.


This unavoidable property of keyword arguments can lead to confusing runtime errors when accidentally omitting required arguments or mixing keyword arguments and optional arguments.

NOTE: Due to the properties of keyword arguments it follows that a function utilizing both optional and keyword arguments may only have values bound to their keyword arguments once values have been bound to all optional arguments.

Unbound expressions

The built-in expr function allows for compact construction of simple functions.


The special symbol % indicates an anonymous function argument. Functions of multiple arguments can be defined by using the anonymous argument symbols %1, %2, ... or the variadic anonymous argument %&rest.



A macro is a special function which receives unevaluated arguments (values are not quoted, they just aren't evaluated). A macro function returns a quoted expression which is subsequently evaluated in the scope of the original call. When writing macros the macroexpand and macroexpand-1 functions help debug macro behavior. The arguments to these functions is a quoted s-expression (a quoted macro invocation). The result of these functions is the quoted expansion of the macro.


The macroexpand-1 function is just like macroexpand except it will not recursively expand macros when the result of the argument macro form is itself a macro form.

The gensym builtin is used to generate a new symbol, which is most often used with macros to avoid avoid naming collisions.

Parens () and braces []

Matching braces produce a quoted list. As with parens, an open brace [ must be closed using a close brace ]. Using parens with braces can improve readability. Conventionally, braces are used with let to define the bindings.


Special Operators

A special operator is like a macro, in that it receives unevaluated arguments, but the result of a special operator will not be subsequently evaluated. Examples of special operators are if, lambda, and quasiquote. There is no facility within the language for defining special operators.


cond takes an arbitrary number of arguments called clauses. A clause consists of a list of exactly two expressions. The first expression in a clause is a condition, and there can be any number of expressions following the condition in a cond branch which get wrapped by an implicit progn.

For example,

The value returned by cond is computed as follows: if condition1 is true?, then return result1; else if condition2 is true? then return result2; else if ...; else return resultN.

If none of the conditions are true (and there is no :else), then () is returned.

let vs let*

let and let* are used to create bindings for local variables within a new scope. let bindings happens left-to-right/top-to-bottom and they can refer to previously bound symbols. The result of the evaluation of the last expression within the let is returned.


flet vs labels

flet and labels are used to create bindings for local functions within a new scope. flet bindings are not recursive and cannot refer to each other. labels bindings can be recursive and can refer to each other (left-to-right, top-to-bottom).



macrolet is used to create bindings for local macros within a new scope, in an analogous way as flet and labels.


assert takes an expression and optional string, and evalutes the expression. If the result of the evaluation is truthy then assert returns (), otherwise assert will output the assertion failure message to stderr and raise an error.


progn causes each of its arguments to be evaluated in sequence and then returns the value of the last one. The preceding expressions are evaluated only for the side effects they perform. The values produced by them are discarded.

thread-first, thread-last

thread-first and thread-last help make nested function calls more readable, and function similar to the clojure -> and ->> macros.

The word "thread" in this context (meaning passing a value through a pipeline of functions) is unrelated to the concept of concurrent threads of execution.

thread-first takes the first argument and passes it as an argument to the function defined in the second argument. The result of evaluating this expression is then passed to the function defined in the third argument, and so on.


thread-first passes the threaded value as the first argument in the chain of functions, for example:


thread-last passes the threaded value as the last argument in the chain of functions, for example:



All symbol expressions are lexically scoped and resolve to the deepest binding of that symbol. Functions naturally create a lexical scope that binds their argument symbols. The other way to create a lexical scope is through the use of let and let* which take as their first argument a list of bindings following by expressions which are executed in a nested scope containing those bindings.


If a function or let expression binds a symbol which was already bound in a higher scope the symbol will be shadowed inside the let expression.


The scope of a function is created when the function itself is created. In the above example the functions add-y and add-x always use values bound by their arguments or by the let which contains the function definition


Macros must take care if they directly evaluate an argument that contains a lambda (outside of quasiquote/unquote) because the resulting function will inherit the scope of the macro and not the scope of the caller, which is probably not desired.

Data Structures


The most primitive data structure is a list, a quoted s-expression.


Lists can be nested (it is not necessary to quote inner lists).


An empty list is equivalent to nil.



Arrays are references to continuous memory ranges. The most common kind of array is a vector -- a one dimensional array. Zero dimensional arrays are a reference to a single value.


Generally, functions in the standard library allow the programmer to specify whether the output should be a vector or a list.


Sorted Maps

A sorted map is a mapping between keys and values which ensures that key traversal is always done in sorted, increasing order. Sorted maps can contain keys that are either symbols or strings. Looking up values by key can be done with either a string or a symbol, regardless which type was used to insert/set the value originally.


Maps are mutable values and can be updated with the assoc! function to add/update a key-value pair to the map.


Analogously, the dissoc! function can be used to remove a key (and its associated value) from the map.


There are also non-mutating versions of these functions, assoc and dissoc, which merely return new sorted-map objects without modifying their arguments.


It is a peculiarity of elps that assoc on () will return a new sorted-map with the corresponding key and value set. Similarly, get on () will return ().


Packages allow namespace isolation for components of a code base as its complexity increases.


Packages are created/modified using the in-package function, which changes the environment's working package. Symbols bound using set, defun, defmacro, etc will be bound in the working package.


Outside of the my-new-package package, the symbol my-special-function may be bound to other values. Symbols defined inside my-new-package may be explicitly accessed by qualifying the symbol using the package name.


Importing symbols

Symbols exported within a package may be imported to another package with the use-package function.


In the above example, my-special-function becomes bound in my-other-package. But the symbol my-other-function remains unbound because it was never exported. If you really wanted to bind my-other-function it would be possible by using a qualified symbol.


NOTE: All packages use the "lisp" package, which defines all of the language built-in functions and macros. It is not currently possible to change this behavior for packages defined by lisp code. Embedded lisp instances are able change this behavior globally -- something outside the scope of this document.

Standard library

A default lisp instance will have a standard set of packages available outside of the language base "lisp" package. There are packages for working with time, json, stream encodings, math, etc. These packages generally have simple, short names.


User Packages

For packages outside of the standard library it in recommended that names use a URL format for organizational clarity and to avoid package name collisions.


Sometimes an improper invocation of a function will cause an error at runtime. Programmers can also trigger errors from lisp code by using the error built-in.


The above code will unwind the function call stack, prematurely terminating any functions executing or awaiting execution. If there is no code to handle the error it will eventually be returned to the application embedding the lisp interpreter. However lisp code has a few built-in ways to detect and deal with errors before the entire pending evaluation is terminated.

When a function call is understood to trigger non-fatal error conditions of a certain kind it may use the handler-bind built-in to intercept and correct that type of error. For an example, consider the above error in a broader context.


The handler-bind function works quite a bit like the concepts of raising exceptions and handling/catching exceptions in other languages. When the expression inside handler-bind calls double, it raises an error condition. The error inside double terminates the function call as it unwinds the stack until it hits the handler-bind. The list of condition handlers in handler-bind specifies a function to call when a 'double-not-number error is found. That handler function receives the arguments passed to the error built-in and returns them in this scenario, producing the result '('double-not-number "value to double is not a number") which is returned by handler-bind.

If a particular piece of lisp code should handle every kind of error with the same handler function, the handler-bind function allows callers to specify a handler for a special symbol condition which will match any error symbol. From an object oriented it is a reasonable analogy to think of all error types inheriting from the condition type.


In the above code double-not-number is handled by replacing the (double x) function call with the value 0, while any other error (like integer overflow) will be replaced with the string "ERROR DETECTED".

There is one final form of error handling, though its use is highly discouraged. If one finds themselves handling all errors and inserting a nil value with an expression that looks like the following:


The function ignore-errors will perform the same task.


It is worth saying again, and louder, that the use of ignore-errors is greatly discouraged in general. If you must attempt to handle errors in lisp code try to use handler-bind.

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