Function Application

Here we cover a somewhat simplified syntax of function application compared to what OCaml actually allows.


e0 e1 e2 ... en

The first expression e0 is the function, and it is applied to arguments e1 through en. Note that parentheses are not required around the arguments to indicate function application, as they are in languages in the C family, including Java.

Static semantics.

  • If e0 : t1 -> ... -> tn -> u and e1:t1 and ... and en:tn then e0 e1 ... en : u.

Dynamic semantics.

To evaluate e0 e1 ... en:

  1. Evaluate e0 to a function. Also evaluate the argument expressions e1 through en to values v1 through vn.

    For e0, the result might be an anonymous function fun x1 ... xn -> e or a name f. In the latter case, we need to find the definition of f, which we can assume to be of the form let rec f x1 ... xn = e. Either way, we now know the argument names x1 through xn and the body e.

  2. Substitute each value vi for the corresponding argument name xi in the body e of the function. That substitution results in a new expression e'.

  3. Evaluate e' to a value v, which is the result of evaluating e0 e1 ... en.

If you compare these evaluation rules to the rules for let expressions, you will notice they both involve substitution. This is not an accident. In fact, anywhere let x = e1 in e2 appears in a program, we could replace it with (fun x -> e2) e1. They are syntactically different but semantically equivalent. In essence, let expressions are just syntactic sugar for anonymous function application.


There is a built-in infix operator in OCaml for function application called the pipeline operator, written |>. Imagine that as depicting a triangle pointing to the right. The metaphor is that values are sent through the pipeline from left to right. For example, suppose we have the increment function inc from above as well as a function square that squares its input. Here are two equivalent ways of writing the same computation:

square (inc 5)
5 |> inc |> square
(* both yield 36 *)

The latter uses the pipeline operator to send 5 through the inc function, then send the result of that through the square function. This is a nice, idiomatic way of expressing the computation in OCaml. The former way is arguably not as elegant: it involves writing extra parentheses and requires the reader's eyes to jump around, rather than move linearly from left to right. The latter way scales up nicely when the number of functions being applied grows, where as the former way requires more and more parentheses:

5 |> inc |> square |> inc |> inc |> square  
square (inc (inc (square (inc 5))))
(* both yield 1444 *)

It might feel weird at first, but try using the pipeline operator in your own code the next time you find yourself writing a big chain of function applications.

Since e1 |> e2 is just another way of writing e2 e1, we don't need to state the semantics for |>: it's just the same as function application. These two programs are another example of expressions that are syntactically different but semantically equivalent.

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