The (Linguistics) Pragmatic Programmer

February 24, 2014

What follows is an mildly revised version of a final paper from the linguistics pragmatics course I took last spring.

Programming language theory and theoretical linguistics are two fields with overlapping histories. However, most programming languages are not designed to behave like natural language. This post identifies research in the pragmatics of natural language for programming language theory researchers to adapt to programming language theory, and vice versa.

Code is for people

To effectively synthesize these fields, we need to remember that programming languages are for people and not computers. People need to be able to effectively convey ideas in programming languages, as well as effectively understand ideas in programming languages.

A common example of this is when a programmer is working on a team, other people will look at the code and need to understand it in order to know how to use it. A less common example, though just as important, is the diachronic situation: after a long period of time the programmer returns to the code they wrote. They need to be able to understand what they previously wrote. Since this is the case, Grice’s cooperative principle applies.

On the other hand, the language is restricted in that it needs to be convertible into language for the computer to understand and evaluate efficiently. This limits the kind of grammars and the flexibility of the language designer, but does not prevent pragmatics from appearing in the design.

Each of the Gricean maxims can apply to programming languages:

The Pragmatic Programmer applies pragmatism (not pragmatics) to the workplace structure of a software engineer, so it would not seem as related as its title suggests. However, it does provide some tips to consider when designing and writing software. These tips can be cast in the frame of the Gricean maxims.

One tip is the DRY principle. DRY stands for ‘Don’t Repeat Yourself’. This corresponds to Quantity, since a lack of repetition results in a shorter program, but also to Manner since repetitive software could be unclear to subsequent programmers using the program.

Another way of thinking about Quantity and Manner is in terms of efficiency. In programming, we can think of efficiency in a number of ways: code complexity, time complexity, space complexity. These correspond to the engineering idiom “Good, Fast, or Cheap: Choose two!”

Another tip from The Pragmatic Programmer suggests the separation of concerns. This principle states that each section of code should only handle one concern. Intuitively, this corresponds to Relevance.

Quality is a harder maxim to identify since programs are generally considered to be correct if they run correctly. Some programming languages make more or less claims about their correctness. This seems to be the most highly weighted maxim for programming languages; the others can be flouted to satisfy Quality.


Most programming languages do not have a notion of determiners. For example, even in object-oriented languages where the class or prototype of an object is also an object, we cannot use a determiner with the class or prototype of the object to get an instance of that class or prototype. However, an analogy of determiners and adjectives can be made to database query languages and to object-relational mapping, which provides a bijective map of objects and rows in a relational database.

Lets consider the indefinite noun phrase, “a big red dog”. In SQL, a database query language, this can be expressed as:

SELECT FIRST(*) FROM Dogs WHERE color='red' AND size='big';

The semantics of this statement are similar to the English. In SQL, there are Tables and Rows. Tables correspond to the general noun, e.g. dog, whereas Rows correspond to an individual. This statement just gets some row from the table where the adjectives specified are satisfied.

For definite determiners, such as “the big red dog”, we want to make sure there is only one result which satisfies those conditions. In SQL this can be expressed as:

(SELECT * FROM Dogs WHERE color='red' AND size='big') a

Note that this is purely a semantic translation into SQL. What if there exists other big red dogs, but we can infer from context which big red dog was being referred to? Pragmatic reasoning should improve the result. This should be possible in a programming language. If you only have one member of a class with those properties in the current namespace, then that should be what is referred to, and if there isn’t one, check the next highest namespace. This is approximately how natural language works.

There is a slight wrinkle in this suggest, but it can be resolved consistently. When I said “a big red dog” did it create a new object with those properties or utilize an existing big red dog? If it created a new object, then later when I say “the big red dog” it refers back to that same object. However, if it utilized an existing big red dog (or if if failed to point to anything), then “the big red dog” escapes out of the current namespace and looks around trying to find somewhere else to provide an object to refer to. If we were walking outside, it might be to some dog we see, but there is also certain background knowledge in deeper namespaces which come in handy even when there is no local referent. For example, with “the big red dog”, you may think of Clifford, the big red dog. This would be pragmatic reasoning, and would be implementable into a programming language.


Some programming languages make use of anaphoric lexemes. However, the use of anaphora in such languages is very limited. This section explores current anaphoric structures in programming languages.

Anaphoric lambdas

Anaphoric lambdas are used to create recursive anonymous functions (Let Over Lambda, Chapter 6). Lambda expressions are used as anonymous functions in many programming languages, but it is difficult to represent recursive functions anonymously.

Consider the following. We would like to represent the factorial function anonymously. Recall that \(n! = n * n - 1 * ... * 2 * 1\). So we write \(\lambda n . n * n - 1 * ... * 2 * 1\). However, this would not work, since the ellipsis represents recursion. Instead, we provide an anaphor self which can be used within the lambda expression to represent recursive calls to itself. With this in mind, we can write the following anonymous recursive function:

\[factorial = \lambda n . \left\lbrace \begin{array}{c c} n & \textrm{if $n = 1$} \\ n * self (n-1) & \textrm{if $n > 1$} \end{array}\right. \]

Another use of self (or this) occurs when you want to refer to the object wrapping the current namespace. For example, when defining a class in Python, you use self to refer to the eventual instance of the class:

class Dog:
    size = string()
    color = string()
    name = string()
    owner = Person()
    location = Location()

    def run_to(self, object):
        self.location = object.location

    def fetch(self, stick):

In other languages, the self in the methods would refer to the methods themselves, rather than the instance object of the class. This is more common in prototypal object-oriented languages (as opposite to classic), due to how prototypes work For example, JavaScript, which uses this in place of self, has this issue. As a work around to this (no pun intended), a common idiom is to create a that variable which refers to the object above the current one. In Python syntax, but JavaScript scoping:

def a(x):
   that = this
   def b(y):
       print( this === a )  # false!

       # inside b, `this` points to b, not a
       print( this === b )  # true

       # but `that` points to a!
       print( that === a )  # true

The last notion of anaphor considered here is called cascade, or method chain. Originally implemented in Smalltalk, cascade allows for programming language constructions similar to “the owner threw the stick, told the dog to fetch it, and watched the dog”. Here is that sentence translated into Smalltalk:

[EmilyElizabeth threw: stick
                tell: clifford to: fetch the: stick
                watch: clifford]

Cascade is implemented by returning the object (EmilyElizabeth, in our case) from each method (hence ‘method chaining’), rather than some some other object or an attribute of the object. This may be more readily understood in a more mainstream syntax:

              .tell(Clifford, fetch, stick)

Hoare triples and presupposition

Another analogy can be made between Hoare triples and presupposition. Hoare proposed a method of verifying program correctness using the following:

To use Hoare triples, one specifies the expected post-condition for the program and works backward through each statement to find the needed precondition for the program. Each statement influences the conditions by changing the set of states, for example, by assignment. In an assignment statement, everything that previously was true about the right hand side of the assignment is now true about both the right hand side and the left hand side of the assignment.

The pre-conditions are similar to presupposition. This later influenced the dynamic semantics approach to presupposition.

Type inference

In programming languages, typing is controversial, with some preferring strong static typing for reliability and efficiency, with others preferring weak dynamic typing for its flexibility.

However, ignoring the social aspects, we may still be able to find a natural language analogy to type inference. Type inference allows the computer to infer certain properties about the various objects under consideration. For example, consider the following subset1 of Haskell:

x = 3

We would like to assign each entity a type. We find x and we cannot give it a type. We find 3 and we know it is an integer. Then we can assign x to be an integer, since it is declared to refer to 3.

inc a = a + 1

Here, there are more things that we need to infer. We see inc takes an argument, so we know it must be of a function type, with some input type and some result type. We see a and we know that it must be the same as the input type of inc, but we cannot do anything else yet. We see 1 and know it is an integer. We see + and know that plus takes two integers and that it takes in a, so a must be of type integer, and inc must take in and return integers.

g f i = (f i) + 1

Here, we see g and see that it takes two arguments, so it must be a function that takes some argument and returns another function which takes another argument and returns a result. We see f and i and unify them with the respective arguments in the type of g, but cannot do anything else yet. We see (f i) and know that f must be a function from the type of i to some other type. We then see the 1 and know that it is an integer. We then see the + and know that it takes two integers and returns an integer. Then we know the return type of f is integer, and the return type of g is integer. In summary: g :: (a -> Integer) -> a -> Integer where a is a polymorphic type corresponding to i.

This analysis can be done either during compilation (static) or at runtime (dynamic). Static type inference is similar to what the speaker of natural language does in sentence formation using semantics. Dynamic type inference (for example, duck typing) is similar to what the hearer does using pragmatic inference.


Contracts, an extension to type theory inspired by Hoare triples, provide additional means of software verification. Contracts are typically used to verify the pre- and post-conditions of a function by either runtime checking the arguments and results, or statically unifying the contracts of the various functions and their calling conditions. For a long time, this was difficult to do in languages with first class functions, since there would be a recursive check with no base case. Findler, et al. figured out how to include the base case, and extends contracts with the notion of higher-order contracts.

Instead of typing variables, contracts provide limitations to the properties of the variables. We can use the correspondence between Sets and Boolean functions to efficiently represent and check these conditions: Since conditions are just sets of possible states, each contract can be takes a state and returns boolean value as to whether it is in the set or not.

Contracts therefore must have the contract Any -> Boolean. The Any is where the base case comes in. Since Any is a contract, it also has the contract Any -> Boolean, but Any is defined to always return true, so when checking the contracts of contracts, it ends up here.

There is also a None contract which always returns false, but it is of little practical use.

There are also contract combinators, which correspond to the Set and Boolean combinators. For example, the contract -2 or Positive takes the -2 contract which checks for equality with -2, and the Positive contract which checks for a positive number, and unifies them into a composite contract. This is equivalent to the set union or boolean or operators.

These contract combinators along with a minimization function may provide a form of pragmatic reasoning for programming languages. A minimization function would take these contracts and simplify them. For example, Number and Integer simplifies to Integer since anything in Integer is also in Number.

Static and dynamic binding

In programming languages, scope refers to the method of resolving variables to values. The two primary methods are dynamic and static scope.

Both scope methods have a stack of namespaces, with a new one for each block. If the variable is not found in the current namespace, the variable is searched for up the stack. However, where they differ is the searching method. Dynamic scope uses a single namespace for variables, and thus searches through each activation record on the stack. Static scope only examines activation records which are deeper than the first occurrence of the namespace for that block.

There does not seem to be much of a difference at first glance, but the implications are numerous. Static scope is unintuitive to implement, but intuitive to use, understand, and reason about within a programming language, and thus very few programming languages use dynamic scope.

This notion of scope is similar to the admittance of Karttunen, and later dynamic semantics approaches. Perhaps the typology of programming languages can be used to inform our understanding of name resolution in natural language.

  1. This is not actual Haskell, particularly the + operator. I simplified the language for the sake of demonstrating inference, but the principles apply to the larger language, too.