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A Brief Introduction to Icon

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Reprinted from Preprints of the Second ACM SIGPLAN History of Programming Languages Conference (HOPL-II), SIGPLAN Notices 28, 3 (1993), 359-360.

A Brief Introduction to Icon

Icon is a very high-level imperative language with a rich repertoire of string and structure processing facilities. It is available on a wide range of computers and is in wide use.

In Icon, values, not variables, are typed. Built-in data types include numerics, character sets, strings, sets, lists, associative tables, records, and procedures. The aggregate types - sets, lists, tables, and records - can hold values of any type. Tables can be indexed by values of any type. Numerics, character sets, and strings are atomic values; operations on them produce new values. Aggregates use pointer semantics; operations on them can change existing values as well as produce new ones. Strings and aggregates can be of arbitrary size, and their sizes can change during execution. Memory management is automatic.

Icon has an expression-oriented syntax; even control structures are expressions. Procedures consist of zero or more expressions separated by newlines or semicolons. Icon programs consist of one or more procedure definitions, and execution begins by calling the procedure named main.

Expressions can produce zero or more values. As in traditional languages, many Icon expressions produce a single value, for example, x+5 produces the sum of x and 5. Other expressions can produce more than one value, for example, x | 5 produces x then, if necessary, produces 5. Such expressions are called generators; there are several built-in generators and procedures can be written to be generators. Other examples of built-in generators include x to y, which generates the integers from x to y, and !x, which generates all the characters from string x or the elements from aggregate x.

A `goal-directed' expression evaluation mechanism is Icon's most distinguishing characteristic. Expression evaluation seeks `success' - at least one value for an expression. An expression `fails' if it does not produce a value. The evaluation mechanism tries all combinations of values from generators in pursuit of a successful outcome. For example, y < (x | 5) first compares y to x. If y is less than x, evaluation succeeds and produces the value x. If y is not less than x, y is compared to 5, the next value generated by the subexpression x | 5. If y is less than 5, evaluation succeeds and produces 5. Otherwise, evaluation fails, and no value is produced. Comparison operators produce the value of their right operand if they succeed.

Failure drives control expressions and inhibits subsequent evaluation. For example, max := max < x sets max to x only when it is less than x. Likewise,

if y < (x | 5) then write("y=", y)

prints the value of y only if it is less than x or 5. The evaluation mechanism pervades Icon; for example, procedures are called only if all of their arguments succeed, so the last example could be written more succinctly as

write("y=", (x | 5) > y)

The backtracking implied by the goal-directed evaluation mechanism is limited to the expression in which it occurs. For example, in

max := max < x
write("y=", (x | 5) > y)

failure in the second expression does not affect the outcome of the first.

The expression every e1 do e2 `drives' e1 - it evaluates e2 for every successful outcome of e1. So, if p is a list of 100 elements,

every i := (1 to 10) | (91 to 100) do write(p[i])

prints the first and last ten elements of p. The do clause is optional, and the evaluation mechanism often helps eliminate temporary variables like i, for example,

every write(p[(1 to 10) | (91 to 100)])

also prints the first and last ten elements of p, and

every !p := 0

sets each element of p to zero.

Icon has numerous built-in procedures and operators that help analyze strings. Many of these take strings and positions as operands and return strings or positions. Positions denote locations between characters. Strings can be analyzed by manipulating positions explicitly, but Icon's string scanning facility eliminates the need for most explicit positions. The expression s ? e establishes s as the subject to which string processing operations in e apply. The expression e typically includes string analysis operations, but may include any operation. An example of a string analysis operation is find(s), which produces the positions in the subject at which s occurs as a substring. For instance, if line is

"a fish is a fish is a fish"


every line ? write(find("fish"))

prints 3, 13, and 23.

Another example is move(i), which advances the position by i characters. If the advancement is successful, move returns the i-character substring between the initial and final positions. For example,

t := ""
line ? while t := t || move(1) || "."

sets t to a string containing the characters of line followed by periods; || denotes string concatenation. while evaluates t := t || move(1) || "." repeatedly until it fails, which occurs when move(1) is invoked at the end of the subject string.

move is a matching function because it returns the substring of the subject that is `matched' as a result of changing the position. Another matching function is tab(i), which moves to position i in the subject and returns the substring between the old and new positions.

upto(s) returns the position of any of the characters in s, and many(s) returns the position following the longest possible substring containing only characters in s starting at the current position. It is important to note that functions like many return positions, but the specific values of those positions are rarely important. Positions are used most often as arguments to matching functions like tab. For example, the following function generates the `words' in its argument.

procedure getword(str)
	str ? while tab(upto(&letters)) do {
		word := tab(many(&letters))
		suspend word

&letters contains all of the upper- and lowercase letters. The expression tab(upto(&letters)) advances the position up to the next letter, and tab(many(&letters)) matches the word and assigns it to word. suspend is like return, but suspends the invocation so that it can be resumed for alternate values, if necessary. When the invocation is resumed, it continues where the suspend left off, so subsequent resumptions return the remaining words. The while terminates when tab(upto(&letters)) fails because there are no more words in str.

An example of using getword is `common words,' a program that lists the most commonly used words in its input and their frequencies of occurrence. The line numbers are for explanatory purposes and are not part of the program.

1	procedure main(args)
2		k := integer(args[1]) | 10
3		words := table(0)
4		while line := read() do every words[getword(line)] +:= 1
5		words := sort(words, 4)
6		every 1 to k do write(pull(words), "\n", pull(words))
7	end 

This program prints the k most commonly used words. Line 2 sets k to the command-line argument, if there is one and it is a legal integer, or to 10. Line 3 assigns an associative table to words; the argument to table specifies each entry's initial value. This table accumulates the frequency counts. Line 4 reads in lines and uses getword to generate the words in each line, which index words. The operator +:= increments its left operand. sort(words, 4) in line 5 returns the contents of the table words in a list sorted in increasing order by the frequency counts. Indicies and their count values alternate in this list, which is assigned to words. Line 6 prints the counts and words for the k most frequently used words by pulling them off the end of the list, which also shortens the list. pull fails when the list is empty, in case there are not k words.

This example typifies Icon programs. Most are much shorter than equivalent programs in traditional languages, for example, compare this 13-line Icon program with an equivalent program written in the C programming language (Comm. ACM 30, 594-599, 1987