On this page:
1.1.1 Sub-expression Evaluation and Continuations
1.1.2 Tail Position
1.1.3 Multiple Return Values
1.1.4 Top-Level Variables
1.1.5 Objects and Imperative Update
1.1.6 Object Identity and Comparisons
1.1.7 Garbage Collection
1.1.8 Procedure Applications and Local Variables
1.1.9 Variables and Locations
1.1.10 Modules and Module-Level Variables
1.1.10.1 Phases
1.1.10.2 Module Re-declarations
1.1.11 Continuation Frames and Marks
1.1.12 Prompts, Delimited Continuations, and Barriers
1.1.13 Threads
1.1.14 Parameters
1.1.15 Exceptions
1.1.16 Custodians
Version: 4.2.1

1.1 Evaluation Model

Scheme evaluation can be viewed as the simplification of expressions to obtain values. For example, just as an elementary-school student simplifies

  1 + 1 = 2

Scheme evaluation simplifies

  (+ 1 1)  2

The arrow → above replaces the more traditional = to emphasize that evaluation proceeds in a particular direction towards simpler expressions. In particular, a value is an expression that evaluation simplifies no further, such as the number 2.

1.1.1 Sub-expression Evaluation and Continuations

Some simplifications require more than one step. For example:

  (- 4 (+ 1 1))  (- 4 2)  2

An expression that is not a value can always be partitioned into two parts: a redex, which is the part that changed in a single-step simplification (highlighted), and the continuation, which is the surrounding expression context. In (- 4 (+ 1 1)), the redex is (+ 1 1), and the continuation is (- 4 []), where [] takes the place of the redex. That is, the continuation says how to “continue” after the redex is reduced to a value.

Before some things can be evaluated, some sub-expressions must be evaluated; for example, in the application (- 4 (+ 1 1)), the application of - cannot be reduced until the sub-expression (+ 1 1) is reduced.

Thus, the specification of each syntactic form specifies how (some of) its sub-expressions are evaluated, and then how the results are combined to reduce the form away.

The dynamic extent of an expression is the sequence of evaluation steps during which an expression contains the redex.

1.1.2 Tail Position

An expression expr1 is in tail position with respect to an enclosing expression expr2 if, whenever expr1 becomes a redex, its continuation is the same as was the enclosing expr2’s continuation.

For example, the (+ 1 1) expression is not in tail position with respect to (- 4 (+ 1 1)). To illustrate, we use the notation C[expr] to mean the expression that is produced by substituting expr in place of [] in the continuation C:

  C[(- 4 (+ 1 1))]  C[(- 4 2)]

In this case, the continuation for reducing (+ 1 1) is C[(+ 4 [])], not just C.

In contrast, (+ 1 1) is in tail position with respect to (if (zero? 0) (+ 1 1) 3), because, for any continuation C,

  C[(if (zero? 0) (+ 1 1) 3)]  C[(if #t (+ 1 1) 3)]  C[(+ 1 1)]

The steps in this reduction sequence are driven by the definition of if, and they do not depend on the continuation C. The “then” branch of an if form is always in tail position with respect to the if form. Due to a similar reduction rule for if and #f, the “else” branch of an if form is also in tail position.

Tail-position specifications provide a guarantee about the asymptotic space consumption of a computation. In general, the specification of tail positions goes with each syntactic form, like if.

1.1.3 Multiple Return Values

A Scheme expression can evaluate to multiple values, in the same way that a procedure can accept multiple arguments.

Most continuations expect a particular number of result values. Indeed, most continuations, such as (+ [] 1) expect a single value. The continuation (let-values ([(x y) []]) expr) expects two result values; the first result replaces x in the body expr, and the second replaces y in expr. The continuation (begin [] (+ 1 2)) accepts any number of result values, because it ignores the result(s).

In general, the specification of a syntactic form inidicates the number of values that it produces and the number that it expects from each of its sub-expression. In addtion, some procedures (notably values) produce multiple values, and some procedures (notably call-with-values) create continuations internally that accept a certain number of values.

1.1.4 Top-Level Variables

Given

  x = 10

then an algebra student simplifies x + 1 as follows:

  x + 1 = 10 + 1 = 11

Scheme works much the same way, in that a set of top-level variables are available for substitutions on demand during evaluation. For example, given

  (define x 10)

then

  (+ x 1)  (+ 10 1)  11

In Scheme, the way definitions appear is just as important as the way that they are used. Scheme evaluation thus keeps track of both definitions and the current expression, and it extends the set of definitions in response to evaluating forms such as define.

Each evaluation step, then, takes the current set of definitions and program to a new set of definitions and program. Before a define can be moved into the set of definitions, its right-hand expression must be reduced to a value.

defined:

evaluate:

(begin (define x (+ 9 1)) (+ x 1))

defined:

evaluate:

(begin (define x 10) (+ x 1))

defined:

(define x 10)

evaluate:

(begin (void) (+ x 1))

defined:

(define x 10)

evaluate:

(+ x 1)

defined:

(define x 10)

evaluate:

(+ 10 1)

defined:

(define x 10)

evaluate:

11

Using set!, a program can change the value associated with an existing top-level variable:

defined:

(define x 10)

evaluate:

(begin (set! x 8) x)

defined:

(define x 8)

evaluate:

(begin (void) x)

defined:

(define x 8)

evaluate:

x

defined:

(define x 8)

evaluate:

8

1.1.5 Objects and Imperative Update

In addition to set! for imperative update of top-level variables, various procedures enable the modification of elements within a compound data structure. For example, vector-set! modifies the content of a vector.

To allow such modifications to data, we must distingiush between values, which are the results of expressions, and objects, which hold the data referenced by a value.

A few kinds of objects can serve directly as values, including booleans, (void), and small exact integers. More generally, however, a value is a reference to an object. For example, a value can be a reference to a particular vector that currently holds the value 10 in its first slot. If an object is modified, then the modification is visible through all copies of the value that reference the same object.

In the evaluation model, a set of objects must be carried along with each step in evaluation, just like the definition set. Operations that create objects, such as vector, add to the set of objects:

objects:

defined:

evaluate:

(begin (define x (vector 10 20))
       (define y x)
       (vector-set! x 0 11)
       (vector-ref y 0))

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 10 20))

defined:

evaluate:

(begin (define x <o1>)
       (define y x)
       (vector-set! x 0 11)
       (vector-ref y 0))

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 10 20))

defined:

(define x <o1>)

evaluate:

(begin (void)
       (define y x)
       (vector-set! x 0 11)
       (vector-ref y 0))

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 10 20))

defined:

(define x <o1>)

evaluate:

(begin (define y x)
       (vector-set! x 0 11)
       (vector-ref y 0))

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 10 20))

defined:

(define x <o1>)

evaluate:

(begin (define y <o1>)
       (vector-set! x 0 11)
       (vector-ref y 0))

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 10 20))

defined:

(define x <o1>)
(define y <o1>)

evaluate:

(begin (void)
       (vector-set! x 0 11)
       (vector-ref y 0))

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 10 20))

defined:

(define x <o1>)
(define y <o1>)

evaluate:

(begin (vector-set! x 0 11)
       (vector-ref y 0))

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 10 20))

defined:

(define x <o1>)
(define y <o1>)

evaluate:

(begin (vector-set! <o1> 0 11)
       (vector-ref y 0))

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 11 20))

defined:

(define x <o1>)
(define y <o1>)

evaluate:

(begin (void)
       (vector-ref y 0))

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 11 20))

defined:

(define x <o1>)
(define y <o1>)

evaluate:

(vector-ref y 0)

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 11 20))

defined:

(define x <o1>)
(define y <o1>)

evaluate:

(vector-ref <o1> 0)

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 11 20))

defined:

(define x <o1>)
(define y <o1>)

evaluate:

11

The distinction between a top-level variable and an object reference is crucial. A top-level variable is not a value; each time a variable expression is evaluated, the value is extracted from the current set of definitions. An object reference, in contrast is a value, and therefore needs no further evaluation. The model evaluation steps above use angle-bracketed <o1> for an object reference to distinguish it from a variable name.

A direct object reference can never appear in a text-based source program. A program representation created with datum->syntax-object, however, can embed direct references to existing objects.

1.1.6 Object Identity and Comparisons

The eq? operator compares two values, returning #t when the values refer to the same object. This form of equality is suitable for comparing objects that support imperative update (e.g., to determine that the effect of modifying an object through one reference is visible through another reference). Also, an eq? test evaluates quickly, and eq?-based hashing is more lightweight than equal?-based hashing in hash tables.

In some cases, however, eq? is unsuitable as a comparison operator, because the generation of objects is not clearly defined. In particular, two applications of + to the same two exact integers may or may not produce results that are eq?, although the results are always equal?. Similarly, evaluation of a lambda form typically generates a new procedure object, but it may re-use a procedure object previously generated by the same source lambda form.

The behavior of a datatype with respect to eq? is generally specified with the datatype and its associated procedures.

1.1.7 Garbage Collection

See Memory Management for functions related to garbage collection.

In the program state

objects:

(define <o1> (vector 10 20))
(define <o2> (vector 0))

defined:

(define x <o1>)

evaluate:

(+ 1 x)

evaluation cannot depend on <o2>, because it is not part of the program to evaluate, and it is not referenced by any definition that is accessible in the program. The object <o2> may therefore be removed from the evaluation by garbage collection.

A few special compound datatypes hold weak references to objects. Such weak references are treated specially by the garbage collector in determining which objects are reachable for the remainder of the computation. If an object is reachable only via a weak reference, then the object can be reclaimed, and the weak reference is replaced by a different value (typically #f).

1.1.8 Procedure Applications and Local Variables

Given

  f(x) = x + 10

then an algebra student simplifies f(1) as follows:

  f(7) = 7 + 10 = 17

The key step in this simplification is take the body of the defined function f, and then replace each x with the actual value 1.

Scheme procedure application works much the same way. A procedure is an object, so evaluating (f 7) starts with a variable lookup:

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (+ x 10)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)

evaluate:

(f 7)

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (+ x 10)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)

evaluate:

(<p1> 7)

Unlike in algebra, however, the value associated with an argument can be changed in the body of a procedure by using set!, as in the example (lambda (x) (begin (set! x 3) x)). Since the value associated with x can be changed, an actual value for cannot be substituted for x when the procedure is applied.

Instead, a new location is created for each variable on each application. The argument value is placed in the location, and each instance of the variable in the procedure body is replaced with the new location:

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (+ x 10)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)

evaluate:

(<p1> 7)

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (+ x 10)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)
(define xloc 7)

evaluate:

(+ xloc 10)

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (+ x 10)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)
(define xloc 7)

evaluate:

(+ 7 10)

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (+ x 10)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)
(define xloc 7)

evaluate:

17

A location is the same as a top-level variable, but when a location is generated, it (conceptually) uses a name that has not been used before and that cannot not be generated again or accessed directly.

Generating a location in this way means that set! evaluates for local variables in the same way as for top-level variables, because the local variable is always replaced with a location by the time the set! form is evaluated:

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (begin (set! x 3) x)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)

evaluate:

(f 7)

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (begin (set! x 3) x)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)

evaluate:

(<p1> 7)

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (begin (set! x 3) x)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)
(define xloc 7)

evaluate:

(begin (set! xloc 3) xloc)

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (begin (set! x 3) x)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)
(define xloc 3)

evaluate:

(begin (void) xloc)

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (begin (set! x 3) x)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)
(define xloc 3)

evaluate:

xloc

objects:

(define <p1> (lambda (x) (begin (set! x 3) x)))

defined:

(define f <p1>)
(define xloc 3)

evaluate:

3

The substition and location-generation step of procedure application requires that the argument is a value. Therefore, in ((lambda (x) (+ x 10)) (+ 1 2)), the (+ 1 2) sub-expression must be simplified to the value 3, and then 3 can be placed into a location for x. In other words, Scheme is a call-by-value language.

Evaluation of a local-variable form, such as (let ([x (+ 1 2)]) expr), is the same as for a procedure call. After (+ 1 2) produces a value, it is stored in a fresh location that replaces every instance of x in expr.

1.1.9 Variables and Locations

A variable is a placeholder for a value, and an expressions in an initial program refer to variables. A top-level variable is both a variable and a location. Any other variable is always replaced by a location at run-time, so that evaluation of expressions involves only locations. A single local variable (i.e., a non-top-level, non-module-level variable), such as a procedure argument, can correspond to different locations through different instantiations.

For example, in the program

  (define y (+ (let ([x 5]) x) 6))

both y and x are variables. The y variable is a top-level variable, and the x is a local variable. When this code is evaluated, a location is created for x to hold the value 5, and a location is also created for y to hold the value 6.

The replacement of a variable with a location during evaluation implements Scheme’s lexical scoping. For example, when a procedure-argument variable x is replaced by the location xloc, then it is replaced throughout the body of the procedure, including with any nested lambda forms. As a result, future references of the variable always access the same location.

1.1.10 Modules and Module-Level Variables

See Modules: module, ... for the syntax of modules.

Most definitions in PLT Scheme are in modules. In terms of evaluation, a module is essentially a prefix on a defined name, so that different modules can define the name. That is, a module-level variable is like a top-level variable from the perspective of evaluation.

One difference between a module and a top-level definition is that a module can be declared without instantiating its module-level definitions. Evaluation of a require instantiates (i.e., triggers the instantiation of) a declared module, which creates variables that correspond to its module-level definitions.

For example, given the module declaration

  (module m scheme
    (define x 10))

the evaluation of (require m) creates the variable x and installs 10 as its value. This x is unrelated to any top-level definition of x.

1.1.10.1 Phases

A module can be instantiated in multiple phases. A phase is an integer that, again, is effectively a prefix on the names of module-level definitions. A top-level require instantiates a module at phase 0, if the module is not already instantiated at phase 0. A top-level (require (for-syntax ....)) instantiates a module at phase 1 (if it is not already instantiated at that level); for-syntax also has a different binding effect on further program parsing, as described in Introducing Bindings.

Within a module, some definitions are shifted by a phase already; the define-for-syntax form is like define, but it defines a variable at relative phase 1, instead of relative phase 0. Thus, if the module is instantiated at phase 1, the variables for define-for-syntax are created at phase 2, and so on. Moreover, this relative phase acts as another layer of prefixing, so that a define of x and a define-for-syntax of x can co-exist in a module without colliding. Again, the higher phases are mainly related to program parsing, instead of normal evaluation.

If a module instantiated at phase n requires another module, then the required module is first instantiated at phase n, and so on transitively. (Module requires cannot form cycles.) If a module instantiated at phase n requires for-syntax another module, the other module becomes available at phase n+1, and it may later be instantiated at phase n+1. If a module that is available at phase n for n>0 requires for-template another module, the other module becomes available at phase n-1, and so on. Instantiations of available modules above phase 0 are triggered on demand as described in Module Phases and Visits.

A final distinction among module instantiations is that multiple instantiations may exist at phase 1 and higher. These instantiations are created by the parsing of module forms (see Module Phases and Visits), and are, again, conceptually distinguished by prefixes.

Top-level variables can exist in multiple phases in the same way as within modules. For example, define-for-syntax creates a phase 1 variable. Furthermore, reflective operations like make-base-namespace and eval provide access to top-level variables in higher phases, while module instantiations (triggered by with require) relative to such top-levels are in corresponding higher phases.

1.1.10.2 Module Re-declarations

When a module is declared using a name for which a module is already declared, the new declaration’s definitions replace and extend the old declarations. If a variable in the old declaration has no counterpart in the new declaration, the old variable continues to exist, but its binding is not included in the lexical information for the module body. If a new variable definition has a counterpart in the old declaration, it effectively assigns to the old variable.

If a module is instantiated in any phases before it is re-declared, each re-declaration of the module is immediately instantiated in the same phases.

1.1.11 Continuation Frames and Marks

See Continuation Marks for continuation-mark forms and functions.

Every continuation C can be partitioned into continuation frames C1, C2, ..., Cn such that C = C1[C2[...[Cn]]], and no frame Ci can be itself partitioned into smaller continuations. Evaluation steps add and remove frames to the current continuation, typically one at a time.

Each frame is conceptually annotated with a set of continuation marks. A mark consists of a key and its value; the key is an arbitrary value, and each frame includes at most one mark for any key. Various operations set and extract marks from continuations, so that marks can be used to attach information to a dynamic extent. For example, marks can be used to record information for a “stack trace” to be used when an exception is raised, or to implement dynamic scope.

1.1.12 Prompts, Delimited Continuations, and Barriers

See Continuations for continuation and prompt functions.

A prompt is a special kind of continuation frame that is annotated with a specific prompt tag (essentially a continuation mark). Various operations allow the capture of frames in the continuation from the redex position out to the nearest enclosing prompt with a particular prompt tag; such a continuation is sometimes called a delimited continuation. Other operations allow the current continuation to be extended with a captured continuation (specifically, a composable continuation). Yet other operations abort the computation to the nearest enclosing prompt with a particular tag, or replace the continuation to the nearest enclosing prompt with another one. When a delimited continuation is captured, the marks associated with the relevant frames are also captured.

A continuation barrier is another kind of continuation frame that prohibits certain replacements of the current continuation with another. Specifically, while an abort is allowed to remove a portion of the continuation containing a prompt, the continuation can be replaced by another only when the replacement also includes the continuation barrier. Certain operations install barriers automatically; in particular, when an exception handler is called, a continuation barrier prohibits the continuation of the handler from capturing the continuation past the exception point.

A escape continuation is essentially a derived concept. It combines a prompt for escape purposes with a continuation for mark-gathering purposes. as the name implies, escape continuations are used only to abort to the point of capture, which means that escape-continuation aborts can cross continuation barriers.

1.1.13 Threads

See Concurrency for thread and synchronization functions.

Scheme supports multiple threads of evaluation. Threads run concurrently, in the sense that one thread can preempt another without its cooperation, but threads currently all run on the same processor (i.e., the same underlying OS process and thread).

Threads are created explicitly by functions such as thread. In terms of the evaluation model, each step in evaluation actually consists of multiple concurrent expressions, up to one per thread, rather than a single expression. The expressions all share the same objects and top-level variables, so that they can communicate through shared state. Most evaluation steps involve a single step in a single expression, but certain synchronization primitives require multiple threads to progress together in one step.

In addition to the state that is shared among all threads, each thread has its own private state that is accessed through thread cells. A thread cell is similar to a normal mutable object, but a change to the value inside a thread cell is seen only when extracting a value from the cell from the same thread. A thread cell can be preserved; when a new thread is created, the creating thread’s value for a preserved thread cell serves as the initial value for the cell in the created thread. For a non-preserved thread cell, a new thread sees the same initial value (specified when the thread cell is created) as all other threads.

1.1.14 Parameters

See Parameters for parameter forms and functions.

Parameters are essentially a derived concept in Scheme; they are defined in terms of continuation marks and thread cells. However, parameters are also built in, in the sense that some primitive procedures consult parameter values. For example, the default output stream for primitive output operations is determined by a parameter.

A parameter is a setting that is both thread-specific and continuation-specific. In the empty continuation, each parameter corresponds to a preserved thread cell; a corresponding parameter procedure accesses and sets the thread cell’s value for the current thread.

In a non-empty continuation, a parameter’s value is determined through a parameterization that is associated with the nearest enclosing continuation frame though a continuation mark (whose key is not directly accessible). A parameterization maps each parameter to a preserved thread cell, and the combination of thread cell and current thread yields the parameter’s value. A parameter procedure sets or accesses the relevant thread cell for its parameter.

Various operations, such as parameterize or call-with-parameterization, install a parameterization into the current continuation’s frame.

1.1.15 Exceptions

See Exceptions for exception forms, functions, and types.

Exceptions are essentially a derived concept in Scheme; they are defined in terms of continuations, prompts, and continuation marks. However, exceptions are also built in, in the sense that primitive forms and procedures may raise exceptions.

An exception handler to catch exceptions can be associated with a continuation frame though a continuation mark (whose key is not directly accessible). When an exception is raised, the current continuation’s marks determine a chain of exception handler procedures that are consulted to handle the exception. A handler for uncaught exceptions is designated through a built-in parameter.

One potential action of an exception handler is to abort the current continuation up to an enclosing prompt with a particular prompt tag. The default handler for uncaught exceptions, in particular, aborts to a particular tag for which a prompt is always present, because the prompt is installed in the outermost frame of the continuation for any new thread.

1.1.16 Custodians

See Custodians for custodian functions.

A custodian manages a collection of threads, file-stream ports, TCP ports, TCP listeners, UDP sockets, and byte converters. Whenever a thread, etc. is created, it is placed under the management of the current custodian as determined by the current-custodian parameter.

In MrEd, custodians also manage eventspaces.

Except for the root custodian, every custodian itself it managed by a custodian, so that custodians form a hierarchy. Every object managed by a subordinate custodian is also managed by the custodian’s owner.

When a custodian is shut down via custodian-shutdown-all, it forcibly and immediately closes the ports, TCP connections, etc. that it manages, as well as terminating (or suspending) its threads. A custodian that has been shut down cannot manage new objects. If the current custodian is shut down before a procedure is called to create a managed resource (e.g., open-input-port, thread), the exn:fail:contract exception is raised.

A thread can have multiple managing custodians, and a suspended thread created with thread/suspend-to-kill can have zero custodians. Extra custodians become associated with a thread through thread-resume (see Suspending, Resuming, and Killing Threads). When a thread has multiple custodians, it is not necessarily killed by a custodian-shutdown-all, but shut-down custodians are removed from the thread’s managing set, and the thread is killed when its managing set becomes empty.

The values managed by a custodian are only weakly held by the custodian. As a result, a will can be executed for a value that is managed by a custodian. In addition, a custodian only weakly references its subordinate custodians; if a subordinate custodian is unreferenced but has its own subordinates, then the custodian may be collected, at which point its subordinates become immediately subordinate to the collected custodian’s superordinate custodian.

In addition to the other entities managed by a custodian, a custodian box created with make-custodian-box strongly holds onto a value placed in the box until the box’s custodian is shut down. The custodian only weakly retains the box itself, however (so the box and its content can be collected if there are no other references to them).

When PLT Scheme is compiled with support for per-custodian memory accounting (see custodian-memory-accounting-available?), the current-memory-use procedure can report a custodian-specific result. This result determines how much memory is occupied by objects that are reachable from the custodian’s managed values, especially its threads, and including its sub-custodians’ managed values. If an object is reachable from two custodians where neither is an ancestor of the other, an object is arbitrarily charged to one of the other, and the choice can change after each collection; objects reachable from both a custodian and its descendant, however, are reliably charged to the custodian and not to the descendants, unless the custodian can reach the objects only through a descendant custodian or a descendant’s thread. Reachability for per-custodian accounting does not include weak references, references to threads managed by other custodians, references to other custodians, or references to custodian boxes for other custodians.