In this lecture, we examine more closely how OCaml programs are evaluated. We build a more formal and precise description of the evaluation process. This is a model
of evaluation based on the basic notion of *substitution*, in which
variable names are replaced by values that they are bound to. This corresponds
to the mathematical notion that two equal things are interchangeable.

What is the value of the following expression? (Note that this is not
just a definition of a function. It binds two names `evil`

and `dummy`

to functions and then applies `evil`

to three arguments, returning the value of that expression. The
names `evil`

and `dummy`

are bound only in the
body and not at top level.)

We can see that the function `evil`

calls itself recursively,
and the result of the function is the result when it is called with
`n = 1`

. But what are the values returned by the applications
of the functions `f`

, `f1`

and `f2`

? To
understand what those values are, we need to better understand the OCaml
evaluation model, and how variable names like `n`

are bound.

The OCaml prompt lets you type either a term or a declaration that binds a
variable to the value of a term. It *evaluates* the term to produce a *value*, which is a term that does not need any further evaluation. We can define values as a syntactic class too. Values include not only constants, but tuples of values,
variant constructors applied to values, and functions.

Running an OCaml program is just evaluating a term. What happens when we
evaluate a term? In an imperative (non-functional) language like Java, we
sometimes imagine that there is an idea of a "current statement" that
is executing. This isn't a very good model for OCaml; it is better to think of OCaml programs as being evaluated in the same way that you would evaluate a
mathematical expression. For example, if you see an expression like (1 + 2) * 4, you
know that you first evaluate the subexpression 1 + 2, getting a new expression
3 * 4. Then you evaluate 3 * 4. OCaml evaluation works the same way. As each point in
time, the OCaml evaluator *rewrites* the program expression to another
expression. Assuming that evaluation eventually terminates, eventually the whole
expression is a value and then evaluation stops: the program is done. Or maybe
the expression never reduces to a value, in which case you have an infinite
loop.

Rewriting works by performing simple steps called *reductions*. In
the arithmetic example above, the rewrite is performed by doing the reduction
`1 + 2`

→ `3`

within the larger expression, replacing the occurrence of the subexpression `1 + 2`

with the right-hand side of the reduction, `3`

, therefore rewriting `(1 + 2) * 4`

to
`3 * 4`

.

The next question is which reduction OCaml does. Fortunately, there is a simple
rule. Evaluation works by always performing the *rightmost* reduction that
is allowed. So we can describe evaluation precisely by simply describing all
the allowed reductions.

OCaml has a bunch of built-in reduction rules that go well beyond
simple arithmetic. For example, consider the `if`

expression. It has two important
reduction rules:

if true thene_{1}elsee_{2}→e_{1}if false thene_{1}elsee_{2}→e_{2}

If the evaluator runs into an `if`

expression, the first thing it does is try
to reduce the conditional expression to either true or false. Then it can apply
one of the two rules here.

For example, consider the term

if 2 = 3 then "hello" else "good" ^ "bye"

This term evaluates as follows:

if 2 = 3 then "hello" else "good" ^ "bye" → if false then "hello" else "good" ^ "bye" → "good" ^ "bye" → "goodbye"

Notice that the term `"good" ^ "bye"`

isn't evaluated to produce the string value `"goodbye"`

until
the `if`

term is removed. This is because `if`

is *lazy* about evaluating its `then`

and `else`

clauses.

`let`

termThe rewrite rule for the `let`

expression introduces a new issue: how to deal with the bound variable. In the substitution model,
the bound variable is replaced with the value that it is bound to.
Evaluation of the `let`

works by first evaluating all of the bindings. Then those bindings
are substituted into the body of the `let`

expression (the expression after the `in`

).
For example, here is an evaluation using `let`

:

let x = 1 + 4 in x * 3 → let x = 5 in x * 3 → 5 * 3 → 15

Notice that the variable `x`

is only substituted once there is a
value (5) to substitute. That is, OCaml *eagerly* evaluates the binding
for the variable. Most languages (e.g., Java) work this way. However, in a lazy
language like Haskell, the term `1 + 4`

would be substituted for `x`

instead. This could make a difference if evaluating the term could create
an exception, side effect, or an infinite loop.

Therefore, we can write the rule for rewriting `let`

roughly as follows:

`let`

*x* = *v* `in`

*e*

→ *e* (with
*unbound* occurrences of *x* replaced by *v*)

Remember that we use *e* to stand for an arbitrary expression (term), * x*
to stand for an arbitrary identifier. We use * v* to stand for a value—that is, a fully
evaluated term. By writing *v* in the rule, we indicate that the rewriting rule for
`let`

cannot be used until the term bound to *x* is fully evaluated.
Values can be constants, applications of datatype constructors or tuples to other values, or
anonymous function expressions. In fact, we can write a grammar for values:

`fun`

`->`

We wrote "with *unbound* occurrences of *x* replaced
by *v*" above. The adjective "unbound" conveys an
important but subtle issue. The term *e* may contain
occurrences of *x* whose binding occurrence is not this binding
*x* `=`

*v*. It doesn't make sense to
substitute *v* for these occurrences. For example, consider
evaluation of the expression:

let x : int = 1 in let f x = x in let y = x + 1 in fun (a : string) -> x * 2

The next step of evaluation replaces only the magenta occurrences of `x`

with 1,
because these occurrences have the first declaration as their binding
occurrence. Notice that the two occurrences of `x`

inside the function `f`

, which
are respectively a binding and a bound occurrence, are not replaced. Thus, the
result of this rewriting step is:

let f x = x in let y = 1 + 1 in fun (a : string) -> 1 * 2

Let's write *e*{*v*/*x*} to mean the expression *e*
with all *unbound* occurrences of *x* replaced by the
value *v*. This operation is called *substitution*.
Then we can restate the rule for evaluating `let`

more simply:

`let`

*x* = *v* `in`

*e* → *e*{*v*/*x*}

This works because any occurrence of *x* in
*e* is bound by exactly this declaration *x* = *v*.

Here are some examples of substitutions:

x{2/x} = 2 x{2/y} = x (fun y -> x) {"hi"/x} = (fun y -> "hi") (fun x -> x) {"hi"/x} = (fun x -> x) (f x) { fun y -> y / f } = ((fun y -> y) x)

One of the features that makes OCaml unusual is the ability to write
complex patterns containing binding occurrences of variables. Pattern matching
in OCaml causes these variables to be bound in such a way that the pattern matches
the supplied value. This is can be a very concise and convenient way of binding
variables. We can generalize the notation for substitution by writing
*e*{*v*/*p*}
to denote the expression *e* with all *unbound* occurrences
of variables appearing in the pattern *p* replaced by the
values obtained when *p* is matched against *v*.
Examples:

y{(1, 2)/(x, y)} = 2 (hd + 1 :: f tl){[7; 6; 3]/hd :: tl} = 7 + 1 :: f [6; 3]

If a let expression introduces multiple declarations, we must substitute for all the bound variables simultaneously, once their bindings have all been evaluated.

Function application is the most interesting case. When a function is
applied, OCaml substitutes the values passed as
arguments for the parameters in the body of the function. Suppose we define a function
`abs`

as follows:

let abs (r : float) : float = if r < 0. then -. r else r

We would like the evaluation of `abs (2. +. 1.)`

to proceed roughly as follows:

abs (2. +. 1.) → abs 3. → if 3. < 0. then -3. else 3. → if false then -3. else 3. → 3.

In fact, we know that declaring a function is really
just syntactic sugar for binding a variable to an anonymous function. So
when we evaluate the declaration of `abs`

above,
we are really binding the identifier `abs`

to the value
`fun r -> if r < 0. then -. r else r`

.

Therefore, the evaluation of a function call proceeds as in the following example:

let abs r = if r < 0. then -. r else r in abs (2. +. 1.) → (fun r -> if r < 0. then -. r else r) (2. +. 1.) (* replacing occurrences of abs in let body with anonymous function *) → (fun r -> if r < 0. then -. r else r) 3. → if 3. < 0. then -. 3. else 3. (* replacing occurrences of r in function body with argument 3. *) → if false then -. 3. else 3. → 3.

We can use the substitution operator to give a more precise rule for what happens when a function is called:

`(`

`fun `

*x*
`->`

*e*`)`

*v*```
→
```

*e*`{`

*v*`/`

*x*`}`

Interestingly, this is the same result that we got from the expression
`let`

*x* = *v* `in`

*e*. So
this tells us that we can think of `let`

as syntactic sugar for function application.

This is only a model for how OCaml expressions are evaluated.
The truth is that the OCaml interpreter does not actually perform
the substitutions. But the substitution model is accurate for
describing purely functional execution (that is, when there are
no side effects or mutable objects). The actual operation of the
OCaml interpreter and compiler is a bit more complex
and not that important to understand for now.
The goal here is to allow us as programmers to understand what the program
is going to do. We can do that much more clearly in terms of substitution
than by thinking about the machine code, or for that matter in terms of
the transistors in the computer and
the electrons inside them. This evaluation model is an *abstraction*
that hides some of the details you don't really need to know about.

Some aspects of the
model should not be taken too literally. For example, you might think that
function calls take longer if an argument variable appears many times in the
body of the function. It might seem that a call to a function `f`

are
faster if it is defined as `fun f x = x * 2`

rather than as ```
fun
f x = x + x
```

because the latter requires two substitutions. Actually
the time required to pass arguments to a function typically depends only on the
number of arguments. In reality, both definitions would be equally fast.