Preconditions and Postconditions

Here are a few more examples of comments written in the style we favor in this course.

(** [lowercase_ascii c] is the lowercase ASCII equivalent of 
    character [c]. *)

(** [index s c] is the index of the first occurrence of 
    character [c] in string [s].  Raises: [Not_found] 
    if [c] does not occur in [s]. *)

(** [random_int bound] is a random integer between 0 (inclusive)
    and [bound] (exclusive).  Requires: [bound] is greater than 0 
    and less than 2^30. *)

The documentation of index specifies that the function raises an exception, as well as what that exception is and the condition under which it is raised. (We will cover exceptions in more detail in the next chapter.) The documentation of random_int specifies that the function's argument must satisfy a condition.

In studying Python and Java in CS 1110 and 2110, you were exposed to the ideas of preconditions and postconditions. A precondition is something that must be true before some section of code; and a postcondition, after.

The "Requires" clause above in the documentation of random_int is a kind of precondition. It says that the client of the random_int function is responsible for guaranteeing something about the value of bound. Likewise, the first sentence of that same documentation is a kind of postcondition. It guarantees something about the value returned by the function.

The "Raises" clause in the documentation of index is another kind of postcondition. It guarantees that the function raises an exception.
Note that the clause is not a precondition, even though it does state a condition in terms of an input.

Note that none of these examples has a "Requires" clause that says something about the type of an input. If you're coming from a dynamically-typed language, like Python, this could be a surprise. Python programmers frequently document preconditions regarding the types of function inputs. OCaml programmers, however, do not. That's because the compiler itself does the type checking to ensure that you never pass a value of the wrong type to a function. Consider lowercase_ascii again: although the English comment helpfully identifies the type of c to the reader, the comment does not state a "Requires" clause like this:

(** [lowercase_ascii c] is the lowercase ASCII equivalent of [c].
    Requires: [c] is a character. *)

Such a comment reads as highly unidiomatic to an OCaml programmer, who would read that comment and be puzzled, perhaps thinking: "Well of course c is a character; the compiler will guarantee that. What did the person who wrote that really mean? Is there something they or I am missing?"

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