RFC 168, by Johan Vromans: Built-in functions should be functions

Proposed on 27 August 2000, frozen on 20 September 2000, which was a generalization of RFC 26: Named operators versus functions proposed on 4 August 2000, frozen on 28 August 2000, also by Johan Vromans.

Johan’s proposal was to completely obliterate the difference between built-in functions, such as abs, and functions defined by the user. In Perl, abs can be called both as a prefix operator (without parentheses), as well as a function taking a single argument.

You see, Perl has this concept of built-in functions that are slightly different from “normal” subroutines for performance reasons. In Perl, as in Raku, the actual name of a subroutine, is prefixed with an ‘&‘. In Perl, you can take a reference to a subroutine with ‘\‘, but that doesn’t work for built-in functions.

Nowadays, in Raku, the difference between a subroutine taking a single positional argument, and a built-in prefix operator whose name is acceptable as an identifier, is already minimal. Well, actually absent. Suppose we want to define a prefix operator foo that has the same semantics as abs:

sub foo(Numeric:D $value) {
    $value < 0 ?? -$value !! $value

say abs -42;  # 42
say foo -42;  # 42

say abs(-42); # 42
say foo(-42); # 42

You can’t really see a difference, now can you? Well, the reason is simple: in Raku, there is no real difference between the foo subroutine, and the abs prefix operator. They’re both just subroutines: just look at the definition of the abs function for Real numbers.

But how does that function for infix operators? Those aren’t surely subroutines as well in Raku? How can they be? Something like “+” is not a valid identifier, so you cannot define a subroutine with it?

The genius in the process from the RFC to the implementation in Raku, has really been the idea to give a subroutine that represents an infix operator, a specially formatted name. In the case of infix + operator, the subroutine is known by the name infix:<+>. And if you look at its definition, you’ll see that it is actually quite simple: the left hand side of the infix operator becomes the first positional argument, and the right hand side the second positional argument. So something like:

say 42 + 666;

is really just syntactic sugar for:

say infix:<+>(42, 666);

Does this apply to all built-in operators in Raku? Well, almost. Some operators, such as ||, or, && and and are short-circuiting. This means that the value on the right hand side, might not be evaluated if the left hand side has a certain value.

A simple example using the say function (which always returns True):

say "foo" or say "bar"; # foo

Because the infix or operator sees that its left hand side is already True, it will not bother to evaluate the right hand side, and thus will not print “bar”. There is currently no way in Raku to mimic this short-circuiting behaviour in “ordinary” subroutines. But this will change when macro’s will finally also become first-class citizens in Raku land. Which is expected to be happening in the coming year as part of Jonathan Worthington‘s work on the RakuAST grant.

Going back to the original RFC, it also mentions:

In particular, it is desired that every built-in
- can be overridden by a user defined subroutine;
- can have a reference taken;
- has a useful prototype.

So, let’s check that those points:

can be overridden by a used defined subroutine

OK, so infix operators have a special name. So what happens if I declare a subroutine with that name? Well, let’s try:

sub infix:<+>(\a, \b) { a + b }
say 42 + 666;

Hmmm… that doesn’t show anything, that just hangs! Well, yeah, because we basically have a case of a subroutine here calling itself without ever returning!

This code example eats about 1GB of memory per second, so don’t do that too long unless you have a lot of memory available!

The easiest fix would be to not use the infix ‘+‘ operator in our version:

sub infix:<+>(\a, \b) { sum a, b }
say 42 + 666;  # 708

But what if we want to refer to original infix:<+> logic? It’s just a subroutine after all! But where does that subroutine live? Well, in the core of course! And for looking up things in the core, you use the CORE:: PseudoStash:

sub infix:<+>(\a, \b) {
    say "plussing";
    CORE::<&infix:<+>>(a, b)
say 42 + 666; # plussing\n708

You look in the CORE:: pseudostash for the full name of the infix operator: CORE::<&infix:<+>> will then give you the subroutine object of the core’s infix + operator, and you can call that as a subroutine with two parameters.

So that part of the RFC has been implemented!

can have a reference taken

For the infix + operator, that would be &infix:<+>, as basically is shown in the example above. You could actually store that in a variable, and use that later in an expression:

my $foo = &infix:<+>;
say $foo(42,666);  # 708

Note that contrary to Perl, you do not need to take a reference in Raku. Since everything in Raku is an object, &foo and &infix:<+> are just objects as well. You can just use them as they are. So literally this part of the RFC could never be implemented because Raku does not have reference. But for the use case, which is obtaining something that can be called, the RFC has also been implemented.

has a useful prototype

Perl’s prototypes basically morphed into Raku’s Signatures. But that’s at least one blog post all by itself. So for now, we just say that the “prototypes” of Perl in 2000 turned into signatures in Raku. And since you can ask for a subroutine’s signature:

sub foo(\a, \b) { }
say &foo.signature;  # (\a, \b)

You can also do that for the infix + operator:

say &infix:<+>.signature;  # ($?, $?, *%)

Hmmm… that looks different? Well, yes, it does a bit, but what is mainly different is that both positional parameters are optional. And that any named parameters will also be accepted. As to why that is, that’s really the topic of a yet another blog post about meta-operators. Which we’ll also leave for another time.


RFC’s 168 and 26 have been implemented completely, although maybe not in the way the original RFC’s envisioned. In a way that nowadays just feels very natural. Which allows us to build further, on the shoulders of giants!

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