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Conditional evaluation in Scheme

Wednesday, 13 February 2019
Many programs need to make choices. In this reading, we consider Scheme’s conditional expressions, expressions that allow programs to behave differently in different situations.


When Scheme encounters a procedure call, it looks at all of the subexpressions within the parentheses and evaluates each one. Sometimes, however, the programmer wants Scheme to exercise more discretion. Specifically, the programmer wants to select just one subexpression for evaluation from two or more alternatives. In such cases, one uses a conditional expression, an expression that checks whether some condition is met and selects the subexpression to evaluate on the basis of the outcome of that condition. (We will sometimes refer to these conditions as “tests”. The tests (conditions) in conditionals are a question about the state of input or the system that let us make a decision.)

For instance, suppose we want to explicitly classify a city as “North” if its latitude is at least 39.72 and “South” if its latitude is less than 39.72. To write a procedure that like this, we benefit from a mechanism that allows us to explicitly tell Scheme how to choose which expression to evaluate. Such mechanisms are the primary subject of this reading.

If expressions

The simplest conditional expression in Scheme is an if expression. An if expression typically has three components: a condition, a consequent, and an alternative. It selects one or the other of these expressions, depending on the outcome of the condition. The general form is

(if condition consequent alternative)

We will return to the particular details in a moment. For now, let us consider the conditional we might write for the procedure to make a component more extreme.

(if (>= latitude 39.72) ; If the latitude is at least 39.72
    "North"             ; Classify it as North
    "South")            ; Otherwise, classify it as S"South"

To turn this expression into a procedure, we need to add the define keyword, a name (such as categorize-city), a lambda expression, and such. We also want to give appropriate documentation and a bit of cleanup to the results.

Here, then, is the complete definition of the categorize-city procedure:

;;; Procedure:
;;;   categorize-city
;;; Parameters:
;;;   latitude, a real number
;;; Purpose:
;;;   Categorize a city based on its latitude.
;;; Produces:
;;;   northsouth, a string
;;; Preconditions:
;;;   [No additional]
;;; Postconditions:
;;;   If the latitude places the city at or above an imaginary dividing 
;;;     line, northsouth is "North"
;;;   If the latitude places the city below that an imaginary dividing line, 
;;;     northsouth is "South"
(define categorize-city
  (lambda (latitude)
    (if (>= latitude 39.72) ; If the latitude is at least 39.72
        "North"             ; Classify it as North
        "South")))          ; Otherwise, classify it as S"South"

In an if-expression of the form (if condition consequent alternative), the condition is always evaluated first. If its value is #t (which means “yes” or “true”), then the consequent is evaluated, and the alternative (the expression following the consequent) is ignored. On the other hand, if the value of the condition is #f, then the consequent is ignored and the alternative is evaluated.

Scheme accepts if-expressions in which the value of the condition is non-Boolean. However, all non-Boolean values are classified as “truish” and cause the evaluation of the consequent.

Dropping the alternative

In some versions of Scheme, it is also possible to write an if expression without the alternative. Such an expression has the form (if condition consequent). In this case, the condition is still evaluated first. If the condition holds (that is, has a value of #t or anything other than #f), the consequent is evaluated and its value is returned. If the condition fails to hold (that is, has value #f), the if expression has no value.

Scheme programmers tend to use the alternative-free if expression much less frequently than they use the traditional form. In general, your first inclination should be to provide both a consequent and an alternative when you write a conditional. Some Scheme programmers object to the alternative-free if expression enough that they discourage its use.

Newer versions of Scheme provide another kind of conditional, the when expression, which provides an alternative to the alternative-free if expression.

(when guard

When evaluating a when expression, the Scheme interpreter first evaluates the guard. If the guard holds, the interpreter evaluates each body expression in turn. Right now, we will use when sparingly. Our most frequent use will be in the context of preconditions. For example, we may only do a computation when a precondition is met, or we may issue an error message when a precondition is not met.

Supporting multiple alternatives with cond

When there are more than two choices, it is often more convenient to set them out using a cond expression. Like if, cond is a keyword. (Recall that keywords differ from procedures in that the order of evaluation of the parameters may differ.) The cond keyword is followed by zero or more lists-like expressions called cond clauses.


The first expression within a cond clause is a guard, similar to the condition in an if expression. When the value of such a guard is found to be #f, the subexpression that follows the guard is ignored and Scheme proceeds to the guard at the beginning of the next cond clause. But when a guard is evaluated and the value turns out to be true, or even “truish” (that is, anything other than #f), the consequent for that guard is evaluated and its value is the value of the whole cond expression. Only one guard/consequent clause is used: subsequent cond clauses are completely ignored.

In other words, when Scheme encounters a cond expression, it works its way through the cond clauses, evaluating the guard at the beginning of each one, until it reaches a guard that succeeds (one that does not have #f as its value). It then makes a ninety-degree turn and evaluates the consequent in the selected cond clause, retaining the value of the consequent.

If all of the guards in a cond expression are found to be false, the value of the cond expression is unspecified (that is, it might be anything!). To prevent the surprising results that can ensue when one computes with unspecified values, good programmers customarily end every cond expression with a cond clause in which the keyword else appears in place of a guard. Scheme treats such a cond clause as if it had a guard that always succeeded. If it is reached, the subexpressions following else are evaluated, and the value of the last one is the value of the whole cond expression.

For example, here is a cond expression that attempts to figure out what the type of datum is and gives back a symbol that represents that type.

(define type-of
  (lambda (datum)
      [(number? datum) 
      [(string? datum)
      [(symbol? datum)

The expression has four cond clauses. In the first, the guard is (number? datum). If datum is a number, the expression produces the symbol 'number. If not, we proceed on to the second cond clause. Its guard is (string? datum). If datum is a string, the expression produces the symbol 'string and nothing else. As you might guess, the third cond clause checks if datum is a symbol, and, if so, produces the value 'symbol. Finally, if none of those cases hold, the else clause produces the value 'some-other-type.

Note that at most one clause is used, and it is the first one. Consider the following similar expression to the one above.

(define numeric-type
  (lambda (num)
      [(real? num)
      [(exact? num)
      [(integer? num)

Suppose the input is 5, which is an exact integer, and therefore also a real. Which output will we get? Let’s see.

> (numeric-type 5)
> (numeric-type 'a)
. . exact?: contract violation
  expected: number?
  given: 'a
> (numeric-type 3+4.0i)

You’ll note that we have to supply a number because exact? expects a number and we run that guard in the second case. Can we get a result of integer? Probably not, because every integer is real. Can we get a result of exact? Probably. We just need an exact complex number.

> (numeric-type 3+4i)

Multiple consequents

Although we have written our conditionals with one consequent per guard (and you will often to do the same), it is, in fact, possible to have multiple consequents per guard.


In this case, when a guard succeeds, each of the remaining subexpressions (that is, consequents) in the same cond clause is evaluated in turn, and the value of the last one becomes the value of the entire cond expression.

A caution: Watch your parens!

As you may have noted from our discussion of cond, cond expressions can use square brackets rather than parenthesis to indicate structure. That is, they do not surround an expression to evaluate (a procedure followed by its parameters). Instead, they serve only to group things. In this case, the parentheses group the guard and consequents for each cond clause. The square brackets are just a notational convenience; parenthesis will work just as well, and you’ll see a lot of Scheme code that uses parentheses rather than square brackets. Racket, like most modern Scheme implementations, allows both because the square brackets add a bit of clarity.

When writing cond clauses, you should take the time to verify that you’ve used the right number of parentheses and square brackets. Each clause has its own open and close square brackets (or open and close parenthesis). Typically, the guard has parentheses, unless it’s the else clause. Make sure to include both sets.

Remember that DrRacket’s “reindent” feature (Ctrl-I) helps you see if you’ve matched your parenthesis correctly. If the indentation looks correct, the parentheses are likely correct. If the indentation does not look correct, you should have a clue about missing parentheses.

Expressing conditional computation with and and or

As we saw in the reading on Boolean values, both and and or provide a type of conditional behavior. In particular, and evaluates each argument in turn until it hits a value that is #f and then returns #f (or returns the last value if none return #f). Similarly, or evaluates each argument in turn until it finds one that is not #f, in which case it returns that value, or until it runs out of values, in which case it returns #f.

That is, (or exp0 exp1 ... expn) behaves much like the following cond expression, except that the or version evaluates each expression once, rather than twice.


Similarly, (and exp0 exp1 ... expn) behaves much like the following cond expression.

  [(not exp0) 
  [(not exp1) 
  [(not expn) 
  [else expn])

Most beginning programmers find the cond versions much more understandable, but some advanced Scheme programmers use the and and or forms because they find them clearer. Certainly, the cond equivalents for both or and and are quite repetitious.


(if condition consequent alternative) Standard keyword.
Evaluate condition. If its value is truish (that is, anything but false), evaluate consequent and return its value. If the value of the condition is false (#f), evaluate and return alternative.
(cond [guard-1 consequents-1] [guard-2 consequents-2] ... [guard-n consequents-n] [else alternative]) Standard keyword.
Evaluate each guard in turn until one is truish. It then evaluates the corresponding sequence of consequent expressions and returns the value of the last consequent. If none of the guards is truish, evaluates the alternative and returns its value.
(when guard exp1 exp2 ... expn) Optional Scheme Keyword.
Evaluate guard. If it holds, evaluate each expression in turn. Otherwise, do nothing.
(and exp1 exp2 ... expn) Standard keyword.
Evaluate each expression in turn. If any of those values is false, return false. Otherwise, return the value of the last expression.
(or exp1 exp2 ... expn) Standard keyword.
Evaluate each expression in turn. If any of those values is truish, return the first truish value. Otherwise, return false.

Self checks

Check 1: Basics

a. Assuming num is defined as an integer, write an if expression that produces double the value of num if it is odd, and half the value otherwise.

b. Write a cond expression that produces the symbol positive if num is greater than zero, the symbol negative if num is less than zero, and the symbol neither otherwise.

Check 2: Choosing a kind of conditional

a. Why might you choose if rather then cond?

b. Why might you choose cond rather than if?