DCGs provide a threading state abstraction: don't break it

Definite Clause Grammars (DCGs) provide a useful threading state abstraction with countless applications in Logtalk and Prolog programming. But programmers sometimes break this abstraction without realizing it and for no benefit. This usually happens when using a grammar from a predicate and when calling a predicate from a grammar. To illustrate, consider the following example found in the Logtalk distribution:


In this example, a floating-point number is converted into an integer number using a sequence of steps:

steps -->

Each step takes an input state and applies a transformation, resulting in an output state. The correct way of calling the grammar is to use the standard phrase/3 built-in predicate:

..., phrase(steps, Float, Integer), ...

The wrong way of doing it, breaking the DCG abstraction, is to write:

..., steps(Float, Integer), ...

Why wrong? It assumes a specific compilation solution of grammar rules to predicate clauses, which is an implementation detail, for zero performance gains. If you want to hide from the user that the conversion is being performed by a grammar, than simply provide a predicate that calls the phrase/3 built-in predicate. For example:

convert(Float, Integer) :-
    phrase(steps, Float, Integer).

The conversion steps can be defined by either grammar rules or predicates. In either case, we can use the call//1 built-in meta non-terminal to avoid hard-coding assumptions about how grammar rules are compiled into clauses. Consider the first step, which squares the floating-point number. To define it using a grammar rule, we can write (with the help of a lambda expression):

square -->
    call([Number, Double]>>(Double is Number*Number)).

To define it as a predicate, we can write instead:

square(Number, Double) :-
    Double is Number*Number.

Assuming all steps are implemented as predicates, our steps//0 non-terminal definition becomes:

steps -->

As with the call above to the phrase/3 built-in predicate, the call to the call//1 built-in meta non-terminal is fully compiled (as the first argument is bound) and incurs no meta-call performance penalty. But, more important, it preserves the abstraction provide by the DCGs.

P.S. Readers familiar with DCGs likely notice that the state arguments in the phrase/3 predicate call are not lists of tokens as traditional but numbers. That’s an interesting topic by itself and I plan to discuss it in a forthcoming post. Stay tuned.