- Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month
Description editIn a Tcl script, every value is a string. This is rooted in the fact that a Tcl script is a string composed of commands. Each component of each command, from the name which is used to locate its routine, to the arguments that are passed to that routine, is therefore also a string. Script substitution in turn implies that the result of any command is a string as well. This set of circumstances implies that every value is a string. The phrases everything is a script, everything is a command, and everything is a word allude to this same aspect of Tcl.There is only one type of value: string. A command name is just a string that, by virtue of its position in a script, is used to locate a routine. When a command is evaluated, the values Tcl passes to the routine are not identifiers, numbers, functions, variables, lists, dictionaries, blocks of code, or special values like null. They are merely strings. Apart from commands, there is nothing else in a script. No operators, no keywords. If there were, everything could not be a string, because values would have to be differentated by their type.In addition to strings, there are the substitutions, but those don't represent other types of data. Rather, they indicate to the interpreter how to form the string prior to passing it to the command. Once those substitutions are performed, the values are still just strings.In other languages, the syntax might mandate that an operator occur in a certain position, or it might allow for either an identifier, a string, or a number at a certain position. That language then must use some syntactic cue to determine which of those types that thing is. Tcl has none of that. Consequently, it is free to use characters like double quote or braces for purposes other than indicating a string type or a block of code, respectively. Thus, although double quotes can be used such that they look like they are denoting strings, they aren't. Braces can be used used such a way that they look like they denote a block of code, but they don't. Not in the sense that braces in C denote a block of code. Those denotations occur in the mind of the human reader, and in the context of the routine to which they are passed, but they do not occur to Tcl. To Tcl, double quotes and braces merely change the context for determining which characters should be interpreted as substitutions or word delimiters.This simple and unified perspective on type is fundamental to the design of Tcl, and puts it in an exclusive category programming languages that do not have at least two data types that can be distinguished. The other languages in this category are forth, BCPL, and assembly language.In a script, the only property that a value has is its string representation. Therefore, according to the identity of indiscernibles, any two values that have same string representation are in fact the same value. Any extension that tries to peek under the hood and identify a value by some internal property other than its string representation is ill-behaved. On the other hand, it is perfectly fair each command to interpret the same string representation in its own way.When Tcl evaluates a command, it performs three kinds of substitutions on the words of that command: variable substitution, command substitution, and backslash substitution. Since variable values, command results, and interpreted backslash sequences can be substituted into words, all these things must be strings. This design provides a great deal of flexibility and power, and gives Tcl a unique flavour that, while fundamentally simple, can take some time to understand and appreciate. Those coming from other language styles might at first feel constrained by things "missing" from Tcl, but climbing the Tcl learning curve often leads to realization that these "limitations" are actually strengths.Everything is a string, but not just a string. Each routine interprets each value passed to it as it sees fit. This is analogous to assembly language, where argument types are not checked by the assembler. Instead of sequences of bits, though, in Tcl the fundamental transactional unit between instructions is the string. This string veneer makes it easy to stretch Tcl over existing projects, providing a connecting layer between components. Each command is an entry point into a system of arbitrary complexity, and Tcl may be extended simply by adding new commands.Here are some examples of the interpretations routines give to the values passed to them:
- Interprets words as numbers, operators, or strings.
- lassign, lindex, linsert, lmap, llength, lrange, lreplace, lsort
- Interpret some or all of their arguments as lists.
- lappend, lset
- Interpret some of their arguments as the names of variables whose values are lists.
- Interprets some of its arguments as the names of variables to create and assign values to.
- Interprets some of its arguments as a dictionary, or as the name of a dictionary.
- interprets its argument(s) as a script
What's in a String editlists and dictionaries are strings that conform to a particular format. Other values are used as handles for data structures or resources that are not directly accessible at the script level. The following resources are accessed by name:
Types in the World of Strings editProgrammers coming from languages where values are typed wonder how to get information about the type of a value in Tcl. The answer is, you don't. Instead, each command specifies how it inteprets the words passed to it, and then behaves as specified. If the requisite information does not reasonably fit into the string representation of a value, then the value can instead be a name, which is then used as a handle to reference some more extensive resource.
tcl chatroom 2013-04-30:DGP: I find it useful to think of "types" in Tcl as being subsets of the value universe. So it doesn't make sense to ask what type a value is. Instead, you can identify those types where a value is a member, and where the value is not a member.CMcC: Right, subsets, not partitionsDGP: "Everything is a String" is just the trivial observation that all values are in the same value universe.
Implementation editTcl maintains a typed interpretation alongside the string representation of each value. Modifying the string representation invalidates the typed interpretation, and vice-veraa. For example, a list can be modified either by changing its string representation or by using a command like lappend, which works directly with typed interpretation if it is of list type.After either the string representation or the typed interpretation is invalidated it is only updated when needed. This way, a value can be passed between commands that use the same typed interpretation without incurring the expense of generating a string representation.The typed interpretation of a value is just an implementation detail. It is not exposed at the script level, and does not have any semantic impact on the language. The internal format simply has no purpose at script level. Two objects with the same string representation are the same value. At the implementation level, there may well be two Tcl_Obj structures with the same string representation, but they could be used interchangeable with no semantic impact. A user of Tcl's C API will gain an appreciation for the way Tcl values are handled at the C level, working with either the string representation or the typed interpretation as is expedient.
The Magic of EIAS editEIAS is one of the grand unifying concepts of Tcl. As Edsger Dijkstra noted in On the cruelty of teaching computer science, a program can be viewed as a formula that must be derived by the programmer, and the only known reliable way of doing that is by symbol manipulation. Hence, we construct mechanical symbol manipulators by means of human symbol manipulation. EIAS facilitates such a mathematical style of programming by merging the concepts of code and data more completely than even Lisp, as a Tcl script itself morphs to become its own result.When everything is a string, every kind of data is readily accessible: When some new data type is introduced in a language like C or Java, it usually has to come with its own library for printing values, doing I/O, initialising variables, and often even for copying values. In Tcl all that is immediately available, since it can be done with strings and the new data type is represented using strings. This common ground eases the burden of the programmer.Strings are general. The standard computing models are all readily expressible in terms of strings. The tape of a Turing machine contains a finite string of symbols. Lambda calculus is manipulation of Post production systems, which model computability by replacing parts of strings with other strings.NEM 2010-12-15: One aspect of EIAS that is worth consideration is how it has kept Tcl "pure" in some sense. Part of EIAS that is little mentioned is that Tcl's strings are immutable. This means that Tcl's value space is purely functional, in the Haskell sense. All side-effects are confined to the shadow world of commands and variables and other second-class entities. What this means is that Tcl now possesses some very powerful purely functional data-structures that are somewhat better than those available in other languages. For instance, I cannot think of another popular language that supplies O(1) purely functional dictionaries and lists (arrays) out of the box (or even in the library). Not to mention efficient Unicode and binary strings.
Peeking Behind the Curtain editDKF: See also tcl::unsupported::representation, which can peek behind this veil. If you use this, feel dirty!AMG: In testing and debugging high-performance applications I use this to confirm that I'm avoiding shimmering.
EIAS the Misunderstood editProgrammers more familiar with other language sometimes criticize Tcl's EIAS design, usually because they assume that complex algorithms requiring data structures are not possible in Tcl. What they might be missing is that although they can't directly translate some of their idioms into Tcl, equally powerful Tcl idioms exist and are waiting to be discovered. By sticking to EIAS, Tcl elegantly disposes of problematic "features" of other langage, such as C features that make aliasing in a possiblity. The data structures that others may think Tcl is missing are simply expressed in another way, but that is difficult to see at the outset.However LV would like to point out that the true philosophy of Tcl says Do all that you can in Tcl - but then, do the rest in C/assembly/whatever and create glue and handles to it for Tcl.
Misc editDonald Porter remarked in the Tcl chatroom: More precisely, every value has a string representation. Tcl arrays are not values; they are special types of variables.lvirden: I guess there are other things that fit into the same category as arrays - created items like procs, and in tk all sorts of widgets, etc.aku: But most have a way to serialize them into a value, and back (array set|get, proc|info body|arg|default)kennykb: And the ones that don't have natural serialization generally are managing external resources (channel handles are the most obvious example)Shin The Gin: If everything was a string, then one could easily save the whole runtime environment to a file and restore it later.
"At the end of the day you have to choose a primitive and history has shown that text is the right one."
RS: likes the ditty "I'm not afraid of anything, if everything is a string". In fact, the Tcl mantra often relieves fears of complexity: anything that can be brought to the prototype "string in, string out", can be nicely done in Tcl. Arabic, [A little Korean editor]? Of course, everything is a Unicode string! Geographic mapping? Just give me a string with the latitudes, longitudes, and whatever other data, and presto - Tclworld. Images can in many ways be rendered as strings (XBM, PNM...); one pretty intuitive way is in strimj - string image routines.
Todd Coram: Data typing is an illusion. Everything is a sequence of bytes. Call 'em ints, floats, symbols, strings, whatever. Tcl exposes both code and data to the user as sequences of bytes (called strings). This is Tcl's choice of abstraction. And its quite a powerful choice IMHO.BR: Hm, isn't it actually like that a string is a sequence of characters, and bytes (in Tcl) are just characters with the values 0 - 255? I think that's the model of binary data in Tcl. IOW bytes are not fundamental in Tcl, but characters and strings are.Except that characters could be Unicode instead of ASCII.
2003-05-13: Recently, Bruce Eckel in Strong Typing vs. Strong Testing, and Robert C. Martin in Are Dynamic Languages Going to Replace Static Languages? talk about weak typing and dynamic languages.CL thinks these two make mistakes, but hasn't time now to explain more. In any case, yes, these are good noteworthy references.
escargo 2003-05-13: Another way that everything is a string can be an issue is where a string representation can only be an approximation of what is being represented. The main instances of this that come to mind are floating point numbers (for which there are already some existing wiki pages). There may be other examples as well.What? There is no reason a string can't fully represent a floating point number. And Kevin Kenny has a TIP in the works to ensure that Tcl does always indeed achieve exactness in this case - Roy Terry, But really, it seems a waste of time to make fine points about "everything is a string" which is merely a programmer's cliche and doesn't begin to express the power of Tcl.escargo 2003-05-14: Sorry; there was a slip of the finger there. I said "floating point" and what I meant was "real".Lars H 2003-05-15: Real numbers are beyond what is computable. The number of possible outputs from a Turing machine (and thus the set of real numbers which one can specify in any way whatsoever) is merely countable, whereas the set of all real numbers is uncountable. But this view does provide an answer to why "Everything is a string" is such a powerful idea. Many languages (most notably C) take the approach that "Everything is a number (with native machine representation) or some fixed aggregation of such numbers", but all such representations are limited. In order to support general strings, it is necessary to venture into some scheme of dynamic memory allocation and pointers to allocated objects. The string, on the other hand, achieves the maximal generality of a Turing machine (the tape always has an obvious representation as a string) and thus if something wouldn't be representable as a string, it wouldn't be computable either.
escargo 2003-05-16: What would it take to make Tk widgets serializable? I was thinking about xml2gui and wondering what it would take to make a widget produce an XML description of itself. Further, what would it take to have widgets that contain other widgets produce XML of themselves? This would seem to me to be one useful goal.Another goal would be the converse, what XML would need to be used to create all the Tk widgets (and pack them the right way, etc.)? (This would be a suitable storage format for GUI Building Tools.)jcw 2003-05-17: There already is a serialized form of Tk, able to cope with any complexity of widget hierarchies: the Tcl script that creates them.jmn: Yes, but is there a canonical form for it?escargo: I am reminded of one-way hashes. You can have a function that given an input can produce a hash value that cannot be used to derive the original input. Just because I have a widget does not make it clear to me that I can derive in an algorithmic way Tk and Tcl code to recreate the widget. Perhaps this is something for the Tk 9.0 WishList, but I would certainly like to see whatever changes would be necessary to allow this (if it's practical at all).
jcw 2003-05-17: While EIAS is indeed a wonderfully powerful and flexible abstraction, I'd like to point out that LISP'ers and Scheme'rs have a very similar set of self-contained mechanisms at their disposal, based on "everything is made up of cons cells" (it's more of a mouthful, though...). IMO, "strings" as convention to represent data in a certain way is not inherently different from other representation choices - one could even use neurons and synapses if that were practical. What EIAS does imply is "code is data" and "data can be used as code", which is why one can play so many tricks in Tcl (and in LISP).NEM 2005-07-25: replying to this a couple of years too late... The difference with Lisp is that cons cells aren't universal; as I understand it, some basic data types like numbers are not represented as cons cells. You could build up everything from cons cells, in a similar way to building everything from set theory, but Lisp doesn't, and so you can't treat an integer as a list. In Tcl, though, the string is the universal medium of representation, so I can treat an integer as a list (of one element).
FW: Come to think of it, what are some other typeless languages in the "everything is a string" sense - RS has already submitted and documented thoroughly the antique TRAC in Playing TRAC.JE: MUMPS, or M, is another EIAS language. Forth and BCPL are also typeless, but there the fundamental type is a "cell" or native machine word instead of strings. (BCPL seems to be extinct, but Forth and MUMPS are still around.
If "everything is a string," then how can you tell what's an object?escargo 2005-07-23: That's what I woke up to this morning. I was thinking that Tcl lacks what I have seen called a "meta-object protocol," something that allows some object-oriented languages (like Smalltalk) to do some useful operations on objects and classes. I like Snit because of what it allows me to do to compose objects using delegation. However, if I'm operating in Tcl (or in Tk) and I have an identifier, how can I tell if its value represents an object from an object system like Snit (or any of the other object systems added onto Tcl). And if it is an object, how can I tell which object system it is an object in, so that I can guess what behavior is has (which functions it understands or implements)?The only way I can see something like this working is if there were some agreed-upon standard for names (or references) such that a classifier (say [string is object ...]) could return a yes or no answer.Even better would be one that could tell which object system implemented the object (say [string is objectsystem ...]).This might be possible in a system like Jim if the Jim References encoded the object system and whether something was an object.Even without add-on object systems, it would be nice to be able to determine if there could be [string is command ...], but that in some respects defeats the purpose of unknown. (I'm still fuzzy from sleep, so maybe there is something that does this already, otherwise how would unknown get called?)Lars H 2005-07-24: I think the best way of pointing out how your analysis here is wrong is to point out that
- Tcl has no whattype command;
- What design error did you make that made you ask that question in the first place? Where did you (or someone else) throw away the information that you now find you need?
type: valuecan be partially evaluated (or partially applied), to yield a new function specialised for that interpretation of that value. This can be optimised and can enforce a type abstraction.Lars H: Well put. The part about late "commitment" puts a name on something I think is very important in understanding the strengths of Tcl. I'll see if I can find a good place to put this idea for easy access.DKF: Actually, in 8.6 there is tcl::unsupported::representation, which includes type cache information in its result. Don't use it for anything other debugging. Or if you do, feel very naughty. It is very bad style to write code that depends on types (albeit inevitable for solving certain types of problem in the support of Java and JSON correctly, alas).
SYStems 2005-07-23: Those are not very complete thoughts, but. I think to really answer and understand the idiom everything is a string, we need to identify the context, or perspective.A Tcl script is a series, a sequence of statements, each statement receive input
- A string.
- An event.
- produce output.
- cause a side effect.
- produce output and cause side effect
- Raise an error
- LV: Uh - maybe that is how you _want_ it to work. But since I can say set abc 123 then set doesn't just store another tcl command's output...
See Also edit
- Everything is a Symbol
- the other side of the coin
- the discarding and regeneration of the internal typed representation of a value.
- Is everything a list?
- How Tcl is special
- The unreasonable effectiveness of dynamic typing
- The Safyness of Static Typing