Language-Oriented Programming


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Learning Group Activity

Share with your group the macro you made for class today. Explain how it works, and when you might use it.

Why couldn’t you use a function instead of a macro for the scenario you selected?

What is LOP?

Language-Oriented Programming is a programming paradigm where you either:

  • Extend an existing programming language to create the syntax needed to solve your problem elegantly (extensible programming language)
  • Or, create a new domain specific language for solving your problem

Programming languages with homoiconic syntax and macros have historically been very good at LOP.

Extensible Syntax

  • The domain of extensible languages is well dominated by Lisp, with the others sharing in common homoiconic syntax and macros.
  • The exception to the above is concatenative languages, like Forth.

Domain Specific Languages

Domain Specific Languages are languages tailored to solve a specific kind of problem. For example, the object property definition language is created for defining properties about types of data:

(type house
  :bases (building living-space)
  :nouns ("house" "home"))
  • More examples: HTML, CSS, Glade (GUI), Sieve (mail filtering), Regular Expressions …
  • DSLs can be either intended to stand-alone in their own files, or to be used inline in other languages. In the latter case, we often call them domain specific mini-languages.

A Domain Specific Mini-Language you already know

match is a DSL built into Racket… in fact, it just translates into a bunch of conds and lets:

> (syntax->datum (expand-once '(match a [(list-rest b c) b] [_ a])))
'(let ((a1 a))
   (let ((fail2
          (λ ()
            (match:error a1 (syntax-srclocs (quote-syntax srcloc)) 'match))))
     (let* ((f3
             (lambda ()
                ((fail (make-rename-transformer (quote-syntax fail2))))
                (let () a)))))
        ((pair? a1)
         (let ((unsafe-car6 (unsafe-car a1)) (unsafe-cdr7 (unsafe-cdr a1)))
            ((fail (make-rename-transformer (quote-syntax f3))))
            (let ((c unsafe-cdr7)) (let ((b unsafe-car6)) (let () b))))))
        (else (f3))))))

Why DSLs?

  • Domain-specific syntax can eliminate repetitive code
  • Domain-specific syntax can make it easier to express certain concepts
  • Can be restricted, which allows us to prove certain things while compiling:
    • Example: regular expressions are a DSL which can be translated to finite state machines, which we can prove certain properties about

DSLs in Racket

There’s two things that go into a #lang in Racket:

  • A reader module, which parses a custom syntax to (Racket) s-expression syntax
  • A expander module, which provides the macros and functions in the language.

Custom Reader Optional

Many DSLs just use s-expression syntax, as it’s easy and usually expressive enough for most applications. Racket comes with the s-exp reader which provides you with exactly this functionality.

Let’s make a DSL!

  • For the second part of lecture, I will be covering an example implementation of a DSL in detail.

  • The DSL shown in class today is derived from one published in Volume 55, Issue 1 of the CACM by Matthew Flatt:

    doi: 10.1145/2063176.2063195


Text-based adventures are some of the earliest computer games. They gained quite a lot of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s:

You're standing in a meadow.
There is a house to the north.
> north
You are standing in front of a house.
There is a door here.
> open door
The door is locked.

Anyone who has written a text-based adventure in a general purpose language can tell you they often result in a load of spaghetti code. Let’s clean that up.

Conceptual Model

In order to define a DSL for text-based adventures, we must define a model which text-based adventures follow. This is a critical part of designing any DSL:

Items:Items have a state and the user can store them in their inventory.
Verbs:Verbs conduct an action on an item or the place. Verbs can have multiple names (e.g., north and n)
Places:Places have a description, items, and verbs which can move to other places.

Storing our Model in Racket

Using structs makes for an easy way to store objects in our model:

(struct verb (aliases            ; list of names
              desc               ; string
              thing?))           ; does it take an item?
(struct item (name               ; symbol
              [state #:mutable]  ; state of item
              actions))          ; list of verb -> function conses
(struct place (desc              ; string
               [items #:mutable] ; list of items
               actions))         ; list of verb -> function conses

Making Syntax Easier

We can’t expect our users of our DSL to be using our structs directly, let’s make easy syntaxes to define them:

  • define-verbs: Define a list of verb aliases to their corresponding verb structs, additionally providing a name to refer to a list of all of the verbs
  • define-item: Define an item, specifying the verbs associated and what they do.
  • define-place: Define a place, specifying the verbs associated and what they do.

define-verbs Example

(define-verbs all-verbs
  [(north n) "go north"]
  [(south s) "go south"]
  [(east e) "go east"]
  [(west w) "go west"]
  [(up) "go up"]
  [(down) "go down"]
  [(in enter) "enter"]
  [(out leave) "leave"]
  [(get grab take) thing "take"]
  [(put drop) thing "drop"]
  [(open unlock) thing "open"]
  [(close lock) thing "close"]
  [(knock) thing "knock"])

Implementing define-verbs

(define-syntax-rule (define-verbs all-id
                      [(id aliases ...) spec ...] ...)
    (define-one-verb (id aliases ...) spec ...) ...
    (define all-id (list id ...))))

(define-syntax define-one-verb
  (syntax-rules (thing)
    [(_ (id ...) desc)
       (define id (verb (list 'id ...) desc #f))
    [(_ (id ...) thing desc)
       (define id (verb (list 'id ...) desc #t))

define-item Example

(define-item door 'closed
  [open (if (have-item? key)
            (set-item-state! door 'open)
            "You use the key to unlock and open the door.")
          "The door is locked.")]
  [close (set-item-state! door 'closed)
         "The door is now closed."]
  [knock "No one is home."])

define-item Implementation

(define-syntax-rule (define-item id
                      [vrb expr exprs ...] ...)
  (define id
      (list (cons vrb (λ () expr exprs ...)) ...))))

define-place Example

(define-place house-front
  "You are standing in front of a house."
  ([in (if (eq? (item-state door) 'open)
         "The door is not open.")]
   [south meadow]))

Implementation is very similar to define-item.

Game Logic & Demo

  • Game logic omitted from slides, as not super relevant to the DSL (available on course site)
  • Demo game!


  • Today is last lecture
  • Thursday (11/15) is optional lab day held in ALAMODE
  • No class or office hours Tuesday (11/20) due to Thanksgiving Break
  • Tuesday (11/27) is optional lab/work day (ALAMODE)
  • Presentations 11/29, 12/4, 12/6