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1.1 Semantics

This section gives an overview of Scheme's semantics. A detailed informal semantics is the subject of chapters Basic concepts through Standard procedures. For reference purposes, section Formal semantics provides a formal semantics of Scheme.

Following Algol, Scheme is a statically scoped programming language. Each use of a variable is associated with a lexically apparent binding of that variable.

Scheme has latent as opposed to manifest types. Types are associated with values (also called objects) rather than with variables. (Some authors refer to languages with latent types as weakly typed or dynamically typed languages.) Other languages with latent types are APL, Snobol, and other dialects of Lisp. Languages with manifest types (sometimes referred to as strongly typed or statically typed languages) include Algol 60, Pascal, and C.

All objects created in the course of a Scheme computation, including procedures and continuations, have unlimited extent. No Scheme object is ever destroyed. The reason that implementations of Scheme do not (usually!) run out of storage is that they are permitted to reclaim the storage occupied by an object if they can prove that the object cannot possibly matter to any future computation. Other languages in which most objects have unlimited extent include APL and other Lisp dialects.

Implementations of Scheme are required to be properly tail-recursive. This allows the execution of an iterative computation in constant space, even if the iterative computation is described by a syntactically recursive procedure. Thus with a properly tail-recursive implementation, iteration can be expressed using the ordinary procedure-call mechanics, so that special iteration constructs are useful only as syntactic sugar. See section Proper tail recursion.

Scheme procedures are objects in their own right. Procedures can be created dynamically, stored in data structures, returned as results of procedures, and so on. Other languages with these properties include Common Lisp and ML.

One distinguishing feature of Scheme is that continuations, which in most other languages only operate behind the scenes, also have “first-class” status. Continuations are useful for implementing a wide variety of advanced control constructs, including non-local exits, backtracking, and coroutines. See section Control features.

Arguments to Scheme procedures are always passed by value, which means that the actual argument expressions are evaluated before the procedure gains control, whether the procedure needs the result of the evaluation or not. ML, C, and APL are three other languages that always pass arguments by value. This is distinct from the lazy-evaluation semantics of Haskell, or the call-by-name semantics of Algol 60, where an argument expression is not evaluated unless its value is needed by the procedure.

Scheme's model of arithmetic is designed to remain as independent as possible of the particular ways in which numbers are represented within a computer. In Scheme, every integer is a rational number, every rational is a real, and every real is a complex number. Thus the distinction between integer and real arithmetic, so important to many programming languages, does not appear in Scheme. In its place is a distinction between exact arithmetic, which corresponds to the mathematical ideal, and inexact arithmetic on approximations. As in Common Lisp, exact arithmetic is not limited to integers.