Dylan Programming

Methods, Classes, and Objects

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Methods, Classes, and Objects

In this chapter, we introduce the basic concepts of methods, classes, and objects. We define simple methods, and show that each method is intended for a certain class of argument. We discuss built-in classes in Dylan, and show that they are related by class inheritance. Finally, we discuss what it means to be an object.

Dylan’s model of objects and classes differs significantly from the C++ model. If you are familiar with C++, we recommend that you read Dylan Object Model for C and C++ Programmers.

Method definitions

In Dylan, we define methods — a method is a kind of function. We define a simple method, say-hello, as follows:

define method say-hello ()
  format-out("hello, world\n");

We call say-hello as follows:

? say-hello();
=> hello, world

We use define method to define a method named say-hello. Just after the name say-hello, we specify the method’s parameter list, (). The parameter list of this method is empty, meaning that this method takes no arguments. The call to say-hello provides an empty argument list, meaning that there are no arguments in the call.

The body of the say-hello method has one expression — a call to format-out. A method returns whatever is returned by the expression executed last in its body. In general, a method can return a single value, multiple values, or no value at all. The say-hello method returns what format-out returns — no value at all. In the call to say-hello, we see the output of format-out in the listener; we see output and not a returned value (because no value is returned).

Usage note:

In this chapter, we define methods that call the format-out function. Because format-out is in the format-out module, we need to make that module available. There are two ways to do so. The first way is to work in files, as described in A complete Dylan program. The second way is to use a gesture or command in your Dylan environment to make the format-out module accessible. Then, you can simply enter the method definitions into the listener.

A method that takes an argument

We can define a method similar to say-hello, called say-greeting, that takes an argument:

define method say-greeting (greeting :: <object>);
  format-out("%s\n", greeting);

The say-greeting method has one required parameter, named greeting. The type constraint of the required parameter indicates the type that the argument must be. The greeting parameter has the type constraint <object>, which is the most general class. All objects are of the type <object>, so using this class as the type constraint allows the argument to be any object. You can omit the type constraint of a required parameter; that omission has the same effect as specifying <object> as the type constraint.

We can call say-greeting on a string:

? say-greeting("hi, there");
=> hi, there

We can call say-greeting on an integer, although the integer does not give a particularly friendly greeting:

? define variable *my-number* :: <integer> = 7;

? say-greeting(*my-number*);
=> 7

Two methods with the same name

For fun, we can change say-greeting to take a different action for integers, such as to print a message:

Your lucky number is 7.

To make this change, we define another method, also called say-greeting. This method has one required parameter named greeting, which has the type constraint <integer>.

define method say-greeting (greeting :: <integer>)
  format-out("Your lucky number is %s.\n", greeting);
? say-greeting(*my-number*);
=> Your lucky number is 7.

A Dylan method is similar to a procedure or subroutine in other languages, but there is an important difference. You can define more than one method with the same name. Each one is a method for the same generic function. The say-greeting generic function and its methods shows how you can picture a generic function.

When a generic function is called, it chooses the most appropriate method to call for the arguments. For example, when we call the say-greeting generic function with an integer, the method whose parameter is of the type <integer> is called:

? say-greeting(1000);
=> Your lucky number is 1000.

When we call the say-greeting generic function with an argument that is not an integer, the method whose parameter is of the type <object> is called:

? say-greeting("Buenos Dias");
=> Buenos Dias
define method say-greeting (greeting :: <object>)
  format-out("%s\n", greeting);

define method say-greeting (greeting :: <integer>)
  format-out("Your lucky number is %s.\n", greeting);


We have already seen examples of classes in Dylan: <integer>, <single-float>, <string>, and <object>.

Individual values are called objects. Each object is a direct instance of one particular class. You can use the object-class function to determine the direct class of an object. For example, in certain implementations, 7, 12, and 1000 are direct instances of the class <integer>:

? object-class(1000);
=> {class <integer>}

The value returned by object-class is the <integer> class itself. The appearance of a class, method, or generic function in a listener depends on the Dylan environment. We have chosen a simple appearance of classes for this book.

All the classes that we have seen so far are built-in classes, provided by Dylan. In User-Defined Classes and Methods, we show how to define new classes.

Class inheritance

One important aspect of classes is that they are related to one another by inheritance. Inheritance enables classes that are logically related to one another to share the behaviors and attributes that they have in common. Each class inherits from one or more classes, called its superclasses. If no other class is appropriate, then the class inherits from the class <object>. This class is the root of all classes: All classes inherit from it, either directly or indirectly, and it does not have any direct superclasses.

Comparison with C++:

If you are familiar with the class concepts of C++, you might initially be confused by Dylan’s class model. In Dylan, all base classes are effectively virtual base classes with “virtual” data members. When a class inherits another class more than once (because of multiple inheritance), only a single copy of that base class is included. Each of the multiple-inheritance paths can contribute to the implementation of the derived class. The Dylan class model favors this mix-in style of programming. For more information, see The concept of classes in Dylan Object Model for C and C++ Programmers.

In Dylan, we distinguish between two terms: direct instance and general instance. An object is a direct instance of exactly one class: the class that object-class returns for that object. An object is a general instance of its direct class, and of all classes from which its direct class inherits. The term instance is equivalent to general instance. You can use the instance? predicate to ask whether an object is an instance of a given class:

? instance?(1000, <integer>);
=> #t

? instance?("hello, world", <integer>);
=> #f

All objects are instances of the class <object>:

? instance?(1000, <object>);
=> #t

? instance?("hello, world", <object>);
=> #t

Classes and subclasses. shows the inheritance relationships among several of the built-in classes. If class A is a superclass of class B, then class B is a subclass of class A. For example, <object> is a superclass of <string>, and <string> is a subclass of <object>. For simplicity, Classes and subclasses. omits certain classes that intervene between the classes shown.


Classes and subclasses.

Each arrow points from a class to a subclass.

A typical Dylan environment provides a browser to explore inheritance relationships among classes; certain environments show the relationships graphically.

The Dylan language includes functions that provide information about the inheritance relationships among classes. We can use subtype? to ask whether one class inherits from another class:

? subtype?(<integer>, <number>);
=> #t

? subtype?(<integer>, <object>);
=> #t

? subtype?(<single-float>, <object>);
=> #t

? subtype?(<string>, <integer>);
=> #f

It may be confusing that we use a function called subtype? here, but Dylan does not provide a function called subclass?. Every class is a type, but certain types are not classes (see Functions that create nonclass types). The subtype? function works for both classes and other types.

We can ask for all the superclasses of a given class:

? all-superclasses(<string>);
=> #[{class <string>}, {class <mutable-sequence>}, {class <sequence>},
=>   {class <mutable-collection>}, {class <collection>}, {class <object>}]

? all-superclasses(<integer>);
=> #[{class <integer>}, {class <rational>}, {class <real>},
=>   {class <number>}, {class <object>}]

? all-superclasses(<single-float>);
=> #[{class <single-float>}, {class <float>}, {class <real>},
=>   {class <number>}, {class <object>}]

The all-superclasses function returns a vector containing the class itself and all that class’s superclasses. The #[...] syntax represents a vector, which is a one-dimensional array. (For information about vectors, see Collections and Control Flow.)

Relationship between classes and methods

The relationship between classes and methods in Dylan is different from that in C++ and Smalltalk, among other languages.

Comparison to C++ and Smalltalk:

In C++ and Smalltalk, a class contains the equivalent of methods. In Dylan, a class does not contain methods; instead, a method belongs to a generic function. This design decision enables these powerful features of Dylan:

  • You can define methods on built-in classes (because you do not have to modify the class definition to define a method intended for use on the class). For an example, see Methods for the + generic function. More generally, you can define a method for a class that you did not define.
  • You can write multimethods. In a multimethod, the method dispatch is based on the classes of more than one argument to a generic function. For an introduction to method dispatch, see Method dispatch. For information about multimethods, see Multimethods.
  • You can restrict generic functions to operate on specific classes of objects.

In Dylan, a method belongs to a generic function, as shown in The say-greeting generic function and its methods. Although methods are independent of classes, methods operate on instances of classes. A method states the types of objects for which it is applicable by the type constraint of each of its required parameters. Consider the say-greeting method defined earlier:

define method say-greeting (greeting :: <integer>);
  format-out("Your lucky number is %s.\n", greeting);

This method operates on instances of the <integer> class. Notice how easy and convenient it is to define a method intended for use on the built-in class <integer>.


In Dylan, everything is an object. Characters, strings, numbers, arrays, and vectors are all objects. The canonical true and false values, #t, and #f, are objects. Methods, generic functions, and classes are objects. What does it mean to be an object?

  • Most important, an object has a unique identity. You can use the == predicate to test whether two operands are the same object. See Predicates for testing equality.
  • An object is a direct instance of a particular class. You can use the object-class predicate to determine the direct class of an object.
  • You can give an object a name. For example, if you define a variable or constant to contain an object, you have given that object a name. See Bindings: Mappings between objects and names.
  • You can pass an object as an argument or return value — because generic functions and methods are objects, you can manipulate them just as you can any other object. See Functions as objects.

Comparison to C++ and Smalltalk:

In Dylan and Smalltalk, everything is an object (an instance of a class); we say that Dylan and Smalltalk have “objects all the way down.” In contrast, in C++, some values are not objects; they have primitive types that are not classes. For example, in Dylan, 7 is an instance of <integer>. In C++, 7 is not an instance; it has the type int. This design decision enables Dylan users to define methods on built-in classes in the same way that they define methods on user-defined classes — a technique that cannot be done in C++.

Comparison to Java:

Java recognizes the need for object representation of all classes with the Number class and its subclasses. However, Java still requires the programmer to work with nonobjects when writing mathematical statements. The Number classes can be used to “wrap” an object cloak around the primitive integer, float, and other numeric types, to allow object-based programming. Dylan does not separate the mathematical manipulation of numbers from their other object properties. Programmers need only to think in terms of numerical objects, and can rely on the compiler to implement mathematical operations efficiently. Similarly, the Boolean class is used to encapsulate primitive boolean values as objects, and programmers must convert back and forth, depending on the context.

Predicates for testing equality

Dylan provides two predicates for testing equality: = and ==. The = predicate determines whether two objects are similar. Similarity is defined differently for different kinds of objects. When you define new classes, you can define how similarity is tested for those classes by defining a method for =.

The == predicate determines whether the operands are identical — that is, whether the operands are the same object. The == predicate (identity) is a stronger test: two values may be similar but not identical, and two identical values are always similar.

If two numbers are mathematically equal, then they are similar:

? 100 = 100;
=> #t

? 100 = 100.0;
=> #t

Two numbers that are similar, and have the same type, are the same object:

? 100 == 100;
=> #t

Two numbers that are similar, but have different types, are not the same object:

? 100 == 100.0;
=> #f

Characters are enclosed in single quotation marks. If two characters look the same, they are similar and identical:

? ’z’ = ’z’;
=> #t

? ’z’ == ’z’;
=> #t

Strings are enclosed in double quotation marks. Strings that have identical elements are similar, but may or may not be identical. That is, strings can have identical elements, but not be the same string. For example, these strings are similar:

? "apple" = "apple";
=> #t

Just by looking at two strings, you cannot know whether or not they are the identical string. The only way to determine identity is to use the == predicate. The following expression could return #t or #f:

? "apple" == "apple";

A string is always identical to itself:

? begin
   let yours = "apple";
   let mine = yours;
   mine == yours;
=> #t

Bindings: Mappings between objects and names

A binding is a mapping between an object and a name. The name can be a module variable, module constant, or local variable.

Here, we give the object 3.14159 the name $pi, where $pi is a module constant:

? define constant $pi = 3.14159;

Here, we give the object "apple" the name *my-favorite-pie*, where *my-favorite-pie* is a module variable:

? define variable *my-favorite-pie* = "apple";

More than one variable can contain a particular object, so, in effect, an object can have many names. Here, we define a new variable that contains the very same pie:

? define variable *your-favorite-pie* = *my-favorite-pie*;

? *your-favorite-pie* == *my-favorite-pie*;
=> #t

When you define a method, define method creates a binding between a name and a method object:

? define method say-greeting (greeting :: <object>);
    format-out("%s\n", greeting);

All the bindings that we have created in this section so far are accessible within a module. (For information about modules, see Libraries and Modules.) Bindings as links shows how you can picture each binding as a link between a name and another object.

Local variables are also bindings, but they are accessible only within a certain body of code; for example,

? begin
   let radius = 5.0;
   let circumference = 2.0 * $pi * radius;

Bindings can be constant or variable. You can use the assignment operator to change a variable binding, but you cannot change a constant binding. Module constants are constant bindings; module variables and local variables are variable bindings.


In this chapter, we covered the following:

  • A generic function can contain more than one method, where each method has parameters of different types, and thus is intended for different arguments. The say-greeting generic function has two methods.
  • Dylan provides built-in classes, including <integer>, <single-float>, <string>, and <object>. These classes are related by inheritance.
  • In Dylan, almost everything is an object. Each object has a unique identity.
  • The = predicate tests for similarity; the == predicate tests for identity.
  • A binding is an association between an object and a name.

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