Expressions & Variables

Dylan identifiers may contain a greater variety of characters than those of C++ or Java. Specifically, variable names may contain all alphanumeric characters, plus the symbols ! & * < = > | ^ $ % @ _ - + ~ ? /. Identifiers may not begin with the symbols - + ~ ? /, although identifiers may begin with numbers, provided they contain at least two alphabetic characters in a row. Variable names are not case sensitive.

This means that (a - b) subtracts one variable from another, whereas (a-b) simply returns the value of the hyphenated variable named a-b. Because of this, infix operators, such as addition, subtraction and equality, must be surrounded by whitespace.

As in C++, Dylan infix operators may also be referred to as functions. In C++, (a + b) could also be written as operator+(a, b). In Dylan, the same expression could be written \+(a, b). In both languages, programmers can use this flexibility to define operators for custom numeric classes.

Naming Conventions

Dylan uses the extra characters permitted in variable names to support a number of standard naming conventions, as shown in this table:


a class


mutative function (modifies argument destructively)


predicate function (tests one or more arguments and returns either true or false)


a two word name




module-level variable

True and False

Dylan represents true as #t and false as #f. When evaluated in a Boolean context, all values other than #f are considered true. Thus, the number zero – and other common “false” values – evaluate as true in Dylan.

The Nature of Variables

Dylan variables differ from those found in C and Pascal. Instead of holding their values, Dylan variables refer to them. Conceptually, they resemble a cross between pointers and C++ references. Like references, Dylan variables may be evaluated without any indirection. Like pointers, they may be set to point to new objects whenever the programmer desires.

Furthermore, there’s only one of any given numeric value in a Dylan program, at least from the programmer’s point of view. All variables which refer to the integer 2 – or, in Dylan terminology, are bound to the integer 2 – point to the exact same thing.

let x = 2;  // creates x and binds it to 2
x := 3;    // rebinds x to the value 3
let y = x;  // creates y, and binds it to whatever x is bound to

If two variables are bound to one object with internal structure, the results may surprise C and Pascal programmers.

let car1 = make(<car>);  // bind car1 to a new car object
car1.odometer := 10000;       // set odometer
let car2 = car1;              // bind new name
car2.odometer := 0;           // reset odometer
car1.odometer;                // evaluates to 0

As long as one or more variables refer to an object, it continues to exist. However, as soon as the last reference either goes out of scope or gets rebound, the object becomes garbage. Since there’s no way that the program could ever refer to the object again, the garbage collector is free to reuse the memory which once held it.

Note that Dylan variables must be bound to a particular value when they are declared. In the name of type safety and implementation efficiency, every variable must refer to some well-defined object.

Assignment, Equality and Identity

Dylan uses all three of the “equals” operators found in C and Pascal, albeit in a different fashion. The assignment operator, :=, rebinds Dylan variable names to new values. The equality operator, =, tests for equality in Dylan and also appears in some language constructs such as let. (Two Dylan objects are equal, generally, if they belong to the same class and have equal substructure.)

The == operator determines whether two objects are identical in Dylan. Two objects are identical if and only if they are the exact same object. For example, the following two expressions mean roughly the same thing:

(a == b)   // in Dylan or Java
(&a == &b) // in C or C++

The following piece of source code demonstrates all three operators in actual use.

let car1 = make(<car>);
let car2 = make(<car>);
let car3 = car2;

car2 = car3;  // #t
car1 = car2;  // ??? (see below)
car2 == car3;  // #t
car1 == car2;  // #f

car2 := car1;  // rebind
car1 == car2;  // #t

let x = 2;
let y = 2;

x = y;  // #t
x == y;  // #t (there is only one 2!)

Two of the examples merit further explanation. First, we don’t know if make creates each car with the same serial number, driver and other information as previous cars, or whether there is a method defined on \=(<car>, <car>) that compares cars slot-by-slot.

Second, x == y because every variable bound to a given number refers to the exact same instance of that number, at least from the programmer’s perspective. (The compiler will normally do something more useful and efficient when generating the actual machine code.) Strings behave in a fashion different from numbers – instances of strings are stored separately, and two equal strings are not necessarily the same string.

Parallel Values

It’s possible to bind more than one variable at a time in Dylan. For example, a single let statement could bind x to 2, y to 3 and z to 4.

let (x, y, z) = values(2, 3, 4);

In Perl, the equivalent statement would assign a vector of values to a vector of variables. In Dylan, no actual vectors or lists are used. All three values are assigned directly, using some implementation-dependent mechanism.

Type Declarations

Dylan variables may have explicit types. This allows the compiler to generate better code and to catch type-mismatch errors at compile time. To take advantage of this feature, use the :: operator:

let x :: <integer> = 2;
let vehicle :: <vehicle> = make(<car>);
let y :: <number> = 3;  // any numeric class
let z :: <integer> = vehicle;  // error!

As seen in the example, a variable may be bound to values of its declared type or to values of subclasses of its declared type. Type mismatch errors should be caught at compile time. In general, the compiler may infer the types of variables when generating machine code. If a local variable is never rebound to anything other than an integer, for example, the compiler can rely on this fact to optimize the resulting code.

Module Variables and Constants

Dylan supports module-level variables, which serve roughly the same purpose as C’s global variables. The forms define variable and define constant may be used at module top level.

define variable *x* :: <integer> = 3;
define variable *y* = 4;
define constant $hi = "Hi!";

Note that there’s not much point in declaring types for constants. Any decent compiler will be able to figure that information out on its own.