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References: CLtL p. 406 and also p. 403


Edit history: version 1: Guy Steele, 30 November 1987

version 2: Guy Steele, 18 January 1988

version 3: Masinter, 5 February 1988

Problem description:

Implementations currently differ on the question of what is tested by the FORMAT

command "~:^". Some implementations test to see whether any arguments remain in

the sublist for the current iteration step; others test to see whether any

sublists remain. The text on page 406 is not clear on this point.


~:^ may be used only if the command it would terminate is ~:{ or ~:@{. The

entire iteration process is terminated if and only if the sublist that is

supplying the arguments for the current iteration step is the last sublist (in

the case of ~:{) or the last FORMAT argument (~:@{). Note that ~:^ is *not*

equivalent to ~:#^; the latter terminates the entire iteration if and only if no

arguments remain for the current iteration step.


(format nil "~:{~@?~:^...~}" '(("a") ("b")))

Under this proposal, this yields "a...b", rather than "a".


This proposal is desirable because otherwise there is no way to test whether any

sublists remain. The text on page 406 may be construed to hint at this proposal

indirectly. To quote Nick Gall:

"If one thinks about the intent of the parenthetical `(because in the standard

case it tests for remaining arguments of the current step only)', one should

agree that "a...b" will be returned. In referring to ~^ as the `standard case',

which tests the arguments remaining in the current argument sublist, this

parenthetical implies that there is an `other case', which tests `something

else.' The only `other case' discussed is ~:^, which therefore must test

`something else.' I claim that the parentheical makes no sense if we interpret

~:^ as testing the same condition as ~^. If they both test the same condition,

why have the parenthetical explanation?

"If ~:^ doesn't test the same condition as ~^, then what does it test? I claim

that the only test that makes sense is for ~:^ to test the only thing that

affects the `entire iteration process:' the number of sublists. When there are

no more sublists, `the entire iteration process' is terminated."

Current practice:

Some implementations already have the proposed behavior, including Symbolics

Common Lisp and TI Lisp.

Many other implementations currently have a different interpretation: the test

case returns "a", since ~:^ in those implementations test for the remaining

arguments rather than remaining sublists. These currently include Kyoto Common

Lisp, Allegro Common Lisp, GCLISP, Xerox Common Lisp, Spice Lisp, and VAXLISP.

Cost to Implementors:

Many implementations will have to make a small change, probably a one-liner.

Cost to Users:

It is unlikely that much user code depends on the behavior of testing for

remaining arguments, but it is possible. The author of this writeup (Steele)

judges it somewhat more likely that user code might depend on the behavior of

testing for remaining sublists.

Cost of non-adoption:

Users would have to be warned not to use ~:^ in code that is meant to be



Elimination of yet one more ambiguity. The proposed semantics allows greater

semantic power (there are more things one can test).


``Absolutely none. We're talking about FORMAT here.'' -- Guy L. Steele Jr.


Guy Steele very strongly prefers the interpretation


David Moon, Kent Pitman, Pavel Curtis, Dan Pierson, Rob Poor, Scott Fahlman and


Kevin Layer and Rich Robbins have spoken in favor of an alternative proposal, to

test for the remaining arguments.

Historical note: Steele first implemented this "feature", in Zetalisp, and so

the code in Symbolics Common Lisp is likely a direct descendant of the original

code. This might cause some to give weight to Steele's opinion. There are two

arguments against such credence. First, there is no reason why the original

code should be regarded as part of the specification of Common Lisp any more

than any other implementation; plainly, Steele botched the specification when he

wrote the book. Second, a professor of literature (I believe) once told Isaac

Asimov concerning a short story of his (I quote from memory): "Tell me, Dr.

Asimov, just because you wrote the story, what makes you think you know what it


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