Facets of Prolog
Prolog is ...
Prolog is a very simple language
It is easy to describe Prolog syntax in sufficient detail
to start working with Prolog immediately.
All data is represented by
There is a single language element, called
a clause. A clause is of the
Head :- Body.
This means that if Body
holds, then Head holds. The infix
operator (:-)/2 represents an arrow from right to
If Head always
holds, then :- Body can be omitted.
The above is enough to write useful first Prolog programs.
You may not believe this, so witness the evidence: All
programs presented in the following consist only of such
In fact, all known computations can be described in terms
of such clauses, making Prolog
a Turing complete
programming language. One way to implement a
Turing machine in Prolog is to describe the relation
between different states of the machine with clauses of the
form "If the current state is S0 and
the symbol under the tape head is T, and
... then the next state is S".
See turing.pl for one
implementation, and Thinking
in States for more information.
Prolog is a declarative language
Prolog is a declarative language. This means that we focus
on stating what we are interested in. We express
what holds about solutions we want to find. We are less
concerned about how the Prolog implementation finds these
This declarative nature often allows for very concise, clear and
general specifications. It is unlikely that shorter formalisms
that are equally clear and expressive exist.
For example, let us describe the relation between
a list and its length,
using integer arithmetic:
list_length([_|Ls], N) :-
N #> 0,
N #= N0 + 1,
We can read this declaratively as follows:
When programming in Prolog, think in terms of relations
between entities. Your programs will become very general with this
approach. In the above example, it is tempting to think and say
"We are computing the length of a list". And yes, it is true: We
can indeed use the above definition to compute the length of
- The length of the empty list  is 0.
- If the length of the list Ls
is N0 and N
is N0+1, then the length
of [_|Ls] is N. Further, this only
holds if N is greater than 0.
?- list_length([a,b,c], L).
L = 3.
However, this imperative reading does not do justice to
what we have actually implemented, because the definition also
covers several additional usage patterns. For
example, given a specific length, we can ask whether
there are lists of that length:
?- list_length(Ls, 3).
Ls = [_G1007, _G1087, _G1167] ;
Using the most general query, we can even ask for all
answers that Prolog finds in general:
?- list_length(Ls, L).
Ls = , L = 0 ;
Ls = [_2130], L = 1 ;
Ls = [_2130, _2668], L = 2 ;
We say that the relation is usable in different modes.
Characteristically, Prolog reports all answers
The predicate length/2 is part of
for Prolog draft, and already available as
a built-in predicate in almost all
Prolog implementations with the above semantics.
Prolog is a logic programming language
In the category of declarative languages, we
find functional programming languages and logic
programming languages. A function is a special case of a relation,
and functional programming can be regarded as a restricted form of
A pure Prolog program consists of a set
of Horn clauses.
Its execution can be regarded as a special case
of resolution, which is an algorithm that is rooted in
formal logic. Logically, when Prolog answers a query, it
tries to find a resolution refutation of the negated
query and the set of clauses that constitute the program. When a
refutation is found, it means that the query is a
logical consequence of the program.
This connection to formal logic allows us to apply powerful
declarative debugging techniques that
are based on logical properties of the program. For example,
adding a constraint can at most reduce the set of
solutions, and adding a clause can at most extend
it. This property of pure Prolog programs is
system by Ulrich Neumerkel for an impressive application
of these ideas.
Prolog is a homoiconic language
homoiconic: from ὁμοιος = "similar" and εικών = "image"
Prolog programs are also valid Prolog terms! This
has many great advantages: It is easy to write Prolog programs
that analyze, transform and interpret other Prolog
programs. You can use the built-in predicate read/1 to
read a Prolog term, and thus also a Prolog clause.
There is a powerful mechanism to rewrite
Prolog programs at compilation time, so that you can easily
implement domain-specific languages that help you solve your tasks
You may not believe this, because some goals—such
as list_length(Ls, N)—look like
Prolog terms as defined above, whereas other goals—such
as N #> 0—look quite different.
The reason for this is that Prolog provides prefix, infix and
postfix operators that let you write Prolog terms
in a more readable way. For example, the Prolog
term +(a,b) can also be written using infix notation
as a+b. The abstract syntax remains
completely uniform, and you can read and process all Prolog terms
independent of how they are written down.
You can dynamically define custom operators for specific use cases.
Prolog is a very dynamic language
Prolog programs can be easily created, called and modified at
run time. This further increases the expressiveness of Prolog
and lets you implement higher-order
predicates which have other predicates as arguments. It also
allows the implementation of very dynamic techniques
like adaptive parsing.
The dynamic nature of Prolog also makes the language ideally
suited for writing programs that are extensible by
custom rules that other programmers and even regular users
Code Review are examples of this approach: You configure
these programs by
supplying Prolog rules that
express your requirements in a very readable and
See A Couple of
Meta-interpreters in Prolog for more information.
You can define an interpreter for pure Prolog in two lines of
Prolog is a very versatile language
Prolog is an extremely versatile language. Its relational nature
makes Prolog programs very flexible and general. This plays an
important role in language processing and knowledge representation
in databases. Modern Prolog
systems provide everything that is needed for solving
simple logic puzzles to building huge
applications, ranging from
and optimization tasks.
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