Writing Prolog Programs



The best general advice on writing Prolog code was given by Richard O'Keefe in his book The Craft of Prolog:
Elegance is not optional.
Take this advice to heart! If your Prolog code seems somewhat inelegant, pause and think about how it can be made more elegant.

This page explains a few additional guidelines for writing Prolog code.

How to begin

Consider a relation like list_list_together/3 that is mentioned in Reading Prolog Programs. How do we come up with such a definition in the first place?

When writing a Prolog predicate, think about the conditions that ought to make it true. For example, in the case of list_list_together/3, we can proceed as follows: First, we want to describe a relation that holds for lists. We know from their inductive definition that we need to consider at least two possible cases:
  1. the atom []
  2. compound terms of the form [L|Ls]
These two cases form the skeleton of our prospective definition:
list_list_together([], Bs, Cs) :-
        ...
list_list_together([L|Ls], Bs, Cs) :-
        ...
    
These two clauses form logical alternatives that describe the different cases that can arise. Then, we ask: When, i.e., under what conditions do these cases hold? If you think about it, you will come to the conclusion that the first clause holds if Bs = Cs, so we can write it as:
list_list_together([], Bs, Cs) :-
        Bs = Cs.
    
Such unifications can always be pulled into the clause head, so we can write it as:
list_list_together([], Bs, Bs).
    
We apply the same reasoning to the second clause: When does it hold that Cs is the concatenation of [L|Ls] and Bs? A bit of reflection tells us: This holds if Cs is of the form [L|Rest] and Rest is the concatenation of Ls and Bs. We use the built-in predicate (',')/2 to express this conjunction of conditions. To describe that Rest is the concatenation of Ls and Bs, we use list_list_together(Ls, Bs, Rest), since this is precisely the relation that ought to hold in this case.

The whole clause therefore becomes:
list_list_together([L|Ls], Bs, Cs) :-
        Cs = [L|Rest],
        list_list_together(Ls, Bs, Rest).
    
This is an example of a predicate whose definition refers to itself. Such predicates are called recursive. Note how recursive definitions naturally arise from considering the conditions that make such predicates true.

Again, we can simply pull the unification into the clause head:
list_list_together([L|Ls], Bs, [L|Rest]) :-
        list_list_together(Ls, Bs, Rest).
    
Finding better variable names is left as an exercise.

When beginners write their first Prolog programs, a common mistake is to ask the wrong question: "What should Prolog do in this case?". This question is misguided: Especially as a beginner, you will not be able to grasp the actual control flow for the different modes of invocation. In addition, this question typically limits you to only one possible usage mode of your predicate. Therefore, do not fall into this trap! Instead, think about the conditions that make the relation hold, and provide a clear declarative description of these conditions. If you manage to state these conditions correctly, you often naturally obtain very general predicates that can be used in several directions. Thus, when writing Prolog code, better ask: What are the cases and conditions that make this predicate true?

You may now think: That's all OK, and may work for such simple relations. But what if I want to actually "do" something, such as incrementing a counter, removing an element etc.? The answer is still the same: Think in terms of relations between the entities you are describing. To express a modification of something, you should define a relation between different states of something, and state the conditions that make this relation hold. See Thinking in States for more information.

Naming predicates

A good predicate name makes clear what the predicate arguments mean.

Ideally, a predicate can be used in all directions. This means that any argument may be a variable, partially instantiated, or fully instantiated. This generality should be expressed in the predicate name, typically by choosing nouns to describe the arguments.

Examples of good predicate names are: In these cases, the predicate names are so clear that the descriptions seem almost superfluous. Note also that using_underscores_makes_also_longer_names_easy_to_read, whereas for example mixingTheCasesAsInJavaMakesThatALotHarderInGeneral.

For these reasons, examples of bad names are:

Naming variables

A Prolog variable starts with an uppercase letter or with an underscore. The latter rule is useful to know if you are teaching Prolog in Japan, for example.

In contrast to the convention for predicate names, MixedCases are sometimes used when naming Prolog variables. However, the mixing is in almost all cases limited to at most two uppercase words that are adjoined.

Some Prolog predicates describe a sequence of state transitions to express state changes in a pure way. In such cases, the following convention can be very useful: The initial state is denoted as State0, the next state is State1, etc. This enumeration continues until the final state, which we call State. In total, the sequence is therefore:

State0 → State1 → State2 → ... → State
    
Of course, the prefix State can denote any other entity that is being described. For example, if multiple elements are inserted into an association list, we may have the sequence:

Assoc0 → Assoc1 → Assoc2 → ... → Assoc
    
When writing higher-order predicates, it is good practice to denote with C_N a closure C that is called with N additional arguments. For example, the first argument of maplist/2 could be called Pred_1, because it is invoked with one additional argument.

Indenting Prolog code

Prolog is a very simple language: Only a few language constructs exist, and several ways for indenting them are common.

However, no matter which convention you choose, one invariant that should always be adhered to is to never place (;)/2 at the end of a line. This is because ; looks very similar to , (comma). Since (',')/2 almost always occurs at the end of a line, it is good practice to place ; either at the beginning of a line or between the two goals of a disjunction to more clearly distinguish it from a conjunction.

Further reading

Covington et al., Coding Guidelines for Prolog, contains some interesting observations for programming in Prolog.


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