Python syntax in Lisp and Scheme

Peter Seibel peter at
Wed Oct 8 00:37:20 CEST 2003

corey.coughlin at (Corey Coughlin) writes:

> Using parentheses and rpn everywhere makes lisp very easy to parse,
> but I'd rather have something easy for me to understand and hard for
> the computer to parse.

That would be a strong argument--seriously--if the only folks who
benefited from the trivial mapping between Lisp's surface syntax and
underlying were the compiler writers. I certainly agree that if by
expending some extra effort once compiler writers can save their users
effort every time they write a program that is a good trade off.

If the only thing a "regular" programmer ever does with a language's
syntax is read and write it, then the only balance to be struck is
between the perhaps conflicting goals of readability and writability.
(For instance more concise code may be more "writable" but taken to an
extreme it may be "write only".) But "machine parsability" beyond,
perhaps, being amennable to normal machine parsing techniques (LL,
LALR, etc.) should not be a consideration. So I agree with you.

But Lisp's syntax is not the way it is to make the compiler writer's
job easier. In Lisp "regular" programmers also interact with the code
as data. We can easily write code generators (i.e. macros) that are
handed a data representation of some code, or parts of code, and have
only to return a new data structure representing the generated code.
This is such a useful technique that it's built into the compiler--it
will run our code generators when it compiles our code so we don't
have to screw around figuring out how to generate code at runtime and
get it loaded into our program. *That's* why we don't mind, and, in
fact, actively like, Lisp's syntax.

The point is not that the syntax, taking in total isolation from the
rest of the language, is necessarily the best of all possible syntaxi.
The point is that the syntax makes other things possible that *way*
outweigh whatever negatives the syntax may have.

I'd humbly suggest that if you can't see *any* reason why someone
would prefer Lisp's syntax, then you're not missing some fact about
the syntax itself but about how other language features are supported
by the syntax.


Peter Seibel                                      peter at

         Lisp is the red pill. -- John Fraser, comp.lang.lisp

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