Official definition of call-by-value (Re: Finding the instance reference...)

Steven D'Aprano steven at
Wed Nov 12 03:44:42 CET 2008

On Wed, 12 Nov 2008 13:10:10 +1300, greg wrote:

> Here is the definition of call-by-value from the "Revised Report on the
> Algorithmic Language Algol 60"
> <>:

Why should anyone take the "Revised Report on the Algorithmic Language 
Algol 60" as the "official" (only?) definition of call-by-value for all 
languages everywhere?

Particularly since in practice, people's *understanding* of such terms 
have more to do with common practice than formal definitions. You're 
welcome to tell people that tomatoes are actually berries from the Deadly 
Nightshade family of plants, rather than vegetables, but if you do so you 
better follow it up with further explanations.

> Value assignment (call by value). All formal parameters quoted
> in the value part of the procedure declaration heading are assigned the
> values (cf. section 2.8. Values and types) of the corresponding actual
> parameters, these assignments being considers as being performed
> explicitly before entering the procedure body. The effect is as though
> an additional block embracing the procedure body were created in which
> these assignments were made to variables local to this fictitious block
> with types as given in the corresponding specifications (cf. section
> 5.4.5).

I notice that you deleted the last sentence of the definition. I quote:

"As a consequence, variables called by value are to be considered as 
nonlocal to the body of the procedure, but local to the fictitious block 
(cf. section 5.4.3)."

And what's the fictitious block? As I understand it, their intention is 
to say that calling a procedure foo(x) with an actual argument y should 
be considered the same as:

# start a new block (a new scope, in Python terminology)
x = y   # behave as if we explicitly assigned y to x
foo(x)  # enter the body of foo with argument x local to the new block

What are the consequences of such assignment? Unfortunately, assignment 
isn't unambiguously defined:

"4.2.3. Semantics. Assignment statements serve for assigning the value of 
an expression to one or several variables or procedure identifiers. 
Assignment to a procedure identifier may only occur within the body of a 
procedure defining the value of a function designator (cf. section 
5.4.4). The process will in the general case be understood to take place 
in three steps as follows: Any subscript expression occurring in the left part variables 
are evaluated in sequence from left to right. The expression of the statement is evaluated. The value of the expression is assigned to all the left part 
variables, with any subscript expressions having values as evaluated in 

In other words, assignment takes three steps: 

(1) evaluate the subscript expressions on the left part (presumably of 
the statement); 

(2) evaluate the expression of the statement (presumably the right hand 
side, but the document doesn't make that clear);

(3) assign the value of the expression.

Got that? Assignment means the value is assigned. Glad that's all clear 

So given an assignment of x = y in Algol, it isn't clear from this 
document whether x and y refer to the same value, or if they merely have 
the same value by equality. That second case would imply copying. To put 
it in Python terms, following x = y we know that x == y is true but we 
don't know whether id(x) == id(y).

Can we at least determine what variables and values are? Well, almost... 

"3.1.3. Semantics. A variable is a designation given to a single value."

Okay, a variable is a designation (a name if you prefer) for a value. So 
what's a value?

"2.8. Values and types
A value is an ordered set of numbers (special case: a single number), an 
ordered set of logical values (special case: a single logical value), or 
a label.
Certain of the syntactic units are said to possess values. These values 
will in general change during the execution of the program The values of 
expressions and their constituents are defined in section 3. The value of 
an array identifier is the ordered set of values of the corresponding 
array of subscripted variables (cf. section"

Now we're getting somewhere! Values are sets of numbers or sets of true/
false logical elements. Hmmm... apparently strings aren't values in 
Algol. Oh well.

But one thing is clear: values aren't references. Given the assignment 
x=1, the value of x is not "a reference to 1" but 1 itself. So the one 
thing we can unambiguously say is that Algol's assignment model is not 
the same as Python's assignment model.


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