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Tom Hewlett-Taylor
Tom Hewlett-Taylor

Posted on • Originally published at hewletttaylor.com

A light introduction to tacit programming with JavaScript

Tacit programming is a style of programming in which you don't identify the arguments your functions operate on. Instead, you define your functions by composing other functions.

It's also known as the "point-free" style, and it's a common pattern in functional programming.

The aim of this post is to dig into what that exactly that means, how it's possible in JavaScript and why you might want to code in that style.

Let's look at a simple example for motivation.

Imagine we want to automatically generate an email address for new starters at our company, from their names. Our rule for doing this is that we want to take the person's surname, change it to lowercase, then append "@companyname.com".

Here's how we might do that in code:

function getSurname(fullName) {
  let nameParts = fullName.split(" ");
  return nameParts[nameParts.length - 1];
}

function appendDomain(localPart) {
  return `${localPart}@companyname.com`;
}

function getEmailAddressFromName(fullName) {
  return appendDomain(getSurname(fullName).toLowerCase());
}

Here, the getEmailAddressFromName function is really just an amalgamation of 3 other functions, with no additional logic: getSurname, toLowerCase and appendDomain.

To really see this, it would help to redefine toLowerCase so that it's just a function rather than a string method:

function getSurname(fullName) {
  let nameParts = fullName.split(" ");
  return nameParts[nameParts.length - 1];
}

function toLowerCase(string) {
  return string.toLowerCase();
}

function appendDomain(localPart) {
  return `${localPart}@companyname.com`;
}

function getEmailAddressFromName(fullName) {
  return appendDomain(toLowerCase(getSurname(fullName)));
}

Now it's easy to see that getEmailAddress is just 3 functions applied in sequence.

It would be great if we could declare getEmailAddress using something like the imaginary syntax below:

let getEmailAddressFromName = appendDomain of toLowerCase of getSurname

Unfortunately this isn't real JavaScript. But if it was, it would be a clean way of expressing that one function is just a composition of 3 others. This is what we would call a point-free definition.

That's a bit of a strange term, but it makes sense when you consider that a "point" in this context means an argument.

Is there some way we could approximate this in JavaScript?

We can definitely try!

Let's make things simpler by considering the case where we want to compose just 2 function together.

Keeping the same example, we might want to define a getLowerCaseSurname function to be getSurname followed by toLowerCase:

function getLowerCaseSurname(fullName) {
  return toLowerCase(getSurname(fullName));
}

Simple enough.

Now let's define a function called compose that looks like this:

function compose(f, g) {
  return x => f(g(x));
}

This might be confusing at first glance. What does this function do?

We can see it returns another function. That function takes a single argument, x, applies g to it, then applies f to it. Aha! So f and g must both be functions.

So we can see that compose takes two functions as arguments and returns another function.

This sounds like what we wanted to do with getLowerCaseSurname. What happens if we pass in toLowerCase and getSurname to compose? It would return the following:

x => toLowerCase(getSurname(x))

Hopefully you can see that is equivalent to our definition of getLowerCaseSurname above.

So, actually, we could have written the following:

let getLowerCaseSurname = compose(toLowerCase, getSurname);

This is very clean. And point-free! We've defined getLowerCaseSurname purely in terms of other functions without mentioning the data the function operates on.

What if we wanted to apply three or more functions in a row, like with getEmailAddressFromName?

We could define a more generic compose function that works with a variable number of arguments:

function compose(...functions) {
  return x => functions.reduceRight((gx, f) => f(gx), x);
}

This version is a little harder to understand, so don't worry if it's not clear. What matters is that, using this function, we can define getEmailAddressFromName as follows:

let getEmailAddressFromName = compose(appendDomain, toLowerCase, getSurname);

This is really not far from what we envisioned earlier using the imaginary "of" keyword. It's point-free, and very readable: you can easily see that one function has been made by composing several others in sequence.

The compose function is essential to tacit programming and functional programming in general. You will find it (sometimes with a different name) in any functional programming library, including Lodash, Underscore and my personal favourite, Ramda.

Here's how you would use it in Ramda:

const R = require('ramda');

let ceilAbs = R.compose(Math.ceil, Math.abs);

console.log(ceilAbs(-3.7)); // Logs 4

Ramda also provides a function called pipe, which does the same thing as compose except that the order of the arguments is reversed:

const R = require('ramda');

let ceilAbs = R.pipe(Math.abs, Math.ceil);

console.log(ceilAbs(-3.7)); // Logs 4

Whether to use compose or pipe is a matter of preference and may depend on the situation. Sometimes it's more intuitive to to read the list of functions you're composing from left to right, in the order they will be applied. In this case, use pipe.

Whether you choose compose or pipe, these two functions only get you so far in writing point-free code. Without a few more utility functions up your sleeve, you'll quickly encounter a situation that's hard to translate to the point-free style.
Fortunately, Ramda provides many more functions to make tacit programming easier, such as ifElse, cond, either, both, and many more.

These are outside the scope of this post, but I encourage you to check out the Ramda documentation if you're interested.

Let's look at one more example to hammer home how clean tacit programming can be.

Let's say we have an array of numbers and we want to find the even ones. We could do the following:

function getEvenNumbers(numbers) {
    return numbers.filter(x => x % 2 === 0);
}

let numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10];

console.log(getEvenNumbers(numbers));

Let's try to give getEvenNumbers a point-free definition instead.

Here we've used a simple arrow function as our filter condition inside the getEvenNumbers function. The arrow function returns true if a number is even, by checking if it's equal to 0 modulo 2.

But expressions featuring the modulus operator aren't the most readable, so let's move this out into a named function:

function isEven(number) {
    return number % 2 === 0;
}

function getEvenNumbers(numbers) {
    return numbers.filter(x => isEven(x));
}

let numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10];

console.log(getEvenNumbers(numbers));

This is definitely more readable. But let's look at our new filter condition more closely. It's now an arrow function that returns the result of calling isEven on its argument.

Hmm, ok... an arrow function that just returns the result of another function. Doesn't that seem a bit pointless?

We could have just written the following:

function isEven(number) {
    return number % 2 === 0;
}

function getEvenNumbers(numbers) {
    return numbers.filter(isEven);
}

let numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10];

console.log(getEvenNumbers(numbers));

Here, we pass isEven directly into filter. This works just fine, of course - filter expects its argument to be a function that takes a number and returns a boolean. Often we would use an arrow function here, but isEven fits the bill too.

This is cleaner and more readable, and we're getting closer to being point-free. But we have a problem: we call filter, which is a method on the variable numbers. We can't eliminate our arguments if we have to call methods on them.

Enter Ramda once more. Ramda redefines array methods such as filter, map and reduce to be standalone functions instead. We can use Ramda's version of filter instead:

const R = require('ramda');

function isEven(number) {
    return number % 2 === 0;
}

function getEvenNumbers(numbers) {
    return R.filter(isEven, numbers);
}

let numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10];

console.log(getEvenNumbers(numbers));

This is still not point free, but we can make it so due to another trick Ramda employs: currying.

All Ramda functions, including filter, are curried by default. If you haven't come across currying before, think of it as a more flexible way of defining functions of multiple arguments, allowing you to provide only some of the arguments at a time.

In the case of filter, it means the following two ways of calling the function are equivalent:

R.filter(isEven, numbers);
R.filter(isEven)(number);

In the first line, we've provided both arguments at once, as normal. In the second line, we've called the argument with one argument, then called the result with the second argument. This works just fine for Ramda functions.

The reason this works is that, by calling the function with just one argument, you return a new function that takes the second argument and then applies both arguments to the original function.

If the single-argument version of filter was a separate function, it would be defined something like this:

function filterOneArg(arg1) {
    return arg2 => R.filter(arg1, arg2);
}

The upshot of all of this is that we could define getEvenNumbers as follows:

let getEvenNumbers = numbers => R.filter(isEven)(numbers);

But now we can see we no longer need the arrow function at all, which leads us to our point-free holy grail:

let getEvenNumbers = R.filter(isEven);

Hurrah!

Tacit programming and currying are two of the core concepts of functional programming. If you've found this post interesting and want to learn more about functional programming without having to learn a whole new language, I suggest Professor Frisby's Mostly Adequate Guide to Functional Programming, which introduces core FP concepts from a JavaScript perspective.

Top comments (2)

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iquardt profile image
Iven Marquardt

However, tacit programming is nothing you strive for. It is a side effect of composition and overdoing it results in hard to follow code. People usually understand application better than composition.

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tomht profile image
Tom Hewlett-Taylor Author

Yes, definitely. Applying it blindly can result in unreadable code sometimes. I would say that the right place to use the style is wherever it improves readability and simplicity.

Here's a good talk illustrating the point (albeing in Haskell): youtube.com/watch?v=seVSlKazsNk

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