SICP Goodness - Applicative Order v.s. Normal Order

Some goodness from the book Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs

3 minute read

Do you think Computer Science equals building websites and mobile apps?

Are you feeling that you are doing repetitive and not so intelligent work?

Are you feeling a bit sick about reading manuals and copy-pasting code and keep poking around until it works all day long?

Do you want to understand the soul of Computer Science?

If yes, read SICP!!!

This is the first post of this SICP Goodness series, in which I discuss some of my own findings from reading the book SICP.

Today’s topic is about two ways to perform evaluation of the program: Applicative Order and Normal Order.

Let’s put here the example from the book.

First, define some functions to calculate the sum of squares of two numbers.

(define (square x) (* x x))

(define (sum-of-squares x y)
  (+ (square x) (square y)))
(define (f a)
  (sum-of-squares (+ a 1) (* a 2)))

Now, let’s evaluate the expression (f 5) using the two models.

Applicative Order Evalutation

The process of this approach can be summarized as evaluate the function and arguments and then apply.

(f 5)

(sum-of-squares (+ 5 1) (* 5 2))

(sum-of-squares 6 10)

(+ (square 6) (square 10))

(+ (* 6 6) (* 10 10))

(+ 36 100)


Normal Order Evaluation

The process of this approach can be summarized as fully expand and then reduce.

The steps are as follows:

(f 5)

(sum-of-squares (+ 5 1) (* 5 2))

(+ (square (+ 5 1)) (square (* 5 2)))

(+ (* (+ 5 1) (+ 5 1)) (* (* 5 2) (* 5 2)))

(+ (* 6 6) (* 10 10))

(+ 36 100)


It feels like applicative order is more eager while normal order is more lazy.

There are some cases that the two yield different results.

Exercise 1.5 gives a way to test wether the language uses applicative order or normal order.

The test is as follows:

(define (p) (p))

(define (test x y)
  (if (= x 0)
(test 0 (p))

Try figure out how this test can behave differently under different evaluation models.


p is a endless recursive function, it will exec forever. If the language is applicative order, then when evaluate (test 0 (p)), it will first try to evaluate (p), which will of course end up in an endless loop. However, if the language is normal order, this evaluation gets delayed.

(test 0 (p))

(if (= 0 0)

And the (p) is now pushed to the else part of the if. When the if clause gets evaluated, it just returns 0 without even look at (p).

Clever isn’t it.

comments powered by Disqus