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15.3 Semantics

It is important to the proper operation of impure and semipure code, to the flexibility of the compiler to optimize pure code, and to the semantics of the Mercury language, that a clear distinction be drawn between ordinary Mercury code and imperative code written with Mercury syntax. How this distinction is drawn will be explained below; the purpose of this section is to explain the semantics of programs with impure predicates.

A declarative semantics of impure Mercury code would be largely useless, because the declarative semantics cannot capture the intent of the programmer. Impure predicates are executed for their side-effects, which by definition are not part of their declarative semantics. Thus it is the operational semantics of impure predicates that Mercury must specify, and Mercury implementations must respect.

The operational semantics of a Mercury predicate which invokes impure code is a modified form of the strict sequential semantics (see Semantics). Impure goals may not be reordered relative to any other goals; not even “minimal” reordering as implied by the modes is permitted. If any such reordering is needed, this is a mode error. However, pure and semipure goals may be reordered as the compiler desires (within the bounds of the semantics the user has specified for the program) as long as they are not moved across an impure goal. Execution of impure goals is strict: they must be executed if they are reached, even if it can be determined that the computation cannot lead to successful termination.

Semipure goals can be given a “contextual” declarative semantics. They cannot have any side-effects, so it is expected that, given the context in which they are called (relative to any impure goals in the program), their declarative semantics fully captures the intent of the programmer. Thus a semipure goal has a perfectly consistent declarative semantics, until an impure goal is reached. After that, it has another (possibly different) declarative semantics, until the next impure goal is executed, and so on. Mercury implementations must respect this contextual nature of the semantics of semipure goals; within a single context, an implementation may treat a semipure goal as if it were pure.


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