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Archive   : ICON8A.ZIP
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An Overview of Version 8 the Icon
Programming Language*

Ralph E. Griswold

TR 90-6a

January 1, 1990; last revised February 13, 1990

Department of Computer Science

The University of Arizona

Tucson, Arizona 85721

*This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under
Grant CCR-8713690.

An Overview of Version 8 the Icon
Programming Language


Icon is a high-level programming language with extensive
facilities for processing strings and structures. Icon has
several novel features, including expressions that may produce
sequences of results, goal-directed evaluation that automatically
searches for a successful result, and string scanning that allows
operations on strings to be formulated at a high conceptual

Icon emphasizes high-level string processing and a design phi-
losophy that allows ease of programming and short, concise pro-
grams. Storage allocation and garbage collection are automatic in
Icon, and there are few restrictions on the sizes of objects.
Strings, lists, and other structures are created during program
execution and their size does not need to be known when a program
is written. Values are converted to expected types automati-
cally; for example, numeral strings read in as input can be used
in numerical computations without explicit conversion. Icon has
an expression-based syntax with reserved words; in appearance,
Icon programs resemble those of Pascal and C.

Although Icon has extensive facilities for processing strings
and structures, it also has a full repertoire of computational
facilities. It is suitable for a wide variety of applications.
Some examples are:

+ text analysis, editing, and formatting

+ document formating

+ artificial intelligence

+ expert systems

+ rapid prototyping

+ symbolic mathematics

+ text generation

+ data laundry

There are public-domain implementations of Icon for the Amiga,
the Atari ST, the Macintosh under MPW, MS-DOS, MVS, OS/2, many

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UNIX systems, VM/CMS, and VMS. There also is a commercial imple-
mentation of an enhanced version of Icon for the Macintosh [1].

The remainder of this report briefly describes the highlights
of Icon. For a complete description, see [2,3].



In Icon there are conditional expressions that may succeed and
produce a result, or may fail and not produce any result. An
example is the comparison operation

i > j

which succeeds (and produces the value of j) provided that the
value of i is greater than the value of j, but fails otherwise.

i > j > k

succeeds if the value of j is between i and k.

The success or failure of conditional operations is used
instead of Boolean values to drive control structures in Icon. An
example is

if i > j then k := i else k := j

which assigns the value of i to k if the value of i is greater
than the value of j, but assigns the value of j to k otherwise.

The usefulness of the concepts of success and failure is
illustrated by find(s1,s2), which fails if s1 does not occur as a
substring of s2. Thus

if i := find("or",line) then write(i)

writes the position at which "or" occurs in line, if it occurs,
but does not write a value if it does not occur.

Many expressions in Icon are conditional. An example is
read(), which produces the next line from the input file, but
fails when the end of the file is reached. The following expres-
sion is typical of programming in Icon and illustrates the
integration of conditional expressions and conventional control

while line := read() do

This expression copies the input file to the output file.

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If an argument of a function fails, the function is not
called, and the function call fails as well. This ``inheritance''
of failure allows the concise formulation of many programming
tasks. Omitting the optional do clause in while-do, the previous
expression can be rewritten as

while write(read())


In some situations, an expression may be capable of producing
more than one result. Consider

sentence := "Store it in the neighboring harbor"

Here "or" occurs in sentence at positions 3, 23, and 33. Most
programming languages treat this situation by selecting one of
the positions, such as the first, as the result of the expres-
sion. In Icon, such an expression is a generator and is capable
of producing all three positions.

The results that a generator produces depend on context. In a
situation where only one result is needed, the first is produced,
as in

i := find("or",sentence)

which assigns the value 3 to i.

If the result produced by a generator does not lead to the
success of an enclosing expression, however, the generator is
resumed to produce another value. An example is

if (i := find("or",sentence)) > 5 then write(i)

Here the first result produced by the generator, 3, is assigned
to i, but this value is not greater than 5 and the comparison
operation fails. At this point, the generator is resumed and pro-
duces the second position, 23, which is greater than 5. The com-
parison operation then succeeds and the value 23 is written.
Because of the inheritance of failure and the fact that com-
parison operations return the value of their right argument, this
expression can be written in the following more compact form:

write(5 < find("or",sentence))

Goal-directed evaluation is inherent in the expression evalua-
tion mechanism of Icon and can be used in arbitrarily complicated
situations. For example,

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find("or",sentence1) = find("and",sentence2)

succeeds if "or" occurs in sentence1 at the same position as and
occurs in sentence2.

A generator can be resumed repeatedly to produce all its
results by using the every-do control structure. An example is

every i := find("or",sentence)
do write(i)

which writes all the positions at which "or" occurs in sentence.
For the example above, these are 3, 23, and 33.

Generation is inherited like failure, and this expression can
be written more concisely by omitting the optional do clause:

every write(find("or",sentence))

There are several built-in generators in Icon. One of the most
frequently used of these is

i to j

which generates the integers from i to j. This generator can be
combined with every-do to formulate the traditional for-style
control structure:

every k := i to j do

Note that this expression can be written more compactly as

every f(i to j)

There are a number of other control structures related to gen-
eration. One is alternation,

expr1 | expr2

which generates the results of expr1 followed by the results of
expr2. Thus

every write(find("or",sentence1) | find("or",sentence2))

writes the positions of "or" in sentence1 followed by the posi-
tions of "or" in sentence2. Again, this sentence can be written
more compactly by using alternation in the second argument of

every write(find("or",sentence1 | sentence2))

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Another use of alternation is illustrated by

(i | j | k) = (0 | 1)

which succeeds if any of i, j, or k has the value 0 or 1.

Procedures can be used to add generators to Icon's built-in
repertoire. For example,

procedure findodd(s1,s2)
every i := find(s1,s2) do
if i % 2 = 1 then suspend i

is a procedure that generates the odd-valued positions at which
s1 occurs in s2. The suspend control structure returns a value
from the procedure, but leaves it in suspension so that it can be
resumed for another value. When the loop terminates, control
flows off the end of the procedure without producing another


For complicated operations, the bookkeeping involved in keep-
ing track of positions in strings becomes burdensome and error
prone. Icon has a string scanning facility that is manages posi-
tions automatically. Attention is focused on a current position
in a string as it is examined by a sequence of operations.

The string scanning operation has the form

s ? expr

where s is the subject string to be examined and expr is an
expression that performs the examination. A position in the sub-
ject, which starts at 1, is the focus of examination.

Matching functions change this position. One matching func-
tion, move(i), moves the position by i and produces the substring
of the subject between the previous and new positions. If the
position cannot be moved by the specified amount (because the
subject is not long enough), move(i) fails. A simple example is

line ? while write(move(2))

which writes successive two-character substrings of line, stop-
ping when there are no more characters.

Another matching function is tab(i), which sets the position
in the subject to i and also returns the substring of the subject
between the previous and new positions. For example,

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line ? if tab(10) then write(tab(0))

first sets the position in the subject to 10 and then to the end
of the subject, writing line[10:0]. Note that no value is writ-
ten if the subject is not long enough.

String analysis functions such as find() can be used in string
scanning. In this context, the string that they operate on is not
specified and is taken to be the subject. For example,

line ? while write(tab(find("or")))
do move(2)

writes all the substrings of line prior to occurrences of "or".
Note that find() produces a position, which is then used by tab
to change the position and produce the desired substring. The
move(2) skips the "or" that is found.

Another example of the use of string analysis functions in
scanning is

line ? while tab(upto(&letters)) do

which writes all the words in line.

As illustrated in the examples above, any expression may occur
in the scanning expression.


Icon supports several kinds of structures with different
organizations and access methods. Lists are linear structures
that can be accessed both by position and by stack and queue
functions. Sets are collections of arbitrary values with no
implied ordering. Tables provide an associative lookup mechanism.


While strings are sequences of characters, lists in Icon are
sequences of values of arbitrary types. Lists are created by
enclosing the lists of values in brackets. An example is

car1 := ["buick","skylark",1978,2450]

in which the list car1 has four values, two of which are strings
and two of which are integers. Note that the values in a list
need not all be of the same type. In fact, any kind of value can
occur in a list - even another list, as in

inventory := [car1,car2,car3,car4]

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Lists also can be created by

L := list(i,x)

which creates a list of i values, each of which has the value x.

The values in a list can be referenced by position much like
the characters in a string. Thus

car1[4] := 2400

changes the last value in car1 to 2400. A reference that is out
of the range of the list fails. For example,



The values in a list L are generated by !L. Thus

every write(!L)

writes all the values in L.

Lists can be manipulated like stacks and queues. The function
push(L,x) adds the value of x to the left end of the list L,
automatically increasing the size of L by one. Similarly, pop(L)
removes the leftmost value from L, automatically decreasing the
size of L by one, and produces the removed value.


A sets is a collection of values. An empty set is created by
set(). Alternatively, set(L) produces a set with the values in
the list L. For example,

S := set([1,"abc",[]])

assigns to S a set that contains the integer 1, the string "abc",
and an empty list.

The set operations of union, intersection, and difference are
provided. The function member(S,x) succeeds if x is a member of
the set S but fails otherwise. The function insert(S,x) adds x to
the set S, while delete(S,x) removes x from S. A value only can
occur once in a set, so insert(S,x) has no effect if x is already
in S. !S generates the members of S.

A simple example of the use of sets is given by the following
segment of code, which lists all the different words that appear
in the input file:

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words := set()
while line := read() do
line ? while tab(upto(&letters)) do
every write(!words)


Tables are sets of pairs each of which consists of a key and a
corresponding value. The key and its corresponding value may be
of any type, and the value for any key can be looked up automati-
cally. Thus, tables provide a form of associative access in con-
trast with the positional access to values in lists.

A table is created by an expression such as

symbols := table(0)

which assigns to symbols a table with the default value 0. The
default value is used for keys that are not assigned another
value. Subsequently, symbols can be referenced by any key, such

symbols["there"] := 1

which assigns the value 1 to the key "there" in symbols.

Tables grow automatically as new keys are added. For example,
the following program segment produces a table containing a count
of the words that appear in the input file:

words := table(0)
while line := read() do
line ? while tab(upto(&letters)) do
words[tab(many(&letters))] +:= 1

Here the default value for each word is 0, as given in table(0),
and +:= is an augmented assignment operation that increments the
values by one. There are augmented assignment operations for all
binary operators.

A list can be obtained from a table T by the function
sort(T,1). The form of the list depends on the value of i. For
example, if i is 3, the list contains alternate keys and their
corresponding values in T. For example,

wordlist := sort(words,3)
while write(pop(wordlist)," : ",pop(wordlist))

writes the words and their counts from words.

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The following program, which produces a concordance of the
words from an input file, illustrates typical Icon programming
techniques. Although not all the features in this program are
described in previous sections, the general idea should be clear.

global uses, lineno, width

procedure main(args)
width := 15 # width of word field
uses := table()
lineno := 0
every tabulate(words()) # tabulate all the citations
output() # print the citations

# Add line number to citations for word
procedure tabulate(word)
/uses[word] := table()
uses[word][lineno] := 1

# Generate words
procedure words()
while line := read() do {
lineno +:= 1
write(right(lineno,6)," ",line)
map(line) ? while tab(upto(&letters)) do {
s := tab(many(&letters))
if *s < 3 then next # skip short words
suspend s

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# Print the results
procedure output()
write() # blank line
uses := sort(uses,3) # sort citations
while word := get(uses) do {
line := ""
numbers := sort(get(uses),3)
while line ||:= get(numbers) || ", " do
get(numbers) # skip marking value

The program reads a line, writes it out with an identifying line
number, and processes every word in the line. Words less than
three characters long are considered to be ``noise'' and are dis-
carded. A table, uses, is keyed by the words. Every key has a
corresponding set of line numbers. The first time a word is
encountered, a new set is created for it. The line number is
inserted in any event. Since a value can be in a set only once,
duplicate line numbers are suppressed automatically.

After all the input has been read, the table of words is
sorted by key. Each corresponding set of line numbers is sorted
and the line numbers are appended to the line to be written.

For example, if the input file is

On the Future!-how it tells
Of the rapture that impells
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

the output is

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1 On the Future!-how it tells
2 Of the rapture that impells
3 To the swinging and the ringing
4 Of the bells, bells, bells-
5 Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
6 Bells, bells, bells-
7 To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

and 3, 7
bells 4, 5, 6, 7
chiming 7
future 1
how 1
impells 2
rapture 2
rhyming 7
ringing 3
swinging 3
tells 1
that 2
the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7


Icon was designed by the the author in collaboration with Dave
Hanson, Tim Korb, Cary Coutant, and Steve Wampler. Many other
persons have contributed to its development. The current imple-
mentation is based on the work of Cary Coutant and Steve Wampler
with recent contributions by Bill Mitchell, Janalee O'Bagy, Gregg
Townsend, and Ken Walker.


1. R. E. Griswold and M. T. Griswold, The ProIcon Programming
Language for the Apple Macintosh Computers, The Bright
Forest Company, Tucson, AZ, 1989.

2. R. E. Griswold and M. T. Griswold, The Icon Programming
Language, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1983.

3. R. E. Griswold, Version 8 of Icon, The Univ. of Arizona
Tech. Rep. 90-1, 1990.

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  3 Responses to “Category : Miscellaneous Language Source Code
Archive   : ICON8A.ZIP
Filename : TR90-6.DOC

  1. Very nice! Thank you for this wonderful archive. I wonder why I found it only now. Long live the BBS file archives!

  2. This is so awesome! 😀 I’d be cool if you could download an entire archive of this at once, though.

  3. But one thing that puzzles me is the “mtswslnkmcjklsdlsbdmMICROSOFT” string. There is an article about it here. It is definitely worth a read: