# What is functional programming?

I’ve already^{1} attempted to define functional programming (FP), but I wasn’t satified with it. Kris Jenkins did a much better job, and wrote a couple of very good posts on this:

But recently I’ve come across the definition of Graham Hutton in his book^{2}, “*Programming in Haskell*” (second edition, 2016).

And something clicked. I really like it since it’s *concise* and other things (like purity and immutability) are *consequences*. Here it is, slightly modified^{3}:

A

functionis a mapping between one or more arguments and a single result. It’sdefinedusing anequationthat gives a name to the arguments and a body thatspecifieshow the result is calculated in terms of the arguments.

For example:

`double x = x + x`

Where:

`double`

is the name of the function.`x`

is the single argument.`x + y`

is the specification of how the result is calculated in terms of the argument.

I’ve emphasized some keywords that highlights the central idea: *a function is defined by an equation that specifies (describe) how the result is calculated in terms of the arguments*. By this definition we can derive some important properties:

- A function can only be
**pure**: the result can only be calculated in terms of its arguments. There can be no*implicit input*(like user’s inputs, network packets, etc). Also, the only thing it can do is produce a result. So there cannot be*side-effects*(log messages, network calls, database queries, etc). - It’s
**declarative**: by itself it just describes how a result is produced. - Values are naturally
**immutable**: an equation can just describe how to produce a result in terms of some arguments.*There is no state to change*.

What other languages call functions^{4}, by this definition are really other things: *procedures* or methods.

So, what is FP? It’s just programming with functions :)

## Substitution model

Another interesting consequence of that definition, is the *substitution model*:

When a function is applied to some

values, the result is obtained by substituting those values in the body of the function in place of the argument names.

The result of this substitution and evaluation can sometimes be a single result, but often *a function is defined in terms of other functions*. In that case, we can continue to perform substitutions until we can *reduce* the whole program to a final result^{5}. In other words, every program che be represented by a single equation.

When programs are defined this way, they are easier (for both programs and humans) to *understand, reason about and manipulate*. And we are not talking about a type system^{6} yet!

Another way to look at purity that follows from this substitution model, is **referential transparency**. It has been defined by Rúnar Bjarnason as follows:

An expression

`e`

isreferentially transparentif for all programs`p`

, every occurrence of`e`

in`p`

can be replaced with the result of evaluating`e`

without changing the result of evaluating`p`

.A function

`f`

is pure if the expression`f(x)`

is referentially transparent for all referentially transparent`x`

.

This may seem obscure, pedantic and/or irrelevant, but it’s something profoundly practical and with deep ramifications.

BTW, this is also the reason why “mostly functional” programming doesn’t work.