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Procedures are first class in Scheme, meaning that procedures can be assigned to variables, passed as arguments to other procedures, be returned from procedures, and be applied to arbitrary arguments. When they are created, procedures ``capture'' variables that are free in their bodies.gif Because of this ``closing over,'' procedures are also known as closures in Scheme.

Closures can be used for a wide variety of purposes. They can be used to represent objects in an object-oriented framework, to model actors, to represent partially computed solutions, etc.

Unnamed procedures are created with the lambda special form. The existence of unnamed procedures frees the programmer from making up names for simple helper functions. For example, many Scheme implementations have a sort procedure that accepts a list or vector of elements, and a comparison procedure that is used to establish an ordering on the elements. It is often useful to use an unnamed procedure as the comparison function:

> (sort '(1 6 3 4) (lambda (n1 n2) (< n1 n2)))
(1 3 4 6)
> (sort #("jim" "brent" "jason" "todd") 
        (lambda (s1 s2) (string<? s1 s2)))
#("brent" "jason" "jim" "todd")

Note that (1 2 3 4) is a list of numbers and #("jim" ...) is a vector of strings.

The next example shows the definition of a procedure make-counter that returns another procedure created with lambda that closes over the count variable.

> (define (make-counter)
    (let ((count 0))
      (lambda ()
        (set! count (+ count 1))
> (define c1 (make-counter))
> (c1)
> (c1)

Since no one else has access to count it becomes private to the closure and can be modified and used within its context. In this particular case, count is incremented and its value returned when the procedure returned from make-counter is called.

Brent Benson
Mon Sep 19 16:03:14 EDT 1994