TIP 157: Argument Expansion with Leading {expand}

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by Aug 21.
Author:		Kevin B. Kenny <kennykb@acm.org>
Author:		Peter Spjuth <peter.spjuth@space.se>
Author:		Donal K. Fellows <donal.k.fellows@man.ac.uk>
Author:		Don Porter <dgp@users.sf.net>
State:		Final
Type:		Project
Vote:		Done
Created:	20-Sep-2003
Obsoletes:	144
Tcl-Version:	8.5


This TIP proposes to add syntax in Tcl to perform argument expansion in a safe and efficient manner.


Many commands take a variable number of arguments and often you find yourself with those arguments in a list. This list must then be expanded into individual arguments to the command. This is currently done with eval:

eval destroy [winfo children .]

This is a bit obscure and also very error prone when the command becomes more complex. It is also inefficient and not object safe, why something specialised in doing this would be better.


See also [103] and [144]. Please also see a summary of a poll of TCLCORE readers taken after [103] was rejected. http://wiki.tcl.tk/9462


For examples three statements are used. This is the eval version:

eval destroy [winfo children .]
eval button .b $stdargs -text \$mytext -bd $border
eval exec \$prog $opts1 [getMoreopts] \$file1 \$file2

The eval version would be even more complex if the lists that are to be expanded are not known to be pure. To be really safe the last would be:

eval exec \$prog [lrange $opts1 0 end] [lrange [getMoreopts] 0 end] \$file1 \$file2

With the proposed syntax they become:

destroy {expand}[winfo children .]
button .b {expand}$stdargs -text $mytext -bd $border
exec $prog {expand}$opts1 {expand}[getMoreopts] $file1 $file2

The advantage of using syntax for this is that the command do not get obscured. In the examples destroy/button/exec is the most important information on each line and it gets to be first on the line.


If a word starts with the string, "{expand}", and is followed by a non whitespace character it signifies argument expansion. The leading "{expand}" is removed and the rest of the word is parsed and substituted as any other word. The character after the removed "{expand}" counts as a first character in the rules about open braces and double quotes. After substitution, the word is then parsed as a list (as if with Tcl_SplitList() or Tcl_GetListFromObj) and each element of the list is added to the command being built as a separate word with no further parsing.

Before executing the command any word to be expanded is treated as a list where each element becomes one separate argument to the command.

Note 1: A word must begin with {expand} to trigger expansion which means that words like these are not expanded:

cmd "{expand}$temp" \{expand}[something]

Note 2: Expansion is typically most useful with words like:

cmd {expand}$var {expand}[somecmd $arg] {expand}$arr([cmd $arg])

But things like this are also legal:

cmd {expand}word {expand}$x,$y {expand}[foo]xy[apa] {expand}{apa bepa}

Motivating Examples

Many of the examples that make this TIP the way it is come from either advanced usage of commands like [exec] or from Tk.

Consider the case where you have lists of options for several external commands that are to be executed together in a pipeline. With expansion it becomes easy to execute such things:

exec prog1 {expand}$optlist1 | prog2 {expand}$optlist2 | prog3 -staticOption

As you can see, without expansion building this pipeline would be quite a complex task and would make what is going on much more obscure.

With Tk, there are many examples. Here's one from the creation of lines on a canvas:

set id [$canv create polygon {expand}$coords -fill {} \
                             {expand}$opts -tags {foo bar}]

In this case, there is a fair amount of material before the coordinate list, some static options (which act like defaults) between the coords list and the user-supplied options list, and some further options (which act like overrides for semantically-significant bits) after that which need careful space handling. This also demonstrates why having a command with a list of expanding indices is not a good idea, since it is plain to see that ongoing maintenance might place extra non-expanding arguments in various places through the command.

Another example demonstrates why having commands as well as variables expanded is a good idea:

namespace eval my {
   variable defaults {
      -bg white
      -fg black
   proc entry {path args} {
      variable defaults
      ::entry $path {expand}$defaults \
                    {expand}[platformOpts $::tcl_platform(platform)] \

This illustrates why just plain [concat] doesn't work, demonstrates that having a way to do commands can be very useful, and also shows that having multiple expansion operations in a row is potentially useful.

A final example (deleting discontiguous ranges of characters with a particular tag) shows that this is not just useful in Tk for when creating widgets and canvas items:

$text delete {expand}[$text tag ranges $tagToCleanUp]

In this case, the obvious alternative:

foreach {s e} [$text tag ranges $theTag] { $text delete $s $e }

is wrong, because the positions of the tags move with each deletion (by contrast, the [$text delete] operation is careful in this regard.)

Reference Implementation

Not done yet.

Summary of Discussions

This TIP has had a long history; a great many alternatives have been proposed - two ([103] and [144]) formally.

In a poll of TCT members conducted by one of the authors, this version appeared to be the most preferred. Much of the discussion is summarized at http://aspn.activestate.com/ASPN/Mail/Message/tcl-core/1805934 and http://aspn.activestate.com/ASPN/Mail/Message/tcl-core/1791605 (much of the mailing list traffic between those two messages is devoted to discussion of this issue.)

An open issue remains as to which Tcl release is suitable for the implementation of this feature. The question will be resolved by voting on this TIP twice: once for 8.5 and once for 9.0


This document has been placed in the public domain.