The Tiger language: an informal overview

Table of Contents

Tiger is a small typed programming language similar to Pascal. It was created by Andrew Appel for his compiler books. This variant of Tiger differs very slightly from the one described by Appel.

This document describes the language informally, mostly by example.

1 The language

A Tiger program is an expression that results in a value. This is a Tiger program:


This program computes a value of the built-in type int.

This is also a Tiger program:


This program computes a value of type unit, which is the "value-less" type. An expression of type unit is most often useful because of the side-effects it performs.

Larger Tiger programs are the result of composing expressions together.

1.1 Sequencing

If e1, e2, and e3 are arbitrary expressions then the expression (e1; e2; e3) evaluates to the value of e3 after first evaluating e1 and e2 and ignoring their values.

For example,


results in the value 10 and prints the string "Hi!\n" to the standard output device.

The "empty" sequence (()) is of type unit.

1.2 Variables

The Tiger expression


introduces a scope in which the declarations d1, d2, etc apply in the evaluation of the expression e.

There are three kinds of declarations: variables, types, and functions. We'll start with variables.

A variable declaration assigns the result of an expression to a name. The type of the expression can be explicitly marked, but most often it's optional.

For example,

  var x: int := 10
  var y := x + 1
  var z: string := "abc"
  x + y

1.3 Functions

This is a Tiger program with a simple function:

  function add(x: int, y: int): int = x + y
  add(2, 3)

Functions with a result-type of unit are called procedures and written as follows:

  function greet(name: string) = (print("Hi, "); print(name); print("!\n"))

A collection of functions may be grouped with the and keyword to make them mutally-recursive:

  function is_even(x: int): int = if x = 0 then 1 else is_odd(x - 1)
  and function is_odd(x: int): int = if x = 0 then 0 else is_even(x - 1)

Functions may be nested inside of other functions arbitrarily:

  function triple(s: string): string =
      var buffer := ""
      function append(s: string) = buffer := concat(buffer, s)

1.4 Types

There are two built-in types in Tiger: int and string.

There are three ways to define new types.

1.4.1 Arrays

An array type is defined in terms of the type of its elements. Two different array types with the same element type are considered to be distinct types.

For example,

  type numbers = array of int
  type scores = array of int
  var x := numbers[10] of 100
  var y := scores of [1, 2, 3]
  x[8] := 200;

Here, numbers and scores are distinct types that cannot be interchanged.

x is a value of type numbers that initially consists of 100 elements of the value 10.

y is a value of type scores that consists of three elements: 1, 2, 3.

The expression size e is an int value which is the declared size of the array-valued expression e.

1.4.2 Records

A record type is a value that consists of named sub-values called fields.

  type person = {name: string, age: int}
  var p1 := person {name="Joe", age=66}
  var p2: person := nil

As with arrays, every record type is distinct even if it has the same fields.

The special value nil can be assigned to record values. A variable can only be initially assigned the value nil if its type is explicitly marked (as with p2 here).

Records may be defined recursively:

  type list = {head: int, tail: list}
  list {head=10, tail=list {head=20, tail=list {head=30, tail=nil}}}

1.4.3 Aliases

A type alias defines a new name for an existing type. The two types are treated interchangably.

For example,

  type width = int
  var x: width := 10
  var y: int := 20
  x + y

1.4.4 Mutually-recursive types

Type declarations separated by the keyword and form a mutually-recursive group.

For example,

  type tree = {root: item, children: forest}
  and type forest = {head: tree, tail: forest}
  and type item = string

  function leaf(x: string): tree = tree {root=x, children=nil}
  function cons(x: tree, f: forest): forest = forest {head=x, tail=f}
  tree {root="Z", children=cons(leaf("A"), cons(leaf("B"), cons(leaf("C"), nil)))}

1.5 Values

1.5.1 Integers and strings

Integers in Tiger are always 64 bit with two's complement representation. The arithmetic operators +, -, *, and / behave as one would expect.

e1 & e2 is non-zero when both e1 and e2 are non-zero. e1 | e2 is non-zero when either e1 or e2 is non-zero. not(e) is non-zero when e is zero and zero when e is non-zero.

String literal like "Hi" support a limited number of "escape" characters, like "\n".

1.5.2 while-loops and break

A while loop evaluates an int-valued condition and if the result is non-zero, evaluates a ()-valued body.

  var x := 10
  while x <> 0 do
     x := x - 1)

The break keyword may be used to terminate a while loop early.

while 1 do break

1.5.3 for loops

for i := 1 to 10 do (print_int(i); print_line())

break may also be used inside a for loop to terminate early.

1.5.4 Comparisons

Two values of the same type may always be compared for equality (=) or inequality (<>).

Integers and strings are compared structurally: two expressions with the same logical value compare equal. As a consequence, two distinct string values with the same contents cannot be distinguished in Tiger programs. These values may also be compared according to the <, <=, >, and >= operators. Strings are compared lexicographically.

The equality of record and array values is defined according to physical identity.

1.5.5 Operator precedence

Operator Precedence Associativity
:= 1  
&, | 2  
=, <>, <, <=, >, >= 3  
+, - 4 left
*, / 5 left
-, size 6 right

2 Built-ins

Tiger has some functions built-in to the language.

  • chr(x: int): string – A single-character string consisting of the character with ASCII code x. The program aborts with an error if x is not a valid ASCII character code.
  • ord(s: string): int – The ASCII character code for the first character in the string s. If the string is empty, the result is -1.
  • concat(s1: string, s2: string): string – The concatenation of two strings into a new string.
  • len(s: string): int – The number of ASCII characters in a string.
  • substring(s: string, start: int, count: int): string – A new string consisting of count characters from s, beginning at the zero-based index start. The program aborts with an error if the substring is out of range of s.
  • print(s: string) – Print a string to the standard output device. If there's a system error, the program aborts.
  • print_int(x: int) – Print an integer in base-10 to the standard output device. If there's a system error, the program aborts.
  • print_line() – Print a newline character to the standard output device. If there's a system error, the program aborts.
  • flush() – Flush the standard output device, which is buffered.
  • read_char(): string – Read a single-character string from the standard input device. If no character is available, the result is the empty string. If there's a system error, the program aborts.
  • random(a: int, b: int): int – Compute a pseudo-random value in the range \(\left[a,b\right)\). If the range is invalid, the program aborts.
  • seed(x: int) – Seed the random generator.
  • error(message: string) – Abort the program with a user-defined message.

Author: Jesse Haber-Kucharsky

Created: 2022-06-12 Sun 15:35