Next: , Up: Symbols Symbols as Discrete Data

Numbers and symbols are similar to the extent that they both lend themselves to eq? comparison. But symbols are more descriptive than numbers, because a symbol's name can be used directly to describe the concept for which that symbol stands.

For example, imagine that you need to represent some colours in a computer program. Using numbers, you would have to choose arbitrarily some mapping between numbers and colours, and then take care to use that mapping consistently:

     ;; 1=red, 2=green, 3=purple
     (if (eq? (colour-of car) 1)

You can make the mapping more explicit and the code more readable by defining constants:

     (define red 1)
     (define green 2)
     (define purple 3)
     (if (eq? (colour-of car) red)

But the simplest and clearest approach is not to use numbers at all, but symbols whose names specify the colours that they refer to:

     (if (eq? (colour-of car) 'red)

The descriptive advantages of symbols over numbers increase as the set of concepts that you want to describe grows. Suppose that a car object can have other properties as well, such as whether it has or uses:

Then a car's combined property set could be naturally represented and manipulated as a list of symbols:

     (properties-of car1)
     (red manual unleaded power-steering)
     (if (memq 'power-steering (properties-of car1))
         (display "Unfit people can drive this car.\n")
         (display "You'll need strong arms to drive this car!\n"))
     Unfit people can drive this car.

Remember, the fundamental property of symbols that we are relying on here is that an occurrence of 'red in one part of a program is an indistinguishable symbol from an occurrence of 'red in another part of a program; this means that symbols can usefully be compared using eq?. At the same time, symbols have naturally descriptive names. This combination of efficiency and descriptive power makes them ideal for use as discrete data.