Jonathan Lam

(Recently) Software Engineer @ Google Silicon
(Also recently) EE/CS @ The Cooper Union


MATLAB's command vs. function syntax

On 4/19/2021, 1:44:39 PM

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I felt compelled to write about this because I couldn't figure this out on my own in the three years of using MATLAB.

In the MATLAB examples, you'll often see something along the lines of:

close all;

t = 1:10;
x = t.^2;
y = sin(t);

hold on;
plot(t, x);
plot(t, y);
hold off;
grid on;

(This particular example is nonsense -- don't run it.)

This has always left me wondering: what the heck is figure, or hold on, or grid on, in terms of the grammar of MATLAB? Are they functions? Special keywords? Some sort of functor-like object? It makes me insecure in the same way as Ruby or Groovy made me feel with optional parentheses -- but this was easily resolved by looking up something along the lines of "Ruby optional parentheses." A Google search for "MATLAB optional parentheses" doesn't even bring up the correct term for this phenomenon on the first search page (first ten results): "command syntax."

It turns out the above example is exactly equivalent to:


t = 1:10;
x = t.^2;
y = sin(t);

plot(t, x);
plot(t, y);

After looking at the transformed output, the basic rule should be fairly easy to tell. This "command syntax" is the same as a function call, where the arguments are space-delimited (rather than comma-delimited), and are passed in as character arrays.

It's important to note that the parameters are always converted to character arrays before the function invocation, so grid 'on' and grid on are equivalent. Another result of this is that command syntax doesn't work with named symbols: stem x will result in stem('x'), which is (probably) not what you intend to compute.

Another potential complication is that this can introduce grammatical ambiguities. The example stated in the documentation is ls ./a: if it is unknown whether ls is a function (in which this would mean the function call ls('./a')) or a variable (in which this would mean the elementwise division ls ./ a), then MATLAB has to do some guessing.

I'm not a fan of multiple syntax unless there's a good reason to allow it. Golang is a great example of constraining the syntax so that there's only one way to a given simple action, and it keeps the language wonderfully disambiguous and easy to learn, at the cost of a little concision. On the other hand, some languages like Javascript and Scala offer different syntaxes to separate imperative and functional approaches. I think the potential confusion in this MATLAB syntax is too high for the little convenience it offers (and same goes for many of Ruby-like optional syntaxes)1.

See the documentation page for more details.


1. If I've learned anything from the compilers course, it's that optional or multi-branching parts of a grammar are really annoying to deal with, thus further promoting the superiority of LISP's LL(1) grammar.

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