(Recently) Software Engineer @ Google Silicon

(Also recently) EE/CS @ The Cooper Union

On 4/19/2021, 1:44:39 PM

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:

```
clc;
clear;
close all;
t = 1:10;
x = t.^2;
y = sin(t);
figure;
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:

```
clc();
clear();
close('all');
t = 1:10;
x = t.^2;
y = sin(t);
figure();
hold('on');
plot(t, x);
plot(t, y);
hold('off');
grid('on');
```

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.

© Copyright 2023 Jonathan Lam