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    Relational Semantics of The While Language

    Main Text


    If I have seen further it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants. Isaac Newton.

    (who is in fact quoting a medieval author refering to their reliance on the ancient philosophers like Aristotle!)


    Relational semantics is an extension of Denotational semantics where the denotation of a component of a language can be either a function (total, many to one) or a relation (any to any). Here I show that the result unifies the natural operational semantics with the denotational method giving simple, structural, natural and compositional semantics can be if one uses mathematical relations.

    Natural operational semantics is defined by giving a set of derivation rules and axioms for expressions written like this < S, s > -> s. The formula means that the statement S in state s terminates and leaves the system in state s'. The axioms and rules are not difficult to accept. But they are not easy to reason with and are not compositional. On the other hand denotational semantics gives a set of equations which define a set of partial functions D\[S\] that map s into s'. Denotational semantics uses from Dana Scott's work on complete partial orders and fixed points. For more see Nielsen and Nielsen 92

    In my approach Relational Semantics you present a set of equations that define a map from each statement S into a relationship between s and s'. The equations define the relationship associated with S in terms of the components of S. Thus we get a set of compositional equations for the natural semantics. Indeed the equations are expressed in an extended form of Backus-Naur-Form. To show this I define the syntax and semantics the classic "While" Language used in all theoretical work and textbooks of programming language semantics: [ grammar_of_While ]


    This form of semantics benefits from the well developed theory and calculus of binary relations. I exploit the isomorphism between relations and sets of pairs, and the fact that functions (partial or total) are special kinds of relations. The key concepts and notations are listed below: [ Calculus of Relations ]

    The set of relations on a set is a ready made domain or complete partial ordered set in the following sense. First, the set of binary relations on a set X is a partial order under inclusion(==>). The relations form a poset [ poset in math_21_Order ] Second, there is a unique bottom and top element: the bottom(greatest lower bound) of the poset is the null relation and the top(least upper bound) the anything-to-anything relation. Finally, given any relation, R on X, the Kleene sequence:

  1. (kleene): {}, Id, Id|R, Id|R|R;R, Id|R|R;R|R;R;R, ...
  2. generated by
  3. (generator): S'=Id | S;R
  4. has a least upper bound or limit of
  5. (limit): do(R). The above formulae use notations for the identity relation(Id), the union(|) and composition(;) of relations, and the reflexive and transitive closure(do) of relations: See [ Calculus of Relations ]

    Syntax and Semantics


    I use a generalized version of BNF to define Syntax and Semantics called XBNF. The syntax is defined in a form close to traditional EBNF. The semantics is defined by a grammar of functions and relations. The details are below: [ XBNF ]

    I use the symbol m to indicate denotations: m(C) indicates the "meaning of C". The symbol m indicates the function that maps C into m(C). For each syntactic category Syn, there is a set of meanings - a semantic domain Sem say, and m maps each element of Syn into and element of Sem:

  6. m::Syn->Sem.

    The semantic domain is determined by the Syntax of the argument to which m is applied: For example m("101") gives a number but m("while 1<x do x:=x-1") is a relationship between describing what can possibly happen. See [ CoProducts ] for the justification of this idea.

    Two items C1, C2 in the same syntactic category are equivalent if and only if m(C1) = m(C2). Items in different syntactic categories can not be equivalent.

    Abstract Syntax of While

  7. grammar_of_While::=

      After Neilsen & Neilsen 92.

    1. Num::syntax=Numbers, here binary is used, but could be in decimal..
    2. Var::syntax=A set of variables, here letters are used.
    3. Aexp::syntax=The arithmetic expressions giving numbers as values.
    4. Bexp::syntax=Boolean expressions, giving tt or ff as values
    5. Stm::syntax=Statements.
    6. Num::= "0" | "1" | Num "0" | Num "1".
    7. Aexp::= Num | Var | Aexp "*" Aexp | Aexp "+" Aexp | Aexp "-" Aexp.
    8. Bexp::= "true" | "false" | Aexp "=" Aexp | Aexp "<=" Aexp | "~" Bexp | Bexp "/\" Bexp.
    9. Stm::= Var ":=" Aexp | "skip" | Stm";" Stm | "if" Bexp "then" Stm "else" Stm | "while" Bexp "do" S.


    Example of a Program

    Suppose Var={"x", "y" , "z" } and F:="(z:=1; y:=x); while ( 1 <= y ) do ( z:=z*y; y:=y-1 ))", then F \in Stm.


    The following words are used for talking about the While language:
  8. assignment::= Var:=Aexp.
  9. sequence::= Stm; Stm.
  10. selection::= if Bexp then Stm else Stm.
  11. loop::=iteration,
  12. iteration::=while Bexp do S.

    Semantic Domains

    In the following I assume that we have the whole of abstract algebra available to us when we wish to define how a program behaves. The alternative is to spend time re-inventing wheels. The necessary algebras are listed in this section. They are used in the following section: [ Semantic Equations ]

    I assume that a number is in a ring with addition, subtraction, multiplication, zero, and unit - with the usual rules and assumptions:
  13. number::ring((+),(-),0,(*), (1) ), [ Rings in math_41_Two_Operators ]

    We normally assume some extra rules: Here I need there to exist a distinct number

  14. 2::number=1+1.

    This is so that I can formally define the meaning of a binary (base 2) Num as a distinct element of the ring number.

    Normally the numbers are taken to be the integers, however see Hoare 69, C.A.R. Hoare, An Axiomatic Basis for Computer Programming, Commun ACM V12 n10 Oct 69.

    In the While language without declarations, each identifier always identifies the same variable. I introduce a function that associates each symbol in Var with a corresponding name of a field in record structure (or labeled tuple). The set of all possible records is called the State:
  15. State::=${ x,y,z, ... :number. }. Here ${...v:S...} is a notation for the mathematical objects normally implemented as records or structures. Each of x, y, z, etc are functions in State->number. For details see [ State Space ]

    This is not the traditional approaches where a state is a function mapping elements of Var into current values, or where a state associates Vars with locations and locations with current values..

    Example of a State Space
    Suppose Var={"x", "y" , "z" } then State = ${ x,y,z::number }, and a typical state would be State(x=>1, y=>2, z=>3). The function m:Var->{x,y,z} then maps "x" into x, "y" into y, and "z" into y:
  16. m= ("x"+>x | "y"+>y | "z"+> z)
  17. = {("x", x) , ("y", y), ( "z", z) }.

    The semantic domain for Aexp is typically those of numbers - values in the target algebra. However because I start from assuming that we have an abstract algebra (not just an abstract data type) we can associate each Aexp in While to an expression in the algebra of number -- in the set expression(number). We can now use these expressions in predicates and get simpler rules defining the behavior of assignments.

    Change of State
    The heart of relational semantics is the natural model for change: a relation between two states, before and after:
  18. Change::=@(State,State). I distinguish (in case they are useful), two special sets of Change:
  19. Condition::@Change={ R:Change | for all x,y:State, x R y implies x = y }.
  20. Action::@Change={ R:Change | for all x:State, one y :State, x R y }.

    A relation R:Change is [ determinstic ] when for each s there is no more than one s' such that s R s'. A relation is [ total ] when for each s there is at least one s'. Functions are both total and deterministic. Partial functions are deterministic but not total. One to one relations are determinsistic, and so are there inverse or converse.

    Exercise: Show that all conditions are deterministic. Show that all Actions are deterministic.

    Exercise: Are all Actions functions? Are any Conditions functions?

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section Semantic Domains) <<Contents | Index>>

    Semantic Equations

    Semantic Equations for Num
    These are a simple introduction to the method, not a useful notation.

    For n:Num, m(n)::number.

  21. m("0")::= 0,
  22. m("1")::= 1, For n:Num, d:{"0", "1"}, m(n d) ::=2 * m(n) + m(d).

    Exercises on the Semantics of Num
    Exercise: Is m on Num a total function or a partial function? Is it a one-to-one function or many-to-one function? If many to one derive a congruence so that strings modulo the congruence are semantically equivalent.
    Semantics of Var
  23. m::Var->expression(number). In fact I assume that for each item in Var (say "x") there is a corresponding component in a state record that is used to express numbers. See below: [ State Space ] for a more typical model of such a state space.

    Example of Semantics of Var
    Suppose Var={"x", "y" , "z" } then State = ${ x,y,z::number }, and a typical state would be s=State(x=>1, y=>2, z=>3). The function m:Var->{x,y,z} then maps "x" into x, "y" into y, and "z" into y:
  24. m= ("x"+>x | "y"+>y | "z"+> z)
  25. = {("x", x) , ("y", y), ( "z", z) }. Hence, m("x") =x and s.m("x")=1 and s.m("y")=2 and s.m("z")=3.

    Semantics of Aexp
  26. m::Aexp->expression(number). Notice that Var and Num are subsets of Aexp so that their meaning is already defined above.
  27. For a1,a2:Aexp, m(a1 "+" a2)::= m(a1) + m(a2),
  28. For a1,a2:Aexp, m(a1 "*" a2)::= m(a1) * m(a2),
  29. For a1,a2:Aexp, m(a1 "-" a2)::= m(a1) - m(a2).
    Example of Semantics of Aexp
    Suppose Var={"x", "y" , "z" } then State = ${ x,y,z::number }, and a typical state would be s=State(x=>1, y=>2, z=>3). The function m:Var->{x,y,z} then maps "x" into x, "y" into y, and "z" into y:
  30. m= ("x"+>x | "y"+>y | "z"+> z)
  31. = {("x", x) , ("y", y), ( "z", z) }.

    Hence, m("x") =x and s.m("x")=1 and s.m("y")=2 and s.m("z")=3.

  32. :. m("x+y") = m("x") + m("y") = x+y.

    However, m("x+y") is not 3 but x+y. In state s=(x=>1, y=>2, z=>3), though, x+y does have the value 3. By mapping strings in While into mathematical expressions (rather than values) we can use the algebra of the expressions to reason about Aexps.

    Exercises on Semantics of Aexp
    Exercise: Is m on Aexp a total function or a partial function? Is it a one-to-one function or many-to-one function? If it is one to one prove that it, otherwise find a equivalence relation so that semantically equivalent Aexp's are equivalent.

    Exercise: How do you prove the following Aexp are equivalent?

  33. "(x+y)+z" equivalent "x+(y+x)" Write down half a dozen similar properties of the arithmetic expressions of While that must follow from this semantics and the definition of a ring.

    Exercise: Do these semantics force the implementor to provide infinite precision arithmetic or not? Prove your claim.

    Semantics of Bexp
  34. m::Bexp->Condition. A Condition is a relation on states that either fails or does nothing, see: [ Conditions ]
  35. m("true")::=Id,
  36. m("false")::={},
  37. For b1:Bexp, m("~" b1)::= no m(b1).
  38. For b1,b2,b:Bexp, o:pre(op), m(b1 o b2)::=m(b1) op(o) m(b2).

    The Boolean operations (and,or) on predicates define conditions that are related to the set theoretic operators of intersection and union:

  39. { s || P and Q} = {s||P} & {s||Q}
  40. and so to the [ Calculus of Relations ]

    I define m:(Aexp Op Aexp)->Condition in terms of two auxiliary functions:

  41. op::string->infix(Sets)= ("and"+>(and) | "or"+>(or) | ...) ,
  42. rel::string->@(number, number)=("<" +> (<) | "=" +> (=) | ...). that relate strings (in the syntactic domain) to operations in the semantic domains.
  43. For a1,a2:Aexp, R:pre(rel), m(a1 R a2)::=( m(a1) rel(R) m(a2)).

    This definition constructs a predicate on the state, and this predicate defines the set of states that satisfy the relationship. The underlying formalism is described below: [ Dynamic Predicates ]

    Example of Semantics of Bexp
    Suppose Var={"x", "y" , "z" } then State = ${ x,y,z::number }, and a typical state would be s=State(x=>1, y=>2, z=>3). The function m:Var->{x,y,z} then maps "x" into x, "y" into y, and "z" into y:
  44. m= ("x"+>x | "y"+>y | "z"+> z)
  45. = {("x", x) , ("y", y), ( "z", z) }.
  46. :.
  47. m("x>y /\ z<2") = (m("x") >m("y")) and (m("z") < m("2") )
  48. = ( x>y and z <2 ).

    So "x>y /\ z<2" means the relation that does not change states and where (x>y and x<2). So

  49. m("x>y /\ z<2")= rel[s,s']( s=s' and s.x>y.x and s.z<2)
  50. = Id & {(s,s')|| s.x>s.y} & {(s,s')|| s.z<2}.

    Exercises on Semantics of Bexp
    Exercise: Is m on Bexp a total function or a partial function? Is it a one-to-one function or many-to-one function? If one to one prove that it, otherwise find a equivalence relation so that semantically equivalent Aexp's are equivalent.

    Exercise: Show that for all b, m(b) is a Condition. Prove that it is there deterministic but not total. For which Bexp is m(b) a function? and which function is it?

    Relational Semantics of Stm
    The following relational semantics of While is a natural and denotational semantics. The meaning of a statement is a relation that is defined to hold between s and s' precisely when the statement terminates in state s' when started in s'. It seems possible to develop a set of relational equations that define the structural operational semantics of a statement - where the relation holds between successive states as the program executes. To find out more see [ Structural Operational Semantics ] below.

  51. For S:Stm, m(S)::Change=Statement S terminates in state (2nd) if started in state (1st).
  52. For x:Var, a:Aexp, m(x ":=" a )::=(m(x)'=m(a)), where x'=e is defined below: [ Dynamic Predicates ]

  53. m("skip")::=Id.

  54. For S1,S2:Stm, m(S1";" S2)::= m(S1); m(S2).

  55. For b:Bexp, S1,S2:Stm, m("if" b "then" S1 "else" S2)::= m(b); m(S1) | no m(b); m(S2).

  56. For b:Bexp, S:Stm, m("while" b "do" S)::= do( m(b); m(S) ); no(m("b")).

    Notation: Id, ;, |, do, no, ;, etc. are from the calculus of Relations, see [ Calculus of Relations ]

    Note. These form a compositional definition: the meaning of each statement is expressed in terms of the meanings of its components in the syntax. In other words the definition is driven by the structure of the data.

    Example of Semantics of a Program
    When Var={"x", "y" , "z" } and F="(z:=1; y:=x); while ( y > 1 ) do ( z:=z*y; y:=y-1 ))". So
  57. |- State::= ${x,y,z::number.}.
  58. |-m(F) = ( (z'=1; y'=x); do(y>1; (z'=z*y; y'=y-1)); no(y>1))).

    Exercises on the Relational Semantics of Aexp
    Exercise: Is m on Stm a total function or a partial function? Is it a one-to-one function or many-to-one function? If many to one derive a congruence so that modulus the congruence semantically equivalent, , otherwise prove that the function is one-one.

    Exercise: Show that all assignments are Actions.

    We say that a statement S is deterministic if m(S) is a deterministic relation.

    Exercise: Show that x:=a and skip are deterministic. Show that if the components of a sequence, selection, or iteration are deterministic then so are the compound statement.

    Exercise: From the previous exercise, can we deduce that all While programs are deterministic? Can you explain your answer? Can you present a formal proof of your answer?

    Exercise(For Mathematicians) : In how many different senses is m a homomorphism between two systems? Is it a isomorphism, monomorphism, homeomorphism, etc.

    Exercise(Advanced) : Suppose one started by defining m as function mapping some strings into a family of disjoint meanings, as above. Further suppose that every partial definition is compositional. Show that a context free grammar can be deconstructed from the functions. Show that m is total on the language of your deconstructed grammar.

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section Semantic Equations) <<Contents | Index>>

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section Syntax and Semantics) <<Contents | Index>>


    In the above collection of semantic equations m is nearly always distributed to all the parts of the construct being assigned a meaning. A few examples would show that every construct in While is mapped directly into a simple expression in the calculus of relations.

    I conclude that we could use the calculus of relations as our ultimate semantic metalanguage. I claim that, relations even form an uniquely interesting and powerful programming language of their own. They are interesting because they are the only piece of existing mathematics is already a programming language. They are powerful because they can express concurrency and non-determinism.

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section Main Text) <<Contents | Index>>



    EBNF uses
  59. term::=expression.

    The general XBNF form is For D, term(p)::T=e.

    where D declares the names and types of the parameters p (if any) and T is the type. In theory however this is the same as term:: P->T = fun[D](e).

    The notation term::T associates a type with a term.

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section XBNF) <<Contents | Index>>

    Calculus of Relations

  60. Relations on a Set X::= @(X,X).

  61. Intension::= rel[x,y:X]( W(x,y) ), rel[x,y:X]( W(x,y) ) ::= { (x,y): X><X | W(x,y) }.
  62. Identity::= (Id = rel[x,y](x=y)).
  63. Null relation::= {}.
  64. Universal relation::= X><X.
  65. Conditions::= subsets of the Id relation.
  66. Union::= R | S.
  67. Intersection::= R & S.

  68. Composition::= R; S.

  69. Complement::= ~R.
  70. Opposite::=no(R) ::= rel[ x, y ]( for no z(x R z) and x=y).
  71. Condition::=A ::= rel[ x, y ]( x \in A and x=y), -- A is a Set X.
  72. Reflexive_Transitive_Closure::=do(R).

    The defining property of do(R) is a second order property that x do(R) y iff all invariant(or closed) sets under R that contain x also contain y. Whitehead & Russell Circa 1930

    For more information see: [ logic_41_HomogenRelations.html ]

    (deterministic): A relation R is deterministic if for all x, there is no more than one y such that x R y.
    (total): A relation R is total if for all x, there is at least one y such that x R y.

    For more information on the calculus of relations see [ Relations in math_10_STANDARD ]

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section Calculus of Relations) <<Contents | Index>>

    State Space

    The formal model usually presented of a variable is a function s:Var->Val for some set of values. Thus if v:Var then s(v) \in Val. I assume that there is a labeled Cartesian Product or tuple where each v:Var has an associated label l and if 's:State' then s.l \in Val indicates the value of v in state s. I claim that this is effectively a simple change of notation.

    The notation is described informally in [ intro_records.html ]

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section State Space) <<Contents | Index>>

    Dynamic Predicates

    A dynamic predicate is a predicate that contains constants and variables (labels) from the state space, where a predicate is a formula that is either true or false. One special notation is added: if a variable appears with a prime then that variable is said to be dynamic in that predicate and may change. Other variable in the predicate are said to be static and may not change. The occurrences of dynamic variables without a prime indicate the old values of the variable and the occurrences with a prime indicate the new values - values in the new state. For more see [ math_14_Dynamics.html ]

    Conditions as Static Predicates

    When a predicate has no dynamic variables then it expresses a condition - a set of states that will not change, but can only be satisfied by some states and not others (in general). For example x+y>0 is satisfied by the set of states { s || s.x+s.y >0} and defines the relationship { s,s' || s=s' and s.x+s.y >0}.


    The formula
  73. (sample assignment): x'= e is an example of a dynamic predicate that describes a change in variable x with other variables being held constant. The new value of x is the value of the expression e using the old value of x. Or to be more precise: e is evaluated using values from the old state, and then the x component of the state is changed to the value of e.

    General Form

    This section goes beyond the goal of expressing the semantics of a simple programming language.

    It is worth developing a theory of general dynamic predicates because they form a precise yet concise way of documenting and specifying code.

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section Dynamic Predicates) <<Contents | Index>>


    In this document I define a function m piecemeal by giving a series of definitions each defined on a subset of the set of strings of characters. In traditional semantics a different symbol would be used for each case. Each piece of m however can have different type of codomain. For example, if the strings are divided into As and Bs then m:A->X and m:B->Y. To justify mathematically the abuse of notation of having a single symbol I have to argue that m is a well defined function from a domain to a (single) codomain. We know from Ada and C++ that a function can be overloaded unambiguously in this way... as long as A and B do not overlap. Since A and B are both sets of strings it is clear that there is a common domain A|B. However the two images of these sets m(A), m(B) are different types of things - numbers vs sets of states for example. To maintain strong typing and allow the use of single symbol I suppose that for any pair of types T1 and T2 there exists a different type called the coproduct that a the theoretical model of the discriminated union (Ada), union(Algol 68 and C), or tagged record(Pascal). The theory of such coproducts is part of category theory. [ math_25_Categories.html ]

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section CoProducts) <<Contents | Index>>

    Structural Operational Semantics

    Here I explore a less abstract and more detailed form of semantics. I want to see how a relation between successive states can be defined using the calculus of relations.

    Here a change is expressed in terms of a change in two components: the statement being executed and the state in which the execution starts. This is called a configuration and is written: (S,s)

  74. Configuration::=(Stm |{done}) >< State,
  75. Transition::=@(Configuration,Configuration).

    The configurations of form ( done, s) are called terminal states and indicate that the program has terminated:

  76. Terminal::={done}><State.

    In texts (done, s) is often written s.

  77. For S:Stm, Next::Transition=In the first step of statement S, (1st) becomes (2nd). For x:Var, a:Aexp, s:State, (x ":=" a, s ) Next (done, m(x)'=m(a)),

    where x'=e is defined above: [ Dynamic Predicates ]

  78. For s:state, ("skip", s) Next (done, s).

    For S1,S2,S3:Stm, s1,s2:State, if (S1, s1) Next (S3, s2) then (S1 ";" S2, s1) Next (S3 ";" S2, s2).

    For b:Bexp, S1,S2:Stm, s1,s2:State, if m(b)=Id then ("if" b "then" S1 "else" S2, s1) Next (S1, s1). For b:Bexp, S1,S2:Stm, s1,s2:State, if m(b)={} then ("if" b "then" S1 "else" S2, s1) Next (S2, s1).

    For b:Bexp, S:Stm, s:State, ("while" b "do" S, s) Next ("if" b "then" "(" S";" "while" b "do" S")" "else" "skip", s).

    Exercise on Structural Operational Semantics

    Prove that for all S:Stm, s1,s2:State, (S,s1) do(Next) (done, s2) iff s1 m(S) s2.

    Note: This is true for While, but is not true for some extensions of While.

    It might be wondered why it is worth have a more complex and less abstract way of stating the semantics of a programming language. One reason is that Natural semantics can not express the idea of a single step in a program and so can not define the idea of interleaving the steps from two parallel programs.

    An interesting question for further research is to find a set of compositional equations for the Next relation to replace the derivation rules for ";", "if", and "while".

  79. |-For all S, Next==> (1st'=1st";"S); Next; (1st'=1st";"S).

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section Structural Operational Semantics) <<Contents | Index>>

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section Footnotes) <<Contents | Index>>

    . . . . . . . . . ( end of section Relational Semantics of The While Language) <<Contents | Index>>

Formulae and Definitions in Alphabetical Order