# Programming language where every expression makes sense

Per recommendation I am reposting this from Stack Overflow.

Recently I have been thinking about following issue.

Consider the code for a standard "Hello world!" program:

main()
{
printf("Hello World");

}


Now almost any change in this code will make it completely useless, in fact almost every change will prevent the code from compiling. For example:

main(5
{
printf("Hello World");

}


Now to the actual question. Is there a programming language where every possible combination of symbols - that is, every expression - makes sense? I tried thinking about some sort of solution and came up with two:

1. Postfix with a limited number of variables. Essentially all variables are already defined before you write any code and you have to work just with them. Theoretically you can than perform an arbitrary number of operations by forming a chain of many simple programs, each one of them feeding results to others. Code could be written as a series of characters in postfix notation;

2. "Postfix" with a stack of variables. Variables are stored on a stack; every operation takes two variables from the top and puts the result in their place. The program ends when it reaches the last operation or variable.

Personally I hate both of these. Not only are they limited, they are inelegant. They are not even real solutions, more like workarounds, essentially "offshoring" some work to an external process.

Does anyone have any other idea how to solve this problem?

• Given a compiler $C$, create a new compiler $C'$ which works as follows: given source $s$, pass it to $C$. If $C$ is happy with it and produces an executable, then that is that, but if $C$ complains then output an executable which prints out You are a bimbo. The compiler $C'$ accepts every string as a valid program. Oct 22, 2015 at 14:28
• BF needs a matching [ ] commands (According to the Wiki Page). My thought was to look at the CPU opcodes. But even then, some patterns may yield a problem (e.g., if an opcode is 3 bits, but your program is only 2 bits.) Except for this issue of possibly padding with some extra 0 bits, one can think on any CPU with a complete opcode set that will satisfy the claim "every string is a valid program". Maybe meaningless, but still valid. Oct 22, 2015 at 19:19
• Let your hardware be a Z-80 CPU with 64k of RAM. Write a compiler that simply copies the ASCII-coded source code into the 64k memory (truncating or zero-padding if necessary). This compiler never gives a syntax error.
– user20095
Oct 22, 2015 at 21:56
• @RanG. A 'compiler' which processes any bitstream and fixes it up to be a valid bit of object code for the given processor would, I think, meet the OPs requirements. It likely wouldn't be terribly difficult even for systems with complex instruction sets like x86. I read a paper years ago about the validity of random bytes as x86 programs and it found that x86 was actually far more robust than the authors originally expected. Oct 23, 2015 at 4:42
• Without further conditions, this question is boring: Andrej's comment and David's answer give "trivial" answers. You have to nail down more precisely what you want.
– Raphael
Oct 23, 2015 at 8:48

Redcode, the assembly language behind codewars, was explicitly written to have very few halting instructions, because the code often gets mangled before it finally gives out, and the more opportunities it has to halt, the less interesting the game is.

You see very few such languages in practice because we don't just want a program to run, we want it to run in the way we expect. If you can make a typo and change the way the program ran, it must be acceptably close to the original expected behavior, or the programmers with seethe in frustration.

There is some precedence for such things by using natural languages rather than formal languages, but it's not what I would call a large field when you compare it to the use of formal languages. If you're interested in such programming languages, the natural language processing community is where I'd look.

Another field you could look at is genetics. There are remarkably few genetic sequences which are simply invalid. Plenty of them that aren't very effective at reproductions, but very few invalid ones.

• Genetics doesn't seem like a good example. In terms of valid or invalid, are you just talking about replication? Because of course every string will be a valid program for a language in which the only possible instruction is replicate this string. It's not really a meaningful programming language, though, as it's nowhere near Turing Complete.
– tel
Oct 22, 2015 at 18:34
• @tel: Cort is probably talking about protein synthesis via mRNA, rather than replication. Pretty much any genetic sequence can be transcribed and then put into the protein synthesis machinery: whether the protein that comes out is sufficiently stable that it hasn't already degraded by the time it's done being built, and if so whether it does anything useful to the organism, is another matter... Oct 23, 2015 at 10:06
• The genetic code isn't a code to reproduce itself. It's (generally) a code for a protein. Whether the protein is useful is often a different question. Of course it get's more interesting. Some bits of "code" in a genetic sequence end up being more like an instruction along the lines of "that code a few lines farther down - you should sometimes just ignore it." There's all sorts of cool "programs" cells and viruses have written fighting one another.
– Joel
Oct 23, 2015 at 10:06
• TECO is another real-world example.
– cjm
Oct 23, 2015 at 17:14
• @cjm wow. "An API is finished not when you have finished adding everything in, but when you have finished taking everything out." Unless you're TECO, then you're finished when you run out of characters to assign meaning to. Oct 23, 2015 at 18:13

The idea of a universal Turing machine uses just such a "programming language": a coding of Turing machines as natural numbers, represented for example in binary, such that every natural number denotes a Turing machine, i.e., program. In this language, every string of zeroes and ones is a program.

If you're worried that some numbers might code invalid programs, this can be side-stepped as follows. Imagine writing out all strings in the character set of your programming language (say, Java), in lexicographic order, starting with strings of length one, then two, then three, ... Then, make a new programming language by letting the number $n$ stand for the $n$th string in the list that's a valid Java program. In the new programming language, programs are just natural numbers and every natural number is a valid program.

I'm sure there are also esoteric programming languages where every string is a program; however, if you're just asking for a list of those, I think your question is off-topic here.

Check out Jot, a Turing-complete language based on combinatory logic, where every sequence of 0s and 1s (including an empty sequence) is a valid program.

• This is not a computer science answer.
– Raphael
Oct 23, 2015 at 8:46
• @Abdulrhman It's straight forward to define a bijection between binary strings and natural numbers. So you can encode any program as a natural number if you want to. Oct 23, 2015 at 10:10
• @Raphael Please elaborate, or suggest an improvement of the answer, I'll be happy to improve it if you provide grounds for your critique.
– Petr
Oct 23, 2015 at 16:39
• +1, i was about to give a similar answer for a fictitious programming language based on natural numbers but this is similar. AFAIK there is no programming (in practical use) which has this feature, but one can construct one using just numbers, lets say, where every combination has a meaning (act as operators as well as operands) This is the key Oct 29, 2015 at 8:04

Extending a programming language so that every expression makes sense is always possible, but not interesting. For example, you can just assign the meaning “do nothing” to any expression that the original language rejects.

Designing a programming language where every expression makes sense in a “you can execute it” way is not particularly useful. A good programming language is not just one where a monkey can type on a keyboard and write a valid program, but one where a programmer can easily write the program that they intended to write. Writing valid programs is not the difficult part of programming: the difficult part is writing a program that performs what was expected of it. Rejecting obviously incorrect programs is very helpful in this respect.

Another way to tackle this is to fully define the semantics of all possible inputs, including specifying what compile-time, load-time or run-time error should be generated for each input if any. That is, “abort the program after printing Syntax error at line 42 on the standard error stream” is part of the defined semantics of the language. Every expression “makes sense” in that it has a defined meaning. Is that a useful meaning? Maybe — after all, if the program is obviously wrong, rejecting it is useful.

One nice example is whitespace. In the language proper, any combination of operators are valid. The operators are space, tab and newline (specifically "\n"). All other characters are considered comments.

This answer, and indeed your question (as well as this entire web page) are examples of valid whitespace programs (though they may not do anything particularly interesting).

• I was just thinking about this after posting my brainfuck answer (yours is better since it's correct), but I'm wondering -- is an empty program still a program? (i.e. if those three characters are missing from the whole file stream). -- Like, if my car was missing all the things that made it a car, would it still be a car? Oct 23, 2015 at 8:26
• This is not a computer science answer. (Also, "every whitespace string" != "every string".)
– Raphael
Oct 23, 2015 at 8:47
• @Raphael: But every possible string (including ones that contain no whitespace) are valid whitespace programs - note that any character that's not a whitespace are simply comments in the whitespace programming language Oct 23, 2015 at 9:25
• @slebetman You were interpreting my brackets comment too literally. I was talking about unpaired loop tokens. Some similar problems in whitespace could be: Does returning without a preceding call work? (encoded as [LF][Tab][LF]) What happens if you pop an empty stack? What happens if you jump to an undefined label? What happens if you define duplicate labels? Oct 23, 2015 at 10:24

I would like to address the idea that many posters have given, that such a language would be "useless". Perhaps it would be useless for humans to write, manually, with the intention of solving some particular task. However, despite being a majority use-case for programming languages, that's certainly not the only use-case. Several use-cases come to mind where such a language is useful, and we can look to those fields for examples of such languages.

Firstly Cort Ammon's allusion to genetics is spot on: the program transformation in the question (substituting ) for 5) can be seen as a mutation. This kind of manipulation is common in the field of evolutionary computation; in particular genetic algorithms perform such transformations on strings, whilst genetic programming transforms programs. In either case, we usually want to assign meaning to every possibility, since that will produce the most compact search space.

Genetic algorithms rely on some sort of evaluation function for strings; if we use a programming language interpreter as our evaluation function, then we have a scenario where a programming language which assigns meaning to all possible strings is useful. In genetic programming, it is assumed that our evaluation function is a programming language interpreter, but we may choose various representations for our programs; for example, many systems operate on abstract syntax trees. If we choose strings as our representation, then we recover the same scenario as with genetic algorithms.

Another situation where we may want every string to be a valid program is when enumerating programs. This is related to the bijection mentioned by CodesInChaos, but we may prefer to operate on strings rather than Natural numbers for several reasons:

• If there is some structure in the language, eg. we can assign meaning to sub-strings, this may be lost when translating to Natural numbers. In this case we may prefer to use strings, in order to reason about and transform sub-strings locally, rather than representing the whole-program as a number. This is analogous to how we might prefer to use bitwise operations on an int rather than arithmetic expressions, when each bit has an individual meaning. This is basically a generalisation of the evolutionary scenario.
• We may want to generate the programs on demand; for example, we might begin executing a program which is completely undetermined, and only generate (eg. randomly) the individual instructions (eg. characters) when/if the instruction pointer reaches them. This is common in algorithmic information theory, where the program is a Turing machine tape, and the aim is to characterise the behaviour of randomly-generated programs. For example, we can formulate the Solomonoff prior over arbitrary strings as the probability that a universal Turing machine with a random tape will output that string.

In terms of example languages, many evolutionary computation systems are based on stack languages like the Push family. These tend to allow arbitrary streams of tokens (which we could represent as individual characters). Sometimes (like with BrainSlugs83's Brainfuck example) there are restrictions on balancing parentheses; however, we can relate this to self-delimiting programs, in that a string like [ may not be a valid program, but it is a valid program prefix. If we imagine a compiler/interpreter reading source code from stdin, then it won't reject a string like [, it will simply wait for more input before continuing.

Languages like Binary Combinatory Logic and Binary Lambda Calculus arose directly out of work on algorithmic information theory, eg. from http://tromp.github.io/cl/cl.html

This design of a minimalistic universal computer was motivated by my desire to come up with a concrete definition of Kolmogorov Complexity, which studies randomness of individual objects.

Real programming languages are to convey meaning to people, not computers. As plenty of fun texts with almost randomly shuffled letters floating around the 'ńet show, people can read gibberish and make sense out of it, even without overtly noticing the mangling. Just think back how hard it is to find typos and other such errors in texts.

A programming language like what you ask for would make people understand what they want to read, not what is written down. Debugging in languages where there are a limited set of legal statements, where there is not much ambiguity possible, is already hard enough. Good languages reduce possible interpretations due to e.g. transposed symbols or typos. Natural languages are also notorious for their redundancy, for the same sort of reason.

In the Brainfuck Programming Language, almost every possible binary expression can be interpreted as a program. -- That is, you could take a completely good program, type a bunch of garbage into it, and, it would still be compilable / interpretable without any issues.

(Edit: It turns out you have to match opening and closing square brackets, but otherwise, the above is true.)

It achieves this via these two simple methods:

1. All of the commands it understands are a single byte (In BF they are all single ASCII characters for example*).

2. All of the characters it does not understand, it discards as comments.

The programming language is Turing complete (meaning, it can do anything that any other language can do).

*: It turns out not all BF commands are a single ASCII byte -- i.e. brackets MUST be matched -- so as is, that language doesn't meet the first criteria there. -- But any language that does meet both criteria would fulfill what the OP is asking for.

• Not only does this not answer the question, it is not a computer science answer.
– Raphael
Oct 23, 2015 at 8:47
• You could redefine the language to handle those in some sensible way. e.g. by inserting enough openening brackets at the start of the program and closing brackets at the end of the program to make it balanced. It's straight forward to write an interpreter that handles programs as if those brackets existed without actually rewriting the program. Of course starting a brainfuck program with an opening bracket is rather useless, since it'll ignore everything up to the matching closing bracket. Oct 23, 2015 at 10:02
• @Raphael the OP's question was "Is there a programming language where every possible combination of symbols - that is, every expression - makes sense?" -- my answer is "yes, here's an example of one that comes close, and here is the theory behind it." -- other than laying out exact rules for one class of languages that would meet the OP's requirements, I'm not sure how much more room for science there is here. Can you give an example or link to a resource of what exactly you're hoping to see here? -- Thank you. Oct 29, 2015 at 2:48
• David and Gilles give computer science answers. They explore principles and don't just say, "language X does that (almost)". If you read their answers, you'll learn that answers of the latter form are rather boring, too. That's not your fault, but the OP's -- the question (as a computer science question) is boring; there's a false sense of complexity.
– Raphael
Oct 29, 2015 at 5:51
• One could easily "fix" BF so that any string would be accepted: you just pretend that there are enough] characters at the end of the source to match all unmatched [s, and enough [ at the beginning to match all unmatched ]. The semantics of [ and ] can easily be changed to make them equivalent to this. (e.g. if there is no matching ] then[ just halts execution if the byte at the data pointer is zero. ] just jumps to the start of the program in a similar situation.) The resulting language would be Turing complete and would accept any string. Sep 15, 2016 at 11:33