This page tries to explain how Scheme code is read and written.

Scheme code is read differently from many other languages. A schemer will not usually count every parenthesis or so, but will recognize the nesting and content of an expression by the form of the code. So it's important to adhere to some basic guidelines on how to write code to make it easy to read for everyone. Also, these guidelines are not arbitrary - there are reasons for all of them, and those are good reasons. Try to understand them before thinking of a style of your own, or copying a style you use in a different language.

An example of typical scheme code that is recognized by its form is the LET expression. Let's have a look at how it normally looks like:

 (let ((fnord 5) 
       (answer 42)) 
   (frobnicate fnord answer)) 

Here is how a schemer would read the above code. The schemer first notices the keyword LET, and therefore expects a special kind of structure. To the right of the LET is a list of bindings, all beneath each other. As soon as the indentation is farther to the left, the schemer knows the body starts, which uses those bindings. As soon as anything is indented to the first column again (also indicated by an empty line), the schemer knows the expression is over. No parenthesis counting is involved, only pattern matching on the form of the expression.

Rule 1: Parens tend to feel lonely.

Don't put closing (or opening) parens on a line of their own. They get lonely easily. Seriously, it's superfluous information and takes up lines for nothing. Therefore, the following code is good Scheme style:

 (define (fac n) 
   (if (zero? n) 
       (* n (fac (- n 1))))) 

Notice the closing parens at the end. A seasoned schemer would simply notice that the expression ends with a collection of parens, and that the next expression begins at column zero on another line. It is clear to the fluent reader where the end of the expression is based on formatting, without the need for counting parens.

Exception: There's only one well-known exception to this. When you write a list which probably will be extended later on with more entries, it's permissible to put all(!) closing parens on a line of their own:

 (define capital-cities 
   '((sweden . stockholm) 
     (usa . washington) 
     (germany . berlin) 

Notice how the closing parens are all on a line of their own, indented so to mark where the expression will continue. Remember, it's an exception - use this rarely.

Another example of this exception are special kinds of module system which enclose the body of a module into a MODULE expression. Since the MODULE expression is not really part of the source, but just a description about it, the users of such module systems often leave the last parenthesis on a line on its own:

 (module gauss mzscheme 
 (define (sum-up-to n) 
   (/ (* n (+ n 1)) 

Notice the closing parenthesis at the end. Also note that the DEFINE statement is not indented, as explained later - this is also due to the fact that the MODULE expression is some kind of meta-information about the source, and not direct part of it. Again, this is a very special case for these kinds of module systems.

Rule 2: Indent subexpressions equally.

Basic indentation in Scheme is to indent subexpressions equally. This is easiest seen in example:

 (list (foo) 

As you can see, the expressions (foo), (bar) and (baz) are all lined up under each other. They're all on the same syntactic level - all are arguments to LIST - so they should be lined up under each other.

When you open a new line directly after the first expression of a opening parenthesis, the following expressions belong on the column right of the parenthesis. So the code above could also be written as:


There are exceptions - important ones, too. Some expressions, mostly definition statements, get the body argument indented two spaces from the definition. You have seen the canonical example, DEFINE, in the first rule. LET is another example:

 (let ((pi 3.14) 
       (r 120)) 
   (* pi r r)) 

Notice how the product is indented two spaces in respect to the LET form above.

In general, Emacs' automatic indentation behavior does the right thing.

Rule 3: Closing parens close the line.

As soon as you write a closing parenthesis in Scheme code, it usually means that you add any further closing parenthesis, and then break the line and start a new one:

 (+ (* 2 3) 
    (/ 17 5)) 

Notice how the closing parenthesis in the product closes the line as well. This is a good rule of thumb to avoid too complex forms on a line which would be difficult to read.

Exception: Again, there's one well-known exception to this, and that is the COND form. Consider the following:

  ((good? x) (handle-good x)) 
  ((bad? x)  (handle-bad x)) 
  ((ugly? x) (handle-ugly x)) 
  (else      (handle-default x))) 

This special case should only be used if there's only one expression for each condition to be done, but then it can improve the readability quite a lot. This works only if the whole COND is uniform in this regard - as soon as even one of the subexpressions grows more complicated, open a new line after the condition, so the normal COND looks like this:

  ((good? x) 
   (handle-good x)) 
  ((bad? x) 
   (handle-bad (if (really-bad? x) 
                   (really-bad->bad x) 
  ((ugly? x) 
   (handle-ugly x)) 
   (handle-default x))) 

Rule 4: Break for one - break for all.

If you subexpressions onto multiple lines - for example due to Rule 3 - put every subexpression on a single line.

For example, you can write

 (+ 1 foo bar baz) 

but if one of those expressions gets more complicated, you may want it on a line of its own. If so, put all of the subexpressions on lines of their own:

 (+ 1 
    (foo 3.5 a) 

If an argument list is broken, a seasoned schemer will expect to find every argument on a line of its own, so putting more than one on any of the lines will likely cause the extra argument to be missed.

Rule 5: There are no rules.

All of these rules are guidelines. If you choose to break one, do so. It's your code. But be aware that you are breaking one, and that you have a good reason for doing so.

Further information

These are the most important conventions. There are other important ones, though.

When people are looking through your code, they are expecting to see certain typographical notations to tell them more about what kind of variable or procedure it is. For instance, type conversion uses old-type->new-type. This sub-syntax for variable naming is further described on variable-naming-convention

When writing your comments, try to follow good comment-style.

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