Referential transparency (computer science)

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Referential transparency and referential opaqueness are properties of parts of computer programs. An expression is said to be referentially transparent if it can be replaced with its value without changing the program (in other words, yielding a program that has the same effects and output on the same input). The opposite term is referentially opaque.

While in mathematics all function applications are referentially transparent, in programming this is not always the case. The importance of referential transparency is that it allows the programmer and the compiler to reason about program behavior. This can help in proving correctness, simplifying an algorithm, assisting in modifying code without breaking it, or optimizing code by means of memoization, common subexpression elimination or parallelization.

Referential transparency is one of the principles of functional programming; only referentially transparent functions can be memoized (transformed into equivalent functions which cache results). Some programming languages provide means to guarantee referential transparency. Some functional programming languages enforce referential transparency for all functions.

As referential transparency requires the same results for a given set of inputs at any point in time, a referentially transparent expression is therefore deterministic by definition.


Examples and counterexamples

If all functions involved in the expression are pure functions, then the expression is referentially transparent. Also, some impure functions can be included in the expression if their values are discarded and their side effects are insignificant.

Take a function that takes no parameters and returns input from the keyboard. A call to this function might be GetInput(). The return value of GetInput() depends on what the user types in, so multiple calls to GetInput() with identical parameters (the empty list) may return different results. Therefore, GetInput() is neither determined nor referentially transparent.

A more subtle example is that of a function that uses a global variable (or a dynamically scoped variable, or a lexical closure) to help it compute its results. Since this variable is not passed as a parameter but can be altered, the results of subsequent calls to the function can differ even if the parameters are identical. (In pure functional programming, destructive assignment is not allowed; thus a function that uses global (or dynamically scoped[citation needed]) variables is still referentially transparent, since these variables cannot change.)

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