Lambda Calculus Notes

The following are my brief notes on the basic of Lambda Calculus. They are primarily just a public posting of my personal notes, and are not meant to be a tutorial per-se. Though it is my hope that someone else besides me would find them to be of use. All of the sources I used to compile these notes are including in the bottom of the page.

Lambda Syntax

Expression (Mention)       E ::= X
Function (Application)        | 𝜆x.E     -- 𝜆 and . are the only keywords in the lambda calculus
Application (Application)     | E E

An expression can be surrounded with parenthesis for clarity.

(E) ::= E

Function Application (Left Association)

Function application associates from the left, and are applied as follows:
E1E2E3...En  => (...((E1E2)E3)...En)
                  n-4 more close parens, hence the use of ...

Functions (or Lambda Abstractions)

An function (or abstraction) is another name for an anonymous function. In the lambda calculus an abstraction has two parts, a head that contains a single parameter and ends before a period, and a body that contains an expression. 

𝜆𝑥 . 𝑥          𝜆𝑥 . 𝑥                   𝜆𝑥 . 𝑥            
^^                ^                          ^
Is the head       Bound the head             Is the body (tail)

Function Argument

A function argument is declared in the header, and must be immediately preceded by a 𝜆 .

 Is a function argument.

 Bound Variables

A bound variable is a variable in the function body that has the same identifier as the function argument.

   Is a bound variable

A variable x (x can have any name y, z, etc.) is bound if one of the two following cases holds:

  • If the x = x1 or x is bound to E, then x is bound in λ x1.E
  • If x is bound to E1 or E2, then x is bound in E1 E2
    • In this case “x is bound” means “there is an x bound”.

Free Variables

Any variable that appear in the function body that is not bound, is a free variables.
    Is a free variable
    ^      ^
    Bound  Free   -- Note: The x in the first expression isn't the same as the x in the second.

A variable x (x can have an name y, z, etc.) is free in an expression (E) if one of the three following cases holds:

  • If the free variables of x is x, then x is free
  • x !=x1 and x is free in E then x is free in (λ x1.E)
  • If x is free in E1 or E2 in, then x is free
    • In this case “x is free” means “there is an x free”.

Function Application

Functions can be applied to an expression. Function applications are evaluated by substituting the value for the argument. For example, in the case below x is substituted with y.
(𝜆x.x)y   -- The identity function applied to y. The parenthesis avoid ambiguity.

 Substitution Shorthand

The two common notations used to express the substitution process that occurs during function application.this is [y/x]  and [x:=y] which

The First Notation

The above can be read as, y will replace all occurrences of x in the expression E.

The following is an example of a use case.
(𝜆x.xa)y = [y/x]xa = ya
The Second Notation
[x:= E]

The above can be read as, all occurrences of x will be replaced with E.

The following is an example of a use case.

 Applying Substitutions

If the function 𝜆𝑥.E1 is applied to E2, then we substitute all free occurrences of x in E1 with E2.

Example 1

      ^     ^
(𝜆𝑥.(E1))   E2  -- x in E1 is free, but bound by 𝜆𝑥 in the function head, so it will be replaced with y.

In order to perform this substitution it is important to remember that the variables in function bodies can only be substitutes during application if they are bound only to that function. That is, if a function contains a function in its body, and the body function has a variable bound to it with the same name as the outer function, then an outer substitution must not change the inner functions variable.

Example 2
(𝜆x.x)(𝜆y.y)z   -- The second function is applied to the first
(𝜆y.y)z         -- z is applied to the function

 Example 3

(𝜆𝑥.𝜆𝑦.𝜆𝑧.𝑥𝑧(𝑦𝑧))(𝜆m.𝜆n.m)(𝜆p.p)  --  Function arguments are expanded to include the lambdas that bind them
        ^          ^
        E1         E2           --  E1 = (𝜆𝑥.𝜆𝑦.𝜆𝑧.𝑥𝑧(𝑦𝑧)) is then applied to E2 = (𝜆m.𝜆n.m)
                                --  [𝜆m.𝜆n.m / x] 𝜆𝑦.𝜆𝑧.𝑥𝑧(𝑦𝑧) = 𝜆𝑦.𝜆𝑧.(𝜆m.𝜆n.m)𝑧(𝑦𝑧)

          ^    ^
          E1   E2               -- E1 = (𝜆m.𝜆n.m) is then applied to  E2 = z.
                                -- [z / m] 𝜆n.m =  𝜆n.z = z
    ^      ^
    E1     E2                   -- E1 = (𝜆𝑦.𝜆𝑧.𝑧) is then applied to E2 = (𝜆p.p)
                                -- [𝜆p.p / y] 𝜆𝑧.𝑧 = 𝜆𝑧.𝑧