The usual way of calling a method in TADS is to write an expression like "", where x is an object and foo is a method. This invokes the definition of foo that applies to the specific object x - foo can have separate definitions for several objects, and the system figures out which one to call at run-time for the given object x.

Even if x is a variable whose value changes each time the expression is evaluated, the system still calls the right version of foo, because the determination is made on the fly at the moment the call is made. The compiler doesn't know in advance which version of x will be called - this decision isn't made until the program is actually running.

This ability to figure out which version of a method to call based on a value that's not known until run-time is known as "polymorphism," and it's one of the cornerstones of object-oriented programming. In traditional OOP, polymorphism applies to one value at a time - the version of foo to be invoked depends only on the value of x, even if the method foo() has several other argument values. This is reflected in the very syntax of the method call in TADS, as in many other OO languages, in that "x" occupies a special place in the expression - before the dot - where there's only room for one value.

As OO programming has evolved, though, people have come to realize that "single dispatch" isn't the last word on polymorphism. In many cases, it's useful to be able to write methods that vary according to particular combinations of object types. This is called "multiple dispatch": a call to a method is dispatched to the appropriate definition based on the run-time types of multiple values, not just the one special target-object value.

It's easy to come up with examples of general OO programming problems where multiple dispatch is useful. A common example is calculating the intersection of two shape objects in a graphics program. Implementing this method efficiently requires custom versions for different pairs of shapes: rectangle-rectangle and rectangle-circle would need different methods, for instance, as would line-circle and line-rectangle. In an IF context, multiple dispatch situations come up all the time, thanks to commands that operate on multiple objects. For instance, you might want to write one PutIn method that applies to a Thing plus a Container, and a separate method for Liquid plus Vessel. You might even want to take into account the actor performing the command, making for a three-object selector: a Knight attacking a Monster with a Sword might invoke one attackWith() routine, while a Person attacking a Rodent with a Stick might do something rather different.

Multiple dispatch vs. "Visitor"

If you're an experienced OO programmer, you might protest at this point that traditional, single-dispatch OO has ways of dealing with this sort of problem, such as the "visitor" pattern. You might ask why you'd need multiple dispatch at a language level when perfectly good design patterns can accomplish the same ends. The answer is that the visitor pattern and its ilk tend to be cumbersome and labor-intensive to set up, whereas native multiple dispatch often makes the same tasks almost trivial. It really amounts to the same reason that OOP became popular in the first place: you could achieve the same effect with a clever combination of simpler language features, but native language support makes the technique easier to apply, more concise to write, and less prone to error.

Multiple dispatch vs. overloading

If you've programmed in a statically-typed OO language like C++ or Java, you've probably encountered something known as function overloading. Superficially, this looks almost exactly like multiple dispatch - it's a way of defining several versions of the same function that are distinguished by the types of their parameters. When you call a function that has several versions, the compiler figures out which version to call by matching the actual argument types to the declared parameter types, and picking the best fit.

Static overloading looks a lot like multiple dispatch, but it's important to understand the big difference between the two. Static overloading is just that - static. That means the decision about which version of the function to call is made by the compiler, not by the running program. In contrast, with multiple dispatch, the decision happens dynamically at run-time.

Consider the following C++ code:

#include <stdio.h>

class A { };
class B: public A { };

void foo(A *a) { printf("This is foo(A*)\n"); }
void foo(B *b) { printf("This is foo(B*)\n"); }

void main()
    A *a = new B();

If you run this code, you'll find that the function invoked is foo(A*). At first glance, this might look wrong - the object we're passing to foo() is of class B, not of class A, so shouldn't foo(B*) be invoked? But foo(A*) actually is the right result. The reason is that the compiler has to decide at compile-time which foo() to call, and to do this it can only consider the declared type of the parameter. In this case, "a" happens to contain an object of class B, but "a" is declared as holding an object of class A. It's legal for it to contain a B instead, since B is a subclass of A, but the compiler can't assume anything beyond the declared type. So, the compiler has to decide to call to foo(A*), at which point it's set in stone - no matter what "a" happens to contain at run-time, the decision about which foo() to call has already been made.

That's how it would work in C++ or Java. In a multiple dispatch system, in contrast, the system would wait until the program was running to make the final decision. That way, the proper version of foo() would be called based on the actual argument value.

Multiple dispatch in TADS

As of version 3.0.17, TADS provides multiple dispatch directly in the language. Multiple dispatch is handled via something called "multi-methods." A multi-method is similar in syntax to an ordinary, stand-alone function (the kind that's defined separately from any objects), but unlike an ordinary function, a multi-method has typed parameters - "typed" in the sense of having specific datatypes associated with the parameters. Also unlike a regular function, a multi-method can have more than one definition for the same function name. When you call the function, the system figures out which version to invoke by matching the actual argument values to the definition with the corresponding parameter types.

The new multi-method feature does not involve an T3 VM changes, so using multi-methods in your program won't force users to install an updated VM version. The multi-method system is implemented entirely in the compiler and in the system library.

Defining a multi-method

A multi-method definition looks similar to an ordinary function definition. The difference is that one or more of the parameters include type specifications. The type name is simply the name of a class, and it's written just before the parameter's variable name. The formal syntax is:

funcName ( [ type1 ]  param1 [ , ... ]  ) [ multimethod ] 

Each type specification (type1 and so on) is the name of a class. You can use intrinsic class names to match special types: String for strings, List for list, and so on.

Each parameter name (param1, etc.) is simply a local variable name, just like in a regular function.

Note that the type names are optional - if you omit the type name from a parameter, it simply means that the parameter will accept any type of value, including values like integers, true, nil, etc. You can freely mix typed and untyped parameters, so you can have some parameters that only accept specific types and others that accept any value.

The types are optional, but if you don't use any types in the definition, the compiler assumes you're defining an ordinary function rather than a multi-method. That's a problem if you really do want the function to be a multi-method, because you can't define the same name as both a multi-method and an ordinary function - a given name has to be exclusively one or the other. In other words, this is illegal:

foo(Thing x) { ... }
foo(x) { ... }

This is illegal because you've defined foo() as both a multi-method (the first line) and as an ordinary function (the second line).

This is where the multimethod qualifier shown in the syntax diagram comes in. This qualifier tells the compiler that, whatever it might infer from the presence or absence of parameter types, you intend to define a multi-method rather than an ordinary function. To fix the code above, then, we'd change the second line to this:

foo(x) multimethod { ... }

Now the two foo's can happily coexist, since they're both multi-methods.

Note that when at least one parameter has a type, the multimethod qualifier isn't needed, since a function is automatically a multi-method if it has any typed parameters. However, the multimethod qualifier does no harm in these cases, so you're free to include it if you prefer. Note also that multimethod's opposite number doesn't exist - there's no qualifier that says "this is not a multi-method." This is because there's no situation where it would be useful; when there are no typed parameters, "not a multi-method" is the default assumption anyway; and when types are present, it wouldn't be possible to treat the definition as an ordinary function, since type specifiers aren't allowed there.

An example definition

Here's an example of defining a multi-method:

putIn(Thing obj, Container cont)
   // ...

This creates a function called putIn() that takes two parameters: the first is a Thing, and the second is a Container. As with an ordinary function, the argument values when the putIn() is called are assigned to local variables called "obj" and "cont", respectively.

The function defined above will only ever be called when the actual argument values match the types specified in the parameter list. If you call putIn() with some other types, the system will either find another version of the function that matches the other types, or it will throw an exception to indicate that there's no acceptable version of the function that matches the invocation. This means that you can safely assume that "obj" is always a Thing, and "cont" is always a Container, when writing the code within this function.

Because a multi-method is identified by both its name and its typed parameters, you can define any number of additional multi-methods with the same name, as long as each new version can be distinguished from the others by its parameter types. For example, we could define a second multi-method called putIn() like so:

putIn(Thing obj, Surface cont)
   // ...

This version will be invoked when putIn() is called with a second argument value that's a Surface instead of a Container.

Calling a multi-method

Calling a multi-method is exactly like calling an ordinary function. You simply write the function name followed by the list of parameters in parentheses:

putIn(blueBook, cardboardBox);

When this line of code is executed, TADS evaluates the arguments, determines their types, and finds the appropriate version of the multi-method to call by matching the argument types against the possible parameter types.

You can use function pointers to multi-methods the same way as with ordinary functions:

local x = putIn;
x(blueBook, cardboardBox);

As with any other call to a multi-method, the system waits until you actually use the function pointer to call the function to determine which version to invoke.

(For the technically inclined, here's what's going on internally: when you use "putIn" without an argument list to get a pointer to the multi-method, what you actually get is a pointer to a "stub" function that represents the entire collection of multi-methods named putIn. When you use the function pointer to call the function, you're calling that stub function, which in turn does precisely the same work that would occur if you called putIn directly with an argument list. The result is that you reach the correct version of putIn based on the argument values.)

It's also possible to get a pointer to a particular version of a multi-method - that is, the specific function that would be invoked for a given set of arguments. The library provides a function for this purpose, getMultiMethodPointer():

local y = getMultiMethodPointer(putIn, blueBook, cardboardBox);
y(redBook, woodenCrate);

The difference between this and the earlier example ("x = putIn") is that getMultiMethodPointer() returns a pointer to the specific version of the multi-method that matches the given arguments, whereas using just the name of the multi-method returns a pointer to the overall multi-method. When you call the function using the pointer returned from getMultiMethodPointer(), the system does not look again at the argument types to determine what to call - you've already chosen a particular version of the function, so the system simply calls that particular version without re-examining the arguments. This can be useful, but be careful - since you're bypassing the type-checking that normally occurs when you invoke a multi-method, you could easily pass in arguments with the wrong types, which could cause run-time errors (or, perhaps worse, subtle logical errors) in your program.

Multi-methods and inheritance

So far we've talked about multi-methods almost as though they were separate from object oriented programming. But OOP is central to TADS, so perhaps it won't be too surprising that multi-methods work nicely with the TADS object system. In fact, multi-methods really are just an extension of the TADS OOP model from the traditional single-dispatch model to multiple dispatch.

The easiest way to see how multi-methods work with OOP is to define a multi-method that takes only one parameter, and then define some variations that take class types that are related by inheritance:

lookAt(Thing obj) {  }
lookAt(Container obj) {  }
lookAt(SingleContainer obj) { }

In the Adv3 library, Container is a subclass of Thing, and SingleContainer is a subclass of Container.

It's probably fairly obvious what happens when we call lookAt() with an argument of type Thing, Container, SingleContainer: we invoke the version that matches the class type of the argument.

But what happens when we call this function with, say, a StretchyContainer? There's no definition of lookAt for this class. However, StretchyContainer is a subclass of Container, and in OOP dogma, an object that's a subclass of Container is a Container as well. So what happens is that we call the Container version of the function.

Now, you might wonder why this doesn't create confusion about SingleContainer. SingleContainer is a Container subclass, just like StretchyContainer - so doesn't that mean there are two versions of lookAt() that match SingleContainer now? In fact, aren't there three matching versions, given that Container is also a Thing, and thus so is SingleContainer? The answer is that yes, SingleContainer can match all three versions of lookAt, but no, this doesn't create any confusion. The reason there's no confusion is that the object inheritance model kicks in to resolve the situation. Given a choice of multi-methods that match an argument's class, we'll always pick the overriding subclass that matches - overriding in the same way that a method on a subclass would override the same method on a superclass.

There's an important implication of using object inheritance to resolve multi-methods: multi-methods with a single typed parameter are equivalent to regular methods defined on the corresponding objects. In other words, we could have written our three lookAt() functions above as ordinary object methods, thus:

Thing: object
   newLookAt() { }
Container: Thing
   newLookAt() { }
SingleContainer: Container
   newLookAt() { }

(We're obviously simplifying this a lot from what's in the real Adv3 library - we just care about the basic structure here.) So now, if we write x.newLookAt(), we get the same effect as calling lookAt(x) - we dispatch to the version defined for the closest match to x's class in the inheritance structure.

So, to summarize, a multi-method with one typed parameter is basically just an alternative syntax for writing a regular method.

This equivalency is helpful because it makes it easier to understand what happens when you have more than one typed parameter. The multi-method system applies the same logic to each typed parameter, choosing the one that's the best fit to the object according to its class inheritance. It also makes it easier to understand what happens in a multiple-inheritance situation: when a class has multiple superclasses, the multi-method binding uses the exact same rules that are used to determine the method overriding order.

(For the technically inclined, the implementation actually uses the regular class inheritance system directly. During initialization, the library adds a special property to each class mentioned in a given slot in a given multi-method parameter list. This property contains the binding information for that class in that slot of that function. When calling a multi-method, the library evaluates the appropriate special property on each argument in turn and uses the result to determine which function to call. The property lookup is no different from any other property lookup, so it obeys the standard inheritance and overriding rules. This design guarantees the equivalency between the overriding order for multi-methods and that for ordinary methods, since they actually use the same underlying mechanism.)

Invoking a base version

We've seen that one multi-method can "override" another, just like a regular method in a subclass can override its base class version.

In regular methods, it's common for an overriding method in a subclass to add just a little bit of specialization to its base class. It does everything the base class does, but adds a little something extra. This happens so often that TADS has special syntax to help out, by letting the subclass method invoke its base class version as a subroutine, rather than repeating its whole contents - namely, the inherited operator.

class Thing: object
       "It looks like an ordinary <<name>> to me. ";
   name = 'something'

class Container: object
       // show contents listing here...

Multi-methods can override one another, so the analogous situation can arise, where an overriding multi-method wants to invoke a multi-method that it overrides, as a subroutine. TADS offers support for this, using syntax that's very similar to the inherited syntax for ordinary methods.

When used in a multi-method, the inherited operator calls the next more general form of the current function. That is, the version of the multi-method that's effectively overridden by the current version.

The inherited operator chooses the function to call by asking this question: which function would have been called if the current function (the one containing the inherited call) had never been defined? The system looks at the argument list specified in the inherited operator to make this determination; it finds the next function after the current function ("after" in terms of class inheritance order) that matches the types in the argument list.

There's also an extended inherited syntax that lets you call a specific inherited version of the function. You do this by adding a type list in angle brackets between inherited and the argument list:

inherited < type1 [ , ... ] > ( argument1 [ , ... ]  )

Each type specifier (type1 and so on) is the name of a class or object, just like in a multi-method definition. You can also use the special symbol * (asterisk) for a slot that has no type specifier in the original definition, and you can use ... at the end of the list to indicate that you're calling a version with variable arguments.

For example:

lookAt(SingleContainer obj)
   return inherited<Container>(obj);

This calls the version of the function defined as lookAt(Container x), regardless of what other versions might also exist.

As with regular method inheritance, the inherited operator behaves like an ordinary function call: it evaluates the arguments, invokes the inherited multi-method, and yields as its value the return value of the invoked function. You can use the multi-method version of inherited as part of a larger expression, just as you can with the regular inherited.

The compiler resolves inherited<> calls statically. Since you specify the exact type list for the function to be invoked, the compiler knows which version of the function to call. This means that this version has no run-time overhead; it's just like an ordinary function call in terms of its run-time performance.

The multi-method version of inherited without a type list determines which function to call dynamically, at run time, which makes it a little slower than inherited<> with a type list. (Internally, this is implemented by calling a library function, _multiMethodCallInherited(). We recommend using inherited rather than calling this function directly, since the function could conceivably change in future releases.)

Dynamic vs. static inheritance

As described above, when you use the inherited operator without an explicit type list (in angle brackets), the system automatically chooses which inherited function to call. The mechanism that we described for making the selection is actually one of two modes that you can select.

The default mode, which we described above, is the "dynamic" mode. In dynamic mode, the system chooses which function to call by looking at the actual argument values specified in the inherited call. The system finds the matching function using the same process that it used to resolve the original call to the multi-method, except this time it pretends that the current (calling) function was never defined, so that it can find the next matching function in inheritance order.

The dynamic mode is so named because it chooses the target function at run-time, according to the actual argument values. This means that a particular inherited call could end up calling different functions for different argument values. The selection can't be made until the inherited operator is actually executed, since we can't know the actual argument values until that moment.

The other inheritance mode is the "static" mode. In static mode, the system chooses which function to call by looking only at the formal parameters to the current function. The formal parameters are the parameters and types specified in the function's definition. In static mode, the system finds the function to call for inherited by looking for the next matching function (ignoring the current function) for the formal parameter list to the current function.

Because the static mode chooses the target function based entirely on the definition of the current function, the target function never changes at run-time - it doesn't depend on anything that could vary during execution. This means that the target function can be chosen at compile-time (more specifically, at pre-init time).

Which mode should you use? The basic trade-off is that the dynamic mode is more costly in terms of run-time performance, but it's arguably more intuitive in its behavior. The dynamic mode has to determine which function to call on the fly, whereas the static mode can figure and cache the target function during pre-init; so the dynamic mode requires more work (and thus more time) on every inherited call. The benefit of the dynamic mode is that it's more consistent with the regular inherited operator for object methods: the regular inherited uses the actual self value to make its determination, and the dynamic multi-method inherited uses the actual argument values to make its selection. Most people will therefore find the dynamic mode more intuitive, which is why we made it the default.

Apart from the performance difference, the static mode has one other potential benefit: it's more predictable. In static mode, a given inherited call can only go to one target function, which you can determine by inspecting the code - there's no need to take into account the actual argument values because the selection depends only on the definition of the calling function. For some applications, this predictability might be more important than consistency with the regular inherited behavior.

How to select static mode: The mode selection is controlled by a #define symbol, MULTMETH_STATIC_INHERITED. If this symbol is defined when the library module multmeth.t is compiled, the static mode is selected; otherwise the dynamic mode is used. The symbol is not defined by default, so the dynamic method is the default selection. To select static mode, add -D MULTMETH_STATIC_INHERITED to your compiler command line. (If you're using Workbench for Windows, simply add MULTMETH_STATIC_INHERITED to your #define list in the Project & Build Settings dialog, on the Compiler | Defines page.)

Historical note: when the inherited operator for multi-methods debuted, in version 3.0.18, it used the static mode. This was quickly changed, though: the dynamic mode was introduced a short time later, in the patch release, and was made the default because of its better consistency with the conventional inherited operator's behavior.


There are a few limitations and caveats to be aware of when using the multi-method facility.

Performance: Multi-methods are slower than regular method calls. Part of this is inherent in the greater complexity of the task - other things being equal, calling a multi-method with three typed parameters obviously requires three times the work of a regular method call, which only has to look at the inheritance structure of a single object. But other things aren't entirely equal; calling a multi-method requires running a small amount of library code, whereas calling a regular method is a native operation handled entirely by the VM.

This doesn't mean that the mere mention of multi-methods will slow your program to a crawl; it just means that you should be aware of the extra overhead involved in calling them. For example, avoid calling a multi-method in a loop that will be repeated many times; try instead to structure the code so that the loop is inside the multi-method, so that you only have to call it once.

Asymmetrical parameters: If you define a multi-method of the form foo(A a, B b), calls like foo(B, A) won't match, because the order of the arguments matters in finding a type match. For problems where you want to match the parameters in any order, you'll have to explicitly define variations for the different possible orders, and have them call the main version.

No "self": Since multi-methods are syntactically like regular functions, and aren't associated with any object, there's no "self" object available. Instead, you have the parameter variables that serve the same purpose. Since there's no "self", though, there's no implicit target object for property evaluations and method calls - you'll have to refer to the parameter objects explicitly (with the parameter variable names) on each use.

Ambiguity: It's possible to create a set of multi-methods that's ambiguous, without receiving any warnings from the compiler or library. If you define two or more methods with the same name and exact same list of parameters, the library will catch this conflict during pre-initialization and flag an error. However, there are other cases where two methods have different parameter lists, but are nonetheless ambiguous, where you won't receive any warnings. For example, suppose that we have a class A, and a subclass of A called B, and we define

foo(A a, B b) { }
foo(B b, A a) { }

Now, if we call this with foo(B, B), note that either version is an equally good match - the first version is a better match to the second argument than the second version is, but the second is a better match to the first argument. The strict theoretical view would be that the compiler should catch this and flag it as an error; the ambiguity is at best a possible point of confusion, and at worst a sign that the programmer made an error in structuring the code.

However, the TADS implementation is not strict about this type of ambiguity. Instead, TADS has a rule to resolve the ambiguity: arguments are resolved individually in left-to-right order, and the first, best resolution in left-to-right order wins. In this example, this means that foo(B, B) resolves to the second definition: we first try to find the best resolution to first argument in isolation, which gives us the second definition, then we look at all foo(B, ...) options and find that the second option is again the best.

No pointer type differentiation: There's no way to distinguish a pointer to a multi-method from a pointer to an ordinary function. This is because multi-methods are implemented using ordinary functions; a pointer to a multi-method is simply a pointer to the ordinary function that implements it. It's hard to think of an example where you'd actually need to distinguish the two, but if such a case did ever arise, there's no straightforward solution. (One possibility would be to use the multi-method registry table that the library builds during initialization - although this would require accessing internal library data structures, and there's no guarantee that those structures won't change in future updates.)