1.2.4 Complex terms

Constants, numbers, and variables are the building blocks: now we need to know how to fit them together to make complex terms. Recall that complex terms are often called structures.

Complex terms are build out of a functor followed by a sequence of arguments. The arguments are put in ordinary brackets, separated by commas, and placed after the functor. The functor must be an atom. That is, variables cannot be used as functors. On the other hand, arguments can be any kind of term.

Now, we've already seen lots of examples of complex terms when we looked at KB1 -- KB5. For example, playsAirGuitar(jody) is a complex term: its functor is playsAirGuitar and its argument is jody. Other examples are loves(vincent,mia) and, to give an example containing a variable, jealous(marcellus,W).

But note that the definition allows far more complex terms than this. In fact, it allows us to to keep nesting complex terms inside complex terms indefinitely (that is, it is a recursive definition). For example


is a perfectly ok complex term. Its functor is hide, and it has two arguments: the variable X, and the complex term father(father(father(butch))). This complex term has father as its functor, and another complex term, namely father(father(butch)), as its sole argument. And the argument of this complex term, namely father(butch), is also complex. But then the nesting ``bottoms out'', for the argument here is the constant butch.

As we shall see, such nested (or recursively structured) terms enable us to represent many problems naturally. In fact the interplay between recursive term structure and variable matching is the source of much of Prolog's power.

The number of arguments that a complex term has is called its arity. For instance, woman(mia) is a complex term with arity 1, while loves(vincent,mia) is a complex term with arity 2.

Arity is important to Prolog. Prolog would be quite happy for us to define two predicates with the same functor but with a different number of arguments. For example, we are free to define a knowledge base that defines a two place predicate love (this might contain such facts as love(vincent,mia)), and also a three place love predicate (which might contain such facts as love(vincent,marcellus,mia)). However, if we did this, Prolog would treat the two place love and the three place love as completely different predicates.

When we need to talk about predicates and how we intend to use them (for example, in documentation) it is usual to use a suffix / followed by a number to indicate the predicate's arity. To return to KB2, instead of saying that it defines predicates


we should really say that it defines predicates


And Prolog can't get confused about a knowledge base containing the two different love predicates, for it regards the love/2 predicate and the love/3 predicate as completely distinct.

Patrick Blackburn, Johan Bos and Kristina Striegnitz
Version 1.2.5 (20030212)