Scala Tutorials Part #21 - Referential transparency

Referential Transparency

This is part 21 of the Scala tutorial series. Check here for the full series.



Referential transparency originally comes from mathematics and got adopted into functional programming. Its main goal is to give the programmer a toolkit to reason about program behaviour.

This concept is related to pure functions. In fact, referential transparency can be achieved only when the function is pure and does not have any side effect. This is not a feature of the Scala language, but this article is just to explain how it can be achieved.

Referential transparency in action

Let’s take the square function again.

def square(x:Int) = x * x

If we call this method using 5 and 6 as parameters.

  //Prints 25

  //Prints 36

We can replace all instances of square(5) with 25 and square(6) with 36 and the code will still work fine. This signifies that the function/method evaluates to the same result given the same arguments/values.

Let’s take something that isn’t referentially transparent.

  var g = 20


A function which modifies an external variable.

def mod_rt(x:Int) = {
  //Modifies an external variable
  g = g+10
  g + x * x	

In the above code block, we cannot say for sure that mod_rt(x) is always a value which is predictable since the variable being modified i.e g can be changed elsewhere in the code and it changes the result of the mod_rt(x) method. This makes it difficult to reason about what the method does and breaks the referential transparency principle.

From Wikipedia,

We can see that immutable functions/methods by itself leads to referential transparency. Immutable variables can also be used to achieve this. In the above example if the variable g was a val then it would lead to a compilation error.

Referential transparency in the real world

In the real world certain methods/functions are naturally not suited.

Strictly following referential transparency means we cannot have,

It must not be taken in a literal sense. Commonly used functionality does not follow the rules and its fine to have them. As a programmer/software developer we must strive to write code that follows referential transparency wherever possible and resorting to other techniques to handle mutation and state. Referential transparency sort of acts as a toolkit to test the purity of functions.


A quick wrap up of what we saw in this article.

Even though the example was pretty simple, I hope it illustrated the concept well. Learning a new language is not just learning the constructs, it is also about the concepts and paradigms which are largely language neutral.

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