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The Lisp Interpreter

Based on what we have seen, we can now start to figure out what the Lisp interpreter does when we command it to evaluate a list. First, it looks to see whether there is a quote before the list; if there is, the interpreter just gives us the list. On the other hand, if there is no quote, the interpreter looks at the first element in the list and sees whether it has a function definition. If it does, the interpreter carries out the instructions in the function definition. Otherwise, the interpreter prints an error message.

This is how Lisp works. Simple. There are added complications which we will get to in a minute, but these are the fundamentals. Of course, to write Lisp programs, you need to know how to write function definitions and attach them to names, and how to do this without confusing either yourself or the computer.

Now, for the first complication. In addition to lists, the Lisp interpreter can evaluate a symbol that is not quoted and does not have parentheses around it. In this case, the Lisp interpreter will attempt to determine the symbol's value as a variable. This situation is described in the section on variables. (See section Variables.)

The second complication occurs because some functions are unusual and do not work in the usual manner. Those that don't are called special forms. They are used for special jobs, like defining a function, and there are not many of them. In the next few chapters, you will be introduced to several of the more important special forms.

The third and final complication is this: if the function that the Lisp interpreter is looking at is not a special form, and if it is part of a list, the Lisp interpreter looks to see whether the list has a list inside of it. If there is an inner list, the Lisp interpreter first figures out what it should do with the inside list, and then it works on the outside list. If there is yet another list embedded inside the inner list, it works on that one first, and so on. It always works on the innermost list first. The interpreter works on the innermost list first in order to find out the result of doing that. The result may be used by the enclosing expression.

Otherwise, the interpreter works left to right, from one expression to the next.

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