Definitions

Assignment operation

Assignment (computer science)

In computer science the assignment statement sets or re-sets the value stored in the storage location(s) denoted by a variable name. In most imperative computer programming languages the assignment statement is one of the basic statements.

The assignment statement often allows that the same variable name to contain different values at different times during program execution.

Notation

Common textual representations of the assignment include an equals sign (“=”) and “:=”. These two forms are typical of programming languages, such as C), that classify assignment as an infix operator.

variable = expression BASIC, Fortran, C, Java, Windows PowerShell, Bourne shell, …
variable := expression ALGOL, Pascal, Ada, Dylan, …

Other possibilities include a left arrow or a keyword.

variable <- expression Objective Caml, S, R, ...
variableexpression APL
LET variable = expression BASIC
MOVE expression TO variable COBOL
set variable to expression AppleScript
set variable = expression C shell
Set-Variable variable (expression) Windows PowerShell

Some expression-oriented languages, such as Lisp and Tcl, uniformly use prefix syntax for all statements, including assignment.

(setq variable expression) Lisp, Scheme (set!), …
set variable expression Tcl

Operation

Semantically, an assignment operation modifies the current state of the executing program. Consequently, assignment is dependent on the concept of variables. In an assignment:

  • The expression is evaluated in the current state of the program.
  • The variable is assigned the computed value, replacing the prior value of that variable.

Example: Assuming that a is a numeric variable, the assignment a := 2*a means that the content of the variable a is doubled after the execution of the statement.

An example segment of C code:

int x = 10; float y; x = 23; y = 32.4;

In this sample, the variable x is first declared as an int, and is then assigned the value of 10. Notice that the declaration and assignment occur in the same statement. In the second line, y is declared without an assignment. In the third line, x is reassigned the value of 23. Finally, y is assigned the value of 32.4.

For an assignment operation, it is necessary that the value of the expression is well-defined (it is a valid rvalue) and that the variable represents a modifiable entity (it is a valid modifiable (non-const) lvalue). In some languages, such as Perl, it is not necessary to declare a variable prior to assigning it a value.

Parallel assignment

Some programming languages, such as Python, Perl, Ruby, Windows PowerShell, OCaml and JavaScript (since 1.7), allow several variables to be assigned in parallel. In pseudocode:

a,b := 0,1

Simultaneously assigns 0 to a and 1 to b. If the right-hand side of the assignment is some kind of array variable, this feature is called sequence unpacking:

var list := 0,1
a,b := list

The list will be unpacked so that 0 is assigned to a and 1 to b. More interestingly,

a,b := b,a

Swaps the values of a and b. In languages without parallel assignment, this would have to be written to use a temporary variable

var t := a
a := b
b := t

since a:=b ; b:=a leaves both a and b with the original value of b.

Value of an assignment

In most expression-oriented programming languages, the assignment statement returns the assigned value, allowing such idioms as x = y = a, which assigns the value of a to both x and y, and while (f = read()) {}, which uses the return value of a function to control a loop while assigning that same value to a variable.

In other programming languages, the return value of an assignment is undefined and such idioms are invalid. Examples are Scheme and Haskell.

Assignment versus single assignment

In functional programming, assignment is discouraged in favor of single assignment, also called name binding or initialization. Single assignment differs from assignment as described in this article in that it can only be made once, usually when the variable is created; no subsequent re-assignment is allowed. Once created by single assignment, named values are not variables but immutable objects.

Single assignment is the only form of assignment available in purely functional languages, such as Haskell, which do not have variables in the sense of imperative programming languages. Impure functional languages provide both single assignment as well as true assignment (though true assignment is used with less frequency than in imperative programming languages). For example, in Scheme, both single assignment and true assignment can be used on all variables. In OCaml, only single assignment is allowed for variables, via the let name = value syntax; however, true assignment, by a separate <- operator, can be used on elements of arrays and strings, as well as fields of records and objects that have been explicitly declared mutable (meaning capable of being changed after its initial declaration) by the programmer.

Assignment versus equality

Beginning programmers sometimes confuse assignment with the relational operator for equality, as "=" means equality in mathematics, and is used for assignment in many languages. But assignment alters the value of a variable, while equality testing tests whether two expressions have the same value.

In many languages, the assignment operator is a single equals sign ("=") while the equivalence operator is a pair of equals signs ("=="); in some languages, such as BASIC, a single equals sign is used for both, with context determining which is meant.

This can lead to errors if the programmer forgets which form (=, ==, :=) is appropriate (or mistypes = when == was intended). This is a common programming problem with languages such as C, where the assignment operator also returns the value assigned, and can be validly nested inside expressions (in the same way that a function returns a value). If the intention was to compare two values in an if statement, for instance, an assignment is quite likely to return a value interpretable as TRUE, in which case the then clause will be executed, leading the program to behave unexpectedly. Some language processors can detect such situations, and warn the programmer of the potential error.

See also

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