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Iterating Over Lists

Iterating over the elements of a list is an extremely common programming task. However, this is an area where Scheme is quite different from other languages, and its idioms are very elegant - once they are not confusing anymore. It is therefore important to really understand this topic in order to work efficiently without being constantly frustrated.

Most languages approach this iteration in a for loop. The basic approach would be counting an index variable and accessing each list element through this index. For example in “classic” C++

int v[5] = {4,3,2,1,0};
for (int i=0; i<5; i++)
    printf("%d: %d", i, v[i]);

Of course this works, but the loop construct is semantically unrelated to the actual list iteration because it uses an independent counter variable. Moreover you are responsible yourself for not exceeding the list index. Therefore languages provide a loop construct that is closer to the list, e.g. in Python

values = [4, 3, 2, 1, 0]
for v in values:
    print v

“Modern” C++ provides an equivalent construction:

int v[5] = {4,3,2,1,0};
for (int x : v)
    printf("%d", x);

This approach makes the elements of the list available in the body of the loop. This is closer to the list semantics, and it guarantees that the actual range of list elements is used. However, the body of the loop is still unrelated to the list, as you could do anything inside.

Scheme's approach is similar to Python's (and the second C++ variant) in actually iterating over the elements of a list passed as argument. But it goes one step further by applying a procedure to each element. There are two procedures available, differing in what they evaluate to, map and for-each which we will discuss in detail. However, as these concepts are mostly useful with custom procedures these discussion is post-poned to a later chapter.

Last update: November 3, 2022