Pantagruel: An Unambiguous, Undefined Program Specification Language

What is this?

First and foremost, Pantagruel is tool for thought and communication. It’s not a programming language, and it’s not a program for verifying other programs. It’s a language designed to help you express your ideas about what programs should do. It is designed to help you do so in a way that is terser and clearer than natural language; that’s the communication part. The thought part comes from the bet that being helped, and sometimes constrained, to communicate in an unambiguous and slightly more rigorous way than you might otherwise will assist you in thinking things through.

Pantagruel is a program specification language. A notation with a defined syntax whose sentences will describe the workings of some piece of logic, to be articulated for the benefit of the people who will implement it, as well as the people who design it and the people who will ensure it’s implemented correctly.

Pantagruel is also implemented in the pant interpreter, which is a program that understands Pantagruel text documents. pant is capable of ensuring that documents follow certain rules, beyond those of syntax, which are designed to promote rigor and clarity of thought.


I had the idea for this language after reading into some of the offerings currently available in the world of Formal Methods: things like Z, TLA+, and somewhat more obscurely, the language developed in A Practical Theory of Programming. I had and have an interest in formal methods though my interest, like that of many, is unconsummated, as I haven’t become anything close to expert in any of them and haven’t had the opportunity to use them in a professional setting.

The desire to put together something of my own came after reading aPToP. Hehner’s rationale for formal methods is, paraphrased, is: programming would be better if program specifications had two closely related qualities that they currently lack:

  1. Unambiguous in meaning
  2. Provably correct

To that end he puts together a language of program behavior which is as unambiguous in its meaning as mathematics with a set of axiomatic equalities that allow the programmer to express a precise and complete specification of behavior and then refine it, axiomatically, to arrive at a provably correct implementation.

I’ll leave the reader to decide for themselves whether Hehner’s offering is practicable, but I found myself inspired. I lack the brainpower to write a formal method that, along the lines of Z and TLA+, allows us to express program behavior according to some axiomatic theory. So this is not an attempt to replace or even mimic those systems. However, the notion of a more mathematical and therefore less ambiguous notation for program behavior is appealing. The observation that English words like should, all, none of and so forth can contain a multiplicity of overlapping meanings is well-taken.

What would be especially nice is if we had a notation that was more mathematical but also easily written by hand, and intuitive to the programmer, so we could use it as a lingua franca for whiteboarding, ideation in notebooks, and the like. There’s a possibility for something with a much lower barrier to entry (for this admittedly more modest goal) than something like Z. Part of what makes this possible is that we can jettison a formal semantics entirely. It doesn’t need to mean anything. At the end of the day the only semantics will be in the mind of the human reader. So we can try to provide them with a language that they can use to be as descriptive as is necessary, but only for their own purposes.

Of course, any language with an undefined semantics will not be actually unambiguous in any objective way. But we might be able to at least avoid certain classes of less obvious ambiguity.

In other words, it might be nice if we had a system that enforced certain constraints about exhaustiveness and form while still allowing the author to be as lazy and hand-wavy as they want if they decide it’s not important to be more specific. There might be a value in forcing ambiguity into sentences like ‘There is a function f (and I won’t say anything else about it)’ rather than ‘When the program is finished, all mailboxes should be empty’.

To that end the last (and only) feature of Pantagruel is that it can be parsed by a computer program with a well-defined semantics of binding and it can enforce certain constraints on binding. That is, it can force the user to leave no symbol undefined, even if the definitions entered are nonsensical or wrong. The hypothesis of Pantagruel is that there is a cognitive benefit to requiring this kind of exhaustiveness, even if there are no constraints placed on what is said.

A sample program

Here’s a trivial but complete Pantagruel program, translated from an example from The Way of Z.

user() => User
doc (owner: User) => Document

" A specification for a small document management system.

check_out (u, d: User, Document)

" A user may check out a document if they have permission to access it
" and it's not currently checked out.

(d.owner = nobody and (has_perm? u d) and (check_out u d)) -> d'.owner = u
(d.owner != nobody or ~(has_perm? u d)) -> d'.owner = d.owner


nobody () :: User
has_perm? (u, d: User, Document) :: Bool

Paragraph 1: The introduction of our two domains, Users and Documents.

P. 2: A comment introducing the program.

P. 3: The introduction of a procedure, check-out, which takes u, a User, and d, a Document.

P. 4: A comment describing our specification in natural language.

P. 5: Two propositions describing the expected state after the check-out procedure. The first says that if the owner of d is nobody and has-perm? u d is true and check-out u d is evaluated, then the successor to d (that is, d at some next point in time) will have an owner of u. The second line says if either of the two first conditions is otherwise, the successor to d will have the same owner as d does. In this line we have left out the bit about check-out u d because in our universe, that proposition is true whether or not we run check-out.

;: Pronounced “where”, acts as a section separator.

P. 6: “Introduces” the two procedures referred to in the previous section, nobody and has-perm?. nobody is a procedure which yields a User, in this case understood to represent a document with no owner. has-perm? is a procedure which will return a Boolean value indicating whether a user has permission to check out a document or not; in this specification we’ve left it at that. In a different document or if we were also interested in the specifics of who can check out a document and when, we could continue the specification with statements about has-perm?.

Pretty printed, that’s:

user() ⇒ User
doc(owner:User) ⇒ Document

A specification for a small document management system.

check-out(u, d:User, Document)

A user may check out a document if they have permission to access it and it’s not currently checked out.

(d.owner = nobody ∧ (has-perm? u d) ∧ (check-out u d)) → d’.owner = u
(d.owner ≠ nobody ∨ ¬(has-perm? u d)) → d’.owner = d.owner

nobody() ∷ User
has-perm?(u, d:User, Document) ∷ 𝔹

The document is structured the way it is so that we are able to express what we take to be the gist of our program in as terse a manner as possible. In this case we want to lay out unambiguously the relationship between ownership, check-out permissions and the effects of checking out a document. The pant interpreter is not terribly concerned with the specifics of what we say and trusts us to communicate what we need to. However, it wants to keep us honest, and thus we are constrained to define all of our terms to at least some degree. For instance, if we had included the expression d.owner = nobody in the first section but not declared the nobody procedure in the second, barebones as it is, pantagruel would raise an error upon evaluating the program.

Who would be interested in this?

It’s not clear, aside from “me”. My hypothesis is that this will be interesting and maybe even useful to anybody who a) has an interest in formal methods or formal reasoning but b) is not working on projects of sufficient seriousness, or is not sufficiently clever and mathematically literate, to be using proper formal methods. It seems to me that it will be useful to have a well-defined language for communicating algorithms to oneself and others, and that if we can exploit its definition to subject it to automatic analysis and impose certain lightweight constraints, all the better.

To that end, the language itself needs lots of battle testing; lots of thinking or whiteboarding done in it, to see what is still awkward to express, what constructs are unnecessary or redundant. At the same time I will continue to work on pant the computer program, to build something that is capable of providing some amount of value given a Pantagruel text file.