Programming Paradigms

Do you solve problems by just jumping in, willing to ignore the experience and wisdom of those that may have programmed solutions to problems very similar to yours? We learn from the past. Our ancestors discovered and invented ways of programming that we know call paradigms. We benefit from the knowledge they left us, even as we strive to create new paradigms ourselves.


A programming paradigm is a style, or “way,” of programming.

Some languages make it easy to write in some paradigms but not others.

Never use the phrase “programming language paradigm.”

A paradigm is a way of doing something (like programming), not a concrete thing (like a language). Now, it’s true that if a programming language L happens to make a particular programming paradigm P easy to express, then we often say “L is a P language” (e.g. “Haskell is a functional programming language”) but that does not mean there is any such thing as a “functional language paradigm”.

Some Common Paradigms

You should know these:

Paradigms are not meant to be mutually exclusive; a single program can feature multiple paradigms!

Make sure to check out Wikipedia’s entry on Programming Paradigms.

A Look At Some Major Paradigms

Imperative Programming

Control flow in imperative programming is explicit: commands show how the computation takes place, step by step. Each step affects the global state of the computation.

    result = []
    i = 0
    numPeople = length(people)
    if i >= numPeople goto finished
    p = people[i]
    nameLength = length(
    if nameLength <= 5 goto nextOne
    upperName = toUpper(
    addToList(result, upperName)
    i = i + 1
    goto start
    return sort(result)

Structured Programming

Structured programming is a kind of imperative programming where control flow is defined by nested loops, conditionals, and subroutines, rather than via gotos. Variables are generally local to blocks (have lexical scope).

result = [];
for i = 0; i < length(people); i++ {
    p = people[i];
    if length( > 5 {
        addToList(result, toUpper(;
return sort(result);

Early languages emphasizing structured programming: Algol 60, PL/I, Algol 68, Pascal, C, Ada 83, Modula, Modula-2. Structured programming as a discipline is sometimes though to have been started by a famous letter by Edsger Dijkstra entitled Go to Statement Considered Harmful.

Object Oriented Programming

OOP is based on the sending of messages to objects. Objects respond to messages by performing operations, generally called methods. Messages can have arguments. A society of objects, each with their own local memory and own set of operations has a different feel than the monolithic processor and single shared memory feel of non object oriented languages.

One of the more visible aspects of the more pure-ish OO languages is that conditionals and loops become messages themselves, whose arguments are often blocks of executable code. In a Smalltalk-like syntax:

result := List new.
people each: [:p |
  p name length greaterThan: 5 ifTrue: [result add (p name upper)]
result sort.

This can be shortened to:

^people filter: [:p | p name length greaterThan: 5] map: [:p | p name upper] sort

Many popular languages that call themselves OO languages (e.g., Java, C++), really just take some elements of OOP and mix them in to imperative-looking code. In the following, we can see that length and toUpper are methods rather than top-level functions, but the for and if are back to being control structures:

result = []
for p in people {
    if > 5 {
return result.sort;

The first object oriented language was Simula-67; Smalltalk followed soon after as the first “pure” object-oriented language. Many languages designed from the 1980s to the present have labeled themselves object-oriented, notably C++, CLOS (object system of Common Lisp), Eiffel, Modula-3, Ada 95, Java, C#, Ruby.

Declarative Programming

Control flow in declarative programming is implicit: the programmer states only what the result should look like, not how to obtain it.

select upper(name)
from people
where length(name) > 5
order by name

No loops, no assignments, etc. Whatever engine that interprets this code is just supposed go get the desired information, and can use whatever approach it wants. (The logic and constraint paradigms are generally declarative as well.)

Functional Programming

In functional programming, control flow is expressed by combining function calls, rather than by assigning values to variables:

  fix(λf. λp.
    if(equals(p, emptylist),
      if(greater(length(name(head(p))), 5),
        append(to_upper(name(head(p))), f(tail(p))),

Yikes! We’ll describe that later. For now, be thankful there’s usually syntactic sugar:

    fun uppercasedLongNames [] = []
      | uppercasedLongNames (p :: ps) =
          if length(name p) > 5 then (to_upper(name p))::(uppercasedLongNames ps)
          else (uppercasedLongNames ps)

Huh? That still isn’t very pretty. Why do people like this stuff? Well the real power of this paradigm comes from passing functions to functions (and returning functions from functions).

    filter(λs. length s > 5,
        map(λp. to_upper(name p),

We can do better by using the cool |> operator. Here x |> f just means f(x). The operator has very low precedence so you can read things left-to-right:

people |> map (λp. to_upper (name p)) |> filter (λs. length s > 5) |> sort

Let’s keep going! Notice that you wouldn’t write map(λx. square(x)), right? You would write map(square). We can do something similar above, but we have to use function composition, you know, (f o g)x is f(g(x)), so:

people |> map (to_upper o name) |> filter (λs. length s > 5) |> sort

Here are three things to read to get the gist of functional programming:

With functional programming:

Some people like to say:

Exercise: Write the above example in Miranda, ML, and J.
Exercise: Research the following programming styles and state how they are similar and how they are different from each other: (a) Stack-based, (b) Concatenative, (c) Point-free, (d) Tacit.

Many languages have a neat little thing called comprehensions that combine map and filter.

sorted( for p in people if len( > 5)

Logic and Constraint Programming

Logic programming and constraint programming are two paradigms in which programs are built by setting up relations that specify facts and inference rules, and asking whether or not something is true (i.e. specifying a goal.) Unification and backtracking to find solutions (i.e.. satisfy goals) takes place automatically.

Languages that emphasize this paradigm: Prolog, GHC, Parlog, Vulcan, Polka, Mercury, Fnil.

Exercise: Write the running example in Prolog.

Languages and Paradigms

One of the characteristics of a language is its support for particular programming paradigms. For example, Smalltalk has direct support for programming in the object-oriented way, so it might be called an object-oriented language. OCaml, Lisp, Scheme, and JavaScript programs tend to make heavy use of passing functions around so they are called “functional languages” despite having variables and many imperative constructs.

There are two very important observations here: