Erlang Day One

Erlang! What an exciting language. Erlang is the first proper functional language I’m looking at (Scala doesn’t count). In this introduction to the language, the book looks at Erlang’s syntax and its similarities with Prolog. We also look at some more recursion, functions (kind of important in a functional language), and pattern-matching (like you would do in Scala).

  1. Erlang documentation
  2. Count the words in a string
  3. Count to ten
  4. Pattern matching
  5. Thoughts

Erlang documentation

Here comes my best Google-fu.

Count the words in a string

Write a function that uses recursion to return the number of words in a string.

There may be a more elegant solution to this, but I’m quite pleased with what I came up with. I would have had a much harder time thinking of this had I not already spent so much time struggling with Prolog.

The important thing to remember is that a string is actually a list of integers in Erlang. The magic number 32 is the ASCII code for a space character, so my script starts with 1 and adds 1 for any spaces it finds.

The [_|_] form splits lists into its head and tail, just like in Prolog. We recursively call the function with the gradually diminishing string (which is really a list) to iterate over the whole string.

Count to ten

Write a function that uses recursion to count to ten.

I’m quite happy with my solution to this too. I again use pattern matching to check the input, and the recursion stops on the base case. I added the comparison guard to stop Erlang counting into Infinity if you do something silly like count_to_10_from(11) or count_to_10_from(1.0).

Pattern matching

Write a function that uses matching to selectively print “success” or “error: message” given input of the form {error, Message} or success.

Pattern matching makes this problem trivial. The success atom prints a static string, and when the tuple is matched, a string is concatenated with the error message. When throwing an error, a literal string will have to be passed in place of the Message variable, otherwise it’d be unbound and Erlang will throw an exception.

It’s important to note than success and error are atoms (named constants), and Message is a variable. Erlang is just like Prolog in that atoms begin with a lowercase letter, and variables begin with an uppercase letter.


My introduction to Erlang was enjoyable, especially after having such a hard time with Prolog. I’m beginning to find it easier to think about recursion too. I found the three coding challenges suspiciously easily — I’m hoping functional programming just comes naturally, and that it’s not a case of this first chapter being unrealistically simple.