More Prolog


Prolog inference rules can be recursive. For example:

ancestor(X, Y) :- father(X, Y).
ancestor(X, Y) :- mother(X, Y).
ancestor(X, Y) :- father(X, Z), ancestor(Z, Y).
ancestor(X, Y) :- mother(X, Z), ancestor(Z, Y).

These rules establish that X is Y’s ancestor if

  • X is Y’s father or mother (first two rules, not recursive), or
  • there is some Z such that X is Z’s father and Z is Y’s ancestor, or
  • there is some Z such that X is Z’s mother and Z is Y’s ancestor

Example query (using the ground truths from the previous lecture:

| ?- ancestor(grandpa, bart).

true ? 

| ?- ancestor(grandpa, homer).

true ? 

| ?- ancestor(grandpa, marge).



A prolog variable can have a numeric value (as opposed to a symbol). The is keyword binds a variable to an expression with a numeric value.


| ?- A is 2 + 3.

A = 5


Tuples and Lists

A tuple is a sequence with a fixed number of values. A list is a sequence with an arbitrary number (zero or more) of values.

A tuple:

(a, b, c)

A list:

[a, b, c]

Lists have an alternate syntax:


The alternate syntax is very useful for writing inference rules that operate on lists.

As an example: finding the smallest number in a list of numbers.

First, we can define a min rule which, for a pair of numbers, specifies which is the minimum:

min(A, A, B) :- A =< B.
min(B, A, B) :- B =< A.

Read the first rule as “A is the minimum of A and B if A <= B”.


| ?- min(What, 2, 3).

What = 2 ? 

| ?- min(What, 3, 2).

What = 2


We can define two rules for finding the smallest number in a list of numbers:

smallest(A, [A|[]]).
smallest(Min, [A|B]) :- smallest(SB, B), min(Min, A, SB).

The first rule specifies that in a list where A is the only element, it is the smallest element. This serves as a base case.

The second rule specifies that for a list where A is the first element and B is a list containing an unspecified number of elements, the minimum value Min is the minimum of A and SB, where SB is the smallest value in B.


| ?- smallest(What, [11, 86, 2, 69, 22, 39, 85, 57, 78, 76]).

What = 2 ? 


Example: Sorting

Now that we’ve defined how to find the smallest item in a list, we define how to sort a list.

The base case is that sorting a list with no elements is the empty list:

sorted([], []).

The recursive case defines what it means to sort a list with at least one element:

sorted([Min|RestSorted], List) :-
  smallest(Min, List),
  append(BeforeMin, [Min|AfterMin], List),
  append(BeforeMin, AfterMin, RestUnsorted),
  sorted(RestSorted, RestUnsorted).

This rule states that the sorted form of a list is a list containing at least one element is the list where the first element is the minimum value in the original list, and the subsequent values are the rest of the elements in the original list in sorted order.

To extract the minimum element from the list, we use the built-in append rule. The assertion

append(A, B, C)

says that C is the result of concatenating the lists A and B. We use this rule twice. The first use,

append(BeforeMin, [Min|AfterMin], List)

states that List is the result of concatenating two lists. The first list is BeforeMin. The second list has Min (the minimum element of the overall list) as its first element, and AfterMin as the remaining elements. This effectively gives us lists BeforeMin and AfterMin, which are lists with the elements that precede and succeed Min.

The second use,

append(BeforeMin, AfterMin, RestUnsorted)

says that RestUnsorted is the list formed by concatenating BeforeMin and AfterMin. We use RestUnsorted to define RestSorted:

sorted(RestSorted, RestUnsorted)

This is a recursive application of the sorted rule, which here says that RestSorted is the elements in RestUnsorted in sorted order.

Example use:

| ?- sorted(What, [11, 86, 2, 69, 22, 39, 85, 57, 78, 76]).

What = [2,11,22,39,57,69,76,78,85,86] ? 


Is this an algorithm?

In a declarative language, it becomes difficult to say what algorithm is used to compute a result. In our definition of the sorted rule, the definition resembles a selection sort, where we building a sorted result by repeatedly selecting the minimum element.

A difficulty with declarative programming is because the programmer does not directly specify an algorithm, it is difficult to reason about the efficiency with which the computation will be carried out.

Merge Sort

Here is merge sort in Prolog.

Recall that merge sort is a recursive sorting algorithm based on merging sorted lists to produce a single sorted list that contains all of the elements from the two input lists.

Here is how we can define the merge operation in Prolog. First, the base cases:

merge(List, List, []).
merge(List, [], List).

These rules state that the result of merging any sorted list with the empty list produces that list.

A pair of recursive rules define the more general case of merging two nonempty lists:

merge([MinList1|RestMerged], [MinList1|RestList1], [MinList2|RestList2]) :-
  MinList1 =< MinList2,
merge([MinList2|RestMerged], [MinList1|RestList1], [MinList2|RestList2]) :-
  MinList2 =< MinList1,

The first rule says that the if MinList1, the first element of the list [MinList1 | RestList1] is smaller than MinList2 (the first element of the list [MinList2 | RestList2 ]), then the result of merging the two lists is MinList1, followed by the result of merging the lists RestList1 and [FirstList2 | RestList2]. The second rule handles the symmetric case (where MinList2 is less than MinList1).

Testing the merge rule:

| ?- merge(What, [1, 3, 5, 6], [2, 4, 7]).

What = [1,2,3,4,5,6,7] ? 

Now that we have a merge operation, we can define the mergeSort rule. First, the two base cases:

mergeSort([], []).
mergeSort([A], [A|[]]).

These rules state that sorting a list with no elements or exactly one element produces the same list as a result.

Next, the general (recursive) case:

mergeSort(Sorted, List) :-
  length(List, N),
  FirstLength is div(N, 2),
  SecondLength is N - FirstLength,
  length(FirstUnsorted, FirstLength),
  length(SecondUnsorted, SecondLength),
  append(FirstUnsorted, SecondUnsorted, List),
  mergeSort(FirstSorted, FirstUnsorted),
  mergeSort(SecondSorted, SecondUnsorted),
  merge(Sorted, FirstSorted, SecondSorted).

A few things to note here:

  • The length predicate asserts that the length of the list called List is N
  • The div function does integer division
  • FirstLength and SecondLength are the lengths required to split the overall List into two equal parts: the length predicate is used to assert that FirstUnsorted and SecondUnsorted are lists with those lengths
  • append(FirstUnsorted, SecondUnsorted, List) asserts that List is the result of concatenating FirstList and SecondList
  • The recursive applications of mergeSort assert that FirstSorted and SecondSorted are the results of sorting FirstUnsorted and SecondUnsorted, respectively
  • The clause merge(Sorted, FirstSorted, SecondSorted) asserts that the overall result, Sorted, is the result of merging FirstSorted and SecondUnsorted

Testing merge sort:

| ?- mergeSort(What, [11, 86, 2, 69, 22, 39, 85, 57, 78, 76]).

What = [2,11,22,39,57,69,76,78,85,86] ? 

Is this an algorithm?

Again, with a declarative language, it’s hard to say.

It is worth noting that the definition of our rules is pretty close to how we might define merge sort in an imperative language.

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