The term "Reflection" refers to a set of services in a programming language that let a running program dynamically inspect its own structure. This can include access to things like the call stack, variable datatypes, object structures, and the compiler symbol table. Part of this is the ability to look at the instantaneous run-time conditions of the program, and part is relating that status back to the program's original source code. Reflection is so named because it (metaphorically) lets the program hold a mirror up to itself.

Reflection features vary considerably from one programming language to another. Compiled languages like C and C++ generally offer little or no reflection capability, while modern scripting languages such as Javascript let the program see almost everything about its own structure. TADS 3 is between the two extremes, but closer to the dynamic end of the spectrum. TADS 3 programs are compiled, which makes the representation of a running program quite different from the original source code; however, the TADS compilation process preserves a great deal of information about the original source code structure, and makes this information available through the reflection system.

Fundamental-type codes

Certain reflection functions return or accept "type code" values. These are integer values that represent the fundamental system types in these contexts.

The system header file <systype.h> defines macro symbols for the types:

TypeNil nil
TypeTrue true
TypeObject object reference
TypeProp property ID
TypeInt integer
TypeSString single-quoted string
TypeDString double-quoted string
TypeList list
TypeCode executable code (i.e., a method)
TypeFuncPtr pointer to function
TypeNativeCode native code (i.e., an intrinsic class method)
TypeEnum enumerator
TypeBifPtr pointer to built-in function

Note that List and String objects will be represented with the TypeList and TypeSString codes, respectively; even though they're actually object references, the reflection services treat them as primitive types. Other object types, such as BigNumber, Vector, LookupTable, etc., will be reported as TypeObject; you can use the Object class-sensing methods to determine specifically which type of object you're working with.

An anonymous function can be represented as either TypeFuncPtr or TypeObject. This depends on whether or not the function refers to any of the local variables from the enclosing scope where the function is defined. (This includes self and the other method context pseudo-variables.) If the anonymous function does refer to any variables from the enclosing scope, it's represented as an object, which contains the context information tying the function to the local scope in effect when the function was created. If the function doesn't reference anything in its enclosing scope, no context information is required, so the function is represented as a simple static function pointer.

Determining a value's type

The TADS language does not require (or allow) you to specify at compile-time the type of data that a variable or property can hold. When a program is running, a variable or property can hold any kind of value, and you can change the type it stores at any time simply by assigning it a new value. In this sense, the TADS language is not "statically typed": there is no compile-time type associated with a variable or property value.

However, the language is strongly typed - but at run-time rather than at compile-time. Each value has a specific type, and the type of a value itself can never change (even though its container can change type when you store a new value in it). In addition, the system does not allow you to perform arbitrary conversions between types; you can never use an integer as though it were an object reference, for example.

You can access the type of any value using the dataType() intrinsic function. This function returns a code that indicates the "primitive" (built-in) type of the value. The primitive types are the basic types built in to the language: true, nil, integer, string, list, object reference, function pointer, property ID, enumerator.

If the primitive type of a value is object reference, you can learn more about the type by inspecting the class relationships of the object. At the simplest level, you can determine if the object is related by inheritance to a particular class using the ofKind() method on the object. If you need more general information, you can use the getSuperclassList() method to obtain a list of all of the direct superclasses of the object.


The standard library adds another function, dataTypeXlat(), that provides a slightly higher-level version of dataType(). The two functions are almost the same, except for how they treat anonymous functions and dynamic functions.

An anonymous function is technically an object of intrinsic class AnonFuncPtr, and dataType() doesn't make any attempt to hide this fact: it returns TypeObject. The same goes for DynamicFunc objects.

However, for most practical purposes, anonymous and dynamic function objects are interchangeable with regular function pointers; in practice, you end up using all function types the same way. This sometimes makes it slightly inconvenient that dataType() returns TypeObject for anonymous and dynamic functions, vs. TypeFuncPtr for regular function pointers. This is where dataTypeXlat() comes in. This function returns TypeFuncPtr for anonymous function objects and dynamic function objects, just as it does for a regular function pointer. So wh en you're interested in determining whether a particular value is effectively a function, meaning it can be invoked as though it were a function, dataTypeXlat() makes it easier to find out.

For all other types, dataType() and dataTypeXlat() return the same results.

Determining a property's definition

The dataType() function can be used with any value, but sometimes it is useful to obtain the type of a particular property definition for a particular object without evaluating the property. If an object's property is defined as a method, evaluating the property will call the method; sometimes it is necessary to learn whether or not the property is defined as a method without actually calling the method. For these cases, you can use the propType() method, which obtains the type of data defined for a property without actually evaluating the property.

You can determine if an object defines a property at all using the propDefined() method. This method also lets you determine whether the object defines the method directly or inherits it from a superclass, and when the method is inherited, to identify the superclass from which the object inherits the method.

Enumerating active objects

You can enumerate all of the objects in the running program using the firstObj() and nextObj() intrinsic functions. These functions let you iterate through the set of all objects in the program, including objects statically defined in the compiler and those dynamically allocated during execution.

for (local o = firstObj(Thing) ; o != nil ; o = nextObj(o, Thing))

Retrieving function and method interfaces

You can dynamically determine how many arguments a given function or method takes.

For a function, use getFuncParams():

// get parameter information on function main()
local p = getFuncParams(&main);

For a method, use the getPropParams method of the containing object:

// get the method parameters for book.lookAround()
local p = book.getPropParams(&lookAround);

Accessing named arguments

You can get a list of all of the named arguments currently in effect by calling t3GetNamedArgList(). This function returns a list of strings, where each string is the name of a currently active named argument.

You can retrieve the value of a named argument given its name via t3GetNamedArg().

(These functions are part of the t3vm set.)

Accessing compiler symbols: the reflectionServices object

TADS 3 lets a running program access the global symbols that were defined during compilation. This powerful capability makes it possible to interpret strings into object references, properties, and function references, so that you can do things such as call a property of an object given the name of the property as a string.

The system library provides an optional module that you can include in your program for a simple interface to the compiler symbols. To use these services, simply include the module reflect.t in your build Note that this is designed to be a separately-compiled module, so do not #include it from your source modules - instead, simply add it to your project (.t3m) file. If you're not using a project file, just add it to your t3make command line:

t3make myProg.t reflect.t

Note that, by default, reflect.t does not include support for the BigNumber intrinsic class. However, you can enable BigNumber support by defining the symbol REFLECT_BIGNUM, using the -D option in your project file or on the t3make command line.

t3make -DREFLECT_BIGNUM myProg.t reflect.t

The reflectionServices object provides the high-level compiler symbols interface. The methods of this object are discussed below.


formatStackFrame(fr, includeSourcePos) returns a string with a formatted representation of the stack frame fr, which must be an object of class T3StackInfo (the type of object in the list returned by the intrinsic function t3GetStackTrace()). If includeSourcePos is true, and source information is available for the frame, the return value includes a printable representation of the source position's filename and line number. The return values look like this:

myObj.prop1('abc', 123) myProg.t, line 52


valToSymbol(val) converts the value val to a symbolic or string representation, as appropriate. If the value is an integer, string, BigNumber, list, true, or nil, the return value is a string representation of the value appropriate to the type (in the case of true and nil, the strings 'true' and 'nil' are returned, respectively). If the value is an object, property ID, function pointer, or enumerator, the return value is a string giving the symbolic name of the value, if available, or a string showing the type without a symbol (such as "(obj)" or "(prop)").

Low-level compiler symbol services

This section discusses the low-level compiler symbol services. These services are built into the VM. In most cases, you should use the high-level services provided by the reflectionServices object, since that interface is easier to use and provides substantially the same capabilities.

The interpreter provides the program with the global symbols via a LookupTable object. Each entry in the table has a compiler symbol as its key, and the symbol's definition as its value. For example, each named object defined in the program has an entry in the table with the compile-time name of the object as the key, and a reference to the object as its value. In addition, the table includes all of the properties, functions, enumerators, and intrinsic classes.

To obtain a reference to the symbol table, use the t3GetGlobalSymbols() intrinsic function. This function returns the LookupTable object, if it's available, or nil if not.

Note that the global symbol table is available from t3GetGlobalSymbols() only under certain conditions:

At other times, the symbol table isn't available, so t3GetGlobalSymbls() returns nil. In particular, this is the case during normal execution (after preinit) of a program compiled for release, since the compiler omits the symbol table information from release builds to reduce the size of the image file.

Note that you can use the global symbol table during normal execution of a program compiled for release, if you want. To do this, simply obtain a reference to the symbol table in pre-initialization code, and then store the reference in a property of a statically-defined object. When the compiler builds the final image file, it will automatically keep the symbol table because of the reference stored in the program. Here's an example:

#include <t3.h>
#include <lookup.h>

symtabObj: PreinitObject
    // stash a reference to the symbol table in
    // my 'symtab' property, so that it will
    // remain available at run-time
    symtab = t3GetGlobalSymbols();
  symtab = nil

To reference the symbol table at run-time, you would get it from symtabObj.symtab. Note that even though you stored a reference to the table, t3GetGlobalSymbols() will still return nil at run-time if the program wasn't compiled for debugging; the reference you saved is to the table that was created during pre-initialization, which at run-time is just an ordinary LookupTable object loaded from the image file.

If you don't store a reference to the symbol table during pre-initialization, the garbage collector will detect that the table is unreachable, and will automatically discard the object. This saves space in the image file (and at run-time) for programs that don't need access to the information during normal execution.

Here's an example of using the symbol table to call a method by name. This example asks the user to type in the name of a method, then looks up the name in the symbol table and calls the property, if it's found.

  local methodName;
  local prop;

  // ask for the name of a method to call
  "Enter a method name: ";
  methodName = inputLine();

  // look up the symbol
  prop = symtabObj.symtab[methodName];

  // make sure we found a property
  if (prop == nil)
    "Undefined symbol";
  else if (dataType(prop) != TypeProp)
    "Not a property";
    // be sure to catch any errors in the call
      // call the property with no arguments

    catch (Exception exc)
      // show the error
      "Error calling method: ";

Preprocessor macros

The t3GetGlobalSymbols() function can also retrieve information on the preprocessor macros defined in the program's source code. This information is in the correct format for use with the DynamicFunc class's dynamic compiler, so you can pass it directly to the DynamicFunc constructor as the "macroTable" argument.

To retrieve the macro information, specify the constant value T3PreprocMacros as the selector argument to t3GetGlobalSymbols():

local macros = t3GetGlobalSymbols(T3PreprocMacros);

This retrieves a LookupTable containing all of the "global" macros defined in the compiled program's source code (more on this shortly). Each key in the table is a macro symbol name, and the corresponding value contains information on the definition of the macro.

The definition of a macro consists of a list with three elements:

Here are a few examples of macros and their corresponding table information.

#define HUNDRED  100
   ->   ['100', [], 0]

#define square(x) ((x)*(x))
   ->   ['((x)*(x))', ['x'], 0x0001]

#define debugPrint(msg...)  tadsSay('Debug message: ', ##msg)
   ->   ['tadsSay(\'Debug message: \', ##msg)', ['msg'], 0x0003]

What makes a macro global?

The macro table returned by t3GetGlobalSymbols() only contains "global" macros.

A global macro is one that has a fixed value throughout the program. Global macros are the most common type, because the usual convention is to define macros in common header files, which ensures that each module throughout the program has the same definition for any given macro. However, it's perfectly legal to use #define directly in a source code module, rather than in a header, and it's legal for different modules to have different definitions for the same macro. It's also possible to change a macro's definition one or more times within a single source module, by using #undef to remove the old definition. In either case, the table excludes macros that have two or more distinct definitions anywhere in the program.

The reason for excluding non-global macros is that the table itself is global: there's only one table for the whole program, so the table can't be tied to any particular source code file or portion of a file. If a macro is redefined with different expansions in different parts of the source code, there's no "one true definition" that applies throughout the program. So, the system considers such macros to be roughly analogous to local variables, and omits them from the global macro table.

Availability of macro information

The macro table is available under the same conditions as the global symbol table: during preinit, and during normal execution as long as the program was compiled for debugging. You can use the same trick we saw for the global symbol table if you want to be able to access the macros during normal program execution in release mode: retrieve the table during preinit, and save a reference in an object property.

Custom reflection services

You can replace the reflection services defined in reflect.t by defining your own versions. For the most part, the services defined there are for your program's consumption, so you can define the interfaces however you like. However, the VM makes its own calls to certain reflect.t services when they're available, so for full functionality you'll need to define your replacements using the same interfaces in those cases. The specific requirements are: