Syllabus and general information for MCS-287: Organization and Theory of Programming Languages (Spring 2009)


This course will help you learn how programming languages are designed, specified, and implemented. You will learn both about broad areas of commonality that underlie many superficially different languages and about the critical distinctions between langauges that may at first glance seem similar. Although we will spend some time working with a few example languages, the goal is not to make you a master of these languages, but rather to give you ways to think about languages, which will serve you well as you encounter future languages.

Office hours

I will be available in my office (OHS 303) 10:30-11:20 on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays as well as by appointment. Or try your luck: just stop by and see whether my door is open. You may send me electronic mail at or call me at extension 7466. I'll try to put any updates to my office hours on my web page, so check there if in doubt.

World Wide Web

All course materials will be available through my World Wide Web page. The URL for this course is After this syllabus I will give hardcopy handouts only to those students who want them.


This course has MCS-178 and MCS-236 as prerequisites. In MCS-178 you previewed several topics we cover in this course: grammars, evaluation, the stack-oriented use of a computer's memory to support recursive procedure invocations, and the contrast between object-oriented and functional programming. From MCS-236, you should be comfortable with basic mathematical concepts and notations, such as sets, functions, and relations.

Text and readings

The primary text for this course is Modern Programming Languages: A Practical Introduction, by Adam Brooks Webber. In order to rememdy one of the most important regards in which this book is out of date, I've also linked into the syllabus a supplementary reading about Java generics. In both cases, numerically specified readings in the syllabus refer to chapters and sections.


There will be two intra-term tests (one take-home, one in-class) as shown on the syllabus and a final exam as scheduled by the registrar. If you have a conflict with a testing time, please contact me as soon as possible to make an alternative arrangement.

Exams will be closed-book and mostly closed-notes. You may, however, use a single 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper with hand-written notes for reference. (Both sides of the sheet are OK.)


Some days, shown in the syllabus, we will meet in the OHS 326 computer lab rather than in the usual classroom. Each lab assignment will also require you to spend additional time out of class.


You are expected to be familiar with the college academic honesty honor code policy and to comply with that policy. If you have any questions about it, please ask.

Mastery homework

The syllabus shows due dates for eight homework assignments; each will typically consist of a few problems. You must turn in all the problems in an assignment by that assignment's due date, but may turn in individual problems earlier if you wish. I will mark each problem as "mastered" or "not yet mastered," and return them to you as rapidly as I can. For those not yet mastered, I may write some brief indication of what area needs work, but you should really take these as an invitation to come talk. You may turn in a revised version of each problem (with the previous graded version attached) however many times it takes to reach the "mastered" point, even after the original due date. The only restrictions are these:

Note that if you turn in each homework problem as soon as you can do it, rather than saving them for the assignment due dates, you will have more opportunity for revision and resubmission before the cutoff dates listed above. Particularly for the last homeworks before each cutoff date (and test), I can't guarantee you'll have time for a revision cycle otherwise.

The homework portion of your course grade will simply be determined by the fraction of the homework problems you eventually mastered.

Late assignments

All lab assignments are due at the beginning of class on the day indicated. Late lab assignments will be penalized by one “grade notch” (such as A to A- or A- to B+) for each weekday late or fraction thereof. However, no late assignments will be accepted after graded assignments are handed back or solutions are distributed.

If you are too sick to complete an assignment on time, you will not be penalized. Simply write “late due to illness” at the top of the assignment, sign your name and hand it in. Other circumstances will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Grade changes

Please point out any arithmetic or clerical error I make in grading, and I will gladly fix it. You may also request reconsideration if I have been especially unjust.


The course components will contribute to your grade in the following proportion:

However, I reserve the right to subjectively adjust your final grade. Please see me if you have any question how you stand. Class participation is not graded; however, it allows you to find and repair the gaps in your understanding before doing the assignments, and thus can dramatically improve your grade. You are responsible for all course material, whether or not you are present when it was covered or distributed.

Style guidelines

All assignments should be readily readable and should not presuppose that I already know what you are trying to say. Use full English sentences where appropriate (namely almost everywhere) and clear diagrams, programs, etc. Remember that your goal is to communicate clearly and that the appearance of these technical items plays a role in this communication process. Be sure your assignments are always stapled together and that your name is always on them.


If you have a learning, psychological, or physical disability for which a reasonable accommodation can be made, I would be happy to refer you to the college's disability services coordinator and to cooperate in the accommodation process. It is generally best if this can be done as soon as possible.


This is my best guess as to the rate at which we will cover material. However, don't be shocked if I have to pass out one or more revised syllabi.

2/91.1-2.5Overview and grammars
2/102.6-2.8More on grammars
2/123Syntax meets semantics
2/134Language systems

2/165A first look at MLHW 1
2/17Lab 1: ML Programming
2/207A second look at ML

2/24Lab 1 continues
2/269A third look at ML

3/2Lab 1 concludesHW 2
3/311A fourth look at ML
3/5Review/catch-up (take-home exam 1 out)
3/6No class (Federated Insurance trip)

3/912.1-12.6Activation recordsLab 1, exam 1
3/12More on activation records and closures
3/1313A first look at JavaHW 3

3/1614.1-14.4Memory management
3/1714.5-14.6Garbage collection
3/1915A second look at Java
3/20Lab 2: An Interpreter

3/30Lab 2 continuesHW 4
3/31Bracha 1-3Java generics
4/2Lab 2 concludes
4/3Bracha 4-6More Java generics

4/6Bracha 7-11Yet more Java genericsLab 2
4/716Object orientation
4/9Lab 3: Java GenericsHW 5

4/14Lab 3 continues
4/1617A third look at Java
4/1718ParametersHW 6

4/20Lab 3 concludes
4/23Intra-term exam 2
4/2419.1-19.7A first look at Prolog

4/2719.8-19.11More prologLab 3
4/28Lab 4: Parsing and Analysis in Prolog
4/3020.1-20.4Prolog implementation
5/120.5-20.7More about Prolog

5/4Lab 4 continues
5/521Cost modelsHW 7
5/722Final Prolog class
5/823.1-23.3Natural semantics

5/11Lab 4 continues
5/12Lab 4 concludesHW 8
5/1423.4-23.6More on semantics
5/15Yet more on semantics

5/1824History of programming languagesLab 4

Course web site:
Instructor: Max Hailperin <>