Tell, don't ask example

Published on 20 September 2016.

12 November 2016: Added sentence to introduction giving an overview of the article.

I recently read The Pragmatic Programmer, and in one of the exercises you should write a parser for a DSL that controls a drawing package. Here is the example from the book:

P 2  # select pen 2
D    # pen down
W 2  # draw west 2cm
N 1  # then north 1
E 2  # then east 2
S 1  # then back south
U    # pen up

In this article I explore two solutions to this problem where the direction of control differs. Here is the first (in Python):

class Parser(object):

    def parse(self, file_path):
        with open(file_path) as f:
            result = []
            for line in f:
            return result

    def parse_line(self, line):
        patterns = [
            (r"^P (\d)", lambda match: ("select_pen", int(,
            (r"^D",      lambda match: ("pen_down",   None)),
            (r"^W (\d)", lambda match: ("west",       int(,
            (r"^N (\d)", lambda match: ("north",      int(,
            (r"^E (\d)", lambda match: ("east",       int(,
            (r"^S (\d)", lambda match: ("south",      int(,
            (r"^U",      lambda match: ("pen_up",     None)),
        for (pattern, fn) in patterns:
            match =, line)
            if match:
                return fn(match)

The result of running the parser on the example is the following:

    ('select_pen', 2),
    ('pen_down', None),
    ('west', 2),
    ('north', 1),
    ('east', 2),
    ('south', 1),
    ('pen_up', None)

In this solution, each line is converted to a command object (a tuple) and all commands are returned in a list. This list of commands is a kind of parse tree, and it is easier to work with than the plain text. It is up to the consumer of the parse tree what to do next.

Here is an example showing how the parse tree can be pretty printed (formatted to text again after being parsed):

def pretty_print(commands):
    for (command, argument) in commands:
        if command == "select_pen":
            print("P {}".format(argument))
        elif command == "pen_down":
        elif command == "west":
            print("W {}".format(argument))
        elif command == "north":
            print("N {}".format(argument))
        elif command == "east":
            print("E {}".format(argument))
        elif command == "south":
            print("S {}".format(argument))
        elif command == "pen_up":

If run on the example, the following output is obtained:

P 2
W 2
N 1
E 2
S 1

The original program is obtained except for all the comments that have been stripped. Notice that the pretty_print function has to know about the structure of the parse tree: it has to know that it is a list of commands and that each command is a tuple with two entries (some of which might be None). The lack of a final else-statement is also unsatisfactory.

In object oriented terms, the parser is asked for a list of commands. How would a solution look like if the Tell, don’t ask principle is applied? Here is one alternative:

class Parser(object):

    def __init__(self, interpreter):
        self._interpreter = interpreter

    def parse(self, file_path):
        with open(file_path) as f:
            for line in f:

    def parse_line(self, line):
        patterns = [
            (r"^P (\d)", lambda match: self._interpreter.select_pen(int(,
            (r"^D",      lambda match: self._interpreter.pen_down()),
            (r"^W (\d)", lambda match: self._interpreter.west(int(,
            (r"^N (\d)", lambda match: self._interpreter.north(int(,
            (r"^E (\d)", lambda match: self._interpreter.east(int(,
            (r"^S (\d)", lambda match: self._interpreter.south(int(,
            (r"^U",      lambda match: self._interpreter.pen_up()),
        for (pattern, fn) in patterns:
            match =, line)
            if match:

This parser returns nothing. Instead it depends on an interpreter that it forwards calls to: It tells the interpreter to handle various commands. An interpreter can be any object supporting the command-methods. Here is what the pretty printer from the first example would look like:

class PrettyPrinter(object):

    def select_pen(self, number):
        print("P {}".format(number))

    def pen_down(self):

    def west(self, amount):
        print("W {}".format(amount))

    def north(self, amount):
        print("N {}".format(amount))

    def east(self, amount):
        print("E {}".format(amount))

    def south(self, amount):
        print("S {}".format(amount))

    def pen_up(self):

The pretty printer no longer has to do the looping. It doesn’t have to bother with arguments being None either. Instead it just has one method to handle each type of command.

Try to compare the solutions and think about in what situations one is better than the other. What has to change if a new command is added? What has to change to do some actual drawing instead of pretty printing? What if both drawing and pretty printing must be supported?

See also:

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