I understand the difference between partial function application and a curried function (f(X x Y x Z) -> N vs f(X -> (Y -> (Z -> N)))), but I do not see what the consequence of this difference is when developing software.


Originally, currying was to simplify analysis, rather than a practical programming technique; in lambda calculus, all functions are unary. Currying is often used at the language level for a similar reason: simplifying the computational model.

Partial application is used when a named, useful function can be implemented in terms of another, more general function simply by fixing an argument.

They remain distinct forms, involving different parts of computation. Consider:


Note that a curried function doesn't have any values bound to arguments and takes the arguments in a specific order; once you curry a function, you don't curry the result and don't change the order that the function takes arguments (though you could uncurry and curry to do so). A partial function, in contrast, has values bound to arguments and can be further partially applied along any remaining argument.

Applying a curried function is close to partial application (you don't, after all, curry a function and leave it at that; at some point, you're going to apply it), which is where uses begin to cross over. When you do this, currying is only the first of two steps towards partial application.

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I believe that your question can be rephrased as: why do languages have currying?

It is mostly a question of convenience:

In Ocaml, you could code

 let sum3 x y z = x + y + z;;
 let foo xx yy ll = List.map (sum3 xx yy) ll;;

In Scheme you'll need to explicitly make an anonymous function

 (define (sum3 x y z) (+ x y z))
 (define (foo xx yy ll) (map (lambda (zz) (sum3 xx yy zz)) ll))  

Languages with partial applications & currying need practically to have an optimization to avoid creating partial closures everywhere; you don't want the implementation to always apply sum3 as if it was defined as

 let sum3 x = 
    fun y -> 
      (fun z -> x + y + z)

that is, to allocate 2 intermediate closures when computing sum3 1 2 3 (understood and parsed as ((sum3 1) 2) 3 ...). You want the sum to be computed immediately.

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