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.

2 Answers 2


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.


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.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.