Greenspun's tenth rule

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Greenspun's tenth rule of programming is an aphorism in computer programming and especially programming language circles that states:[1][2]

Any sufficiently complicated C or Fortran program contains an ad-hoc, informally-specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of half of Common Lisp.

This expresses the opinion that the argued flexibility and extensibility designed into the Lisp programming language includes all functionality that is theoretically necessary to write any complex computer program, and that the features required to develop and manage such complexity in other programming languages are equivalent to some subset of the methods used in Lisp.

It can also be interpreted as a satirical critique of systems that include complex, highly configurable sub-systems.[3] Rather than including a custom interpreter for some domain-specific language, Greenspun's rule suggests using a widely accepted, fully featured language like Lisp.

Paul Graham [4] also highlights the satirical nature of the concept, albeit based on real issues:

That sounds like a joke, but it happens so often to varying degrees in large programming projects that there is a name for the phenomenon, Greenspun’s Tenth Rule: Any sufficiently complicated C or Fortran program contains an ad hoc informally-specified bug-ridden slow implementation of half of Common Lisp.

The rule was written sometime around 1993 by Philip Greenspun. Although it is known as his tenth rule, there are in fact no preceding rules, only the tenth. The reason for this according to Greenspun:

Sorry, Han-Wen, but there aren't 9 preceding laws. I was just trying to give the rule a memorable name.[5]

Hacker Robert Morris later declared a corollary, which clarifies the set of "sufficiently complicated" programs to which the rule applies:

…including Common Lisp.[6]

This corollary jokingly refers to the fact that many Common Lisp implementations (especially those available in the early 1990s) depend upon a low-level core of compiled C, which sidesteps the issue of bootstrapping but may itself be somewhat variable in quality, at least compared to a cleanly self-hosting Common Lisp.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Philip Greenspun's Research
  2. ^ Revenge of the Nerds, by Paul Graham.
  3. ^ Greenspun's Tenth Rule, does every large project include a Lisp interpreter?
  4. ^ Graham, Paul (2004). Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age. O'Reilly. p. 198. ISBN 978 - 0- 596-00662-4. 
  5. ^ 10th rule of programming
  6. ^ Paul Graham quotes.
  7. ^ Rhodes, Christophe (2008-05-15). "SBCL: a Sanely-Bootstrappable Common Lisp" (PDF). Lecture Notes in Computer Science (Self-Sustaining Systems: First Workshop). Retrieved 2016-10-24.