# Values for Symbols

When the Wolfram Language transforms an expression such as x+x into 2x, it is treating the variable x in a purely symbolic or formal fashion. In such cases, x is a symbol that can stand for any expression.

Often, however, you need to replace a symbol like x with a definite "value". Sometimes this value will be a number; often it will be another expression.

To take an expression such as 1+2x and replace the symbol x that appears in it with a definite value, you can create a Wolfram Language transformation rule, and then apply this rule to the expression. To replace x with the value 3, you would create the transformation rule x->3. You must type -> as a pair of characters, with no space in between. You can think of x->3 as being a rule in which "x goes to 3".

To apply a transformation rule to a particular Wolfram Language expression, you type expr/.rule. The "replacement operator" /. is typed as a pair of characters, with no space in between.

expr/.x->value | replace x by value in the expression expr |

expr/.{x->xval,y->yval} | perform several replacements |

Replacing symbols by values in expressions.

The replacement operator /. allows you to apply transformation rules to a particular expression. Sometimes, however, you will want to define transformation rules that should *always* be applied. For example, you might want to replace x with 3 whenever x occurs.

As discussed in "Defining Variables", you can do this by *assigning* the value 3 to x using x=3. Once you have made the assignment x=3, x will always be replaced by 3, whenever it appears.

You can define the value of a symbol to be any expression, not just a number. You should realize that once you have given such a definition, the definition will continue to be used whenever the symbol appears, until you explicitly change or remove the definition. For most people, forgetting to remove values you have assigned to symbols is the single most common source of mistakes in using the Wolfram Language.

In[11]:= |

A symbol such as x can serve many different purposes in the Wolfram Language, and in fact, much of the flexibility of the Wolfram Language comes from being able to mix these purposes at will. However, you need to keep some of the different uses of x straight in order to avoid making mistakes. The most important distinction is between the use of x as a name for another expression, and as a symbolic variable that stands only for itself.

Traditional programming languages that do not support symbolic computation allow variables to be used only as names for objects, typically numbers, that have been assigned as values for them. In Wolfram Language, however, x can also be treated as a purely formal variable, to which various transformation rules can be applied. Of course, if you explicitly give a definition, such as x=3, then x will always be replaced by 3, and can no longer serve as a formal variable.

You should understand that explicit definitions such as x=3 have a global effect. On the other hand, a replacement such as expr/.x->3 affects only the specific expression expr. It is usually much easier to keep things straight if you avoid using explicit definitions except when absolutely necessary.

You can always mix replacements with assignments. With assignments, you can give names to expressions in which you want to do replacements, or to rules that you want to use to do the replacements.