This is documentation for Mathematica 6, which was
based on an earlier version of the Wolfram Language.
View current documentation (Version 11.1)


The Standard Evaluation Sequence

The following is the sequence of steps that Mathematica follows in evaluating an expression like h[e1, e2...]. Every time the expression changes, Mathematica effectively starts the evaluation sequence over again.
  • If the expression is a raw object (e.g., Integer, String, etc.), leave it unchanged.
  • Evaluate the head h of the expression.
  • If h has attribute Flat, then flatten out all nested expressions with head h.
  • If h has attribute Listable, then thread through any ei that are lists.
  • If h has attribute Orderless, then sort the ei into order.
  • Unless h has attribute HoldAllComplete, use any applicable transformation rules associated with f that you have defined for objects of the form h[f[e1, ...], ...].
  • Use any built-in transformation rules associated with f for objects of the form h[f[e1, ...], ...].
  • Use any applicable transformation rules that you have defined for h[f[e1, e2, ...], ...] or for h[...][...].
  • Use any built-in transformation rules for h[e1, e2, ...] or for h[...][...].

Nonstandard Argument Evaluation

There are a number of built-in Mathematica functions that evaluate their arguments in special ways. The control structure While is an example. The symbol While has the attribute HoldAll. As a result, the arguments of While are not evaluated as part of the standard evaluation process. Instead, the internal code for While evaluates the arguments in a special way. In the case of While, the code evaluates the arguments repeatedly, so as to implement a loop.
Control structuresarguments evaluated in a sequence determined by control flow (e.g., CompoundExpression)
Conditionalsarguments evaluated only when they correspond to branches that are taken (e.g., If, Which)
Logical operationsarguments evaluated only when they are needed in determining the logical result (e.g., And, Or)
Iteration functionsfirst argument evaluated for each step in the iteration (e.g., Do, Sum, Plot)
Tracing functionsform never evaluated (e.g., Trace)
Assignmentsfirst argument only partially evaluated (e.g., Set, AddTo)
Pure functionsfunction body not evaluated (e.g., Function)
Scoping constructsvariable specifications not evaluated (e.g., Module, Block)
Holding functionsargument maintained in unevaluated form (e.g., Hold, HoldPattern)

Built-in functions that evaluate their arguments in special ways.

Logical Operations

In an expression of the form e1&&e2&&e3 the ei are evaluated in order. As soon as any ei is found to be False, evaluation is stopped, and the result False is returned. This means that you can use the ei to represent different "branches" in a program, with a particular branch being evaluated only if certain conditions are met.
The Or function works much like And; it returns True as soon as it finds any argument that is True. Xor, on the other hand, always evaluates all its arguments.

Iteration Functions

An iteration function such as Do[f, {i, imin, imax}] is evaluated as follows:
  • The limits imin, imax are evaluated.
  • The value of the iteration variable i is made local, effectively using Block.
  • imin and imax are used to determine the sequence of values to be assigned to the iteration variable i.
  • The iteration variable is successively set to each value, and f is evaluated in each case.
  • The local values assigned to i are cleared.
If there are several iteration variables, the same procedure is followed for each variable in turn, for every value of all the preceding variables.
Unless otherwise specified, f is not evaluated until a specific value has been assigned to i, and is then evaluated for each value of i chosen. You can use Evaluate[f] to make f be evaluated immediately, rather than only after a specific value has been assigned to i.


The left-hand sides of assignments are only partially evaluated.
  • If the left-hand side is a symbol, no evaluation is performed.
  • If the left-hand side is a function without hold attributes, the arguments of the function are evaluated, but the function itself is not evaluated.
The right-hand side is evaluated for immediate (=), but not for delayed (:=), assignments.
Any subexpression of the form HoldPattern[expr] that appears on the left-hand side of an assignment is not evaluated. When the subexpression is used for pattern matching, it matches as though it were expr without the HoldPattern.

Overriding Nonstandard Argument Evaluation

f[...,Evaluate[expr],...]evaluates the argument expr, whether or not f has a HoldFirst, HoldRest, or HoldAll attribute specifying that it should be held

Overriding holding of arguments.

By using Evaluate, you can get any argument of a function evaluated immediately, even if the argument would usually be evaluated later under the control of the function. An exception to this is when the function has the HoldComplete attribute; in this case, the contents of the function are not modified by the evaluator.

Preventing Evaluation

Mathematica provides various functions which act as "wrappers" to prevent the expressions they contain from being evaluated.
Hold[expr]treated as Hold[expr] in all cases
HoldComplete[expr]treated as HoldComplete[expr] with upvalues disabled
HoldForm[expr]treated as expr for printing
HoldPattern[expr]treated as expr in rules, definitions and patterns
Unevaluated[expr]treated as expr when arguments are passed to a function

Wrappers that prevent expressions from being evaluated.

Global Control of Evaluation

In the evaluation procedure described so far, two basic kinds of steps are involved:
  • Iteration: evaluate a particular expression until it no longer changes.
  • Recursion: evaluate subsidiary expressions needed to find the value of a particular expression.
Iteration leads to evaluation chains in which successive expressions are obtained by the application of various transformation rules.
Trace shows evaluation chains as lists, and shows subsidiary evaluations corresponding to recursion in sublists.
The expressions associated with the sequence of subsidiary evaluations which lead to an expression currently being evaluated are given in the list returned by Stack[].
$RecursionLimitmaximum recursion depth
$IterationLimitmaximum number of iterations

Global variables controlling the evaluation of expressions.


You can ask Mathematica to abort at any point in a computation, either by calling the function Abort[], or by typing appropriate interrupt keys.
When asked to abort, Mathematica will terminate the computation as quickly as possible. If the answer obtained would be incorrect or incomplete, then Mathematica returns $Aborted instead of giving that answer.
Aborts can be caught using CheckAbort, and can be postponed using AbortProtect.