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The Fundamental Ambiguity Theorem

There is a part of printBackward that might have raised an eyebrow:

        Node head = list;
        Node tail =;

After the first assignment, head and list have the same type and the same value. So why did I create a new variable?

The reason is that the two variables play different roles. We think of head as a reference to a single node, and we think of list as a reference to the first node of a list. These "roles" are not part of the program; they are in the mind of the programmer.

The second assignment creates a new reference to the second node in the list, but in this case we think of it as a list. So, even though head and tail have the same type, they play different roles.

This ambiguity is useful, but it can make programs with lists difficult to read. I often use variable names like node and list to document how I intend to use a variable, and sometimes I create additional variables to disambiguate.

I could have written printBackward without head and tail, but I think it makes it harder to understand:

    public static void printBackward (Node list) {
        if (list == null) return;

        printBackward (;
        System.out.print (list);

Looking at the two function calls, we have to remember that printBackward treats its argument as a list and print treats its argument as a single object.

Always keep in mind the fundamental ambiguity theorem:

A variable that refers to a node might treat the node as a single object or as the first in a list of nodes.

Last Update: 2011-01-24