Programming Paradigms: An Introduction

A programming paradigm is a way of programming, a style of solving problems and thinking about the domain. Languages directly or indirectly influence programming style; for example, Haskell is purely functional while Python allows a blend of OOP, functional and imperative programming.

Even though most new languages are multi-paradigm, they usually make it easiest to program in a single paradigm; C programs can be written in a functional programming style (instead of the orthodox procedural fashion) –  it is just extremely difficult. Ever wondered why classes are needed to add two numbers in OOP Java?

Paradigms can be viewed as abstractions and metaphors for modelling problems – logic programs can be viewed as theorem solvers; functional programs rely on mathematical models while OOP models real-life objects and their interactions.

Nearly every standard problem can be solved using any of the programming paradigms however some problems are best solved using some paradigms (e.g. recursion vs loops). Thus knowing many paradigms helps programmers in producing very neat and elegant solutions; since they know different ways of solving problems and modelling domains.

Let’s take a shallow dive into some of the popular paradigms.

1. Imperative Programming

imperate: Done by express direction, not involuntary; commanded

In the imperative paradigm, programs are written as a series of instructions that affect global state. It is conceptually similar to cooking recipes which strictly list the steps in preparing a dish.

The imperative paradigm was quite popular until Dijkstra published his famous ‘GOTO considered harmful‘ letter. This fueled the adoption of the structured programming paradigm (albeit at the detriment of imperative programming).

2. Structured Programming

Structured programming is somewhat similar to imperative programming however control flow is defined in terms of loops, subroutines and conditionals; this distinguishes it from the imperative model of jumping around at the heck and bequest of every GOTO call.

The introduction of lexical scoping also helps to prevent the inadvertent overwriting of variables in the global scope.

3. Declarative Programming

Declarative programs have implicit execution: programs say what they want but not how the results should be gotten. SQL is a popular example, have you ever wondered how the SQL engine is able to calculate sums, averages, max etc.

A conceptual example is that of a manager declaring sales targets for his marketing team: the team is smart enough to figure out heuristics and also to go do it on their own (hopefully within ethical and legal limits).

4. Functional Programming (FP)

The functional programming paradigm is a subset of the declarative paradigm. All computation is done using functions – it attempts to do away with the use of variables and value assignments.

Pure functional programs are written as a combination of function calls which have no side effects and return the same result every time they are called with the same input no matter the environment. The elegance of FP comes from the use of higher-order functions (functions which can accept/return other functions e.g. differentiation/integration in the maths domain), referential transparency and high levels of abstraction.

On the other hand, some concepts might be inefficient (e.g. Y combinator) or ugly.

5. Object Oriented Programming (OOP)

This is probably the most popular and probably most widely-used of all programming paradigms. Object oriented programming is built on four major principles – encapsulation, polymorphism, inheritance and data abstraction.

OOP allows the creation of abstract models that mirror real-life objects’ interactions and behaviour. This enables the creation of huge complex software systems having intricate interactions such as state preservation, communication exchanges and behaviour handling.

There are two flavours: classical (where objects are defined and share their characteristics and behaviour based on a class’ blueprint) and prototypical (objects get their behaviour and characteristics from an original prototype object).


Some other paradigms include the event-driven where program respond to events (think web apps) while the logical programming paradigm tries to infer the solution when it is given a set of constraints and or conditions.

Upcoming posts would insha Allaah take a more thorough look at some of the popular paradigms.

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