Control Structures

To do real work in a program you have to be able to make decisions, iterate through collections of items and perform actions repeatedly. For this, you need control structures. Pony has control structures that will be familiar to programmers who have used most languages, such as if, while and for, but in Pony, they work slightly differently.


The simplest control structure is the good old if. It allows you to perform some action only when a condition is true. In Pony it looks like this:

if a > b then
  env.out.print("a is bigger")

Can I use integers and pointers for the condition like I can in C? No. In Pony if conditions must have type Bool, i.e. they are always true or false. If you want to test whether a number a is not 0, then you need to explicitly say a != 0. This restriction removes a whole category of potential bugs from Pony programs.

If you want some alternative code for when the condition fails just add an else:

if a > b then
  env.out.print("a is bigger")
  env.out.print("a is not bigger")

Often you want to test more than one condition in one go, giving you more than two possible outcomes. You can nest if statements, but this quickly gets ugly:

if a == b then
  env.out.print("they are the same")
  if a > b then
    env.out.print("a is bigger")
    env.out.print("b bigger")

As an alternative Pony provides the elseif keyword that combines an else and an if. This works the same as saying else if in other languages and you can have as many elseifs as you like for each if.

if a == b then
  env.out.print("they are the same")
elseif a > b then
  env.out.print("a is bigger")
  env.out.print("b bigger")

Why can't I just say "else if" like I do in C? Why the extra keyword? The relationship between if and else in C, and other similar languages, is ambiguous. For example:

// C code
    printf("a and b\n");
  printf("not a\n");

Here it is not obvious whether the else is an alternative to the first or the second if. In fact here the else relates to the if(b) so our example contains a bug. Pony avoids this type of bug by handling if and else differently and the need for elseif comes out of that.

Everything is an expression

The big difference for control structures between Pony and other languages is that in Pony everything is an expression. In languages like C++ and Java if is a statement, not an expression. This means that you can't have an if inside an expression, there has to be a separate conditional operator '?'.

In Pony there are no statements there are only expressions, everything hands back a value. Your if statement hands you back a value. Your for loop (which we'll get to a bit later) hands you back a value.

This means you can use if directly in a calculation:

x = 1 + if lots then 100 else 2 end

This will give x a value of either 3 or 101, depending on the variable lots.

If the then and else branches of an if produce different types then the if produces a union of the two.

var x: (String | Bool) =
  if friendly then

But what if my if doesn't have an else? Any else branch that doesn't exist gives an implicit None.

var x: (String | None) =
  if friendly then

Does Pony still have the conditional operator "?"? No, it's not needed. Just use if.


if allows you to choose what to do, but to do something more than once you want a loop.


Pony while loops are very similar to those in other languages. A condition expression is evaluated and if it's true we execute the code inside the loop. When we're done we evaluate the condition again and keep going until it's false.

Here's an example that prints out the numbers 1 to 10:

var count: U32 = 1

while count <= 10 do
  count = count + 1

Just like if expressions while is also an expression. The value returned is just the value of the expression inside the loop the last time we go round it. For this example that will be the value given by count = count + 1 when count is incremented to 11. Since Pony assignments hand back the old value our while loop will return 10.

But what if the condition evaluates to false the first time we try, then we don't go round the loop at all? In Pony while expressions can also have an else block. In general, Pony else blocks provide a value when the expression they are attached to doesn't. A while doesn't have a value to give if the condition evaluates to false the first time, so the else provides it instead.

So is this like an else block on a while loop in Python? No, this is very different. In Python, the else is run when the while completes. In Pony the else is only run when the expression in the while isn't.


Sometimes you want to stop part-way through a loop and give up altogether. Pony has the break keyword for this and it is very similar to its counterpart in languages like C++, C#, and Python.

break immediately exits from the innermost loop it's in. Since the loop has to return a value break can take an expression. This is optional and if it's missed out the value from the else block is returned.

Let's have an example. Suppose you want to go through a list of names you're getting from somewhere, looking for either "Jack" or "Jill". If neither of those appear you'll just take the last name you're given and if you're not given any names at all you'll use "Herbert".

var name =
  while moreNames() do
    var name' = getName()
    if name' == "Jack" or name' == "Jill" then
      break name'

So first we ask if there are any more names to get. If there are then we get a name and see if it's "Jack" or "Jill". If it is we're done and we break out of the loop, handing back the name we've found. If not we try again.

The line name' appears at the end of the loop so that will be our value returned from the last iteration if neither "Jack" nor "Jill" is found.

The else block provides our value of "Herbert" if there are no names available at all.

Can I break out of multiple, nested loops like the Java labeled break? No, Pony does not support that. If you need to break out of multiple loops you should probably refactor your code or use a worker function.


Sometimes you want to stop part-way through one loop iteration and move onto the next. Like other languages, Pony uses the continue keyword for this.

continue stops executing the current iteration of the innermost loop it's in and evaluates the condition ready for the next iteration.

If continue is executed during the last iteration of the loop then we have no value to return from the loop. In this case, we use the loop's else expression to get a value. As with the if expression if no else expression is provided None is returned.

Can I continue an outer, nested loop like the Java labeled continue? No, Pony does not support that. If you need to continue an outer loop you should probably refactor your code.


For iterating over a collection of items Pony uses the for keyword. This is very similar to foreach in C#, in Python and for in Java when used with a collection. It is very different to for in C and C++.

The Pony for loop iterates over a collection of items using an iterator. On each iteration, round the loop, we ask the iterator if there are any more elements to process and if there are we ask it for the next one.

For example to print out all the strings in an array:

for name in ["Bob"; "Fred"; "Sarah"].values() do

Note the call to values() on the array, this is because the loop needs an iterator, not an array.

The iterator does not have to be of any particular type, but needs to provide the following methods:

  fun has_next(): Bool
  fun next(): T?

where T is the type of the objects in the collection. You don't need to worry about this unless you're writing your own iterators. To use existing collections, such as those provided in the standard library, you can just use for and it will all work. If you do write your own iterators note that we use structural typing, so your iterator doesn't need to declare that it provides any particular type.

You can think of the above example as being equivalent to:

let iterator = ["Bob"; "Fred"; "Sarah"].values()
while iterator.has_next() do
  let name =

Note that the variable name is declared let, you cannot assign to the control variable within the loop.

Can I use break and continue with for loops? Yes, for loops can have else expressions attached and can use break and continue just as for while.


The final loop construct that Pony provides is repeat until. Here we evaluate the expression in the loop and then evaluate a condition expression to see if we're done or we should go round again.

This is similar to do while in C++, C# and Java except that the termination condition is reversed, i.e. those languages terminate the loop when the condition expression is false, Pony terminates the loop when the condition expression is true.

The differences between while and repeat in Pony are:

  1. We always go around the loop at least once with repeat, whereas with while we may not go round at all.
  2. The termination condition is reversed.

Suppose we're trying to create something and we want to keep trying until it's good enough:

  var present = makePresent()
until present.marksOutOfTen() > 7 end

Just like while loops the value given by a repeat loop is the value of the expression within the loop on the last iteration and break and continue can be used.

Since you always go round a repeat loop at least once do you ever need to give it an else expression? Yes, you may need to. A continue in the last iteration of a repeat loop needs to get a value from somewhere and an else expression is used for that.

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