More about equality

We’ve defined the λ-calculus in terms of reduction (), which is natural for thinking about λ-calculus as a mechanism for computation. But we can also think about it in terms of equivalence between terms. There is more than one way to do this.

We’ve already talked about α-equivalence. This is the finest-grained notion of equivalence we have, and not very interesting.


Another notion of equivalence is the reflexive, symmetric, transitive closure of β-reduction, called β-equivalence. That is, two terms are β-equivalent iff there is a sequence of zero or more reductions and expansions between them. Because of confluence, this can be restated as: two terms are β-equivalent iff they reduce in zero or more steps to the same term.

Under full β-reduction, that would be a reasonable notion of equivalence, but under call-by-value, it’s too fine-grained. For example, since we don’t reduce inside lambdas, this definition doesn’t equate (say) λs. λz. s z and λs. λz. s ((λs. λz. z) s z). But intuitively these two terms do the same thing.

Observational equivalence

The coarsest-grained notion of equivalence is called observational (or behavioral or contextual or operational) equivalence. Define a context to be a closed term with a single hole [·] in it; this is like an evaluation context, except the hole can occur anywhere. Then two terms t and t' are called observationally equivalent iff for all contexts C such that C[t] and C[t'] are closed, C[t] and C[t'] have the same “observable” result.

What “observable” means seems to depend on the situation. For the pure untyped λ-calculus, having the same “observable” result means that they either both converge (not necessarily to the same thing) or both diverge. This definition may be surprising, but the idea is that if t and t' can be distinguished, then it should be possible to make a context that makes one of them converge and the other diverge.

Equational theories

Proving that two terms are observationally equivalent can be difficult. But we can write down an equational theory with which we can sometimes (not necessarily always) prove that two terms are observationally equivalent. Above, we proposed to use the reflexive, symmetric, transitive closure of , which we can write out as:

           t = t             (Eq-Reflexive)

           t = t'
          ―――――――            (Eq-Symmetric)
          t' = t

      t = t'   t' = t"
      ――――――――――――――――       (Eq-Transitive)
           t = t"

           t = t'
        ――――――――――――         (Eq-Context)
        E[t] = E[t']

(λx. t12) v2 = [xv2]t12    (Eq-AppAbs)

But it would seem that, just as in algebra, if two terms are equal, we ought to be able to substitute them into any context C (not just an evaluation context), and the resulting terms should be equal:

           t = t'
        ――――――――――――         (Eq-Context')
        C[t] = C[t']

(This rule replaces Eq-Context.) In other words, the new definition is the reflexive, symmetric, transitive closure of full βᵥ-reduction (v), which is what we’ve been using.

The important fact is that if t = t' according to the above rules, then they are observationally equivalent [1]. (The proof is not difficult using the results mentioned in More about evaluation.)

I think that should be enough for our purposes, but there are other axioms that could be added to the theory – if you’re curious, they are [2,3]:

      λx. v x = v       x ∉ FV(v)   (ηv)
(λx. E[x]) t2 = E[t2]   x ∉ FV(E)   (βΩ)

With the addition of these axioms, the equational theory is complete in the sense that if two terms are observationally equivalent (for call-by-value evaluation), then they can be proven equivalent using these axioms.


[1] G. D. Plotkin. 1975. Call-by-name, call-by-value and the λ-calculus. Theoretical Computer Science 1, (1975), 125–159. DOI:

[2] Amr Sabry. 1996. Note on axiomatizing the semantics of control operators. Univ. of Oregon. Retrieved from

[3] Amr Sabry and Matthias Felleisen. 1993. Reasoning about programs in continuation-passing style. Lisp and Symbolic Computation 6, 3–4 (1993), 289–360. DOI: