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Chapter 4: The UserTalk Language

This chapter provides an overview of the UserTalk scripting language.

Repetition, Decisions

UserTalk includes many language "structures" for repetition (looping) and decisions (branching). Each structure consists of one or more "blocks", i.e. a keyword line and one or more lines indented underneath (i.e. at a lower level). A keyword line contains one or more reserved words (such as "for" or "if") and usually user variables, data or expressions.

Note that these examples are just script fragments; they may assume that certain local variables have been defined or specific verbs exist earlier in the script (e.g. to open a file). As you review the examples, remember that most UserTalk verbs follow the format. Verbs will be covered in detail later in this chapter.

A for loop repeats a specified number of times, incrementing a variable each time.

for i = 1 to 5
	msg (i)
	clock.waitSeconds (1)

A for loop can also iterate through every element of a list, assigning the loop variable to each element in turn.

for element in finderMenu.getSelectionList ()
	dialog.alert (element)

A while loop repeats as long as a certain condition is true.

while not file.endOfFile (f)
	msg (file.readLine (f))

A fileloop structure iterates through every item in a folder or on a disk (or even every disk), assigning the loop variable to each element in turn.

fileloop (f in path)
	msg (file.fileFromPath (f))

You can include a "depth parameter in the fileloop statement, indicating the number of levels of sub-folders that are traversed:

fileloop (f in path, infinity) «visit all files at all levels
	msg (file.fileFromPath (f))

A loop structure repeats forever (sort of). To exit from a loop, use "break". Although a loop and break sometimes looks easier, many software experts recommend rewriting your script to use "while" or "for" instead of "loop". Frontier leaves the choice to you.

	msg (i)
	i = i + 1
	if i > 5

An if decision structure executes the block of one or more indented lines if the expression is true.

if answer > 6
	msg ("Big family!")

An if structure may include an else block. It will be executed if the expression is false.

if answer > 6
	msg ("Big family!")
	msg ("Not such a big family!")

A case structure executes the block of code that corresponds to the value of the expression. The else block is optional. Note that more than one value (or expression) may lead to the same action.

case letter
		msg ("Vowel")
		msg ("Consonant")
	msg ("This example isn't very thorough.")

Some languages include an else if extension to the standard if structure. Frontier's case statement can be used to create an equivalent.

case true
	temperature < minimum
		dialog.alert ("Too cold.")
	temperature > maximum
		dialog.alert ("Too hot.")
	dialog.notify ("Delicious porridge.")

Error Handling

The first way to handle errors is to avoid them! UserTalk includes many verbs that can be used to check possible error-causing situations before the error arises. For example, before you call file.delete, you can call file.exists to ensure you are not attempting to delete a file that isn't there.

if file.exists (f)
	file.delete (f)

There are two sorts of errors that a running script may encounter: some verbs return "false" if they fail, others halt the script. For verbs that return true or false, the "if" statement is typically used to catch errors (often in conjunction with the "not" keyword).

if (f)
	theLine = file.readLine (f)

In the previous example, the sole purpose of the "if" line was to check a certain condition -- it didn't perform any action (only the indented line peformed an action).

To handle errors that normally halt the script, UserTalk includes a try structure.

	file.delete (f)

The try block will trap the error and the script will continue (assuming there are additional statements after this small fragment). As with any other block structure in Frontier, a try block can contain multiple statements (lines). If any line causes an error, the remaining lines in the block will be skipped. A try block has an optional else block, providing code to execute when an error is encountered. The else block even has access to the error message, through a variable called "tryError". Sometimes you just want to display the error and continue.

	file.delete (f)
	dialog.alert (tryError)

Simple scripts or those used only occasionally may not need error-handling. When you create scripts that you use regularly -- or to share with others -- think about different ways the script could fail and use the techniques described in this section to anticipate and handle possible errors.


The ability to collapse sections of code to hide unnecessary detail is a key advantage of editing scripts as outlines. UserTalk's looping, branching and error-handling blocks all have an outline structure. Sometimes it's useful to group other lines together. Bundling a group of related lines can result in code that is more readable at a higher level than the individual lines would be. Sometimes it's a good idea to bundle lines that make up a multiple-line process whose details many or most readers of your script will not need to understand.

A bundle structure is used to group a series of lines into a single block.

bundle « create a TeachText file (path)
	file.setType (path, "TEXT")
	file.setCreator (path, "ttxt")

There are two ways to create a bundle. The first is to type the word "bundle" into your UserTalk script and then indent the group of lines under this heading. (An easy way to indent those lines is to choose the "Demote" option from the Script menu.) The second is to position the cursor on the first line you wish to be part of the bundle and then choose "Bundle-ize" from the Frontier Script menu. You can undo a bundling operation by positioning the cursor on the heading where the "bundle" is defined or any line contained in the bundle and choosing the "De-Bundle" option from the Script menu.


As with most programming or scripting languages, UserTalk supports two types of variables: local and global. Local variables are those that occur temporarily within a script, local script or block and exist only within that context.

Although UserTalk does not require that you specifically declare local variables, it's a very good idea and can save you hours of debugging that would otherwise be required to track certains kinds of errors. Declaring local variables is a good habit in general and particularly important in scripts that can be called from other UserTalk scripts.

A local structure is used to declare (define) one or more variables as local. A script may contain more than one local structure; all the variables are local to the block in which the declaration appears. (This context is often referred to as the "scope" of the variable.)


You can also set the initial value of one or more variables within a local block, and include end-of-line comments:

	x = 3
	y = 4 «blah, blah, blah

UserTalk often provides more than one way to accomplish the same result, accomodating different styles. With some extra punctuation, you can create locals all on one line:

local (x)

Setting the initial value is also possible:

local (x = 3)

Multiple variables are supported:

local (x, y)

One or more variables can also include values:

local (x = 3, y = 4)

Note that these alternate forms make "local" look somewhat like a verb; if you find that confusing, just use the indented form. Even if you choose one form for your own scripts, be sure to learn to recognize the other form as both are quite common.

Global variables are those that are permanently stored in the Frontier Object Database and have cell addresses there. Frontier's global variables are also "persistent," i.e. they retain their value even after the script finishes. As long as you save the Object Database before quitting Frontier, the value is still there when you open Frontier again. These "persistent" variables are completely separate from scripts that use them, so their value is not altered or destroyed by changing and "compiling" a script. Because they live in a table in the Object Database, you can view and edit them on their own, independent of any script. Persistent global variables are a major benefit of Frontier and its Object Database.

UserTalk Verbs

The vocabulary of UserTalk consists of several hundred verbs. These verbs are identical to functions in conventional programming languages. Various computer languages call these elements by different names, including subroutines, procedures and handlers. We refer to them as verbs because they are most often used to direct Frontier or some other program with which Frontier is interacting to do something. Action is the province of verbs in human speech.

The most important verbs in UserTalk can be divided into 23 categories. (There are additional categories, and may be additional verbs not included in the verb count for each category. Every verb is documented in DocServer, described later in this chapter.)

Table 4-1. Summary of UserTalk Verbs

CategoryQuantityUses, Comments and Notes
basic29Handle numbers, datatypes, objects, etc.
clock7Set and get system clock values. Time-stamp documents. Pause execution.
date2Get and set date values.
dialog10Display and return results from dialog boxes.
editMenu14Emulate behavior of Frontier's Edit Menu, including fonts and styles
file64All file operations, including copy, delete, move, create, and rename. Looking at file and folder contents, read and write text files, deal with volumes, parse path names, lock and unlock files, handle Macintosh aliases, etc.
fileMenu9Emulate behavior of the Frontier File menu.
Finder23Manage and manipulate the Macintosh Finder, including windows, views, files, and folders.
Frontier5Turn agents on and off, make Frontier the active application, and get information about Frontier
kb4Determine if the Command, Control, Option, and/or Shift key is down.
launch5Open applications, control panels, documents, and code resources.
mainWindow6Control Frontier's Main Window
menu9Manage and manipulate the Frontier menubar and menubar objects
mouse2Find out where the mouse is and if the button is being pressed.
op32Edit, navigate in, rearrange, expand, collapse, retrieve information from and otherwise manipulate Frontier outline objects.
search6Handle Frontier's internal find-and-replace operations
speaker2Define the sound the internal speaker will make and activate it.
string25Manage and manipulate string objects, including fields, word and sentences.
system4Deal with external applications and find out what version of the Operating System is in use.
table13Manipulate and interact with Frontier Object Database tables and their contents.
target3Determine the Frontier object that will receive the next action(s) taken in the environment.
window21Manage and manipulate Frontier windows.
wp25Handle word processing objects and their contents, including setting properties, controlling the selection, formatting the appearance of text and changing its content.

As discussed earlier in the manual, the full name of a verb is composed of its category, followed by a period, followed by the name of the verb. (When you want to run the verb, you must include parentheses, and parameters if required.) For example, string.upper operates on a string, converting it to upper case.

allCaps = string.upper ("Hello world!")

Every verb returns a value, either status (true or false to indicate success or failure) or some piece of information. Verbs can be "nested" one inside another, passing the value from the innermost script to the outer script:

dialog.alert (string.upper ("Hello world!"))

In many cases, it's useful to know both the status (true or false) and one or more other pieces of information. For example, you might want to ask someone a question by presenting a dialog. If they cancel (status is false) your script will take one action, if they enter information, it will do something else. As with many programming languages, Frontier supports two kinds of parameters:

  1. passing a value (either a literal or the value of a variable or expression)

  2. passing an address or reference to a variable (including a local variable or a global stored in the Object Database)
When it gets an address, the verb can directly modify the variable that exists at that address -- and is free to use the return value for status (true or false). The "@" operator converts a variable into an address.
if dialog.ask ("Who are you?", @scratchpad.who)
	dialog.notify("You are " + scratchpad.who)
	msg ("user cancelled")

Some verbs set multiple variables. For example, to get the position of a specific Frontier window:

window.getPosition ("examples", @horiz, @vert)

If the "examples" window is not open, the verb will return false (and leave the horiz and vert variables unchanged). Note that horiz and vert should be declared as local variables prior to the above.

Whether a verb should return status or a value depends partly on how the verb is likely to be used, and partly on the preferences of the script writer. The advantage of returning a value is that the verb can be nested inside other verbs. If you prefer this approach, use it for scripts that you write. How? When there is only one key piece of information (in addition to status), simply return that information. If there is more than one key piece of information to return, create a list (or possibly a record) and return that. Since you can no longer return false to indicate lack of success, use:

scriptError ("optional error message here")
The script that calls your script can trap the error in a "try" statement, preventing the script from halting.


DocServer is a tightly-integrated, scriptable application that gives you fast and easy access to every UserTalk verb, operator and structure keyword (e.g. "if", "try"). There are many ways to access DocServer.

Let's lookup the "dialog.ask" verb that was used in the previous section. From the "Main" menu, choose "DocServer" (or use the Cmd-= keyboard equivalent). Type "dialog.ask" (no quotes) and click OK. Frontier will launch DocServer, bring it to the front, and display the page for this verb. (If you have trouble, verify that DocServer is in the UserLand Utilties Folder.) DocServer includes the verb Syntax, Parameters, a description of the Action, what the verb Returns, Errors if any, one or more Examples, plus Notes and See Also. The See Also items are in a menu, so you can easily navigate to related verbs.

From within DocServer, you can jump directly to a verb. We learned about "try" earlier in the chapter. Perhaps you remember that there's a way to get the error message, but don't remember the details? Let's check DocServer. Select "Jump to Verb" from the "File" menu, or use the Cmd-J keyboard equivalent. Type "try" and click OK. Scroll down to the notes section; there it is: "tryError".

DocServer makes it easy to navigate to related verbs. Notice that the See Also items are in a menu. In this case there is only one item, "scriptError". Select it. Voila! DocServer also keeps track of recent items you have viewed; see the "History" menu.

To save yourself some typing, you may want to bring this information back to Frontier. From the "Copy" menu, select "Syntax". You can bring Frontier to the front in all the usual Macintosh ways, or select "Switch to Frontier" from the "Frontier" menu. Now, you can paste the information into a Frontier script. (Feel free to try it, though be careful which window is frontmost.)

Frontier has a shortcut for quickly locating an item in DocServer: hold down the Control key (careful, Control not Command) and double-click on the name of any verb in any Frontier window. (Note that this shortcut is often abbreviated as "control-2click.") Frontier will bring DocServer to the front and display that verb's page. This technique is most useful when you are reviewing a script written by someone else, or have already typed the command into your script but need to check some details. Let's try it. Type Cmd-J (within Frontier) and then "examples.counter" (no quotes). This simple example script just counts to 10, displaying the number with "window.msg". Wait, how is that different than the normal "msg" verb? Hold Control and double-click on "window.msg" in the script. The DocServer page appears!

DocServer has many useful menu items not covered here; explore them to see which ones fit your style of work. One tip: "Find" looks in the text, so it is much slower than "Jump." As you probably noticed, there are buttons in the DocServer window to go to the previous and next entry (alphabetically).

The "File", "SeeAlso" and "History" menus are built-into DocServer, the other menus are implemented using Frontier's Menu-Sharing protocol. You can edit these menus and customize DocServer. In fact, some of the existing features that were not in the 1.0 release were created by members of the scripting community and contributed to UserLand.

Operators and special characters

UserTalk generally supports the same operators as most modern programming languages, plus a few extras. To accomodate a variety of preferences, Frontier has word equivalents for many of the symbols. For example, many script writers may prefer "equals" rather than "==" which is easily confused with the "=" assignment operator.

if x equals 10
	x = 0

Table 4-2. UserTalk Operators

+Add numeric values or concatenate (join) string and character values
-Subtract numeric values or remove the first occurance of one string from another
/Division (integer or real, depending on the datatypes)
%Modulus (remainder of integer division)
Test for equality
Test for inequality
Less-than comparison
<=Less-than-or-equal comparison
Greater-than comparison
>=Greater-than-or-equal comparison
beginsWithCompare one string to the beginning of another
containsTrue if one string contains another
endsWithCompare one string to the end of another
Logical OR
Logical AND
!Logical NOT
^Dereference an address

Although they aren't operators, there are a few other characters that have a particular meaning in UserTalk.

Table 4-3. Other Special Characters

"abcdef"Define a string (with straight quotes). The string may include curly quotes. To include a straight quote, precede with a backslash.
'a'Define a character with single quotes. To include a single quote, precede with a backslash.
'abcd'Define a "string4". Some Mac OS functions require this type.
[...]Evaluate a variable or expression. Also used for lists, records and the object model.
["..."]Include an object database name that contains spaces or other reserved punctuation.
\Treat the next character as a literal. (e.g. to include a quote in a quoted string)
\tTab character (in a quoted string)
\rReturn (cr) character (in a quoted string)
\nLinefeed (lf) or "newline" character (in a quoted string)

UserTalk Datatypes

UserTalk is a rich language that is capable of dealing with 28 different types of data. Many of these datatypes are useful only to advanced script writers. (All datatypes are listed in DocServer.) The primary datatypes are summarized below. Note that characters and strings support the full Macintosh character set (255 characters).

Table 4-4. Common UserTalk Datatypes

DatatypeRange of Legal Values
addressTypeAny Object Database cell or any non-existent cell in an existing table
booleanTypeTrue or False
charTypeAny character, enclosed in single quotes
dateTypeAny legal system date value
directionTypeup, down, left, right, flatup, flatdown, nodirection
intType-32768 to 32767
longType-2147483648 to 2147483647
menubarTypeAny Frontier menubar object
outlineTypeAny Frontier outline object
scriptTypeAny legal AppleScript or UserTalk script
stringTypeOne or more characters, enclosed in double quotes
string4TypeExactly four characters, enclosed in single quotes.
tableTypeAny Frontier Object Database table
wptextTypeAny Frontier word processing text object

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