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RE: Clearing a symbol known only through a definition

  • To: mathgroup at
  • Subject: [mg66683] RE: [mg66658] Clearing a symbol known only through a definition
  • From: Andrew Moylan <andrew.j.moylan at>
  • Date: Sat, 27 May 2006 03:51:11 -0400 (EDT)
  • Reply-to: <andrew.moylan at>
  • Sender: owner-wri-mathgroup at

Thanks Carl.

The function "OwnValues" does allow me to easily solve my problem; but I
can't find any documentation for this function. Do you know why it doesn't
appear in the help system together with e.g. UpValues and DownValues?

I realised a little while after posting this question that my "particular
problem" had that simple recursive solution. (I became interested in the
solution to the first problem while trying to write a (more convoluted)
solution to the "particular" problem.)

-----Original Message-----
From: Carl K. Woll [mailto:carlw at] 
To: mathgroup at
Subject: [mg66683] Re: [mg66658] Clearing a symbol known only through a definition

Andrew Moylan wrote:
> Suppose I have a symbol "a" that is defined to be equal to another 
> symbol. (E.g. It might be that a := b.) How can I clear the value of 
> the symbol 'pointed to' by "a", without knowing explicity what symbol that
> Clear[a] won't do, of course.
> Clear[Evaluate[a]] won't do, because that will evaluate to 
> Clear[Evaluate[b]], which will in turn (in general) evalulate to 
> Clear["whatever b evalulates to"].

In this case, the function OwnValues is useful. For example:


In[42]:= OwnValues[a]

Out[42]= {HoldPattern[a] :> b}

So, a function to clear the symbol pointed to by a could be:

SetAttributes[clearownsymbol, HoldFirst];

clearownsymbol[x_] := Module[{own},
   own = OwnValues[x];
   If[MatchQ[own, {_ :> _Symbol}],
     Clear @@ Extract[own, {1, 2}, Hold]

For your example:


In[48]:= b

Out[48]= 3

In[49]:= clearownsymbol[a]

In[50]:= b

Out[50]= b

> ----
> Alternatively, here is the particular problem I want to solve:
> For any expression e, either e is a symbol, or Head[e] is, or 
> Head[Head[e]] is, etc. Call this the "topmost symbol" in the expression.
> Thus, the topmost symbol in f[x][y][z] is f.
> I want to write a function that takes an expression and calls Clear[] 
> on its topmost symbol. Can anyone think of a simple way to write such 
> a function?

Unless there is more going on here, I don't see how your first issue relates
to this problem. At any rate, here is a function that does what you want:

SetAttributes[tophead, HoldFirst]

topheadclear[a_Symbol] := Clear[a]
topheadclear[b_[___]] := topheadclear[b]


In[57]:= f

Out[57]= g

In[58]:= topheadclear[f[x][y][z]]

In[59]:= f

Out[59]= f

Of course, f[x][y][z] without a hold gets evaluated to


and there is no way to clear f based on the input g[x][y][z].

Carl Woll
Wolfram Research

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