On this page:
28.1 Types as a Static Discipline
28.2 The Principle of Substitutability
28.3 A Type(d) Language and Type Errors
28.3.1 Assume-Guarantee Reasoning
28.4 A Type Checker for Expressions and Functions
28.4.1 A Pure Checker
28.4.2 A Calculator and Checker
28.4.3 Type-Checking Versus Interpretation
28.5 Type-Checking, Testing, and Coverage
28.6 Recursion in Code
28.6.1 A First Attempt at Typing Recursion
28.6.2 Program Termination
28.6.3 Typing Recursion
28.7 Recursion in Data
28.7.1 Recursive Datatype Definitions
28.7.2 Introduced Types
28.7.3 Selectors
28.7.4 Pattern-Matching and Desugaring

28 Reasoning about Programs: A First Look at Types

    28.1 Types as a Static Discipline

    28.2 The Principle of Substitutability

    28.3 A Type(d) Language and Type Errors

      28.3.1 Assume-Guarantee Reasoning

    28.4 A Type Checker for Expressions and Functions

      28.4.1 A Pure Checker

      28.4.2 A Calculator and Checker

      28.4.3 Type-Checking Versus Interpretation

    28.5 Type-Checking, Testing, and Coverage

    28.6 Recursion in Code

      28.6.1 A First Attempt at Typing Recursion

      28.6.2 Program Termination

      28.6.3 Typing Recursion

    28.7 Recursion in Data

      28.7.1 Recursive Datatype Definitions

      28.7.2 Introduced Types

      28.7.3 Selectors

      28.7.4 Pattern-Matching and Desugaring

One of the themes of this book is predictability [Predictability as a Theme]. One of our key tools in reasoning about program behavior before we run it is the static checking of types. For example, when we write x :: Number, we mean that x will always hold a Number, and that all parts of the program that depend on x can rely on this statement being enforced. As we will see, types are just one point in a spectrum of invariants we might wish to state, and static type checking—itself a diverse family of techniques—is also a point in a spectrum of methods we can use to enforce the invariants.

28.1 Types as a Static Discipline

In this chapter, we will focus especially on static type checking: that is, checking (declared) types before the program even executes.This is an extremely rich and active subject. For further study, we strongly recommend reading Pierce’s Types and Programming Languages. We will explore some of the design space of types and their trade-offs. Finally, though static typing is an especially powerful and important form of invariant enforcement, we will also examine some other techniques that we have available [REF].

Consider this Pyret program:

fun f(n :: Number) -> Number: n + 3 end f("x")

We would like to receive a type error before the program begins execution.Pyret does not currently perform static type checking, but this will soon change. The same program (without the type annotations) can fail only at run-time:

fun f(n): n + 3 end f("x")


How would you test the assertions that one fails before the program executes while the other fails during execution?

Now consider the following Pyret program:

fun f n: n + 3 end

This too fails before program execution begins, with a parse error. Though we think of parsing as being somehow distinct from type-checking—usually because a type-checker assumes it has a parsed program to begin with—it can be useful to think of parsing as being simply the very simplest kind of type-checking: determining (typically) whether the program obeys a context-free syntax. Type-checking then asks whether it obeys a context-sensitive (or richer) syntax. In short, type-checking is a generalization of parsing, in that both are concerned with syntactic methods for enforcing disciplines on programs.This particular, and very influential, phrasing is due to John Reynolds.

We will begin by introducing a traditional core language of types. Later, we will explore both extensions [REF] and variations [REF].

28.2 The Principle of Substitutability

The essence of any typing mechanism is usually the principle of substitutability: two types A and B “match” when values of one can be used in place of values of the other. Therefore, the design of a type system implicitly forces us to consider when such substitutions are safe (in the sense given by The Central Theorem: Type Soundness).

Of course, the simplest notion of substitutability is simply identity: a type can only be substituted with itself, and nothing else. For instance, if the declared type of a function’s parameter is String, then you can only call it with String-typed values, nothing else. This is known as invariance: the set of values that can be passed into a type cannot “vary” from the set expected by that type. This is so obvious that it might seem to hardly warrant a name! However, it is useful to name because it sets up a contrast with later type systems when we will have richer, non-trivial notions of substitutability (see Subtyping).

28.3 A Type(d) Language and Type Errors

Before we can define a type checker, we have to fix two things: the syntax of our typed core language and, hand-in-hand with that, the syntax of types themselves.

We’ll begin with our language with functions-as-values [Functions Anywhere]. To this language we have to add type annotations. Conventionally, we don’t impose type annotations on constants or on primitive operations such as addition, because this would be unbearably tedious; instead, we impose them on the boundaries of functions or methods. Over the course of this study we will explore why this is a good locus for annotations.

Given this decision, our typed core language becomes:

data TyExprC: | numC(n :: Number) | plusC(l :: TyExprC, r :: TyExprC) | multC(l :: TyExprC, r :: TyExprC) | trueC | falseC | ifC(c :: TyExprC, t :: TyExprC, e :: TyExprC) | idC(s :: String) | appC(f :: TyExprC, a :: TyExprC) | fdC(arg :: String, at :: Type, rt :: Type, body :: TyExprC) end

That is, every procedure is annotated with the type of argument it expects and type of argument it purports to produce.

Now we have to decide on a language of types. To do so, we follow the tradition that the types abstract over the set of values. In our language, we have three kinds of values. It follows that we should have three kinds of types: one each for numbers, Booleans, and functions.

What information does a number type need to record? In most languages, there are actually many numeric types, and indeed there may not even be a single one that represents “numbers”. However, we have ignored these gradations between numbers [A First Taste of “Semantics”], so it’s sufficient for us to have just one. Having decided that, do we record additional information about which number? We could in principle, but that would mean for types to check, we would have to be able to decide whether two expressions compute the same number—a problem that reduces to the Halting Problem [REF].In some specialized type systems, however, we do record some information about the number. These systems either have some means of approximation that lets them avoid the Halting Problem, or embrace it by not guaranteeing termination!

We treat Booleans just like numbers: we ignore which Boolean it is. Here, we perhaps have more value in being precise, because there are only two values we need to track, not an infinite number. That means in some cases, we even know which branch of a conditional we will take, and can examine only that branch (though that may miss a type-error lurking in the other branch: what should we do about that?). However, even the problem of knowing precisely which Boolean we have reduces to the Halting Problem [REF].


Construct an argument for why determining which number or Boolean an arbitrary expression evaluates to is equivalent to solving the Halting Problem.

As for functions, we have more information: the type of expected argument, and the type of claimed result. We might as well record this information we have been given until and unless it has proven to not be useful. Combining these, we obtain the following abstract language of types:

data Type: | numT | boolT | funT(a :: Type, r :: Type) end

Now that we’ve fixed both the term and type structure of the language, let’s make sure we agree on what constitute type errors in our language (and, by fiat, everything not a type error must pass the type checker). There are three obvious forms of type errors:
  • One or both arguments of + is not a number, i.e., does not have type numT.

  • One or both arguments of * is not a number.

  • The expression in the function position of an application is not a function, i.e., does not have type funT.

Do Now!

Any more?

We’re actually missing one:
  • The expression in the function position of an application is a function but the type of the actual argument does not match the type of the formal argument expected by the function.

Do Now!

Any more?

What about:
  • The expression in the function position of an application is a function but its return type does not match the type expected by the expression that invokes the function?

And we’re still not done!

Instead of this kind of ad hoc enumeration, what we really ought to do is systematically go over each of the syntactic forms of our language and ask how each of them can produce a type error. That indicates:

| numC(n :: Number) | plusC(l :: TyExprC, r :: TyExprC) | multC(l :: TyExprC, r :: TyExprC)

A number on its own can never be a type error. For addition and multiplication, both branches must have numeric type.

| trueC | falseC | ifC(c :: TyExprC, t :: TyExprC, e :: TyExprC)

Just as with numbers, Boolean constants on their own cannot be a type error. In a conditional, however, we require:
  • The conditional expression must have type Boolean.

  • Both branches must have the same type (whatever it may be).Implicit is the idea that we can easily determine when two types are the “same”. We’ll return to this in Subtyping.

And finally:

| idC(s :: String) | appC(f :: TyExprC, a :: TyExprC) | fdC(arg :: String, at :: Type, rt :: Type, body :: TyExprC)

An identifier on its own is never type-erroneous. Applications expect:
  • The function position (f) must have a function type (funT).

  • The type of the actual argument expression (a) must match the argument type (.arg) of the function position.

And finally, a function definition expects:
  • The type of the body—assuming the formal argument (arg) has been given a value of the declared type (at)—matches the type declared (rt) as the return type.

28.3.1 Assume-Guarantee Reasoning

The last few cases we just saw had a very interesting structure. Did you spot it?

The rules for function definition and declaration complement each other perfectly. Let’s illustrate this with a program written in Pyret syntax:

fun f(x :: String) -> Number: if x == "pi": 3.14 else: 2.78 end end 2 + f("pi")

When type-checking the definition of f, we assume that if and when f is eventually applied, it will be applied to a value of String type. We do assume this because the annotation on x is String. We can assume this because when checking the application, we will first look up the type of f, observe that it expects a String-typed value, and confirm that the actual argument indeed matches this type. That is, the type-checker’s treatment of application guarantees that this assumption is safe.

Similarly, when type-checking the application, having looked up the type of f, we assume that it will indeed return a value of type Number. We can assume this because that is the return type annotation of f. We do assume it because the type-checker will ensure that the body of fassuming the type of xwill indeed return a Number. That is, once again, the type-checker’s treatment of function definitions guarantees that the assumption at function applications is safe.

In short, the treatment of function definition and application are complementary. They are joined together by a method called assume-guarantee reasoning, whereby each side’s assumptions are guaranteed by the other side, and the two stitch together perfectly to give us the desired safe execution (which we elaborate on later: The Central Theorem: Type Soundness).

28.4 A Type Checker for Expressions and Functions

28.4.1 A Pure Checker

Since the job of a type-checker is to pass judgment on programs—in particular, to indicate whether a program passes or fails type-checking—a natural type for a type-checker would be:

tc :: TyExprC -> Boolean

However, because we know expressions contain identifiers, it soon becomes clear that we will want a type environment, which maps names to types, analogous to the value environment we have seen so far.


Define the types and functions associated with type environments.

Thus, we might begin our program as follows:
<hof-tc-bool> ::=

  fun tc(e :: TyExprC, tnv :: TyEnv) -> Boolean:

    cases (TyExprC) e:






As the abbreviated set of cases above suggests, this approach will not work out. We’ll soon see why.

Let’s begin with the easy case: numbers. Does a number type-check? Well, on its own, of course it does; it may be that the surrounding context is not expecting a number, but that error would be signaled elsewhere. Thus:
<hof-tc-bool-numC> ::=

  | numC(_) => true

(Notice that we’re expressly ignoring which number it is.)

Now let’s handle identifiers. Is an identifier well-typed? Again, on its own it would appear to be, provided it is actually a bound identifier; it may not be what the context desires, but hopefully that too would be handled elsewhere. Thus we might write
<hof-tc-bool-idC> ::=

  | idC(s) => ty-lookup(s, tnv)

where ty-lookup returns true if the identifier is bound, and false otherwise.

This should make you a little uncomfortable: we seem to be throwing away valuable information about the type of the identifier. Of course, types do throw away information (e.g., which specific number an expression computes). However, the kind of information we’re throwing away here is much more significant: it’s not about a specific value within a type, but the type itself. Nevertheless, let’s push on.It might also bother you that, by only returning a Boolean, we have no means to express what type error occurred. But you might assuage yourself by saying that’s only because we have too weak a return type.

Now we tackle applications. We should type-check both the function part, to make sure it’s a function, then ensure that the actual argument’s type is consistent with what the function declares to be the type of its formal argument. How does the code look?
<hof-tc-bool-appC> ::=

  | appC(f, a) =>

    f-t = tc(f, tnv)

    a-t = tc(a, tnv)


The two recursive calls to tc can only tell us whether the function and argument expressions type-check or not. Critically, they cannot tell us whether the argument expression’s type (what is it?) matches that of the function’s expected argument type (what is it?). Though we might be able to fudge this in the case of simple expressions, for complex ones we cannot just examine the expression; furthermore, this violates our principle of wanting to avoid probing deep into expressions. Put differently, we’d like to have written

| appC(f, a) => f-t = tc(f, tnv) a-t = tc(a, tnv) if is-funT(f-t): if a-t == f-t.arg:

but f-t is a Boolean and hence can never pass is-funT; similarly, comparing a-t with f-t.arg is meaningless because both are Booleans (representing whether or not the corresponding sub-expressions type-checked), not the actual types of those expressions.

In other words, what we need is something that will calculate the type of an expression, no matter how complex it is. Of course, such a procedure could only succeed if the expression is well-typed; otherwise it would not be able to provide a coherent answer. In other words, a type “calculator” has type “checking” as a special case!

Do Now!

That was subtle. Read it again.

We should therefore strengthen the inductive invariant on tc: that it not only tells us whether an expression is typed, but also what its type is. Indeed, by giving any type at all it confirms that the expression types, and otherwise it signals an error.

28.4.2 A Calculator and Checker

Let’s now define this richer notion of a type “checker”.
<hof-tc> ::=

  fun tc(e :: TyExprC, tnv :: TyEnv) -> Type:

    cases (TyExprC) e:










Now let’s fill in the pieces. Numbers are easy: they have the numeric type.
<hof-tc-numC> ::=

  | numC(_) => numT

Similarly, identifiers have whatever type the environment says they do (and if they aren’t bound, looking them up signals an error).
<hof-tc-idC> ::=

  | idC(s) => ty-lookup(s, tnv)

Observe, so far, the similarity to and difference from interpreting: in the identifier case we did essentially the same thing (except we returned a type rather than an actual value), whereas in the numeric case we returned the abstract “number” (numT) rather than indicate which specific number it was.

Let’s now examine addition. We must make sure both sub-expressions have numeric type; only if they do will the overall expression evaluate to a number itself. It will be useful to employ a helper function:
<hof-tc-plusC> ::=

  | plusC(l, r) => tc-arith-binop(l, r, tnv)


fun tc-arith-binop(l :: TyExprC, r :: TyExprC, tnv :: TyEnv) -> Type: if (tc(l, tnv) == numT) and (tc(r, tnv) == numT): numT else: raise('type error in arithmetic') end end

It’s worth not glossing over multiplication:
<hof-tc-multC> ::=

  | multC(l, r) => tc-arith-binop(l, r, tnv)

Do Now!

Did you see what’s different?

That’s right: nothing! That’s because, from the perspective of type-checking (in this type language), there is no difference between addition and multiplication, or indeed between any two operations that consume two numbers and return one. Because we are ignoring the actual numbers, we don’t even need to bother passing tc-arith-binop a function that reflects what to do with the pair of numbers.

Observe another difference between interpreting and type-checking. Both care that the arguments be numbers. The interpreter then returns a precise sum or product, but the type-checker is indifferent to the differences between them: therefore the expression that computes what it returns (numT) is a constant, and the same constant in both cases.

Next, let’s handle Boolean values and conditionals. We’re simply going to transcribe into code what we earlier agreed to do:
<hof-tc-bools> ::=

  | trueC => boolT

  | falseC => boolT

  | ifC(cnd, thn, els) =>

    cnd-t = tc(cnd, tnv)

    if cnd-t == boolT:

      thn-t = tc(thn, tnv)

      els-t = tc(els, tnv)

      if thn-t == els-t:



        raise("conditional branches don't match")



      raise("conditional isn't Boolean")


However, recall our discussion of The Design Space of Conditionals, all of which have consequences for type-checking. Here we are applying the decisions we made there.


Consider each of the three earlier decisions. Change each one, and explain the consequences it has for the type-checker.

Finally, the two hard cases: application and functions. We’ve already discussed what application must do: compute the value of the function and argument expressions; ensure the function expression has function type; and check that the argument expression is of compatible type. If all this holds up, then the type of the overall application is whatever type the function body would return (because the value that eventually returns at run-time is the result of evaluating the function’s body).Note that this subtly depends on evaluation and type-checking being in harmony. We discuss this under The Central Theorem: Type Soundness.
<hof-tc-appC> ::=

  | appC(f, a) =>

    f-t = tc(f, tnv)

    a-t = tc(a, tnv)

    if is-funT(f-t):

      if a-t == f-t.arg:



        raise("argument type doesn't match declared type")



      raise("not a function in application position")


That leaves function definitions. The function has a formal parameter; unless this is bound in the type environment, any use of that parameter in body would result in a type error. Thus we have to extend the type environment with the formal name bound to its type, and in that extended environment type-check the body. Whatever value this computes must be the same as the declared type of the body. If that is so, then the function itself has a function type from the type of the argument to the type of the body.
<hof-tc-fdC> ::=

  | fdC(a, at, rt, b) =>

    bt = tc(b, xtend-t-env(tbind(a, at), tnv))

    if bt == rt:

      funT(at, rt)


      raise("body type doesn't match declared type")


28.4.3 Type-Checking Versus Interpretation

Do Now!

When confronted with a first-class function, our interpreter created a closure. However, we don’t seem to have any notion of a “closure” in our type-checker, even though we’re using an (type) environment. Why not? In particular, recall that the absence of closures resulted in violation of static scope. Is that happening here? Write some tests to investigate.

Observe a curious difference between the interpreter and type-checker. In the interpreter, application was responsible for evaluating the argument expression, extending the environment, and evaluating the body. Here, the application case does check the argument expression, but leaves the environment alone, and simply returns the type of the body without traversing it. Instead, the body is actually traversed by the checker when checking a function definition, so this is the point at which the environment actually extends.


Why is the time of traversal different between interpretation and type-checking?

The consequences of this are worth understanding.
  • Consider the Pyret function

    p = lam(x :: Number) -> (Number -> Number): lam(y :: Number) -> Number: x + y end end

    When we simply define p, the interpreter does not traverse the interior of these expressions, in particular the x + y. Instead, these are suspended waiting for later use (a feature we actually exploit [REF laziness]). Furthermore, when we apply p to some argument, this evaluates the outer function, resulting in a closure (that closes over the binding of x).

    Now instead consider the type-checker. As soon as we are given this definition, it traverses the entire expression, including the innermost sub-expression. Because it knows everything it needs to know about x and ytheir types—it can immediately type-check the entire expression. This is why it doesn’t not require to create a closure: there is nothing to be put off until application time (indeed, we don’t want to put type-checking off until execution).

    Another way to think about it is that it behaves like substitution does—and substitution did not need closures to provide static scoping, either—but even more eagerly: it can perform substitution with just the program text without any values at all, because it is substituting types, which are already given. The fact that we use a type environment makes this harder to see, because we may have come to associate environments with closures. However, what matters is when the necessary value is available. Put differently, we used an environment primarily out of convention: here, we could have used (type) substitution just as well.


    Write examples to study this. Consider converting the above example as a starting point. Also convert your examples from earlier.

  • Consider the following expression:

    lam(f :: (Number -> String), n :: Number) -> String: f(n) end

    When evaluating the inner f(n), the interpreter has access to actual values for f and n. In contrast, when type-checking it, it does not know which function will be passed in as f. How, then, can it type-check the use?

    The answer is that the annotation tells the type-checker everything it needs to know. The annotation says that f must accept numbers; since n is annotated to be a number, the application works. It also says that f will return strings; because that is what the overall function returns, this also passes.

    In other words, the annotation (Number -> String) represents not one but an infinite family of all functions of that type, without committing to any one of them. The type checker then checks that any such function will work in this setting. Once it has done its job, it doesn’t matter which function we actually pass in, provided it has this type. Checking that is, of course, the heart of Assume-Guarantee Reasoning.

28.5 Type-Checking, Testing, and Coverage

A type-checker can be thought of as a very particular kind of testing framework:
  • Instead of using concrete values, it uses only types. Therefore, it cannot check fine gradations inside values.

  • In return, it works statically: that is, it’s like running a lightweight testing procedure before ever running the program. (We should not underestimate the value of this: programs that depend on interactive or other external input, on specialized hardware, on timing, and so on, can be quite difficult to test. For such programs, especially, obtaining a lightweight form of testing that does not require being able to run it at all is invaluable.)

  • Testing only covers the parts of a program that are exercised by test cases. In contrast, the type-checker exercises the whole program. Therefore, it can catch lurking errors. Of course, it also means that the entire program has to be type-conformant: you can’t have some parts (e.g., conditional branches) that are not yet conformant, the way they can fail to work correctly but can be ignored by tests that don’t exercise them.

  • Finally, types provide another very important property: quantification. Recall our earlier example: the type checker has established something about an infinite number of functions!

This last point gets to the heart of the tradeoff between types and testing: types are “broad” while tests are “deep”. That is, because tests deal with very specific values and their actual evaluation, they can ask arbitrarily deep questions but about that one situation only. Types, in contast, lacking the specificity provided by both values and evaluation, cannot ask deep questions; they compensate by being able to talk about all possible values of some shape, providing their breadth. As this discussion illustrates, neither attribute dominates the other: a good software practice will use a judicious combination of both.

28.6 Recursion in Code

Now that we’ve obtained a basic programming language, let’s add recursion to it. We saw earlier [Recursion and Non-Termination] that this could be done quite easily. It’ll prove to be a more complex story here.

28.6.1 A First Attempt at Typing Recursion

Let’s now try to express a simple recursive function. We’ve already seen how to write infinite loops for first-order functions. Annotating them introduces no complications.


Confirm that adding types to recursive and non-terminating first-order functions causes no additional problems.

Now let’s move on to higher-order functions. We’ve already seen that this results in an infinite loop:

(fun(x): x(x) end)(fun(x): x(x) end)

Now that we have a typed language, we have to annotate it. (Conventionally, we call this term Ω.)

Recall that this program is formed by applying ω to itself. Of course, it is not a given that identical terms must have precisely the same type, because it depends on the context of use. However, the specific structure of ω means that it is the same term that ends up in both contexts—as function and argument—so the types of these had better be the same. In other words, typing one instance of ω suffices to type them both.

Therefore, let’s try to type ω; let’s call this type T. It’s clearly a function type, and the function takes one argument, so it must be of the form A -> B. Now what is that argument? It’s ω itself. That is, the type of the value going into A is itself T. Thus, the type of ω is T, which is A -> B, which is the same as T -> B. This expands into (A -> B) -> B, which is the same as (T -> B) -> B. Therefore, this further expands to ((A -> B) -> B) -> B, and so on. In other words, this type cannot be written as any finite string!

Do Now!

Did you notice the subtle but important leap we just made?

Do Now!

We have just argued that we can’t type ω. But why does it follow that we can’t type Ω?

28.6.2 Program Termination

Because type-checking follows by recurring on sub-terms, to type Ω, we have to be able to type ω and then combine its type to obtain one for Ω. But, as we’ve seen, typing ω seems to run into serious problems. From that, however, we jumped to the conclusion that ω’s type cannot be written as any finite string, for which we’ve given only an intuition, not a proof. In fact, something even stranger is true: in the type system we’ve defined so far, we cannot type Ω at all!

This is a strong statement, but it follows from something even stronger. The typed language we have so far has a property called strong normalization: every expression that has a type will terminate computation after a finite number of steps. In other words, this special (and peculiar) infinite loop program isn’t the only one we can’t type; we can’t type any infinite loop (or even potential infinite loop). A rough intuition that might help is that any type—which must be a finite string—can have only a finite number of ->’s in it, and each application discharges one, so we can perform only a finite number of applications.


Why is this not true when we have named first-order functions?

If our language permitted only straight-line programs, this would be unsurprising. However, we have conditionals and even functions being passed around as values, and with those we can encode almost every program we’re written so far. Yet, we still get this guarantee! That makes this a somewhat astonishing result.


Try to encode lists using functions in the untyped and then in the typed language (see [REF] if you aren’t sure how). What do you see? And what does that tell you about the impact of this type system on the encoding?

This result also says something deeper. It shows that, contrary to what you may believe—that a type system only prevents a few buggy programs from running—a type system can change the semantics of a language. Whereas previously we could write an infinite loop in just one to two lines, now we cannot write one at all. It also shows that the type system can establish invariants not just about a particular program, but about the language itself. If we want to absolutely ensure that a program will terminate, we simply need to write it in this language and pass the type checker, and the guarantee is ours!

What possible use is a language in which all programs terminate? For general-purpose programming, none, of course. But in many specialized domains, it’s a tremendously useful guarantee to have. Here are several examples of domains that could benefit from it:
  • A complex scheduling algorithm (the guarantee would ensure that the scheduler completes and that the tasks being scheduled will actually run).

  • A packet-filter in a router. (Network elements that go into infinite loops put a crimp on utility.)

  • A compiler. (The program it generates may or may not terminate, but it ought to at least finish generating the program.)

  • A device initializer. (Modern electronics—such as a smartphones and photocopiers—have complex initialization routines. These have to finish so that the device can actually be put to use.)

  • The callbacks in JavaScript. (Because the language is single-threaded, not relinquishing control means the event loop starves. When this happens in a Web page, the browser usually intervenes after a while and asks whether to kill the page—because otherwise the rest of the page (or even browser) becomes unresponsive.)

  • A configuration system, such as a build system or a linker.In Standard ML, the linker uses essentially this language for module linking specifications.

Notice also an important difference between types and tests [Type-Checking, Testing, and Coverage]: you can’t test for termination!

28.6.3 Typing Recursion

What this says is, if we want potentially unbounded recursion, we must make it an explicit part of the typed language. To illustrate this, we will add a simple rec construct that recursively binds an identifier to a function. Thus, in the surface syntax, one might writeFor convenience, we have also added an if0 construct that compares the test expression’s value with 0.

(rec (S num (n num)

        (if0 n


             (n + (S (n + -1)))))

  (S 10))

for a summation function, where S is the name of the function, n its argument, the first num the type of n and the second num the type returned by the function. The expression (S 10) represents the use of this function to sum the numbers from 10 until 0.

How do we type such an expression? Clearly, we must have n bound in the body of the function as we type it (but not, of course, in the use of the function, due to static scope); this much we know from typing functions. But what about S? Obviously it must be bound in the type environment when checking the use (S 10)), and its type must be num -> num. But it must also be bound, to the same type, when checking the body of the function. (Observe, too, that the type returned by the body must match its declared return type.)

Now we can see how to break the shackles of the finiteness of the type. It is certainly true that we can write only a finite number of ->’s in types in the program source. However, this rule for typing recursion duplicates the -> in the body that refers to itself, thereby ensuring that there is an inexhaustible supply of applications.It’s our infinite quiver of arrows.

The code to implement this rule would be as follows. Assuming f is bound to the function’s name, v its parameter’s name, at is the function’s argument type and rt is its return type, b is the function’s body, and c is the function’s use:
<tc-recC> ::=

  | recC(f, v, at, rt, b, c) =>

    extended-env = xtend-t-env(tbind(f, funT(at, rt)), tnv)

    if not(rt == tc(b, xtend-t-env(tbind(v, at), extended-env))):

      raise("rec: function return type not correct")


      tc(c, extended-env);

28.7 Recursion in Data

We have seen how to type recursive programs, but this doesn’t yet enable us to create recursive data. We already have one kind of recursive datum—the function type—but this is built-in. We haven’t yet seen how developers can create their own recursive datatypes.

28.7.1 Recursive Datatype Definitions

When we speak of allowing programmers to create recursive data, we are actually talking about three different facilities at once:
  • Creating a new type.

  • Letting instances of the new type have one or more fields.

  • Letting some of these fields refer to instances of the same type.

In fact, once we allow the third, we must allow one more:
  • Allowing non-recursive base-cases for the type.

This confluence of design criteria leads to what is commonly called an algebraic datatype. For instance, consider the following definition of a binary tree of numbers:Later [Parametric Polymorphism], we will discuss how types can be parameterized.

data BinTree: | leaf | node (value :: Number, left :: BinTree, right :: BinTree) end

Observe that without a name for the new datatype, BinTree, we would not have been able to refer back ot it in node. Similarly, without the ability to have more than one kind of BinTree, we would not have been able to define leaf, and thus wouldn’t have been able to terminate the recursion. Finally, of course, we need multiple fields (as in node) to construct useful and interesting data. In other words, all three mechanisms are packaged together because they are most useful in conjunction. (However, some langauges do permit the definition of stand-alone structures. We will return to the impact of this design decision on the type system later [REF].)

This style of data definition is sometimes also known as a sum of products. At the outer level, the datatype offers a set of choices (a value can be a leaf or a node). This corresponds to disjunction (“or”), which is sometimes written as a sum (the truth table is suggestive). Inside each sum is a set of fields, all of which must be present. These correspond to a conjunction (“and”), which is sometimes written as a product (ditto).

That covers the notation, but we have not explained where this new type, BinTree, comes from. It is obviously impractical to pretend that it is baked into our type-checker, because we can’t keep changing it for each new recursive type definition—it would be like modifying our interpreter each time the program contains a recursive function! Instead, we need to find a way to make such definitions intrinsic to the type language.

28.7.2 Introduced Types

Now, what impact does a datatype definition have? First, it introduces a new type; then it uses this to define several constructors, predicates, and selectors. For instance, in the above example, it first introduces BinTree, then uses it to ascribe the following types:

leaf :: BinTree # a constant, so no arrow node :: Number, BinTree, BinTree -> BinTree is-leaf :: BinTree -> Bool is-node :: BinTree -> Bool .value :: BinTree%(is-node) -> Number .left :: BinTree%(is-node) -> BTnum .right :: BinTree%(is-node) -> BTnum

Do Now!

In what two ways are the last three entries above fictitious?

Observe a few salient facts:
  • Both the constructors create instances of BinTree, not something more refined. We will discuss this design tradeoff later [REF].

  • Both predicates consume values of type BinTree, not “any” value. This is because the type system can already tell us what type a value is. Thus, we only need to distinguish between the variants of that one type.

  • The selectors really only work on instances of the relevant variant—e.g., .value can work only on instances of node, not on instances of leafbut we don’t have a way to express this in the static type system for lack of a suitable static type. Thus, applying these can only result in a dynamic error, not a static one caught by the type system.

There is more to say about recursive types, which we will return to shortly [REF].

28.7.3 Selectors

.value, .left, and .right are selectors: they select parts of the record by name. But here are the two ways in which they are fictitious. First, syntactically: in most languages with “dotted field access”, there is no such stand-alone operator as .value: e.g., you cannot write .value(...). But even setting aside this syntactic matter (which could be addressed by arguing that writing v.value is just an obscure syntax for applying this operator) the more interesting subtlety is the semantic one.

Above, we have given a very particular type to .value. Suppose, however, that this datatype was also defined in the same program:

data Payment: | cash(value :: Number) | card(number :: Number, value :: Number) end

This too appears to define a .value operator with the type:

.value :: Payment(is-cash) -> Number .value :: Payment(is-card) -> Number

or equivalently,

.value :: Payment -> Number

Will the real .value please stand up? How many .value operations are there? Indeed, it would appear that this “operator” freely cross-cuts every datatype definition, and even every module boundary!These issues are not really specific to types: the cross-cutting nature of field access is independent of it. However, ascribing types forces us to confront these issues, because we cannot ignore the difficulty of typing the operation.

To put this in perspective, consider two other very different styles of handling selectors:
  • A characteristic of scripting languages is that objects are merely hash tables, and all field access is turned into a hash-table reference on the string representing the field-name. Hence, o.f is just syntactic sugar for looking up the value indexed by "f" in the dictionary associated with o.

  • In Racket, the structure definitions such as
    (struct cash (value))
    (struct card (number value))
    generate distinct selectors: in this case, cash-value and card-value, respectively. Now there is no longer any potential for confusion, because they have different names that can each have distinct types.

Compiling between these languages then highlights these distinctions. Compiling from Pyret or Java to JavaScript is easy, because all field dereferences turn into dictionary lookups. Compiling from (untyped) Pyret to Racket is especially easy because the languages are so similar—until we get to dotted access. Then, assuming we wish to compile Pyret data definitions to Racket’s corresponding structure definitions, the compiler would have to traverse the Pyret program to gather up all fields with a common name, and turn them into a discriminating selector: for instance, v.value might compile to Racket’s (->value v), where ->value is defined as (given the above two data definitions):
(define (->value v)
    [(node? v) (node-value v)]
    [(cash? v) (cash-value v)]
    [(card? v) (card-value v)]))
In contrast, going in the other direction is easy: (node-value v) would check that v is indeed a node, and then access v.value.

28.7.4 Pattern-Matching and Desugaring

Once we have understood the names introduced by datatype definitions, and the nature of selectors, the only thing left is to provide an account of pattern-matching. For instance, we can write the expression

cases (BinTree) t: | leaf => e1 | node(v, l, r) => e2 end

This simply expands into uses of the above predicates, and binding the pieces:

if is-leaf(t): e1 else if is-node(t): v = t.value l = t.left r = t.right e2 end

In short, this can be done by desugaring, so pattern-matching does not need to be in the core language. This, in turn, means that one language can have many different pattern-matching mechanisms.

Except, that’s not quite so easy. Somehow, the desugaring that generates the code above in terms of if needs to know that the three positional selectors for a node are value, left, and right, respectively. This information is explicit in the type definition but only implicitly present in the use of the pattern-matcher (that, indeed, being the point). Somehow this information must be communicated from definition to use. Thus, the desugarer needs something akin to the type environment to accomplish its task.

Observe, furthermore, that expressions such as e1 and e2 cannot be type-checked—indeed, cannot even be reliable identified as expressionsuntil desugaring expands the use of cases. Thus, desugaring depends on the type environment, while type-checking depends on the result of desugaring. In other words, the two are symbiotic and need to happen, not quite in “parallel”, but rather in lock-step. What this implies is that building desugaring for a typed language when the syntactic sugar makes assumptions about types is more intricate than doing so for an untyped language.