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Dichotomy between functions and type constructors?
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Date: -- (:)
From: Xavier Leroy <Xavier.Leroy@i...>
Subject: Re: Dichotomy between functions and type constructors?
> Say I have a type
> type thing =
>    T1 of int * float
> | ....
> I can create such a type as T1(5, 3.14) but I cannot create such a type on a
> tuple result of a function call:
> let doit x = (x, float_of_int x)
> let myT1 = T1(doit x)
> This gives rise to a type checking error wherein the constructor T1 demands
> two arguments, instead of demanding a tuple of two elements.
> SML does not appear to impose this same requirement on the programmer, so
> what is the origin of the OCaml requirement?

For reasonable performance, a datatype definition such as "thing" above
must not represent values of type "thing" literally, i.e. as a block tagged 
"T1" pointing to a two-field block representing a pair (integer, float). 
It is crucial performance-wise to fold the two blocks into one block 
tagged "T1" holding the integer and the float. Pretty much all ML compilers 
do this. 

Without modules, the compiler can still maintain the illusion that 
T1 is really a one-argument constructor containing a pair, and not a 
two-argument constructor. Accesses such as 

        match x with T1 p -> p 

are not terribly efficient (the pair is actually reconstructed on the 
right-hand side in Caml Light), but they work. 

The big problem is with modules and data abstraction. Namely, should 
we allow the following structure 

        struct type p = int * float 
               type thing = T1 of int * float 

to match the following signature 

        sig type p 
              type thing = T1 of p 

If you believe the SML/Camllight illusion that constructors have 0 or 
1 argument, then the answer should be "yes". However, this causes no 
end of trouble in a compiler, because code typechecked against the 
signature above assumes that values of type thing are one-field blocks 
pointing to a value of type p, while code internal to the structure 
assumes two-field blocks from which values of type p must be 

This problem has plagued the SML/NJ implementation for quite a while, 
and the solutions that have been proposed are all extremely 

I think it's not worth the effort to maintain the illusion that 
constructors have 0 or 1 argument. Let's just face the truth and 
consider them as N-ary, as in Prolog. 

Incidentally, if you *really* need a constructor with one argument 
that is a pair, you can always declare it as 

        type p = int * float 
        type thing = T1 of p 

This will direct the OCaml compiler to use the proper representation for a 
one-argument constructor. Of course, that representation will occupy 
twice as much space as that of "type thing = T1 of int * float", and be 
twice as slow to access. 

- Xavier Leroy