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Typing problem
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Date: 2000-02-13 (21:12)
From: Jacques Garrigue <garrigue@k...>
Subject: Re: Typing problem
From: Jean-Marc Alliot <>
> We recently found a quite annoying problem with the typing system in
> ocaml 2.99, and Jacques Garrigue explained it to us very kindly. Other
> people might be be interested however.
> The problem is summarized in the following code:
> First let's define two types:
> type t1 = (?l:int -> unit -> unit)
> type t = Toto of t1
> Then the function:
> let f1 g =
>   g l:3 ();
>   (Toto g);;
> This function doesn't compile and the compiler error message is somewhat
> cryptic at first sight:
> File "", line 11, characters 8-9:
> This expression has type int -> unit -> 'a but is here used with type
>   t1 = ?l:int -> unit -> unit
> We would very much like to see this clearly documented in ocaml 2.99
> reference manual, as it is a serious change in the behavior of the
> typing system. Determinism is lost, as typing f1 would succeed if typing
> was done in reverse order (from last line to first line).

Sorry, I overlooked this point the manual.

As Pierre pointed out, what is lost here is not determinism but
completeness. The compiler may fail to type some correct programs, but
when it gives a result this will always be the same type.

To be more precise, ocaml 2.99 added two features to function

* out-of-order parameter passing (with labels)
* optional arguments

Both of these features require type information to be available at
application point. For the first one, this is only required for
efficient compilation, but for the second one type inference cannot be
done without it.

So you have to put a type annotation on g for the program to be

# let f1 (g : t1) =
    g l:3 ();
    (Toto g);;
val f1 : t1 -> t = <fun>

The choice here has been to keep backwards compatibility: all programs
that do not use extended application will be typed. That is, by
default the compiler supposes that there are no optional arguments, and
that all arguments are in the right order.

As for the incompleteness problem, we have the theoretical foundation
to solve it. That is, we could modify the type system so as to refuse
the opposite order also, which is somehow wrongly accepted.

# let f1 g = ignore(Toto g); g l:3 ();;
val f1 : t1 -> unit = <fun>

But I'm not sure refusing such cases would help a lot in practice.
This is not done currently because this check would badly slow down
the compiler.

> Perhaps also a different error message from the compiler would help in
> detecting such problems.

The above error message tells almost all the compiler knows. That is,
you mixed an optional and a non-optional argument, which is
illegal. The non-optional label disappears in the printed type because
in classic mode it is irrelevant for unification. I believe the
problem was that you didn't know that such a problem may occur at all.

In this particular case, by analyzing the two incompatible types, we
may discover that they both use the label l:, in its optional an
non-optional forms. So, with quite a bit of work, we could also have a

Optional label ?l: and non-optional label l: are incompatible.

But we must then also think about out-of-order application, omitted
parameters... Which all need a specific treatment.

Do you think this would help a lot?

From: Pierre Weis <>
> Hence, a language level fix could simply be to allow the user to write
> the question mark with the label as:
> let f1 g =
>     g ?l:3 ();
>     (Toto g);;
> Now, in conjontion with the -modern option, this would be perfectly clear to
> understand why g l:3 is rejected while g ?l:3 is not.
> Unfortunately, this last program is not yet handled properly by the
> compiler, since it causes an assertion failure into the typechecker:
> # let f1 g =
>       g ?l:3 ();
>       (Toto g);;
> This expression has type ?l:Uncaught exception: File
> "typing/", line 0, characters 6649-6661: Assertion failed

In fact, this feature is already available in ocaml 2.99. However the
above program is ill-typed, and due to a hole in the type checker,
some invalid type expression makes the pretty printer crash.

With a corrected version of the compiler, you get the following error
# let f1 g =
        g ?l:3 ();
        (Toto g);;  
This expression has type int but is here used with type 'a option

That is, using a question mark in an application is symmetrical to
abstraction, and you must provide an optional value (of type int
option here). This feature is documented in the reference manual.

# let f1 g =
    g ?l:(Some 3) ();
    (Toto g);;
val f1 : t1 -> t = <fun>

This only solves half of the problem, since you still have to pass all
arguments (included omitted ones), and in the right order.


Jacques Garrigue      Kyoto University     garrigue at
		<A HREF=>JG</A>