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AW: Format.sprintf and "%a"
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Date: 2000-11-25 (15:55)
From: Pierre Weis <Pierre.Weis@i...>
Subject: Re: AW: Format.sprintf and "%a"
> Pierre Weis wrote:
> >
> > Nothing more than the reported type error: your functions  are
> > designed to return unit (they work by side effect) not string (which
> > would mean they are functional), and this is obviously uncompatible.
> >
> > let s =
> >  Format.fprintf str_formatter "Test: %a@." fmt_foo Foo;
> >  Format.flush_str_formatter ();;
> > val s : string = "Test: Foo\n"
Jim Rauser mailto:rauser@qcentic.de answered:

> Okay, I found the definition of the type "format" in pervasives.mli,
> so I understand the type error now.  But I then tried to partially
> apply Format.fprintf to Format.str_formatter:
>   let fsprintf = Format.fprintf Format.str_formatter;;
>   val fsprintf : ('_a, Format.formatter, unit) format -> '_a = <fun>
> Looks good, except for the ominous "_" in front of the type variable
> (what does it mean, anyway?).  But:

Have a look at the FAQ:

the item ``What means '_a ? '' could be relevant.

>   let fmt_string f s = Format.fprintf f "%s" s;;
>   fsprintf "%a@." fmt_string "foo";;
>                   ----------
>   This expression has type Format.formatter -> string -> unit
>   but is here used with type (string -> 'a, Format.formatter, unit) format
> This type error also makes sense.

No, I just don't understand it, and I was not able to reproduce it:

# let fsprintf = Format.fprintf Format.str_formatter;;
val fsprintf : ('_a, Format.formatter, unit) format -> '_a = <fun>
# let fmt_string f s = Format.fprintf f "%s" s;;
val fmt_string : Format.formatter -> string -> unit = <fun>
# fsprintf "%a@." fmt_string "foo";;
- : unit = ()
# Format.flush_str_formatter ();;
- : string = "foo\n"

However, the usual semantics of '_a still applies:

- : ((Format.formatter -> string -> unit) -> string -> unit,
     Format.formatter, unit)
    format -> (Format.formatter -> string -> unit) -> string -> unit
= <fun>

> What I don't understand is, why it *does* work with Format.fprintf,
> that is, how the compiler convinces itself that an argument list
> like ["%a" fmt_string "foo"] unifies with the type [('a,
> Format.formatter, unit) format]?  I don't recall seeing anything
> else in the manual that talks about functions with variable arity;
> is there some extra-linguistic magic going on here?

Yes. Here are some hints about this magic.

First of all, the typechecker has an extra rule for strings: the
auxiliary rule states that if the typechecking context needs to
consider a string constant as a value of type ('a, 'b, 'c) format then
this is not considered as an error.  Furthermore the typechecker
analyses the contents of the constant format strings to find out what
can be the types of the arguments of printf. For instance:

# ("" : ('a, 'b, 'c) format);;
- : ('a, 'b, 'a) format = <abstr>

# let fmt = ("print an int: %i" : ('a, 'b, 'c) format);;
val fmt : (int -> 'a, 'b, 'a) format = <abstr>

In case of an application of printf the typechecker unifies the result
type of the application to the one specified by the given format
string (unit in the case of format for printf, string in the case of
format for sprintf).

# let f i = Printf.fprintf stdout fmt i;;
val f : int -> unit = <fun>
# f 3;;
print an int: 3- : unit = ()

You have to be careful with partial applications of printf-like
functions to format strings, since those applications are really
partial applications! (Meaning that side-effects may happen at each
new argument passed to the function)!

For instance, the format "print an int: %i", is in some sense
equivalent to the functional expression:

 print_string "print an int: "; function i -> print_int i

Hence the following behaviours:

# Printf.fprintf stdout fmt;;
print an int: - : int -> unit = <fun>

and also:

# let f = Printf.fprintf stdout fmt;;
print an int: val f : int -> unit = <fun>

More generally, a ('a, 'b, 'c) format string value applied to a printf
like function means that:

-- the resulting function will accept arguments with type 'a
-- embedded %a applications will accept values of type 'b as first
-- the resulting function will return values of type 'c

# Printf.sprintf;;
- : ('a, unit, string) format -> 'a = <fun>

# Printf.sprintf "%a";;       
- : (unit -> '_a -> string) -> '_a -> string = <fun>

# Printf.fprintf;;
- : out_channel -> ('a, out_channel, unit) format -> 'a = <fun>

# Printf.fprintf stdout "%a";;
- : (out_channel -> '_a -> unit) -> '_a -> unit = <fun>

As you can see, embedded function calls must have the same 'b and 'c
parameters as the format they are called from (meaning that since
Printf.fprintf stdout takes a ('a, out_channel, unit) format as format
string, it can only accept %a convertion specifications with functions
f having type out_channel -> 'a -> unit).

PS: May be having format strings as lexical entities per se may help
to remove a bit of the magic. Also, format srings concatenation have
been discussed in this list some time ago ... (I remembered that safe
format concatenation is possible if we add of an extra fourth type
parameter to format strings ...)

Pierre Weis

INRIA, Projet Cristal, Pierre.Weis@inria.fr, http://cristal.inria.fr/~weis/