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[Caml-list] Comments on type variables
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Date: 2002-06-07 (10:24)
From: Jacques Garrigue <garrigue@k...>
Subject: Re: [Caml-list] Comments on type variables
From: Alain Frisch <frisch@clipper.ens.fr>

> I'd like to make a few comments on the manipulation of type variables
> in OCaml. They range from some points that could be worth mentioning
> somewhere (FAQ, manual) to "features" that may be considered as bugs,

At least I'll try to define what is a feature and what is a bug.
In Caml named type variables are handled in the following way:

1) Annotations and coercions
  Type annotations (expr : t), let ... : t = expr, etc are constraints
  applied to inferred types. As such type variables in them have just
  an existential meaning, and they only affect sharing. In an alias
  (t as 'a), 'a is handled as an instance variable.
  Since sharing can happen with any other annotation in the same
  expression, we have to be careful when generalizing types. 
  Caml chooses to only allow generalizing them at the level of the
  whole expression/definition. That is, just like for recursive
  functions, named typed variables inside an expression are
  monomorphic during the typing of this expression.
  If you don't need sharing, you can use "_" as variable name, which
  can be generalized as needed.

2) Type definitions
  All type variables are universally bound in the head of the
  They may be constrained, but only explicitly. That is, they are
  quantified universally,
    type 'a t = texp1 constraint 'a = texp2
    type t = /\'a < texp2. texp1
   where 'a is bound to be an instance of texp2.

3) Interfaces
  The semantics is the same as for type definitions, but the
  quantification is implicit. Constraint may appear from the use of
    val f : (#c as 'a) -> 'a
    f : /\'a < #c. 'a -> 'a

4) Classes
  They mix features from expressions and types, but the semantics of
  type variables is still the same: they are all bound at the level at
  the level of the class. Inside a definition group the quantification
  is existential, even in interfaces (some constraints may be
  inherited, or appear due to mutual recursion).
  A small discrepancy appears in constraints on the class type:
    class [tvars] c : ctype = cexpr
  Here tvars are shared in both ctype and cexpr, but variables
  appearing in ctype are not shared with does appearing in cexpr.
  I'm not sure of why it is so, but Jerome Vouilon may be able to

5) Polymorphic methods
  They form an exception to above rules.
  While their types appear inside class definitions or descriptions,
  they are quantified explicitly at the level of the method:
    method fold : 'a. (t -> 'a -> 'a) -> 'a -> 'a = ...
  In interfaces, the quantification is implicit for newly introduced
    method fold : (t -> 'a -> 'a) -> 'a -> 'a
  As you can see the exception is in the location of the
  quantification, otherwise they behave like type of  value descriptions.

6) Local modules
  They do not have any specific behaviour, but definitions inside them
  have their type variables quantified independently, as you would
  expect if the module were defined at toplevel.

So there are lots of cases to consider, but I would not describe it as
messy: the basic idea is the scope is the definition, and you cannot
generalize before getting out of the scope.

> Generalization of explicit variables
> ------------------------------------
> Explicit variables are generalized only at toplevel let-declarations
> (see bug report 1156:
> http://caml.inria.fr/bin/caml-bugs/open?id=1156;page=3;user=guest):
> # let f (x : 'a) : 'a * 'a = (x,x) in (f 1, f true);;
> This expression has type bool but is here used with type int

Yes. This is a side-effect of using named variables.

> Variables do not add polymorphism
> -----------------------------------
> Contrary to the intuition one could have, variable never allow
> more polymorphism (exception for polymorphic methods); indeed, they
> _restrict_ the polymorphism.

Yes. This is a property of ocaml that dropping parts of a term can
only improve its polymorphism.

> One could expect polymorphic recursion to be allowed when
> function interfaces are explicitely given; this is not the case:

Yes. Polymorphic recursion is not a magical feature. The existential
semantics of type annotations do not allow to infer anything about
polymorphism from a type annotation.

> A paragraph in the FAQ is somewhat misleading:
> << Polymorphism appears when we introduce type schemes, that is types
>    with universally quantified type variables.
> ...
>    The polymorphism is only introduced by the definition of names during
>    a let construct (either local, or global).
> >>
> The last sentence seems to contradict the first; the programmer doesn't
> introduce type schemes.

The first instance is about types, the second about terms.
In fact, to recover symmetry, the first sentence should probably be
<< Polymorphism appears when we introduce values whose types are
schemes, ... >>

> Variables do not guaranty polymorphism
> --------------------------------------

Fully yes for expressions. Partially yes for type definitions and
interfaces: a variable can only be constrained explicitly. If their is
no constraint on a variable, then it is guaranteed polymorphic.

> We have to rely on the module system:
> # module M : sig val f : 'a -> 'a end = struct let f x = x + 1 end;;


> Would it be possible to declare variables that have to remain polymorphic
> (I don't know how to formalize this; just an idea ...), so as to reject
> the following ?
> let 'a. f (x : 'a) : 'a = x + 1;;

Perfectly possible. But I'm not sure this is sufficient, as we are
also interested by constrained variables.
Maybe allow
  let 'a = texp. f .....

Another way is to integrate it with explicit polymorphism:
  let f : 'a. 'a -> 'a = ...

The real question is what we are going to do with this information.
If we don't use it, then interfaces are probably sufficient.
But we could use it for polymorphism recursion, or first class

> Variable scoping rules
> ----------------------
> The scoping rules for type variables do not seem uniform.

There are only two exceptions, and they concern classes.
Otherwise the scoping is the single phrase, or a group of phrase
connected by and for term definitions.
Maybe restricting to a single phrase even for simultaneous term
definitions would be more uniform.
> In a structure, the scope of a variable in an expression is the toplevel
> element:
> # module M = struct let f (x : 'a)  = x   let g (x : 'a) = x + 1 end;;
> module M : sig val f : 'a -> 'a val g : int -> int end
> ... whereas for objects, the scope is the class definition:
> # class o = object method f (x : 'a) = x   method g (x : 'a) = x + 1 end;;
> class o : object method f : int -> int method g : int -> int end

Yes, a class is not a structure. A class is both an expression and a
type definition, and as such rules common to expressions and type
definitions apply.

> Interaction with local modules
> ------------------------------
> Inside a local module, type variables introduced outside the module are
> invisible:
> # let f (x : 'a) =
>     let module M = struct type t = 'a list end in ();;
> Unbound type parameter 'a

To be expected by the rules above. Functions with local modules are
not functors. 'a is not a type constructor.

> # let f (x : 'a) =
>     let module M = Set.Make(struct type t = 'a end) in ();;
> Unbound type parameter 'a


> # let f (x : 'a) =
>     let module M = struct let g (y : 'a) = y end in M.g 2;;
> val f : 'a -> int = <fun>

Side-effect of the independence of members in a structure.
Is there a better semantics?

> Type declaration flushes the introduced variables:
> # let f (x : 'a) = let module M = struct type t end in (2 : 'a);;
> val f : 'a -> int = <fun>

That one is a bug. Bad one. And not immediate to correct, as type
variables are reset all over the place.
Thanks for reporting.

> Too bad, when one need such a variable to restrict polymorphism:

Indeed. If class typing were principal, there would be no such

> Objects
> -------
> At least it is clear for polymorphic methods where type variables
> are introduced.
> For class types, the explicit quantification is optional:
> # class type o = object method f : 'a -> 'a method g : 'b -> 'b end;;
> class type o = object method f : 'a. 'a -> 'a method g : 'b. 'b -> 'b end
> # class type ['a] o = object method f : 'a -> 'a method g : 'b -> 'b end;;
> class type ['a] o = object method f : 'a -> 'a method g : 'b. 'b -> 'b end


> # type 'a t = { x : 'a; y : 'b };;
> type 'a t = { x : 'a; y : 'b. 'b; }

That one is not valid any more. In records, one might expect
quantification to be existential (at the level of the whole record),
so it seemed better to make the quantification explicit.

> BTW, I don't understand the following error message:
> # class type o = object method f : 'a -> 'a method g : 'a -> 'a end;;
> The method g has type 'a -> 'b but is expected to have type 'c

Such error message occurs when 'a or 'b is a universal variable, and
you try to unify it with a type variable, against quantification
rules. I must find a way to get better error messages.

This is the case here because 'a is universal after the typing of f,
but is reused (and shared) in the typing of g.

I'm undecided about whether reuse on non-explicitly quantified
universal variables should be allowed. This might be confusing if the
intent was really sharing.

> Also, why are class parameters enclosed in brackets ?
> type 'a t = ...
> but:
> class ['a] t = ...
> and not:
> class 'a t = ...

That's a purely syntactic problem
  class c = [int] t
must be distinguished from
  class c = int t -> ...
at parsing time.

> '_a variables
> -------------
> It is not possible to specify "impure" type variables:
> # let z = let g y = y in g [];;
> val z : '_a list = []
> # let z : '_a list = [];;
> val z : 'a list = []

Indeed, there is no such concept as "impure" variable in input type
expressions. What it should mean is not so clear.

> Then, how do we specify an interface for the module struct let x = ref [] end ?
> #  module M = (struct let x = ref [] end : sig val x : '_a list ref end);;

You must choose a type. Anyway, you will have to choose one at some
time, so why wait?
Note that it is illegal to export a non-generic type variable from a
compilation unit.

> Variable name in error message
> ------------------------------
> Error messages would be more readable if they retained (when possible)
> variable names:
> # let f (a : 'a) (b : 'b list) = b + 1;;
> This expression has type 'a list but is here used with type int

I see. As Francois Pottier pointed out, it's not clear what it would
mean when type variables are only quantified existentially, and can be
merged all over the place.
Note also that the unification algorithm may introduce new type
variables, or create type which were not in the input. Hard to follow

Hope this helps.

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