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Date: -- (:)
From: Alain Frisch <frisch@c...>
Subject: [Caml-list] Comments on type variables
Hello list,

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,
IMHO.

Feel free to comment, and sorry for this long mail in a random order ...


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 =
    let g (y : 'a) : 'a = y in
    (g x, g (x,x));;
This expression has type 'a * 'a but is here used with type 'a

# 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

# let a (x : 'a) = x+1 in let b (x : 'a) = x ^ "a" in ();;
This expression has type int but is here used with type string

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.

Variables are generalized only on toplevel let-declarations;

# let f x =
    let g (y : 'a) : 'a = y in
    (g x, g (x,x));;
This expression has type 'a * 'a but is here used with type 'a

# 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


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

# let rec f : 'a -> unit = fun x -> f (x,x);;
This expression has type 'a -> unit but is here used with type
  'a * 'a -> unit
This expression has type 'a * 'a but is here used with type 'a

Actually, "function interfaces are explicitely given" does not mean
anything, as universal quantification can only be infered.

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.


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

Variables can't be simply used to make the typechecker enforce
polymorphism:

# let f (x : 'a) : 'a = x + 1;;
val f : int -> int = <fun>

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;;


Variable scoping rules
----------------------

The scoping rules for type variables do not seem 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


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

# 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>


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>

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

# class ['a] o =
  object
    val z = let module M = struct type t end in ()
    method f (x : 'a) : 'a = x
  end;;
Some type variables are unbound in this type:
  class ['a] o : object val x : unit method f : 'b -> 'b end
The method f has type 'a -> 'a where 'a is unbound


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; }

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


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



'_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 = []

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);;
Signature mismatch:
Modules do not match:
  sig val x : '_a list ref end
is not included in
  sig val x : 'a list ref end
Values do not match:
  val x : '_a list ref
is not included in


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


-- Alain

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