On this page:
13.1 An Arithmetic Expression Language
13.2 Adding Types
13.3 Typing More Language Features
13.3.1 Variables
13.3.2 Functions
13.3.3 Recursion
13.4 Bidirectional Type Inference

13 Types and Type Checking

Jesse Tov


why we might want a type system

how we can write a one down as rules

how to think about designing those rules

how to turn the rules into an algorithm

how and why to make the algorithm bidirectional

13.1 An Arithmetic Expression Language

We’re going to start with the simplest language that can demonstrate all the phenomena we care about. It’s a language of arithmetic expressions with integers and Booleans. Call it ZB:

Except for , we can understand this language as a subset of Racket. Like Racket, it has integer literals, boolean literals, addition, division, less-than-or-equal comparison, and .

What is ? A single integer, provided from outside the program. You can think of a program in this language as a function that takes a single, integer-valued argument named . Without , the result of every expression can be known immediately; we include it so that what follows won’t be trivial.

Exercise 33. Enumerate and characterize the potential errors in a ZB program.

Exercise 34. Some ZB programs, like and , always have errors, regardless of the input. Some, like and never have errors, regardless of the input. Find a program that errors on some inputs and not others.

13.2 Adding Types

There are a variety of ways we could statically check a ZB program for errors. The strongest analysis we could do would tell us the set of inputs that produce an error—the set may be a finite subset of the integers or the complement of a finite set (cofinite). However, that kind of analysis is only tractable because ZB is extremely weak. This morning, we’re going to learn about analyses that are, by definition, tractable: type systems.

Here’s a simple recipe for designing a type system:

When we design a type system, we have a choice for the granularity of the classifications. We need to think about what’s relevant to our language’s operations. For example, to know that will succeed, we need to know that and both evaluate to integers, so it would be helpful to have a type for that; we’ll call it . And we need some other type for the result of to prevent Booleans from flowing into additions; we’ll call that type . So, we define just two types for ZB:

(We could increase the granularity by considering more operations and sets of values—for example, it might be interesting to give non-zero integers their own type—but that quickly causes the system’s complexity to explode. is a simple choice that works well.)

That’s step one. Step two is to figure out how to classify ZB expressions by types. We do this by defining a judgment, a relation that connects expressions to types. The notation will be , which we read as “expression has type .” For example, we would say that and , but it would be wrong to say .

Exercise 35. What, if anything, do you think should be in each of these judgments

The usual way to define a typing judgment like is using logical inference rules. A logical inference rule says that a particular conclusion can be derived from some premisses. The conclusion—a judgment–is written below a horizontal line; a sequence of premissesmore judgments and the occasional logical expression, sufficient to reach the conclusion—are written above the line. Our first two rules let us conclude that the type of any integer literal is and the type of any Boolean literal is :

Note that there are no premisses above the lines because these judgments are true for every literal of the right form. Similarly, we conclude that has type :

The remaining rules require premisses. For example, successful addition expression always produces an integer, but that depends on its subexpressions producing integers. So we have a rule that says that an expression has type whenever both of its subexpressions have type (and likewise for division):

Yes, you read this correctly: according to the typing rule, division always produces an . That’s okay, because if a program actually divides by 0, it gets terminated, rendering the type of the division expression irrelevant.

Finally, we give two rules for typing conditionals:

Exercise 36. Articulate the rules in English. Do they make sense? Is there a better way to write the rules?

Exercise 37. Write a type inference rule for .

13.3 Typing More Language Features

Most programming languages have more features than ZB, such as:

The first of these can be done with what you’ve already seen, and the last we will save for exercises. For others, however, we’ll need a few more ideas. In the next three subsections we’ll see how our type system can handle variables, functions, and recursion.

13.3.1 Variables

In order to extend our typed language with variables, we need a way to keep track of their types. We’ll use a type environment, which is a mapping from the currently bound variable names to their types. You can think of it like a partial function from names to types, but we’re going to define it syntactically:

We write for the type environment whose domain is empty, and for a type environment that is the same as except for all the s, which it maps to their corresponding s instead.

For example, the type environment that variable has type and variable has type .

Then we can extending ZB with variables and single-variable expressions:

How does the type system work? The typing judgment now keeps track of variables and their types using a type environment. We’ll write to mean that expression has type given the variables in have the types listed there. Thus, binders (like ) and variable occurences communicate via . The type of a variable must given by the type environment:

The rule for is more complicated:

For an expression to be well typed in some type environment , the sub-expression must have a type in the same type environment. But the sub-expression has access to an environment where is extended with , which has the same type that has. And in that case, the whole expression has the same type that has.

The remaining rules are the same as for ZB, but they pass the type environment through. For example:

13.3.2 Functions

The next feature we’d like to add is functions. As with local variables, the new syntax comes in pairs—we need a way to create a function and a way to use one. So we’ll use Racket’s syntax for and function application:

Now our language has values that it didn’t have before, and that are neither integers nor Booleans, which means we need a new type. The simplest choice is to extend our type syntax to include arrow types:

We want to say that a value has type when 1) it’s a procedure whose arity is k, and and 2) if applied to k values of type are through , the result (if any!) will be a value of type . The typing rule for applications extends this intuition from values to expressions:

Since a expression produces a function, it should have an arrow type that matches its arity. Furthermore, the body of the can see both the ’s surrounding context and its formal parameters, so the body is typed in a type environment where the formal parameters have types matching the domains of the arrow type. The result type of the body must, of course, match the codomain of the arrow type. Like this:

The above rule is great! It’s true, it’s correct, and it will never lead you wrong. The problem, however, is that it might not lead you anyplace at all. Up until now, I’ve presented the type system from a logical perspective—it’s a three-way relation—but I haven’t actually given you an algorithm. But in fact, the typing judgment () before we added the rule for has an easy algorithm if you read it as a function from two arguments ( and ) to one result .

Adding the above rule breaks that property, because you need to know the s to check in the premiss, but the s only appear in an “out” position of the conclusion of the rule.

We’ll adopt two complementary strategies to solve this problem. In this section, we enrich the syntax of expressions (diverging from Racket) to contain the information that we need. Then, in Bidirectional Type Inference, we will modify our typing relation so that the context can provide a “hint” to an unnannotated a expression about what its type should be.

In the first approach, we add require that each of a ’s formal parameters have a type annotation:

Then, we just use the type annotations as the types of the formal parameters for checking the body:

This rule, for with type annotations, means that our typing relation again gives us an algorithm. Next, I’ll show you how a slightly more sophisticated algorithm can take advantage of contextual information to let you omit some type annotations.

13.3.3 Recursion

In an untyped, higher-order language (like Racket or the λ calculus), it’s possible to do recursion using a fixpoint combinator (like Y) even if you don’t include any recursive binding forms. But many type systems, including the one we’re working with, can’t give the Y combinator a type. Instead, recursion must be built-in somehow.

One way is with a recursive binding form. For example, we might add an expression form that evaluates so that uses of inside of are bound to the value of . (This means those uses have to be delayed, typically under a λ, so that the value of isn’t needed before it’s ready. The Racket equivalent is .)

Exercise 38. Using the techniques we’ve seen so far, it’s possible to write a typing rule for , but like the rule above for unannotated λ, that doesn’t give an algorithm. Write the rule and see that it needs to “guess” the type of in order to figure out the type of .

Exercise 39. Show that adding a type annotation to the form makes it possible to write an algorithmic rule that doesn’t have to guess.

13.4 Bidirectional Type Inference

Above we saw how to type by adding type annotations to its formal parameters. Our goal going forward is to reduce the number of mandatory type annotations. Often, the information provided by a type annotation can be acquired from the context instead, and if we can do that, it can help make our language more pleasant to use.

We can think of types in the type system above as flowing in one direction: upward, to each expression from its sub-expressions. In birectional type inference, we define a second relation by which the type flows downward, from an expression to (some of) its subexpressions. Thus, the new system will be bidirectional.

In particular, we will define the type system as a pair of mutually-recursive relations having different modes:

Before presenting the algorithm, let’s simplify and restate our language. Now that we have functions and variables, we can specify many operations as primitive functions in some initial environment :

Here is our new language, λZB→, in full:

It has one new form, , which has type when also has type . This new form isn’t strictly needed, but as we will see, provides a convenient bridge between inferring and checking.

Now let’s see the type system, starting with the inference (upward) direction. Some of the rules are the same as before, so let’s get through those first:

The remaining compute-mode rules, on the other hand, have premisses that switch to check mode. The compute-mode rule for checks that condition has type and types for the two branches, succeeding only when they agree:

The final two compute-mode rules are the most interesting, as they can push (non-trivial) expected types into check-mode premisses:

The rule for checks that has type . The rule for application first infers a type for the operator (), which must be an arrow type whose arity matches the number of operands (). Then the rule checks each of the operands against the corresponding type .

That completes the rules for the compute-mode judgment. For the check mode judgment, let’s see the most interesting rule first, which can check a without argument type annotations based on the type it’s expected to have:

We also want rules for propagating an expected type (or parts thereof) into subexpressions where that might let us omit some type annotations. For example, if we know the expected type of a expression, then we know the expected type of its body:

Other expression forms, such as , can benefit from check-mode rules—we’ll leave those cases for exercises. However, many forms don’t benefit from their own check-mode rule, because it’s just as good to delegate back to compute mode:

Unlike other rules we’ve seen, this delegation rule isn’t limited to a particular syntactic form for the expression in its conclusion, which means that it can apply to any form of expression, including those covered by the other check-mode rules. From a logical perspective, it isn’t harmful (if we’ve been careful) because in every case where compute mode can succeed (via the delegation), the check-mode rules give the same result. Algorithmically, this means that we can avoid considering the delegation rule for expression forms that are covered by more specific check-mode rules.

Exercise 40. Write the missing check-mode rule for expressions.

Exercise 41. Add string literals and a string type to the language and type system. Then give types for these primitive functions: , , and .