Variants as presented in section 1.4 are a powerful tool to build data structures and algorithms. However they sometimes lack flexibility when used in modular programming. This is due to the fact that every constructor is assigned to a unique type when defined and used. Even if the same name appears in the definition of multiple types, the constructor itself belongs to only one type. Therefore, one cannot decide that a given constructor belongs to multiple types, or consider a value of some type to belong to some other type with more constructors.
With polymorphic variants, this original assumption is removed. That is, a variant tag does not belong to any type in particular, the type system will just check that it is an admissible value according to its use. You need not define a type before using a variant tag. A variant type will be inferred independently for each of its uses.
In programs, polymorphic variants work like usual ones. You just have to prefix their names with a backquote character `.
[>`Off|`On] list means that to match this list, you should at least be able to match `Off and `On, without argument. [<`On|`Off|`Number of int] means that f may be applied to `Off, `On (both without argument), or `Number n where n is an integer. The > and < inside the variant types show that they may still be refined, either by defining more tags or by allowing less. As such, they contain an implicit type variable. Because each of the variant types appears only once in the whole type, their implicit type variables are not shown.
The above variant types were polymorphic, allowing further refinement. When writing type annotations, one will most often describe fixed variant types, that is types that cannot be refined. This is also the case for type abbreviations. Such types do not contain < or >, but just an enumeration of the tags and their associated types, just like in a normal datatype definition.
Type-checking polymorphic variants is a subtle thing, and some expressions may result in more complex type information.
Here we are seeing two phenomena. First, since this matching is open (the last case catches any tag), we obtain the type [> `A | `B] rather than [< `A | `B] in a closed matching. Then, since x is returned as is, input and return types are identical. The notation as 'a denotes such type sharing. If we apply f to yet another tag `E, it gets added to the list.
Here f1 and f2 both accept the variant tags `A and `B, but the argument of `A is int for f1 and string for f2. In f’s type `C, only accepted by f1, disappears, but both argument types appear for `A as int & string. This means that if we pass the variant tag `A to f, its argument should be both int and string. Since there is no such value, f cannot be applied to `A, and `B is the only accepted input.
Even if a value has a fixed variant type, one can still give it a larger type through coercions. Coercions are normally written with both the source type and the destination type, but in simple cases the source type may be omitted.
You may also selectively coerce values through pattern matching.
When an or-pattern composed of variant tags is wrapped inside an alias-pattern, the alias is given a type containing only the tags enumerated in the or-pattern. This allows for many useful idioms, like incremental definition of functions.
To make this even more comfortable, you may use type definitions as abbreviations for or-patterns. That is, if you have defined type myvariant = [`Tag1 of int | `Tag2 of bool], then the pattern #myvariant is equivalent to writing (`Tag1(_ : int) | `Tag2(_ : bool)).
Such abbreviations may be used alone,
or combined with with aliases.
After seeing the power of polymorphic variants, one may wonder why they were added to core language variants, rather than replacing them.
The answer is twofold. One first aspect is that while being pretty efficient, the lack of static type information allows for less optimizations, and makes polymorphic variants slightly heavier than core language ones. However noticeable differences would only appear on huge data structures.
More important is the fact that polymorphic variants, while being type-safe, result in a weaker type discipline. That is, core language variants do actually much more than ensuring type-safety, they also check that you use only declared constructors, that all constructors present in a data-structure are compatible, and they enforce typing constraints to their parameters.
For this reason, you must be more careful about making types explicit when you use polymorphic variants. When you write a library, this is easy since you can describe exact types in interfaces, but for simple programs you are probably better off with core language variants.
Beware also that some idioms make trivial errors very hard to find. For instance, the following code is probably wrong but the compiler has no way to see it.
You can avoid such risks by annotating the definition itself.