Generalized algebraic datatypes, or GADTs, extend usual sum types in two ways: constraints on type parameters may change depending on the value constructor, and some type variables may be existentially quantified. Adding constraints is done by giving an explicit return type, where type parameters are instantiated:

type _ term =
| Int : int -> int term
| Add : (int -> int -> int) term
| App : ('b -> 'a) term * 'b term -> 'a term

This return type must use the same type constructor as the type being defined, and have the same number of parameters. Variables are made existential when they appear inside a constructor’s argument, but not in its return type. Since the use of a return type often eliminates the need to name type parameters in the left-hand side of a type definition, one can replace them with anonymous types _ in that case.

The constraints associated to each constructor can be recovered through pattern-matching. Namely, if the type of the scrutinee of a pattern-matching contains a locally abstract type, this type can be refined according to the constructor used. These extra constraints are only valid inside the corresponding branch of the pattern-matching. If a constructor has some existential variables, fresh locally abstract types are generated, and they must not escape the scope of this branch.

We write an eval function:

let rec eval : type a. a term -> a = function
| Int n -> n (* a = int *)
| Add -> (fun x y -> x+y) (* a = int -> int -> int *)
| App(f,x) -> (eval f) (eval x)
(* eval called at types (b->a) and b for fresh b *)

And use it:

let two = eval (App (App (Add, Int 1), Int 1))

val two : int = 2

It is important to remark that the function eval is using the polymorphic syntax for locally abstract types. When defining a recursive function that manipulates a GADT, explicit polymorphic recursion should generally be used. For instance, the following definition fails with a type error:

let rec eval (type a) : a term -> a = function
| Int n -> n
| Add -> (fun x y -> x+y)
| App(f,x) -> (eval f) (eval x)

Error: This expression has type ($App_'b -> a) term
but an expression was expected of type 'a
The type constructor $App_'b would escape its scope

In absence of an explicit polymorphic annotation, a monomorphic type is inferred for the recursive function. If a recursive call occurs inside the function definition at a type that involves an existential GADT type variable, this variable flows to the type of the recursive function, and thus escapes its scope. In the above example, this happens in the branch App(f,x) when eval is called with f as an argument. In this branch, the type of f is ($App_'b -> a) term. The prefix $ in $App_'b denotes an existential type named by the compiler (see 7.5). Since the type of eval is 'a term -> 'a, the call eval f makes the existential type $App_'b flow to the type variable 'a and escape its scope. This triggers the above error.

Type inference for GADTs is notoriously hard. This is due to the fact some types may become ambiguous when escaping from a branch. For instance, in the Int case above, n could have either type int or a, and they are not equivalent outside of that branch. As a first approximation, type inference will always work if a pattern-matching is annotated with types containing no free type variables (both on the scrutinee and the return type). This is the case in the above example, thanks to the type annotation containing only locally abstract types.

In practice, type inference is a bit more clever than that: type annotations do not need to be immediately on the pattern-matching, and the types do not have to be always closed. As a result, it is usually enough to only annotate functions, as in the example above. Type annotations are propagated in two ways: for the scrutinee, they follow the flow of type inference, in a way similar to polymorphic methods; for the return type, they follow the structure of the program, they are split on functions, propagated to all branches of a pattern matching, and go through tuples, records, and sum types. Moreover, the notion of ambiguity used is stronger: a type is only seen as ambiguous if it was mixed with incompatible types (equated by constraints), without type annotations between them. For instance, the following program types correctly.

let rec sum : type a. a term -> _ = fun x ->
let y =
match x with
| Int n -> n
| Add -> 0
| App(f,x) -> sum f + sum x
in y + 1

val sum : 'a term -> int = <fun>

Here the return type int is never mixed with a, so it is seen as non-ambiguous, and can be inferred. When using such partial type annotations we strongly suggest specifying the -principal mode, to check that inference is principal.

The exhaustiveness check is aware of GADT constraints, and can automatically infer that some cases cannot happen. For instance, the following pattern matching is correctly seen as exhaustive (the Add case cannot happen).

let get_int : int term -> int = function
| Int n -> n
| App(_,_) -> 0

Usually, the exhaustiveness check only tries to check whether the
cases omitted from the pattern matching are typable or not.
However, you can force it to try harder by adding *refutation cases*,
written as a full stop.
In the presence of a refutation case, the exhaustiveness check will first
compute the intersection of the pattern with the complement of the
cases preceding it. It then checks whether the resulting patterns can
really match any concrete values by trying to type-check them.
Wild cards in the generated patterns are handled in a special way: if
their type is a variant type with only GADT constructors, then the
pattern is split into the different constructors, in order to check whether
any of them is possible (this splitting is not done for arguments of these
constructors, to avoid non-termination). We also split tuples and
variant types with only one case, since they may contain GADTs inside.
For instance, the following code is deemed exhaustive:

type _ t =
| Int : int t
| Bool : bool t
let deep : (char t * int) option -> char = function
| None -> 'c'
| _ -> .

Namely, the inferred remaining case is Some _, which is split into Some (Int, _) and Some (Bool, _), which are both untypable because deep expects a non-existing char t as the first element of the tuple. Note that the refutation case could be omitted here, because it is automatically added when there is only one case in the pattern matching.

Another addition is that the redundancy check is now aware of GADTs: a case will be detected as redundant if it could be replaced by a refutation case using the same pattern.

The term type we have defined above is an *indexed* type, where
a type parameter reflects a property of the value contents.
Another use of GADTs is *singleton* types, where a GADT value
represents exactly one type. This value can be used as runtime
representation for this type, and a function receiving it can have a
polytypic behavior.

Here is an example of a polymorphic function that takes the runtime representation of some type t and a value of the same type, then pretty-prints the value as a string:

type _ typ =
| Int : int typ
| String : string typ
| Pair : 'a typ * 'b typ -> ('a * 'b) typ
let rec to_string: type t. t typ -> t -> string =
fun t x ->
match t with
| Int -> Int.to_string x
| String -> Printf.sprintf "%S" x
| Pair(t1,t2) ->
let (x1, x2) = x in
Printf.sprintf "(%s,%s)" (to_string t1 x1) (to_string t2 x2)

Another frequent application of GADTs is equality witnesses.

type (_,_) eq = Eq : ('a,'a) eq
let cast : type a b. (a,b) eq -> a -> b = fun Eq x -> x

Here type eq has only one constructor, and by matching on it one adds a local constraint allowing the conversion between a and b. By building such equality witnesses, one can make equal types which are syntactically different.

Here is an example using both singleton types and equality witnesses to implement dynamic types.

let rec eq_type : type a b. a typ -> b typ -> (a,b) eq option =
fun a b ->
match a, b with
| Int, Int -> Some Eq
| String, String -> Some Eq
| Pair(a1,a2), Pair(b1,b2) ->
begin match eq_type a1 b1, eq_type a2 b2 with
| Some Eq, Some Eq -> Some Eq
| _ -> None
end
| _ -> None
type dyn = Dyn : 'a typ * 'a -> dyn
let get_dyn : type a. a typ -> dyn -> a option =
fun a (Dyn(b,x)) ->
match eq_type a b with
| None -> None
| Some Eq -> Some x

The typing of pattern matching in the presence of GADTs can generate many existential types. When necessary, error messages refer to these existential types using compiler-generated names. Currently, the compiler generates these names according to the following nomenclature:

- First, types whose name starts with a $ are existentials.
- $Constr_'a denotes an existential type introduced for the type
variable 'a of the GADT constructor Constr:
type any = Any : 'name -> any let escape (Any x) = xError: This expression has type $Any_'name but an expression was expected of type 'a The type constructor $Any_'name would escape its scope
- $Constr denotes an existential type introduced for an anonymous type variable in the GADT constructor Constr:
type any = Any : _ -> any let escape (Any x) = xError: This expression has type $Any but an expression was expected of type 'a The type constructor $Any would escape its scope
- $'a if the existential variable was unified with the type variable 'a during typing:
type ('arg,'result,'aux) fn = | Fun: ('a ->'b) -> ('a,'b,unit) fn | Mem1: ('a ->'b) * 'a * 'b -> ('a, 'b, 'a * 'b) fn let apply: ('arg,'result, _ ) fn -> 'arg -> 'result = fun f x -> match f with | Fun f -> f x | Mem1 (f,y,fy) -> if x = y then fy else f xError: This pattern matches values of type ($'arg, 'result, $'arg * 'result) fn but a pattern was expected which matches values of type ($'arg, 'result, unit) fn The type constructor $'arg would escape its scope
- $n (n a number) is an internally generated existential which could not be named using one of the previous schemes.

As shown by the last item, the current behavior is imperfect and may be improved in future versions.

As explained above, pattern-matching on a GADT constructor may introduce existential types. Syntax has been introduced which allows them to be named explicitly. For instance, the following code names the type of the argument of f and uses this name.

type _ closure = Closure : ('a -> 'b) * 'a -> 'b closure
let eval = fun (Closure (type a) (f, x : (a -> _) * _)) -> f (x : a)

All existential type variables of the constructor must by introduced by the (type ...) construct and bound by a type annotation on the outside of the constructor argument.

GADT pattern-matching may also add type equations to non-local abstract types. The behaviour is the same as with local abstract types. Reusing the above eq type, one can write:

module M : sig type t val x : t val e : (t,int) eq end = struct
type t = int
let x = 33
let e = Eq
end
let x : int = let Eq = M.e in M.x

Of course, not all abstract types can be refined, as this would contradict the exhaustiveness check. Namely, builtin types (those defined by the compiler itself, such as int or array), and abstract types defined by the local module, are non-instantiable, and as such cause a type error rather than introduce an equation.

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