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Csongor Kiss

I write here once every 2 years

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One of the classic examples that keeps coming up when talking about dependently typed programming languages is the “safe” printf function – one that ensures that the number and type of arguments match the requirement in the format specification.

In languages like Idris, this is just a function that takes a format string, and returns the type of arguments required for constructing the formatted output string.

  format "A number: %d, and a string: %s" : Int -> String -> String

Other languages, like rust, solve this by various means of metaprogramming: writing a program (macro) that runs at compile-time, generating the program to be executed at runtime.

What these two approaches have in common is that they both operate on strings that are statically available to the compiler. The aim of this post is to show another way of achieving the same result, with tools that are available in PureScript – a strongly-typed functional language, with no dependent types.

The problem

We want to write a program that takes a format string, some number of arguments, and returns the result of inserting the arguments at their specified places in the format string, and does all this in a type-safe way.

> :t format @"Wurble %d %d %s"
Int -> Int -> String -> String
> format @"Wurble %d %d %s" 10 20 "foo"
"Wurble 10 20 foo"
> format @"Wurble %d %d %s" 10 20 30
Error found:

  Could not match type


  with type


while trying to match type Function String
  with type Function Int

The @ symbol before the string is the proxy syntax introduced in 0.12 which provides a concise way of passing types around. The format strings are actually type-level literals – but more on this later.

Crucially, we need to compute a type from some input, but because PureScript has no dependent types, values and functions in the traditional sense are not available for evaluation at compile-time. However, there is a way to interact with the compiler: via the type-checker.

The solution therefore is to encode this computation in the types, and have the type-checker evaluate it for us as part of type-checking. Luckily, PureScript allows string literals in types (these are types whose kind is Symbol).

Thus, constructing our printf function comprises two steps:

  • parse the input Symbol into a list of format tokens
  • generate the function from the format list that will then assemble the output string

Type-level parsing

For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to focus on two types of format specifiers: decimals (%d) and strings (%s).

We represent these cases with a custom kind, which is like a regular algebraic datatype, but lifted to the type-level. This means that these constructors can be used in types.

foreign import kind Specifier

foreign import data D   :: Specifier
foreign import data S   :: Specifier
foreign import data Lit :: Symbol -> Specifier

Of course, apart from the format specifiers %d and %s, everything else is a literal, which we account for by wrapping them in the Lit type constructor.

The foreign import bit means that we’re introducing types here that have no constructors. That is to say, it’s impossible to construct a value of type D and S. We’ll see later how it is still possible to carry these types around in terms (hint: proxies).

Furthermore, we need a way of representing a sequence of these specifiers, for which we introduce another kind:

foreign import kind FList

foreign import data FNil  :: FList
foreign import data FCons :: Specifier -> FList -> FList

With this, we can now write types like FCons D (FCons (Lit " foo") FNil), corresponding to the string %d foo.

Kind-polymorphism is not supported by the current version (0.12) of PureScript, so we can’t define a parametric type-level list once and for all – we need a new one for each type we want to store in lists. With this, and some syntactic sugar, we would be able to write (as we can in Haskell today) [D, "foo"]. This limitation is likely to be removed in a future version of the compiler.

With these building blocks defined, now we have a vocabulary for talking about the parser itself: it is a function that takes a Symbol as an input, and returns a FList. We encode the computation in the following type class:

class Parse (string :: Symbol) (format :: FList) | string -> format

The functional dependency string -> format states that the input string determines the ouput format. This bit is crucial, as this is what tells the compiler that knowing string is sufficient in determining what the value of format is. It is then our task to ensure that this dependency indeed holds, when writing out the instances.

To deconstruct the input symbol, we use the following type class available in 0.12:

class ConsSymbol (head :: Symbol)
                 (tail :: Symbol)
                 (sym :: Symbol) |
                 sym -> head tail, head tail -> sym

The interesting functional dependency here is the sym -> head tail, which, given some symbol, deconstructs it into its head (the first character) and its tail – the rest.

The parser is like a state machine, with the following legal states:

  • State 1: found a non-% character
  • State 2: found a % character

One possible way of representing these states is by having a separate type class to deal with each.

Since in our simplified example, we know that the specifier symbols can only be single characters, we can define the second state as:

class Parse2 (head :: Symbol) (out :: Specifier) | head -> out

That is, it takes a symbol, and returns the matching specifier. The implementation is straightforward:

instance parse2D :: Parse2 "d" D
instance parse2S :: Parse2 "s" S

This is a partial function, which means that format strings that contain unsupported specifier tokens will simply fail to compile.

The first state is more complicated, as it can consume an arbitrary number of characters, so we pass it the remaining string (tail) as well.

class Parse1 (head :: Symbol) (tail :: Symbol) (out :: FList) | head tail -> out

Parse1 represents the parsing state where we have the current character head, the rest of the input string tail, and we know that the previous character was not a %.

The first case is when the tail is empty. In this case, we just return the current character as the literal in a singleton list:

instance parse1Nil :: Parse1 a "" (FCons (Lit a) FNil)

The second case is more interesting. This is when we find a %, so we need to invoke the other function, Parse2, which handles parsing the specifier itself. To do that, we use ConsSymbol to split our current tail s into its head h and tail t. h contains the format specifier, which we pass on to Parse2. Then, recursively invoke Parse on t to parse the rest of the input. In addition to returning spec consed to rest, we also put an empty string literal at the head of the output list: this is to maintain the invariant that the head of the output list always contains a string literal. This invariant will be useful for the last case…

else instance parse1Pc ::
  ( ConsSymbol h t s
  , Parse2 h spec
  , Parse t rest
  ) => Parse1 "%" s (FCons (Lit "") (FCons spec rest))

…when we match any other character, i.e. other than %. Since we’re in Parse1, that means that the current character needs to be in a string literal. For this, we first recursively parse the tail s into FCons (Lit acc) r. The reason we want to know that at the head of parsing the remaining string is a Lit is so that we can prepend the current character to that literal – we need to rebuild long string literals character-by-character after all. This is where the invariant from the previous two cases is useful: we don’t have to handle the cases where the head is not a Lit, because the recursive calls guarantee that it is. acc is thus the tail of the string literal we’re currently parsing, so we put it together with the current character by ConsSymbol o acc rest (recall that this type class can both construct and deconstruct symbols via its functional dependencies). Then we simply return Lit rest along with r.

else instance parse1Other ::
  ( Parse s (FCons (Lit acc) r)
  , ConsSymbol o acc rest
  ) => Parse1 o s (FCons (Lit rest) r)

Notice how these instances actually overlap. In the third case, we can easily imagine a particular instantiation of o and r such that it matches the instance head in the second case. In other words, when the current character is %, both parse1Pc and parse1Other match (because parse1Other is more general).

To make sure that the instances are selected in the order we want them to be, we use instance chains. That is, by writing instance A else instance B we tell the compiler to try to match instance A first, and if it fails, then try B. This is a new feature in PureScript 0.12, and a very powerful one – it allows us to avoid the overlapping instance problem for good.

Finally, we need to actually kick off the parser. We do this by invoking it in the first state.

instance parseNil ::
  Parse "" (FCons (Lit "") FNil)
else instance parseCons ::
  ( ConsSymbol h t string
  , Parse1 h t fl
  ) => Parse string fl

How the sausage gets made: computing the output type

But how do we know how many arguments we need to pass to the formatter? It depends on the format string! No surprises here: just like all the previous type-level computations, this one will also be encoded in a type class with a functional dependency.

class FormatF (format :: FList) fun | format -> fun where
  formatF :: @format -> String -> fun

The @ symbol is special syntax, and in this case, it means that the formatF function takes an FList (format) as an input. But because FList is a custom kind, it has no value-level inhabitants. So, how can we still get something whose type mentions format? This is what @ does – it’s a proxy for a type. Its value is isomorphic to Unit, and carries no information, other than its type. Notice that it works for any kind – indeed, proxies are currently a special-cased type in PureScript, in that they are kind-polymorphic.

Thus formatF takes a format list, and an accumulator string, and returns some fun – this type depends on the actual format list.

Starting with the base case, when there’s nothing to print, simply just return the accumulated formatted string.

instance formatFNil :: FormatF FNil String where
  formatF _ str = str

When the head of the list is D, we know that we will need an Int argument, and the rest of the function’s type can be computed by recursing on the tail of the list. As for the implementation, since the return type is now refined to be of the form Int -> fun, we are allowed to construct a lambda that takes the Int, and appends it to the end of the accumulator, then recurses on the rest. The implementation of S is identical, and is omitted for brevity.

instance formatFConsD ::
  FormatF rest fun
  => FormatF (FCons D rest) (Int -> fun) where
  formatF _ str
    = \i -> formatF @rest (str <> show i)

Handling literals (Lit) is left as an exercise for the reader.


Finally, as a matter of convenience, we can wrap the above type classes into one, that serves as a bridge between the parser and the formatter, as such:

class Format (string :: Symbol) fun | string -> fun where
  format :: @string -> fun

instance formatFFormat ::
  ( Parse string format
  , FormatF format fun
  ) => Format string fun where
  format _ = formatF @format ""

And that’s it! It might be instructional to try and work out FormatF’s instance resolution for a few simple examples by hand, to get a better idea why this works. A fully working implementation of the code in this post can be found on github.