9.5. Type Checking#

Earlier, we skipped over the type checking phase. Let’s come back to that now. After lexing and parsing, the next phase of compilation is semantic analysis, and the primary task of semantic analysis is type checking.

A type system is a mathematical description of how to determine whether an expression is ill typed or well typed, and in the latter case, what the type of the expression is. A type checker is a program that implements a type system, i.e., that implements the static semantics of the language.

Commonly, a type system is formulated as a ternary relation \(\mathit{HasType}(\Gamma, e, t)\), which means that expression \(e\) has type \(t\) in static environment \(\Gamma\). A static environment, aka typing context, is a map from identifiers to types. The static environment is used to record what variables are in scope, and what their types are. The use of the Greek letter \(\Gamma\) for static environments is traditional.

That ternary relation \(\mathit{HasType}\) is typically written with infix notation, though, as \(\Gamma \vdash e : t\). You can read the turnstile symbol \(\vdash\) as “proves” or “shows”, i.e., the static environment \(\Gamma\) shows that \(e\) has type \(t\).

Let’s make that notation a little friendlier by eliminating the Greek and the math typesetting. We’ll just write env |- e : t to mean that static environment env shows that e has type t. We previously used env to mean a dynamic environment in the big-step relation ==>. Since it’s always possible to see whether we’re using the ==> or |- relation, the meaning of env as either a dynamic or static environment is always discernible.

Let’s write {} for the empty static environment, and x:t to mean that x is bound to t. So, {foo:int, bar:bool} would be the static environment is which foo has type int and bar has type bool. A static environment may bind an identifier at most once. We’ll write env[x -> t] to mean a static environment that contains all the bindings of env, and also binds x to t. If x was already bound in env, then that old binding is replaced by the new binding to t in env[x -> t]. As with dynamic environments, if we wanted a more mathematical notation we would write \(\mapsto\) instead of -> in env[x -> v], but we’re aiming for notation that is easily typed on a standard keyboard.

With all that machinery, we can at last define what it means to be well typed: An expression e is well typed in static environment env if there exists a type t for which env |- e : t. The goal of a type checker is thus to find such a type t, starting from some initial static environment.

It’s convenient to pretend that the initial static environment is empty. But in practice, it’s rare that a language truly uses the empty static environment to determine whether a program is well typed. In OCaml, for example, there are many built-in identifiers that are always in scope, such as everything in the Stdlib module.

9.5.1. A Type System for SimPL#

Recall the syntax of SimPL:

e ::= x | i | b | e1 bop e2
    | if e1 then e2 else e3
    | let x = e1 in e2

bop ::= + | * | <=

Let’s define a type system env |- e : t for SimPL. The only types in SimPL are integers and booleans:

t ::= int | bool

To define |-, we’ll invent a set of typing rules that specify what the type of an expression is based on the types of its subexpressions. In other words, |- is an inductively-defined relation, as can be learned about in a discrete math course. So, it has some base cases, and some inductive cases.

For the base cases, an integer constant has type int in any static environment whatsoever, a Boolean constant likewise always has type bool, and a variable has whatever type the static environment says it should have. Here are the typing rules that express those ideas:

env |- i : int
env |- b : bool
{x : t, ...} |- x : t

The remaining syntactic forms are inductive cases.

Let. As we already know from OCaml, we type check the body of a let expression using a scope that is extended with a new binding.

env |- let x = e1 in e2 : t2
  if env |- e1 : t1
  and env[x -> t1] |- e2 : t2

The rule says that let x = e1 in e2 has type t2 in static environment env, but only if certain conditions hold. The first condition is that e1 has type t1 in env. The second is that e2 has type t2 in a new static environment, which is env extended to bind x to t1.

Binary operators. We’ll need a couple different rules for binary operators.

env |- e1 bop e2 : int
  if bop is + or *
  and env |- e1 : int
  and env |- e2 : int

env |- e1 <= e2 : bool
  if env |- e1 : int
  and env |- e2 : int

If. Just like OCaml, an if expression must have a Boolean guard, and its two branches must have the same type.

env |- if e1 then e2 else e3 : t
  if env |- e1 : bool
  and env |- e2 : t
  and env |- e3 : t

9.5.2. A Type Checker for SimPL#

Let’s implement a type checker for SimPL, based on the type system we defined in the previous section. You can download the completed type checker as part of the SimPL interpreter: simpl.zip

We need a variant to represent types:

type typ =
  | TInt
  | TBool

The natural name for that variant would of course have been “type” not “typ”, but the former is already a keyword in OCaml. We have to prefix the constructors with “T” to disambiguate them from the constructors of the expr type, which include Int and Bool.

Let’s introduce a small signature for static environments, based on the abstractions we’ve introduced so far: the empty static environment, looking up a variable, and extending a static environment.

module type StaticEnvironment = sig
  (** [t] is the type of a static environment. *)
  type t

  (** [empty] is the empty static environment. *)
  val empty : t

  (** [lookup env x] gets the binding of [x] in [env].
      Raises: [Failure] if [x] is not bound in [env]. *)
  val lookup : t -> string -> typ

  (** [extend env x ty] is [env] extended with a binding
      of [x] to [ty]. *)
  val extend : t -> string -> typ -> t
end

It’s easy to implement that signature with an association list.

module StaticEnvironment : StaticEnvironment = struct
  type t = (string * typ) list

  let empty = []

  let lookup env x =
    try List.assoc x env
    with Not_found -> failwith "Unbound variable"

  let extend env x ty =
    (x, ty) :: env
end

Now we can implement the typing relation |-. We’ll do that by writing a function typeof : StaticEnvironment.t -> expr -> typ, such that typeof env e = t if and only if env |- e : t. Note that the typeof function produces the type as output, so the function is actually inferring the type! That inference is easy for SimPL; it would be considerably harder for larger languages.

Let’s start with the base cases:

open StaticEnvironment

(** [typeof env e] is the type of [e] in static environment [env].
    Raises: [Failure] if [e] is not well typed in [env]. *)
let rec typeof env = function
  | Int _ -> TInt
  | Bool _ -> TBool
  | Var x -> lookup env x
  ...

Note how the implementation of typeof so far is based on the rules we previously defined for |-. In particular:

  • typeof is a recursive function, just as |- is an inductive relation.

  • The base cases for the recursion of typeof are the same as the base cases for |-.

Also note how the implementation of typeof differs in one major way from the definition of |-: error handling. The type system didn’t say what to do about errors; rather, it just defined what it meant to be well typed. The type checker, on the other hand, needs to take action and report ill typed programs. Our typeof function does that by raising exceptions. The lookup function, in particular, will raise an exception if we attempt to lookup a variable that hasn’t been bound in the static environment.

Let’s continue with the recursive cases:

  ...
  | Let (x, e1, e2) -> typeof_let env x e1 e2
  | Binop (bop, e1, e2) -> typeof_bop env bop e1 e2
  | If (e1, e2, e3) -> typeof_if env e1 e2 e3

We’re factoring out a helper function for each branch for the sake of keeping the pattern match readable. Each of the helpers directly encodes the ideas of the |- rules, with error handling added.

and typeof_let env x e1 e2 =
  let t1 = typeof env e1 in
  let env' = extend env x t1 in
  typeof env' e2

and typeof_bop env bop e1 e2 =
  let t1, t2 = typeof env e1, typeof env e2 in
  match bop, t1, t2 with
  | Add, TInt, TInt
  | Mult, TInt, TInt -> TInt
  | Leq, TInt, TInt -> TBool
  | _ -> failwith "Operator and operand type mismatch"

and typeof_if env e1 e2 e3 =
  if typeof env e1 = TBool
  then begin
    let t2 = typeof env e2 in
    if t2 = typeof env e3 then t2
    else failwith "Branches of if must have same type"
  end
  else failwith "Guard of if must have type bool"

Note how the recursive calls in the implementation of typeof occur exactly in the same places where the definition of |- is inductive.

Finally, we can implement a function to check whether an expression is well typed:

(** [typecheck e] checks whether [e] is well typed in
    the empty static environment. Raises: [Failure] if not. *)
let typecheck e =
  ignore (typeof empty e)

9.5.3. Type Safety#

What is the purpose of a type system? There might be many, but one of the primary purposes is to ensure that certain run-time errors don’t occur. Now that we know how to formalize type systems with the |- relation and evaluation with the --> relation, we can make that idea precise.

The goals of a language designer usually include ensuring that these two properties, which establish a relationship between |- and -->, both hold:

  • Progress: If an expression is well typed, then either it is already a value, or it can take at least one step. We can formalize that as, “for all e, if there exists a t such that {} |- e : t, then e is a value, or there exists an e' such that e --> e'.”

  • Preservation: If an expression is well typed, then if the expression steps, the new expression has the same type as the old expression. Formally, “for all e and t such that {} |- e : t, if there exists an e' such that e --> e', then {} |- e' : t.”

Put together, progress plus preservation imply that evaluation of a well-typed expression can never get stuck, meaning it reaches a non-value that cannot take a step. This property is known as type safety.

For example, 5 + true would get stuck using the SimPL evaluation relation, because the primitive + operation cannot accept a Boolean as an operand. But the SimPL type system won’t accept that program, thus saving us from ever reaching that situation.

Looking back at the SimPL we wrote, everywhere in the implementation of step where we raised an exception was a place where evaluation would get stuck. But the type system guarantees those exceptions will never occur.