Algebraic Data Types

Thus far, we have seen variants simply as enumerating a set of constant values, such as:

type day = Sun | Mon | Tue | Wed
         | Thu | Fri | Sat 

type ptype = TNormal | TFire | TWater

type peff = ENormal | ENotVery | Esuper

But variants are far more powerful that this.

As a running example, here is a variant type that does more than just enumerate values:

type shape =
  | Point  of point
  | Circle of point * float (* center and radius *)
  | Rect   of point * point (* lower-left and 
                               upper-right corners *)

This type, shape, represents a shape that is either a point, a circle, or a rectangle. A point is represented by a constructor Point that carries some additional data, which is a value of type point. A circle is represented by a constructor Circle that carries a pair of type point * float, which according to the comment represents the center of the circle and its radius. A rectangle is represented by a constructor Rect that carries a pair of type point*point.

Here are a couple functions that use the shape type:

let area = function
  | Point _ -> 0.0
  | Circle (_,r) -> pi *. (r ** 2.0)
  | Rect ((x1,y1),(x2,y2)) ->
      let w = x2 -. x1 in
      let h = y2 -. y1 in
        w *. h

let center = function
  | Point p -> p
  | Circle (p,_) -> p
  | Rect ((x1,y1),(x2,y2)) ->
      ((x2 +. x1) /. 2.0,
       (y2 +. y1) /. 2.0)

The shape variant type is the same as those we've seen before in that it is defined in terms of a collection of constructors. What's different than before is that those constructors carry additional data along with them. Every value of type shape is formed from exactly one of those constructors. Sometimes we call the constructor a tag, because it tags the data it carries as being from that particular constructor.

Variant types are sometimes called tagged unions. Every value of the type is from the set of values that is the union of all values from the underlying types that the constructor carries. For the shape type, every value is tagged with either Point or Circle or Rect and carries a value from the set of all point valued unioned with the set of all point*float values unioned with the set of all point*point values.

Another name for these variant types is an algebraic data type. "Algebra" here refers to the fact that variant types contain both sum and product types, as defined in the previous lecture. The sum types come from the fact that a value of a variant is formed by one of the constructors. The product types come from that fact that a constructor can carry tuples or records, whose values have a sub-value from each of their component types.

Using variants, we can express a type that represents the union of several other types, but in a type-safe way. Here, for example, is a type that represents either a string or an int:

type string_or_int =
| String of string
| Int of int

If we wanted to, we could use this type to code up lists (e.g.) that contain either strings or ints:

type string_or_int_list = string_or_int list

let rec sum : string_or_int list -> int = function
  | [] -> 0
  | (String s)::t -> int_of_string s + sum t
  | (Int i)::t -> i + sum t

let three = sum [String "1"; Int 2]

Variants thus provide a type-safe way of doing something that might before have seemed impossible.

Variants also make it possible to discriminate which tag a value was constructed with, even if multiple constructors carry the same type. For example:

type t = Left of int | Right of int
let x = Left 1
let double_right = function
  | Left i -> i
  | Right i -> 2*i


To define a variant type:

type t = C1 [of t1] | ... | Cn [of tn]

The square brackets above denote the type of ti is optional. Every constructor may individually either carry no data or carry data. We call constructors that carry no data constant; and those that carry data, non-constant.

To write an expression that is a variant:

C e

depending on whether the constructor name C is non-constant or constant.

Dynamic semantics.

  • if e==>v then C e ==> C v, assuming C is non-constant.
  • C is already a value, assuming C is constant.

Static semantics.

  • if t = ... | C | ... then C : t.
  • if t = ... | C of t' | ... and if e : t' then C e : t.

Pattern matching.

We add the following new pattern form to the list of legal patterns:

  • C p

And we extend the definition of when a pattern matches a value and produces a binding as follows:

  • If p matches v and produces bindings bb, then C p matches C v and produces bindings bb.

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