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 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.

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