Unison types

This section describes informally the structure of types in Unison.

Formally, Unison’s type system is an implementation of the system described by Joshua Dunfield and Neelakantan R. Krishnaswami in their 2013 paper Complete and Easy Bidirectional Typechecking for Higher-Rank Polymorphism.

Unison extends that type system with, pattern matching, scoped type variables, ability types (also known as algebraic effects). See the section titled Abilities and Ability Handlers for details on ability types.

Types in Unison

Unison attributes a type to every valid expression. For example:

  • 4 < 5 has type Boolean
  • 42 + 3 has type Nat,
  • "hello" has type Text
  • the list [1,2,3] has type [Nat]
  • the function (x -> x) has type forall a. a -> a

The meanings of these types and more are explained in the sections below.

A full treatise on types is beyond the scope of this document. In short, types help enforce that Unison programs make logical sense. Every expression must be well typed, or Unison will give a compile-time type error. For example:

  • [1,2,3] is well typed, since lists require all elements to be of the same type.
  • 42 + "hello" is not well typed, since the type of + disallows adding numbers and text together.
  • printLine "Hello, World!" is well typed in some contexts and not others. It's a type error for instance to use I/O functions where an IO ability is not provided.

Types are of the following general forms.

Type variables

Type variables are regular identifiers beginning with a lowercase letter. For example a, x0, and foo are valid type variables.

Polymorphic types

A universally quantified or polymorphic type has the form forall v1 v2 vn. t, where t is a type. The type t may involve the variables v1 through vn.

The symbol is an alias for forall.

A type like forall x. F x can be written simply as F x (the forall x is implied) as long as x is free in F x (it is not bound by an outer scope; see Scoped Type Variables below).

A polymorphic type may be instantiated at any given type. For example, the empty list [] has type forall x. [x]. So it's a type-polymorphic value. Its type can be instantiated at Int, for example, which binds x to Int resulting in [Int] which is also a valid type for the empty list. In fact, we can say that the empty list [] is a value of type [x] for all choices of element type e, hence the type forall x. [x].

Likewise the identity function (x -> x), which simply returns its argument, has a polymorphic type forall t. t -> t. It has type t -> t for all choices of t.

Scoped type variables

Type variables introduced by a type signature for a term remain in scope throughout the definition of that term.

For example in the following snippet, the type annotation temp:x is telling Unison that temp has the type x which is bound in the type signature, so temp and a have the same type.

ex1 : x -> y -> x
ex1 a b =
  -- refers to the type x in the outer scope
  temp : x
  temp = a

To explicitly shadow a type variable in scope, the variable can be reintroduced in the inner scope by a forall binder, as follows:

ex2 : x -> y -> x
ex2 a b =
  -- doesn’t refer to x in outer scope
  id : ∀ x . x -> x
  id v = v
  temp = id 42
  id a

Note that here the type variable x in the type of id gets instantiated to two different types. First id 42 instantiates it to Nat, then id a, instantiates it to the outer scope's type x.

Type constructors

Just as values are built using data constructors, types are built from type constructors. Nullary type constructors like Nat, Int, Float are already types, but other type constructors like List and -> (see built-in type constructors) take type parameters in order to yield types. List is a unary type constructor, so it takes one type (the type of the list elements), and -> is a binary type constructor. List Nat is a type and Nat -> Int is a type.

Kinds of Types

Types are to values as kinds are to type constructors. Unison attributes a kind to every type constructor, which is determined by its number of type parameters and the kinds of those type parameters.

A type must be well kinded, just like an expression must be well typed, and for the same reason. However, there is currently no syntax for kinds and they do not appear in Unison programs (this will certainly change in a future version of Unison).

Unison’s kinds have the following forms:

  • A nullary type constructor or ordinary type has kind Type.
  • A type constructor has kind k1 -> k2 where k1 and k2 are kinds.

For example List, a unary type constructor, has kind Type -> Type as it takes a type and yields a type. A binary type constructor like -> has kind Type -> Type -> Type, as it takes two types (it actually takes a type and yields a partially applied unary type constructor that takes the other type). A type constructor of kind (Type -> Type) -> Type is a higher-order type constructor (it takes a unary type constructor and yields a type).

Type application

A type constructor is applied to a type or another type constructor, depending on its kind, similarly to how functions are applied to arguments at the term level. C T applies the type constructor C to the type T. Type application associates to the left, so the type A B C is the same as the type (A B) C.

Function types

The type X -> Y is a type for functions that take arguments of type X and yield results of type Y. Application of the binary type constructor -> associates to the right, so the type X -> Y -> Z is the same as the type X -> (Y -> Z).

Tuple types

The type (A,B) is a type for binary tuples (pairs) of values, one of type A and another of type B. The type (A,B,C) is a triple, and so on.

The type (A) is the same as the type A and is not considered a tuple.

The nullary tuple type () is the type of the unique value also written () and is pronouced “unit”.

In the standard Unison syntax, tuples of arity 2 and higher are actually of a type Tuple a b for some types a and b. For example, (X,Y) is syntactic shorthand for the type Tuple X (Tuple Y ()).

Tuples are either constructed with the syntactic shorthand (a,b) (see tuple literals) or with the built-in Tuple.Cons data constructor: Tuple.Cons a (Tuple.Cons b ()).

Built-in types

Unison provides the following built-in types:

  • .base.Nat is the type of 64-bit natural numbers, also known as unsigned integers. They range from 0 to 18,446,744,073,709,551,615.
  • .base.Int is the type of 64-bit signed integers. They range from -9,223,372,036,854,775,808 to +9,223,372,036,854,775,807.
  • .base.Float is the type of IEEE 754-1985 double-precision floating point numbers.
  • .base.Boolean is the type of Boolean expressions whose value is true or false.
  • .base.Bytes is the type of arbitrary-length 8-bit byte sequences.
  • .base.Text is the type of arbitrary-length strings of Unicode text.
  • The trivial type () (pronounced “unit”) is the type of the nullary tuple. There is a single data constructor of type () and it’s also written ().

See literals for more on how values of some of these types are constructed.

Built-in type constructors

Unison has the following built-in type constructors.

  • (->) is the constructor of function types. A type X -> Y is the type of functions from X to Y.
  • base.Tuple is the constructor of tuple types. See tuple types for details on tuples.
  • .base.List is the constructor of list types. A type List T is the type of arbitrary-length sequences of values of type T. The type [T] is an alias for List T.
  • .base.Request is the constructor of requests for abilities. A type Request A T is the type of values received by ability handlers for the ability A where current continuation requires a value of type T.

Next: Abilities and ability handlers