[Types-sig] Static typing: Towards closure?

Guido van Rossum guido@CNRI.Reston.VA.US
Wed, 19 Jan 2000 12:22:12 -0500

I've had an off-line discussion with Greg Stein (mostly) and Paul
Prescod about trying to converge on a single proposal.  I printed
their respective proposals and took them on a trip, and came back with
(1) a set of responses, and (2) a unified proposal that takes parts of
each.  I've shared these with Paul and Greg, and gotten some of their
responses.  More recently, I also prepared (3) some powerpoint slides
summarizing my unified proposal and highlighting some open issues, to
be presented at some time during developers' day at the conference
next week (possibly in Jeremy's session on parsers).

I've been trying to find the time to clean things up more, and hoping
that Greg and/or Paul would find the time, but I've come to the
conclusion that it's better to release these materials now than sit on
them any longer, waiting for perfection to appear.

So, here are URLs for the three documents, plus a text version of the
unified proposal.

(1) My initial responses (partially retracted in (2)):
    http://www.python.org/~guido/Response.doc (MS Word)

(2) My unified proposal, plus some unfinished mumblings at the end:
    http://www.python.org/~guido/Proposal.doc (MS Word)
    http://www.python.org/~guido/Proposal.txt (ASCII)

(3) Powerpoint slides summarizing (2):
    http://www.python.org/~guido/static-typing/ (HTML + GIF images)
    http://www.python.org/~guido/static-typing/static-typing.ppt (PowerPoint)

Here is the text version of (2); feel free to post responses to this.
(Please trim your quoting!)


A different take

Let's look at typechecking again.


There are two kinds of modules: checked and unchecked.  The programmer 
indicates inside the module source code that a module is a checked 
module.  Proposed syntax: place "decl" on a line by itself at the top 
of the module (after the doc string if any, but must occur before the 
first statement -- this includes import statements and other decl 

A checked module is required to be internally typesafe, and typesafe 
with respect to other checked modules that it imports.  Typesafety is a 
compile-time property; every attempt is made to ensure that run-time 
behavior of unchecked modules cannot violate typesafety of checked 
modules.  This restricts the language somewhat.

The Python implementation should guarantee that a checked module cannot 
raise TypeError and similar exceptions, except when explicitly 
requested through the use a dynamic cast operator (the spelling of 
which is not yet decided).  Other exceptions may occur, however: 
IndexError, KeyError, ZeroDivisionError, OverflowError and perhaps 
others can occur on certain operations; MemoryError can occur almost 
anywhere (like SystemError and KeyboardInterrupt).  The fate of 
NameError and AttributeError for declared, but uninitialized variables 
is undecided; these require flow control and thus donít strictly fall 
under type checks, but a rough check for these is not particularly 
hard, and such a guarantee would be very useful.

When a checked module imports an unchecked module, all objects in the 
unchecked module (and the unchecked module itself) are assumed to be of 
type 'any', and the checked module is typechecked accordingly.  When an 
unchecked module imports a checked module, typechecks are inserted at 
access points (where the unchecked module calls or otherwise accesses 
the checked module) to ensure that the type constraints specified by 
the checked module are satisfied at runtime.  These checks may be 
bypassed when the checked module is accessed from another checked 

Because even checked modules may be loaded dynamically, when a checked 
module imports another checked module, the newly imported module is 
tested against its expected signature.  If its signature is 
incompatible with the signature expected by the importing module (e.g. 
because the imported module was modified and rechecked since the 
importing module was last checked) the import fails (with an 
ImportError exception).

Example: take a checked module containing a simple GCD function:

# module gcdlib.py


def gcd(a: integer, b: integer) -> integer:
    while a:
        a, b = b%a, a
    return b

This module passes the typesafety check.  Now consider another checked 
module using that is it:

# module test_gcdlib.py


from gcdlib import gcd

print gcd(12, 14)
print gcd(20, 200)
print gcd(6400, 2L**100)

This module also passes the typesafety check (note that the last print 
statement is accepted because the type 'integer' matches both the int 
and long standard types).

The following statement, when added to this module, will fail the 
typesafety test, and thus make the module fail the safety test:

print gcd(3.5, 3)

Assuming we have a typechecking Python interpreter, running or 
importing the file test_gcdlib.py thus modified will fail with a 
compile-type typecheck error before a single statement in it is 

Now consider an unchecked module that is using the gcdlib.py module:

# module foo.py

from gcdlib import gcd

print gcd(12, 14)
print gcd(20, 200)
print gcd(6400, 2L**100)
print gcd(3.5, 3)

This will print the first three answers:


and fail with a dynamic typecheck error on the fourth print statement.

On the other hand, if we now remove the "declare typecheck" from the 
gcdlib.py file, the algorithm as stated will perform some result for 
the fourth call (generally ill-defined, because of rounding 
inaccuracies of floating point arithmetic), e.g.:


If we now run the modified test_gcdlib.py code (with the invalid 
statement added) we see the same results: the module is checked, but it 
calls an unchecked module, which can yield any results it likes.

Now consider the following module (still using the unchecked version of 

# module bar.py

decl # this is a checked module

from gcdlib import gcd

decl i: integer

i = gcd(2, 3)

This module does not pass the typecheck, because gcdlib.py is not 
checked, so its gcd() function is assumed to return a value of type 

Could we fix this by adding "decl gcd: def(int, int)->int" to this 
module?  No, because there's no way at compile time to verify that the 
gcd function in fact matches this signature; generating a runtime error 
when the result doesn't have the right type isn't very helpful (given 
that we're asking to be typechecked).

Some more examples of code that passes or fails the typecheck:

def gcd(a: any, b: any) -> integer:
    while a: a, b = b%a, a
    return b

This fails, because the type of b is 'any', which isn't a proper subset 
of the type 'integer'.

def foo(a: int) -> int:
    return a/2.0

This fails, because the type of the return expression is float, not 

def foo(a: int) -> int:
    b = a
    return b

This passes, even though the type of the local variable b is not 
declared -- basic type inference can deduce its type.

def foo(a: int) -> int:
    L = []
    return L[0]

This *fails*, because the type of L is not declared, and the 
typechecking algorithm doesn't specify powerful enough type inference 
to be able to deduce that L's type is "list of int".  Here's how to fix 
the example:

def foo(a: int) -> int:
    decl L: [int]
    L = []
    return L[0]

Obviously, we have to define more precisely how much the assumed "basic 
type inference" can deduce.  For now, we presume that it sees basic 
blocks and assignments to simple variables.

Now let's look at a realistic example.  This is find.py (taken from 
Lib/lib-old in the Python 1.5.2 distribution) modified to be checked 
and typesafe.  We assume that the imported modules, both part of the 
standard library, are checked and hence typesafe.  Bold text was added:


import fnmatch
import os

_debug = 0

decl _prune: [str]
_prune = ['(*)']

def find(pattern: string, dir: string = os.curdir) -> [string]:
	decl list: [string]
	list = []
decl names: [string]
	names = os.listdir(dir)
	for name in names:
		if name in (os.curdir, os.pardir):
		fullname = os.path.join(dir, name)
		if fnmatch.fnmatch(name, pattern):
		if os.path.isdir(fullname) and not os.path.islink(fullname):
			for p in _prune:
				if fnmatch.fnmatch(name, p):
					if _debug: print "skip", `fullname`
				if _debug: print "descend into", `fullname`
				list = list + find(pattern, fullname)
	return list

Note that the types of local variables 'name' and 'fullname' are not 
declared; their types are deduced from the context: the type of 'name' 
is the item type of 'names', and the type of 'fullname' is the return 
type of os.path.join().  (By the way, this gives us another indication 
of the required power for basic type inference; it has to know the 
relation between the type of the sequence iterated ober by a for loop 
and the type of the loop control variable.)

Ditto for 'p'.  It should be noted that the type declaration for 
'names' could be omitted without effect, since the return type of 
os.listdir() is known to be [string].

Could we omit the declaration for '_prune'?  No; even though it is 
effectively a constant (by intention, it changes only when the module 
is edited), the typechecker isn't required to notice this.  Or is it 
even constant?  Earlier, we've discussed how the runtime can prevent 
changes to module globals that are apparently constants.  Hmm, even if 
we disallow direct assignment to 'find._prune' from outside the module, 
that doesn't stop us from writing 'find._prune.append("spam")', so even 
if the typechecker can deduce that _prune is a list, it can't assume 
that it is a list of strings, unless it is declared so.  Such are the 
joys of working with mutable data types.

On the other hand, '_debug' doesn't need to be declared, even when we 
assume outside assignments are legal, because its only use is in a 
true/false test, which applies to any object.  Hmm, this may change in 
the future; the new design for rich comparisons introduces types that 
cannot be used directly in a Boolean context, because the outcome of a 
comparison between two arrays will be allowed to return an array of 
Booleans; in order to prevent naive programmers to write "if A < B: 
..." where A and B are arrays, this will raise an exception rather than 
always returning true.  Anway, the "no outside assignments" rule would 
do away with this argument, and it is the most sane rule to be adopted.


I like the syntax shown above; it is roughly what Greg proposes (mostly 
inspired by Tim's earlier proposal).  There's an optional alternative 
which places all type annotations inside decl statements; this makes is 
easier to remove the decl statements for use with an unmodified Python 
interpreter.  Thus,

decl gcd: def(a: integer, b: integer) -> integer
def gcd(a, b):
    while a:
        a, b = b%a, a
    return b

is equivalent to the "in-line" version:

def gcd(a: integer, b: integer) -> integer:
    while a:
        a, b = b%a, a
    return b

I think that maybe we can allow this too, with roughly the same 

decl def gcd(a: integer, b: integer) -> integer

Iíd like to distinguish the two slightly: the form ``decl def 
name(...)íí should mean that we declare a function; the form ``decl 
name: def(...)íí should mean that we declare a variable that holds a 
function (callable).  This is a useful distinction (even more so in 

Either of the following declares the argument types without declaring 
the names of keyword arguments, so the function can only be called with 
positional arguments:

decl gcd: def(integer, integer) -> integer

decl def gcd(integer, integer) -> integer

Note that if the decl statement doesn't give the keyword argument 
names, the presence of the argument names (even with default values) in 
the actual def statement doesn't change this.  On the other hand, if 
the argument type declarations are included in the function definition, 
they keyword argument names are implied.

Here's another way to declare the argument and return types.  It is 
more verbose, and equivalent to the in-line form:

def gcd(a, b):
    decl a: integer, b: integer
    decl return: integer
    while a:
        a, b = b%a, a
    return b

I don't like Paul's 'as' keyword.  See Greg's argument about this (it 
suggests possibly changing the value to conform to the type).

I don't like Greg's '!' operator.  Its semantics are defined in terms 
of runtime checks, but I want the semantics of typechecking to be done 
at compile-time, as explained above.  This is not negotiable at the 

An alternative form of syntax that doesn't require changing the 
interpreter at all places the decl statements inside string literals, 

"decl gcd: def(integer, integer) -> integer"
def gcd(a, b):
    while a:
        a, b = b%a, a
    return b

Paul suggests something similar, but uses a tuple of two strings.  I 
donít see the point of that (besides, such a tuple ends up being 
evaluated and then thrown away at run time; a simple string is thrown 
away during code generation).

There's one more idea that I want to discuss: once the in-line syntax 
is accepted, the 'decl' keyword may be redundant (in most cases 
anyway).  We might just as well write "a: int" on a line by itself 
rather than "decl a: int".  The Python parser won't have serious 
problems with this, as long as the thing on the left of the colon can 
be simplified to be an expression.  (This is already done for 
assignment statements.)

Minor syntactic nit: I like to use '|' to separate type alternatives, 
not 'or'.


Now let's look at the use of type declarations to annotate class 

A class will mostly want to declare two kinds of things: the signatures 
of its instance methods, and the types of its instance variables.  I 
will briefly discuss the declaration of class methods and variables 

I propose the syntax used in the following example:

class Stack:

    decl _store: [any]

    def __init__(self):
        self._store = []

    def push(self, x: any):

    def pop(self) -> any:
        x = self._store[-1]
        del self._store[-1]
        return x

Note that 'self' is still mentioned in the def statement, but its type 
is not declared; it is implied to be 'Stack'.

It is possible to use decl statements for the methods instead of inline 
syntax; then the decl statement should *not* list 'self':

class Stack:

    decl _store: [any]

    def __init__(self):
        self._store = []

    decl def push(any)
    def push(self, x):

    decl def pop() -> any
    def pop(self):
        x = self._store[-1]
        del self._store[-1]
        return x

Note that no decl statement or in-line syntax is used for __init__; 
this means that it takes no arguments (remember that __init__ never 
returns anything).

A future extension of the type checking syntax can easily be used to 
declare private and protected variables, or static variables, or const 

decl protected _stack: [any]
decl public static class_stats: int
decl const MAXDEPTH: int

In checked modules, no dynamic games may be played with classes.  
(Eventually, we'll allow certain dynamic games; for now, it's best to 
disallow them completely so we can get on with the goal of 

The typechecker must ensure that all declared instance variables are 
properly initialized.  For instance variables with a mutable types, 
this means that they must be assigned to at least once before being 
used in the __init__ method.  For instance variables with an immutable 
type, if an assignment at the class level is present, this is allowed.

A class in a checked module must declare all its instance variables.  
Instance methods are implicitly declared by the presence of 'def' 

Here's another example:

class Tree:
    decl readonly label: string
    decl private left, right, parent: Tree|None
    def __init__(self, lab: string,
                 l: Tree|None = None, r: Tree|None = None):
        self.label = lab
        self.parent = None
        self.left = l
        self.right = r
        if l is not None:
            assert l.parent is None
            l.parent = self
        if r is not None:
            assert r.parent is None
            r.parent = self
    def unlink(self):
        self.parent = None
    def setleft(self, x: Tree):
        assert x.parent is None
        if self.left is not None:
        self.left = x
        x.parent = self
    def setright(self, x: Tree):
        assert x.parent is None
        if self. right is not None:
            self. right.unlink()
        self. right = x
        x.parent = self
    def prefixvisit(self, visitor: def(Tree)):
        if self.left is not None: self.left.prefixvisit(visitor)
        if self.right is not None: self.right.prefixvisit(visitor)

Here we see a tricky issue cropping up.  The links are declared to be 
either a Tree node or None.  This means that whenever a link is 
dereferenced, a check must be made.  The type inferencer thus must be 
smart enough to detect these checks and notice that in the branch, the 
tested variable has the more restricted type.  Most languages introduce 
special syntax for this (e.g. Modula-3 uses the 'typecase' statement).  
Can we get away with things like "if x is not None:" or the more 
general "if isinstance(x, Tree)"?


If f is defined as "def f(x: any) -> any", and an argument is declared 
as "def(int)", is f an acceptable argument value?  Yes.  However, if 
the argument is declared as "def(int)->int", the answer is No!

Note that no declared return type is different than a declared return 
type of None here; no declared return type means that the return type 
is not used.

Otherwise I see the subtyping rules as pretty straightfoward.  I do 
think that the subtyping rules will require that subclasses declare 
their overriding methods with compatible signatures as base classes.  
This may cause standard contravariance-related issues.  Given:

class B:
    def method(self, other: B) -> B: ...

the following is valid:

class D(B):
    def method(self, other: B) -> D: ...

but class D can't declare that its method requires a D:

class D(B):
    def method(self, other: D) -> D: ...

(Read any text on contravariance if you don't understand this; this is 
a well-known surprising requirement that C++ and Java also have.  
Eiffel solves it with a runtime check; is this really better?)

Idea: Eiffel allows covariance (e.g. declaring other as D in the 
derived class) and inserts a run-time check.  We could do the same, as 
it is so useful.  Most of the time this could probably be checked at 
compile time; basically all casts of a D instance to a B are 
suspicious, and all calls in the base class of such a method may be 
suspicious (unless the instance and the argument are 'self').

Parameterized types

Of course, the Stack example is begging to be a parameterized type!  
Let's suggest a syntax.  I don't like the syntax proposed before very 
much; what's wrong with C++ template brackets?

class Stack<T>:

    decl _store: [T]

    def __init__(self):
        self._store = []

    def push(self, x: T):

    def pop(self) -> T:
        x = self._store[-1]
        del self._store[-1]
        return x

A variant without in-line syntax is easy, for example:

class Stack:
    decl <T>

or (if you prefer):

decl class Stack<T>
class Stack:

The problem with this is how to write the instantiation, *and* how to 
do the type checking when this is used from an unchecked module.  Let's 

decl IntStack = Stack<int>

decl x: IntStack
x = IntStack()
print x.pop()

x.push("spam") # ERROR

decl s: string
s = x.pop() # ERROR

print isinstance(x, IntStack) # True
print isinstance(x, Stack) # True

y = Stack() # ERROR

The first (slight) problem here is that the first decl statement here 
must introduce a new name in the *runtime* environment (which hitherto 
we have carefully avoided).  This can be done; the syntax uses '=' to 
signal this to the parser.

The second problem is that when a checked module creates an IntStack 
instance, and passes this out into an unchecked module, the instance 
must contain added typechecking code so that attempts to push non-ints 
are properly rejected (otherwise a later pop() in the checked code 
could yield a surprise).

This means that either the statement

decl InstStack = Stack<int>

must do template instantiation just like C++ (shrudder!); or the 

x = IntStack()

must pass a hidden extra parameter giving the parameter type ('int') to 
the constructor, which store the type descriptor in a hidden instance 
variable, and all the methods must contain explicit type checking 
against the parameter type; this is slower but seems more Pythonic.

In any case there will be little hope that we can fully support 
parameterized types in the experimental version of the syntax where 
decl statements are totally invisible to the parser.  The statement 
"decl IntStack = Stack<int>" must be replaced by something like 
"IntStack = Stack", at the very least.  This makes the string literal 
experimental syntax hard to realize.


A checked module that passes the typecheck may still raise exceptions 
when used.  Dereferencing None is a typecheck error, and so is using an 
unknown name, an uninitialized name (hopefully), or an unknown or 
uninitialized attribute; but indexing out of range, using an unknown 
key, dividing by zerio, and a variety of other conditions (e.g. 
MemoryError, IOError or KeyboardInterrupt) may cause exceptions.

It would be nice if we could guarantee that no exceptions could be 
raised (with the exception of MemoryError or KeyboardInterrupt, which 
can never be prevented), but IndexError, KeyError and ZerodivisionError 
are hard to chek for at compile time.  What do other languages do?

Java and Modula-3 require such exceptions to be declared.  (C++ too?)  
Maybe we should follow suit and do the same thing...  (However, I 
believe that Java makes indexing errors non-declared exceptions, I 
believe, and ditto for null pointer dereferencing.)

Open issues / ideas for the future

Paul Prescod has some examples of parameterized functions, e.g. (in my 

def f<T> (a: T) -> T: ...

This is only useful if there is a way to instantiate such "template" 
functions; I could claim that if f(1) returns 1.0, it is valid because 
I choose "number" for T.  Iím not sure that we need this much; 
parameterized classes seem to take care of most cases, so I suggest not 
to bother in version 1.0.

Interfaces?  Paul Prescod suggests using 'interface' as the keyword and 
otherwise using the class syntax, but without function bodies and 
initializations.  Seems fine with me.  To declare that weíre using an 
interface, we simply list it as a base class.  Interfaces should be 
listed after all regular base classes.  But I wonder if we need to 
bother in version 1.0.

It may be useful to declare the type of a variable as conforming to 
several interfaces.  This could be expressed with the '&' operator, 
e.g. ``decl a: I1 & I2''.

Checked modules and classes form a good basis to revisit the idea of 
require/ensure (i.e., programmming by contract, as in Eiffel, and as 
propagated for Python by Paul Dubois).

Can an unchecked module subclass a class defined by a checked module in 
such a way that it violates the type checks?  This could be detected 
dynamically, either at class definition time or (at the latest) when a 
method is called or an instance variable is assigned to.

Since int is a subtype of any, does this mean that Stack<int> is a 
subtype of Stack<any>?  No, I donít think so.  Example:

decl a: [int]
decl b: [any]
a = [1,2,3]
b = a

The last statement is illegal because of the aliasing, but legal in the 
light of the type of b.  The solution is either a dynamic typecheck or 
to say that [int] is not a subtype of [any].  Note that Java calls it a 
subtype and inserts the dynamic check -- apparently because it is 
lacking parameterized types. (See [Bruce96].)

This probably has consequences for many generic or polymorphic 
functions; e.g. the bisect() function.  So, perhaps the idea of 
parameterized functions does have a purpose?  Jeremy suggests that at 
least for functions, parameterization should be explicit in the 
declaration (e.g. def bisect<T>(a: [T], x: T) -> int) but implicit in 
the function application (e.g. decl a: [int]; a = [1,2,10];
i = bisect(a, 5)).

Thereís another problem here.  Without extra typechecking, lists or 
dicts of specific types arenít even safe as subtypes of 'any'; if I 
declare x: [int], then passing x into unchecked code is unsafe unless 
lists implement typechecking!  However this is a bit different than the 
above example -- here we pass a checked object into unchecked 
territory, so the object is required to defend itself; in the previous 
example, the type error occurred within fully checked code (and 
[Bruce96] explains why).

What syntax to use to declare exceptions?

Is there any hope for compile time checking of out-of-bounds indexing?  
(The obsession of Pascal, in response to a hang-up from debugging too 
many Fortran programs :-)

The requirement to insert dynamic type checks when an unchecked module 
calls a function defined in a checked module can easily be expensive; 
consider passing a list of 1000 ints to a function taking an argument 
of type [int].  Each of the ints must be checked!  Jeremy suggested 
caching the union type of the elements in the list object, but this 
slows down everything since we donít know whether the list will ever be 
used in a context where its type is needed (also deletions may cause 
the cached type to be to big, so that a full check may still 
occasionally be needed).  It may be better to accept the overhead.  (An 
alternative idea is to generate code in the checked function that does 
the type check only when items are extracted from the list, but of 
course this means that all checked code must typecheck all items 
extracted from all sequences, since sequences may be freely passed 
around between checked code.)

Do we need a way to refer to the type of self?  E.g.

class C:
    def __add__(self, other: typeof(self)) -> typeof(self): ...

This would be especially useful in interfaces...

After reading part of [Bruce96]: maybe we need to separate the notion 
of subtyping and subclassing.  Can the type of a classí instance be 
determined automatically based on its class?  Is there a way to detect 
the error pattern that Bertrand Meyer calls "polymorphic catcalls"?  (A 
catcall is a call on self.foo(...args...) where a subclass could 
redefine foo() to be incompatible with the given arguments.)

We should allow redefining methods with subtypes for the return value 
and supertypes for the arguments (but thatís not very useful).  
Example: overriding the __copy__() method to return the type of the 
current class.  We could even add a mechanism to automatically vary the 
return type even if the method is not explicitly overridden.  (But how 
to typecheck it?)

After reading [Bruce96]: allowing MyType for argument and return value 
types is helpful and can be made safe, although may lead to subclasses 
not being subtypes.

What *is* the type of self?  is it the (statically known) current 
class?  Is it something special?  [Bruce96] explains that it is 
something special (MyType, a free variable).  It is of course known to 
be a subtype of the defining class; but otherwise it needs to be 
considered a free variable.  Not clear how this affects the type 
checking algorithm...


[Bruce96] Kim Bruce: Typing in object-oriented languages: Achieving 
expressiveness and safety.  http://www.cs.williams.edu/~kim/README.html

[Meyer] Bertrand Meyer: Beware of polymorphic catcalls. 


--Guido van Rossum (home page: http://www.python.org/~guido/)