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What happens when I forget a refinement?

This is the third of a series of articles on “Type Parameters and Type Members”. If you haven’t yet, you should start at the beginning, which introduces code we refer to throughout this article without further ado.

As I mentioned in the previous article, the error of the mdropFirstE signature, taking MList and returning merely MList, was to fail to relate the input element type to the output element type. This mistake is an easy one to make when failure is the default behavior.

By contrast, when we try this with PList, the compiler helpfully points out our error.

def pdropFirst(xs: PList): PList = ???

TmTp3.scala:6: class PList takes type parameters
  def pdropFirst(xs: PList): PList = ???
                             ^
TmTp3.scala:6: class PList takes type parameters
  def pdropFirst(xs: PList): PList = ???
                     ^

What happens when I misspell a refinement?

There is another mistake that type members open you up to. I have been using the very odd type parameter—and member—name T. Java developers will find this choice very ordinary, but the name of choice for the discerning Scala programmer is A. So suppose I attempted to correct mdropFirstE’s type as follows:

def mdropFirstE2[T0](xs: MList {type A = T0}) =
  xs.uncons match {
    case None => MNil()
    case Some(c) => c.tail
  }

This method compiles, but I cannot invoke it!

> mdropFirstE2(MNil[Int]())
<console>:20: error: type mismatch;
 found   : tmtp.MNil{type T = Int}
 required: tmtp.MList{type A = ?}
       mdropFirstE2(MNil[Int]())
                             ^

> mdropFirstE2(MCons[Int](42, MNil[Int]()))
<console>:20: error: type mismatch;
 found   : tmtp.MCons{type T = Int}
 required: tmtp.MList{type A = ?}
       mdropFirstE2(MCons[Int](42, MNil[Int]()))
                              ^

That’s because MList {type A = T0} is a perfectly reasonable intersection type: values of this type have both the type MList in their supertype tree somewhere, and a type member named A, which is bound to T0. In terms of subtyping relationships:

MList {type A = T0} <: MList
// and unrelatedly,
MList {type A = T0} <: {type A = T0}

That MList has no such type member A is irrelevant to the intersection and refinement of types in Scala. This type means “an instance of the trait MList, with a type member named A set to T0”. This type member A could come from another trait mixed with MList or an inline subclass. Whether such a thing is impossible to instantiate—due to sealed, final, or anything else—is also irrelevant; types with no values are meaningful and useful in both Java and Scala.

Why T0? What’s Aux?

A few of the methods on MList we have seen so far take a type parameter T0 instead of T. This is just a mnemonic trick; I’m saying “I would write T here if scalac would let me”, which I have borrowed from scalaz.Unapply. Let’s try to implement def MNil taking a T instead.

def MNil[T](): MNil {type T = T} =
  new MNil {
    type T = T
  }

// Scala complains, though:
TmTp3.scala:15: illegal cyclic reference involving type T
  def MNil[T](): MNil {type T = T} =
                                ^

This is a scoping problem; the refinement type makes the member T shadow our method type parameter T. We dealt with the problem in MList#uncons and MCons#tail as well, way back in section “Two lists, all alike” of the first part, in those cases by outer-scoping the T as self.T instead.

When defining a type with members, you should define an Aux type in your companion that converts the member to a type parameter. The name Aux is a convention I have borrowed from Shapeless ops. This is pretty much boilerplate; in this case, add this to object MList:

type Aux[T0] = MList {type T = T0}

Now you can write MList.Aux[Int] instead of MList {type T = Int}. Here’s mdropFirstT’s signature rewritten in this style.

def mdropFirstT2[T](xs: MList.Aux[T]): MList.Aux[T] = ???

Furthermore, because the member T is not in scope for Aux’s type parameter position, you can take method type parameters named T and sensibly write MList.Aux[T] without the above error. You can see this in the immediately preceding example. But, stepping back a bit, this should be considered an advantage for type parameters more generally; PList doesn’t have this problem in the first place.

Using Aux also helps you avoid the errors of forgetting to specify or misspelling a type member, as described at the beginning of this article. With Aux, as with ordinary parameterized types, a missing argument is caught by the compiler, and misspelling the parameter name is impossible.

In the next part, “Type projection isn’t that specific”, we’ll see why something that, at first glance, seems like a workable alternative to either refinement or the Aux trick, doesn’t work out as well as people wish it would.

This article was tested with Scala 2.11.7.

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