Why is ADT pattern matching allowed?

by Stephen Compall on Nov 10, 2014


One of the rules of the Scalazzi Safe Scala Subset is “no type casing”; in other words, testing the type via isInstanceOf or type patterns isn’t allowed. It’s one of the most important rules therein for preservation of free theorems. Common functional programming practice in Scala seems to violate this rule in a subtle way. However, as we will see, that practice carves out a very specific exception to this rule that, morally, isn’t an exception at all, carrying convenient advantages and none of the drawbacks.

Why forbid type tests?

With the “no type tests” rule, we forbid writing functions like this:

def revmaybe[T](xs: List[T]): List[T] = {
  val allInts = xs.forall{case _:Int => true
                          case _ => false}
  if (allInts) xs.reverse else xs

Which violates the free theorem of revmaybe’s type revmaybe(xs map f) = revmaybe(xs) map f, as follows.

val xs = List(1, 2, 3)
def f(i:Int) = Some(i)

scala> revmaybe(xs map f)
res2: List[Some[Int]] = List(Some(1), Some(2), Some(3))

scala> revmaybe(xs) map f
res3: List[Some[Int]] = List(Some(3), Some(2), Some(1))

ADTs are OK to go

On the other hand, the Scalazzi rules are totally cool with pattern matching to separate the parts of ADTs. For example, this is completely fine.

def headOption[T](xs: List[T]): Option[T] = xs match {
  case x :: _ => Some(x)
  case _ => None

Even more exotic matches, where we bring type information forward into runtime, are acceptable, as long as they’re in the context of ADTs.

sealed abstract class Expr[T]
final case class AddExpr(x: Int, y: Int) extends Expr[Int]

def eval[T](ex: Expr[T]): T = ex match {
  case AddExpr(x, y) => x + y

ADTs use type tests

Let’s look at the compiled code of the eval body, specifically, the case line.

         2: aload_2       
         3: instanceof    #60                 // class adts/AddExpr
         6: ifeq          39
         9: aload_2       
        10: checkcast     #60                 // class adts/AddExpr
        13: astore_3      
        14: aload_3       
        15: invokevirtual #63                 // Method adts/AddExpr.x:()I
        18: istore        4
        20: aload_3       
        21: invokevirtual #66                 // Method adts/AddExpr.y:()I
        24: istore        5
        26: iload         4
        28: iload         5
        30: iadd          

So, instead of calling unapply to presumably check whether AddExpr matches, scalac checks and casts its argument to AddExpr. Why does it do that? Let’s see if we could use AddExpr.unapply instead.

scala> AddExpr.unapply _
res4: adts.AddExpr => Option[(Int, Int)] = <function1>

In other words, the unapply call can’t tell you whether an Expr is an AddExpr; it can’t be called with arbitrary Expr.

The only actual check here is inserted by scalac as part of compiling the pattern match expression, and it is a type test, supposedly verboten under Scalazzi rules. headOption, too, is implemented with type tests and casts, not unapply calls.

We’ve exhorted Scala users to avoid type tests, but then turn around and say that type tests are OK! What’s going on?

An equivalent form

In every case where we use pattern matching on an ADT, there’s an equivalent way we could write the expression without pattern matching, by adding an encoding of the whole ADT as a method on the class or trait we use as the base type. Let’s redefine the Option type with such a method to see how this is done.

sealed abstract class Maybe[T] {
  def fold[Z](nothing: => Z, just: T => Z): Z

final case class MNothing[T]() extends Maybe[T] {
  override def fold[Z](nothing: => Z, just: T => Z): Z =

final case class Just[T](get: T) extends Maybe[T] {
  override def fold[Z](nothing: => Z, just: T => Z): Z =

It’s key to our reasoning that we completely avoid match in our implementations; in other words, the fold is matchless.

With the fold method, the following two expressions are equivalent, notwithstanding scalac’s difficulty optimizing the latter, even in the presence of inlining.

(selector: Maybe[A]) match {
  case MNothing() => "default case"
  case Just(x) => justcase(x)

selector.fold("default case", x => justcase(x))

It’s a simple formula: the fold takes as many arguments as there are cases, always returns the given, sole type parameter, and each argument is a function that results in that same parameter. There’s a free theorem that a fold implementation on data structures without recursion, like Maybe, can only invoke one of these arguments and return the result directly, just as the pattern match does.

If you prefer the clarity of named cases, just use Scala’s named arguments. Here’s that last fold:

selector.fold(nothing = "default case",
              just = x => justcase(x))

GADT folds

Encoding Expr is a little bit more complicated. For the full power of the type, we have to turn to Leibniz to encode the matchless fold.

import scalaz.Leibniz, Leibniz.{===, refl}

sealed abstract class Expr2[T] {
  def fold[Z](add: (Int, Int, Int === T) => Z,
              concat: (String, String, String === T) => Z): Z

What does this mean? The type Int === T, seen in the add argument signature, is inhabited if and only if the type T is the type Int. So an implementation of fold can only call the add function if it can prove that type equality. There is, of course, one that can:

final case class AddExpr2(x: Int, y: Int) extends Expr2[Int] {
  def fold[Z](add: (Int, Int, Int === Int) => Z,
              concat: (String, String, String === Int) => Z): Z =
    add(x, y, refl)

Not only does AddExpr2 know that Expr2’s type parameter is Int, we must make the type substitution when implementing methods from Expr2! At that point it is enough to mention refl, the evidence that every type is equal to itself, to satisfy add’s signature.

This may seem a little magical, but it is no less prosaic than implementing java.lang.Comparable by making this substitution. So you can do this sort of thing every day even in Java.

public interface Comparable<T> {
  int compareTo(T o);

class MyData implements Comparable<MyData> {
  public int compareTo(MyData o) {   // note T is replaced by MyData
    // ...

If only Java had higher kinds, you could go the rest of the way and actually implement GADTs.

Moving on, let’s see another case for Expr2, and finally to tie it all together, eval2 with some extra constant data in for good measure.

final case class ConcatExpr2(x: String, y: String) extends Expr2[String] {
  def fold[Z](add: (Int, Int, Int === String) => Z,
              concat: (String, String, String === String) => Z): Z =
    concat(x, y, refl)

def eval2[T](ex: Expr2[T]): T =
  ex.fold((x, y, intIsT) => intIsT(1 + x + y),
          (x, y, strIsT) => strIsT("one" + x + y))

Using the Leibniz proof is, unfortunately, more involved than producing it in the fold implementations. See my previous posts, “A function from type equality to Leibniz” and “Higher Leibniz”, for many details on applying Leibniz proof to make type transformations.

While the pattern matching eval didn’t have to explicitly apply type equality evidence – it just knew that Int was T when the IntExpr pattern matched – Scala has holes in its implementation, discussed in the aforementioned posts on Leibniz, that sometimes make the above implementation strategy an attractive choice even though pattern matching is available.

We could, but that’s good enough, so we won’t

You might have noticed that adding another case to Expr caused us not only to implement an extra fold, but to add another argument to the base fold to represent the new case, and then go through every implementation to add that argument. This isn’t so bad for just two cases, but indeed has quadratic growth, to the point that adding a new case to a large datatype is a majorly annoying project all by itself.

There is an interesting property of fold, though: the strategy isn’t available for our first function, revmaybe, to discriminate arguments of arbitrary type! To do that, we would have to add a signature like this to Any.

def fold[Z](int: Int => Z, any: Any => Z): Z = any(this)
// and, in the body of class Int
override def fold[Z](int: Int => Z, any: Any => Z): Z = int(this)

Obviously, you cannot do this.

You can only add fold methods to types you know; I can only call fold in expr2 by virtue of the fact that I know that the argument has type Expr2[T] for some T. If the argument was just T, I wouldn’t have enough static type information to call fold. So the use of folds doesn’t break parametricity. Equivalently, a pattern match that could be implemented using a matchless fold also does not break parametricity.

As we have seen, it is unfortunately inconvenient to actually go through the bother of writing fold methods, when pattern matching is there. But it is enough to reason that we could write a matchless fold and replace the pattern matching with it, to prove that the pattern matching is safe, no matter how many underlying type tests scalac might use to implement it.

A simple test follows: if you could write a matchless fold, and use that instead, the pattern match is type-safe.

A selector subtlety

Here’s a pattern match that violates parametricity.

selector match {
  case MNothing() => "default case"
  case Just(x) => justcase(x)

Wait, but didn’t we rewrite that using a fold earlier? Not quite. Oh, I didn’t mention? The type of selector is T, because we’re in a function like this:

def notIdentity[T](selector: T) =
  // match expression above goes here

Scala will permit this pattern match to go forward. It doesn’t require us to prove that the selector is of the ADT root type we happened to define; that’s an arbitrary point as far as Scala’s subtyping system is concerned. All that is required is that the static type of selector be a supertype of each of MNothing[_] and Just[_], which T is, not being known to be more refined than Any.

The test works here, though! What is ambiguous to scalac is a bright line in our reasoning. We can’t define a matchless fold that can be invoked on this selector, so we reach the correct conclusion, that the match violates parametricity.

The rule revisited

So we’ve carved out a clear “exception” to the “no type tests” Scalazzi rule, and seen that it isn’t an exception at all. There’s a straightforward test you can apply to your pattern matches,

If and only if I could, hypothetically, write a matchless fold, or use an existing one, and rewrite this in its terms, this pattern match is safe.

but beware the subtle case where the match’s selector has a wider type than you anticipated.

Finally, this is a rule specifically about expressions that don’t violate our ability to reason about code. This doesn’t hold for arbitrary type-unsafe rewrites: that you could write a program safely means you should write it safely. Unlike arbitrary rewrites into nonfunctional code, the pattern match uses no non-referentially-transparent and no genuinely non-parametric expressions.

This article was tested with Scala 2.11.4 and Scalaz 7.1.0.