Monday, May 5, 2014

Syntax for open types

In my last post, I talked about open aliases and how they can be used to achieve polymorphism. Since then, I’ve been a bit stuck on the exact syntax for them. I don’t know if that’s silly or useful; syntax seems like such a superficial concern, but then again, it makes a difference if a language looks nice.

Here’s the syntax I used in that last post:

open type Boolean:
    def negate -> Boolean

type True:
    def negate -> False: return False
Boolean |= True

This has some nice elements, but it also has some negatives.

  • Pro: open type is pretty explicit
  • Con: Requires adding open as a keyword, but it’s a natural function name for I/O (like opening a stream)
  • Pro: Boolean |= mirrors the familiar |= operator (from other languages we know and love), so that we naturally read it as “Boolean is whatever it previously was, or True
  • Con: |= doesn’t lend itself to being put in the type definition, as opposed to top-level as above. It would have to look something like this:

    type True:
        |= Boolean
        def negate -> False: return False

    … but that’s not good because it reads as True |= Boolean, which is the flip of what we really want to say. If we want to say that True is an alternative for Boolean from within True’s definition, we really need the open type to be on the right of the statement.

I tried various other alternatives. For instance, I thought about using ellipses to mark open types (type Boolean = ...), but ellipses are commonly used in code fragments to say “some code goes here,” and I didn’t want to introduce that ambiguity. For adding to an open type, I even went as far as considering True (- Boolean, where (- was supposed to look like ∈. Nice try, but nope.

Here’s the syntax I settled on in the end:

type Boolean = ?
    def negate -> Boolean

type True:
    def negate -> Boolean
    is Boolean

(Note that in this latest snippet, ... is back to its usual, informal definition of “some code goes here.”) This does require adding is as a keyword, but I’m not too worried about that. My bigger concern with is is that it evokes the “is a” concept from OO, but I think I’m just going to have to bite the bullet on that; everything else I can think of is worse.

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