core.logic.nominal at the minikanren confo 2013
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core.logic.nominal talk

Run the examples from the talk

lein test talk


core.logic.nominal extends core.logic to simplify writing type inferencers, interpreters and other such programs that must reason about scope and binding. Compared to other approaches for reasoning about scope and binding, the nominal technique really captures the conventions used on paper. Furthermore, nominal logic fully integrates with logic programming, which means that that it just works in the presence of unbound logic variables.


I implemented core.logic.nominal to integrate (1) relational, (2) constraint-based and (3) nominal techniques in one tool. Each of these techniques is independently useful for exploring semantics of programming languages and type systems. (1) If you implement your type system as a relational program, you get not only a type checker, but also a generator of well-typed terms, and possibly a type inferencer. (2) If you express the rules of your type system as constraints, and are able to monitor those constraints, then you can possibly turn your type checker into a type debugger. (3) Nominal abstract syntax simplifies reasoning about names and bindings so that you can use the same conventions in your implementation as on paper.

Nominal Logic Programming

Nominal logic programming brings nominal abstract syntax to logic programming. Nominal abstract syntax is a technique for reasoning about scope and binding, which is fairly close to what is done "on paper". On paper, one uses explicit names for bound variables, while assuming the choice of name is unimportant, as long as the binding structure is preserved.

Nominal abstract syntax formalizes this paper intuition, making it easier to write programs, such as type inferencers and interpreters, that must reason about scope and binding. Furthermore, nominal logic programming maintains the intuitive reasoning about scope and binding of nominal abstract syntax, even in the presence of unbound logic variables.

Reasoning about scope

Consider the lambda calculus, e := x | (e e) | λx.e.

A λ-term is a binder because it binds a name x in the term e. Intuitively, the choice of the bound names are unimportant, as long as the same binding structure is represented, e.g. λa.a ≡α λb.b and λa.λb.a ≡α λb.λa.b but λa.λb.a ≢α λb.λa.a.

This intuitive notion of equality for binders is known as α-equivalence. Formally, λa.e ≡α λb.[b/a]e where b does not occur free in e.

The side-condition in the definition of α-equivalence is a freshness constraint. Indeed, λa.a ≢α λb.a because a is bound in λa.a and free in λb.a.

These two useful notions, α-equivalence and freshness constraints, are built into nominal logic programming. They enable programmers to reason about scope and binding, even in the presence of unbound logic variables, common in logic programs.

Example: capture-avoiding substitution

The three constructs of core.logic.nominal

core.logic.nominal extends core.logic with three constructs for nominal logic programming: fresh, tie, and hash.


The operator nom/fresh introduces new names, just like fresh introduces new variables.

A "nom" only unifies with itself or with an unbound variable.

A reified nom consists of the symbol a subscripted by a number: a_0, a_1, etc.


The term constructor nom/tie binds a nom in a term. Binders are unified up to alpha-equivalence.


The operator nom/hash introduces a freshness constraint, asserting that a nom does not occur free in a term.

Example: type inferencer

Run your research!

Example: type debugger

PDF of auto-generated derivation and debug trees

Example: generator of counterexamples to meta-theoretic properties

Under the hood: swapping!

Nominal unification is specified using nom-swaps and #-constraints.

Two binders t1 and t2 unify when either:

  • t1 is [a] c1, t2 is [a] c2 and c1 unifies with c2, or
  • t1 is [a] c1, t2 is [b] c2, a#c2, and c1 unifies with the term c2 with all as and bs swapped.

Swapping introduces suspensions, because when we encounter a variable during swapping, we must delay the swap until the variable is bound.

In core.logic.nominal, we implement suspensions as constraints. During swapping of a and b, whenever we encounter a variable x, we replace it with a fresh variable x' and add the suspension constraint swap [a b] x' x. This swap constraint is executed under one of two conditions:

  • x and x' both become bound -- the swapping can resume
  • x and x' become equal -- we enforce a#x' and b#x' and drop the swap constraint