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Summary

Add where clauses, which provide a more expressive means of specifying trait parameter bounds. A where clause comes after a declaration of a generic item (e.g., an impl or struct definition) and specifies a list of bounds that must be proven once precise values are known for the type parameters in question. The existing bounds notation would remain as syntactic sugar for where clauses.

So, for example, the impl for HashMap could be changed from this:

impl<K:Hash+Eq,V> HashMap<K, V>
{
    ..
}

to the following:

impl<K,V> HashMap<K, V>
    where K : Hash + Eq
{
    ..
}

The full grammar can be found in the detailed design.

Motivation

The high-level bit is that the current bounds syntax does not scale to complex cases. Introducing where clauses is a simple extension that gives us a lot more expressive power. In particular, it will allow us to refactor the operator traits to be in a convenient, multidispatch form (e.g., so that user-defined mathematical types can be added to int and vice versa). (It's also worth pointing out that, once #5527 lands at least, implementing where clauses will be very little work.)

Here is a list of limitations with the current bounds syntax that are overcome with the where syntax:

  • It cannot express bounds on anything other than type parameters. Therefore, if you have a function generic in T, you can write T:MyTrait to declare that T must implement MyTrait, but you can't write Option<T> : MyTrait or (int, T) : MyTrait. These forms are less commonly required but still important.

  • It does not work well with associated types. This is because there is no space to specify the value of an associated type. Other languages use where clauses (or something analogous) for this purpose.

  • It's just plain hard to read. Experience has shown that as the number of bounds grows, the current syntax becomes hard to read and format.

Let's examine each case in detail.

Bounds are insufficiently expressive

Currently bounds can only be declared on type parameters. But there are situations where one wants to declare bounds not on the type parameter itself but rather a type that includes the type parameter.

Partially generic types

One situation where this is occurs is when you want to write functions where types are partially known and have those interact with other functions that are fully generic. To explain the situation, let's examine some code adapted from rustc.

Imagine I have a table parameterized by a value type V and a key type K. There are also two traits, Value and Key, that describe the keys and values. Also, each type of key is linked to a specific value:

struct Table<V:Value, K:Key<V>> { ... }
trait Key<V:Value> { ... }
trait Value { ... }

Now, imagine I want to write some code that operates over all keys whose value is an Option<T> for some T:

fn example<T,K:Key<Option<T>>(table: &Table<Option<T>, K>) { ... }

This seems reasonable, but this code will not compile. The problem is that the compiler needs to know that the value type implements Value, but here the value type is Option<T>. So we'd need to declare Option<T> : Value, which we cannot do.

There are workarounds. I might write a new trait OptionalValue:

trait OptionalValue<T> {
    fn as_option<'a>(&'a self) -> &'a Option<T>; // identity fn
}

and then I could write my example as:

fn example<T,O:OptionalValue<T>,K:Key<O>(table: &Table<O, K>) { ... }

But this is making my example function, already a bit complicated, become quite obscure.

Multidispatch traits

Another situation where a similar problem is encountered is multidispatch traits (aka, multiparameter type classes in Haskell). The idea of a multidispatch trait is to be able to choose the impl based not just on one type, as is the most common case, but on multiple types (usually, but not always, two).

Multidispatch is rarely needed because the vast majority of traits are characterized by a single type. But when you need it, you really need it. One example that arises in the standard library is the traits for binary operators like +. Today, the Add trait is defined using only single-dispatch (like so):

pub trait Add<Rhs,Sum> {
    fn add(&self, rhs: &Rhs) -> Sum;
}

The expression a + b is thus sugar for Add::add(&a, &b). Because of how our trait system works, this means that only the type of the left-hand side (the Self parameter) will be used to select the impl. The type for the right-hand side (Rhs) along with the type of their sum (Sum) are defined as trait parameters, which are always outputs of the trait matching: that is, they are specified by the impl and are not used to select which impl is used.

This setup means that addition is not as extensible as we would like. For example, the standard library includes implementations of this trait for integers and other built-in types:

impl Add<int,int> for int { ... }
impl Add<f32,f32> for f32 { ... }

The limitations of this setup become apparent when we consider how a hypothetical user library might integrate. Imagine a library L that defines a type Complex representing complex numbers:

struct Complex { ... }

Naturally, it should be possible to add complex numbers and integers. Since complex number addition is commutative, it should be possible to write both 1 + c and c + 1. Thus one might try the following impls:

impl Add<int,Complex> for Complex { ... }     // 1. Complex + int
impl Add<Complex,Complex> for int { ... }     // 2. int + Complex
impl Add<Complex,Complex> for Complex { ... } // 3. Complex + Complex

Due to the coherence rules, however, this setup will not work. There are in fact three errors. The first is that there are two impls of Add defined for Complex (1 and 3). The second is that there are two impls of Add defined for int (the one from the standard library and 2). The final error is that impl 2 violates the orphan rule, since the type int is not defined in the current crate.

This is not a new problem. Object-oriented languages, with their focus on single dispatch, have long had trouble dealing with binary operators. One common solution is double dispatch, an awkward but effective pattern in which no type ever implements Add directly. Instead, we introduce "indirection" traits so that, e.g., int is addable to anything that implements AddToInt and so on. This is not my preferred solution so I will not describe it in detail, but rather refer readers to this blog post where I describe how it works.

An alternative to double dispatch is to define Add on tuple types (LHS, RHS) rather than on a single value. Imagine that the Add trait were defined as follows:

trait Add<Sum> {
    fn add(self) -> Sum;
}

impl Add<int> for (int, int) {
    fn add(self) -> int {
        let (x, y) = self;
        x + y
    }
}

Now the expression a + b would be sugar for Add::add((a, b)). This small change has several interesting ramifications. For one thing, the library L can easily extend Add to cover complex numbers:

impl Add<Complex> for (Complex, int)     { ... }
impl Add<Complex> for (int, Complex)     { ... }
impl Add<Complex> for (Complex, Complex) { ... }

These impls do not violate the coherence rules because they are all applied to distinct types. Moreover, none of them violate the orphan rule because each of them is a tuple involving at least one type local to the library.

One downside of this Add pattern is that there is no way within the trait definition to refer to the type of the left- or right-hand side individually; we can only use the type Self to refer to the tuple of both types. In the Discussion section below, I will introduce an extended "multi-dispatch" pattern that addresses this particular problem.

There is however another problem that where clauses help to address. Imagine that we wish to define a function to increment complex numbers:

fn increment(c: Complex) -> Complex {
    1 + c
}

This function is pretty generic, so perhaps we would like to generalize it to work over anything that can be added to an int. We'll use our new version of the Add trait that is implemented over tuples:

fn increment<T:...>(c: T) -> T {
    1 + c
}

At this point we encounter the problem. What bound should we give for T? We'd like to write something like (int, T) : Add<T> -- that is, Add is implemented for the tuple (int, T) with the sum type T. But we can't write that, because the current bounds syntax is too limited.

Where clauses give us an answer. We can write a generic version of increment like so:

fn increment<T>(c: T) -> T
    where (int, T) : Add<T>
{
    1 + c
}

Associated types

It is unclear exactly what form associated types will have in Rust, but it is well documented that our current design, in which type parameters decorate traits, does not scale particularly well. (For curious readers, there are several blog posts exploring the design space of associated types with respect to Rust in particular.)

The high-level summary of associated types is that we can replace a generic trait like Iterator:

trait Iterator<E> {
    fn next(&mut self) -> Option<E>;
}

With a version where the type parameter is a "member" of the Iterator trait:

trait Iterator {
    type E;
    
    fn next(&mut self) -> Option<E>;
}

This syntactic change helps to highlight that, for any given type, the type E is fixed by the impl, and hence it can be considered a member (or output) of the trait. It also scales better as the number of associated types grows.

One challenge with this design is that it is not clear how to convert a function like the following:

fn sum<I:Iterator<int>>(i: I) -> int {
    ...    
}

With associated types, the reference Iterator<int> is no longer valid, since the trait Iterator doesn't have type parameters.

The usual solution to this problem is to employ a where clause:

fn sum<I:Iterator>(i: I) -> int
  where I::E == int
{
    ...    
}

We can also employ where clauses with object types via a syntax like &Iterator<where E=int> (admittedly somewhat wordy)

Readability

When writing very generic code, it is common to have a large number of parameters with a large number of bounds. Here is some example function extracted from rustc:

fn set_var_to_merged_bounds<T:Clone + InferStr + LatticeValue,
                            V:Clone+Eq+ToStr+Vid+UnifyVid<Bounds<T>>>(
                            &self,
                            v_id: V,
                            a: &Bounds<T>,
                            b: &Bounds<T>,
                            rank: uint)
                            -> ures;

Definitions like this are very difficult to read (it's hard to even know how to format such a definition).

Using a where clause allows the bounds to be separated from the list of type parameters:

fn set_var_to_merged_bounds<T,V>(&self,
                                 v_id: V,
                                 a: &Bounds<T>,
                                 b: &Bounds<T>,
                                 rank: uint)
                                 -> ures
    where T:Clone,         // it is legal to use individual clauses...
          T:InferStr,
          T:LatticeValue,
          V:Clone+Eq+ToStr+Vid+UnifyVid<Bounds<T>>, // ...or use `+`
{                                     
    ..
}

This helps to separate out the function signature from the extra requirements that the function places on its types.

If I may step aside from the "impersonal voice" of the RFC for a moment, I personally find that when writing generic code it is helpful to focus on the types and signatures, and come to the bounds later. Where clauses help to separate these distinctions. Naturally, your mileage may vary. - nmatsakis

Detailed design

Where can where clauses appear?

Where clauses can be added to anything that can be parameterized with type/lifetime parameters with the exception of trait method definitions: impl declarations, fn declarations, and trait and struct definitions. They appear as follows:

impl Foo<A,B>
    where ...
{ }

impl Foo<A,B> for C
    where ...
{ }

impl Foo<A,B> for C
{
    fn foo<A,B> -> C
        where ...
    { }
}

fn foo<A,B> -> C
    where ...
{ }

struct Foo<A,B>
    where ...
{ }

trait Foo<A,B> : C
    where ...
{ }

Where clauses cannot (yet) appear on trait methods

Note that trait method definitions were specifically excluded from the list above. The reason is that including where clauses on a trait method raises interesting questions for what it means to implement the trait. Using where clauses it becomes possible to define methods that do not necessarily apply to all implementations. We intend to enable this feature but it merits a second RFC to delve into the details.

Where clause grammar

The grammar for a where clause would be as follows (BNF):

WHERE = 'where' BOUND { ',' BOUND } [,]
BOUND = TYPE ':' TRAIT { '+' TRAIT } [+]
TRAIT = Id [ '<' [ TYPE { ',' TYPE } [,] ] '>' ]
TYPE  = ... (same type grammar as today)

Semantics

The meaning of a where clause is fairly straightforward. Each bound in the where clause must be proven by the caller after substitution of the parameter types.

One interesting case concerns trivial where clauses where the self-type does not refer to any of the type parameters, such as the following:

fn foo()
    where int : Eq
{ ... }

Where clauses like these are considered an error. They have no particular meaning, since the callee knows all types involved. This is a conservative choice: if we find that we do desire a particular interpretation for them, we can always make them legal later.

Drawbacks

This RFC introduces two ways to declare a bound.

Alternatives

Remove the existing trait bounds. I decided against this both to avoid breaking lots of existing code and because the existing syntax is convenient much of the time.

Embed where clauses in the type parameter list. One alternative syntax that was proposed is to embed a where-like clause in the type parameter list. Thus the increment() example

fn increment<T>(c: T) -> T
    where () : Add<int,T,T>
{
    1 + c
}

would become something like:

fn increment<T, ():Add<int,T,T>>(c: T) -> T
{
    1 + c
}

This is unfortunately somewhat ambiguous, since a bound like T:Eq could either be declared a type parameter T or as a condition that the (existing) type T implement Eq.

Use a colon intead of the keyword. There is some precedent for this from the type state days. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with traits due to the supertrait list, and it also doesn't look good with the use of : as a trait-bound separator:

fn increment<T>(c: T) -> T
    : () : Add<int,T,T>
{
    1 + c
}