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This RFC seeks to clarify and streamline Rust's story around paths and visibility for modules and crates. That story will look as follows:

  • Absolute paths should begin with a crate name, where the keyword crate refers to the current crate (other forms are linted, see below)
  • extern crate is no longer necessary, and is linted (see below); dependencies are available at the root unless shadowed.
  • The crate keyword also acts as a visibility modifier, equivalent to today's pub(crate). Consequently, uses of bare pub on items that are not actually publicly exported are linted, suggesting crate visibility instead.
  • A and foo/ subdirectory may coexist; is no longer needed when placing submodules in a subdirectory.

These changes do not require a new epoch. The new features are purely additive. They can ship with allow-by-default lints, which can gradually be moved to warn-by-default and deny-by-default over time, as better tooling is developed and more code has actively made the switch.

This RFC incorporates some text written by @withoutboats and @cramertj, who have both been involved in the long-running discussions on this topic.


A major theme of this year's roadmap is improving the learning curve and ergonomics of the core language. That's based on overwhelming feedback that the single biggest barrier to Rust adoption is its learning curve.

One part of Rust that has long been a source of friction for some is its module system. There are two related perspectives for improvement here: learnability and productivity:

  • Modules are not a place that Rust was trying to innovate at 1.0, but they are nevertheless often reported as one of the major stumbling blocks to learning Rust. We should fix that.

  • Even for seasoned Rustaceans, the module system has some deficiencies, as we’ll dig into below. Ideally, we can solve these problems while also making modules easier to learn.

The core problems

This RFC does not attempt to comprehensively solve the problems that have been raised in today's module system. The focus is instead high-impact problems with noninvasive solutions.

Defining versus bringing into scope

A persistent point of confusion is the relationship between defining an item and bringing an item into scope. First, let's look at the rules as they exist today:

  • When you refer to items within definitions (e.g. a fn signature or body), those items must be in scope (unless you use a leading :: or super).

  • Defining an item "mounts" its name within the current crate's module hierarchy, making it available through absolute paths.

  • All items defined within a module are also in scope throughout that module. This includes use statements, which actually define (i.e. mount) items within the current module.

  • Additional names are brought into scope through things like function parameters or generics.

There's a beautiful uniformity and sparseness in these rules that makes them appealing. And they turn out to be reasonably intuitive for items whose full definition is given within the module (e.g. struct definitions).

The struggle tends to instead be with items like extern crate and mod foo; which "bring in" other crates or files. This RFC focuses on the former, so let's explore that in more detail.

When you write extern crate futures in your crate root, there are two consequences per the above rules:

  • The external crate futures is "mounted" at the root absolute path.
  • The external crate futures is brought into scope for the top-level module.

When writing code at crate root, you're able to freely refer to futures to start paths in both use statements and in references to items:

extern crate futures;

use futures::Future;

fn my_poll() -> futures::Poll { ... }

These consequences make it easy to build an incorrect mental model, in which extern crate globally adds the external crate name as something you can start any path with--made worse because it's half true. (This confusion is undoubtedly influenced by the way that external package references work in many other languages, where absolute paths always begin with a package reference.) This wrong mental model works fine in the crate root, but breaks down as soon as you try it in a submodule:

extern crate futures;

mod submodule {
    // this still works fine!
    use futures::Future;

    // but suddenly this doesn't...
    fn my_poll() -> futures::Poll { ... }

The fact that adding a use futures; statement to the submodule makes the fn declaration work is almost worse: it reinforces the idea that external crates define names in the root namespace, but that sometimes you need to write use futures to refer to them... but not to refer to them in use declarations! This is the point where some people get exasperated by the module system, which seems to be enforcing some mysterious and pedantic distinctions. And this is perhaps worst with std, in which there's an implicit extern crate in the root module, so that fn make_vec() -> std::vec::Vec<u8> works fine in crate root but requires use std elsewhere.

In other words, while there are simple and consistent rules defining the module system, their consequences can feel inconsistent, counterintuitive and mysterious.

It's tempting to say that we can fully address these problems by better documentation and compiler diagnostics--and surely we should improve them! But for folks trying out Rust, there's already plenty to learn, and there's a sense that the module system is "getting in the way" early on, forcing you to stop and try to understand its particular set of rules before you can get back to trying to understand ownership and other aspects of Rust.

This RFC instead tweaks the handling of external crates and absolute paths, so that when you apply the general rules of the module system, you get an outcome that feels more consistent and intuitive, and requires less front-loading of explanation. As we'll see below, in practice these changes will also improve clarity and readability even for users with a full understanding of the rules.

(We'll revisit this example at the end of the Guide section to explain how the RFC helps.)

Nonlocal reasoning

There are at least two ways in which today's module system doesn't support local reasoning. These affect newcomers and old hands alike.

  • Is a use path talking about this crate or an external one? When reading use statements, to know the source of the import you need to have in your head a list of external crates and/or top-level modules for the current crate. It has long been idiomatic to visually group imports from the current crate separately from external imports. In general, this suggests a certain muddiness around the root namespace.

  • Is an item marked pub actually public? It's a fairly common idiom today to have a private module that contains pub items used by its parent and siblings only. This idiom arises in part because of ergonomic concerns; writing pub(super) or pub(crate) on these internal items feels heavier. But the consequence is that, when reading code, visibility annotations tell you less than you might hope, and in general you have to walk up the module tree looking for re-exports to know exactly how public an item is.

The file

A final issue, though far less important, is the use of files when creating a directory containing submodules. There are several downsides:

  • From a learnability perspective, the fact that the paths in the module system aren't quite in direct correspondence with the file system is another small speedbump, and in particular makes mod foo; declarations entail extra ceremony (since the parent module must be moved into a new directory). A simpler rule would be: the path to a module's file is the path to it within Rust code, with .rs appended.
  • From an ergonomics perspective, one often ends up with many files open, and thus must depend on editor smarts to easily navigate between them. Again, a minor but nontrivial papercut.
  • When refactoring code to introduce submodules, having to use means you often have to move existing files around. Another papercut.

The main benefit to is that the code for a parent module and its children live more closely together (not necessarily desirable!) and that it provides a consistent story with

Some evidence of learning struggles

In the survey data collected in both 2016 and 2017, learnability and ergonomics issues were one of the major challenges for people using or considering Rust. While there were other features that were raised more frequently than the module system (lifetimes for example), ideally the module system, which isn't meant to be novel, would not be a learnability problem at all!

Here are some select quotes (these are not the only responses that mention the module system):

Also the module system is confusing (not that I say is wrong, just confusing until you are experienced in it).

a colleague of mine that started rust got really confused over the module system

You had to import everything in the main module, but you also had to in submodules, but if it was only imported in a submodule it wouldn't work.

I especially find the modules and crates design weird and verbose

fix the module system

One user states that the reason they stopped using Rust was that the "module system is really unintuitive." Similar data is present in the 2016 survey.

Experiences along similar lines can be found in Rust forums, StackOverflow, and similar, some of which has been collected into a gist.

The problems presented above represent a boiled down subset of the problems raised in this feedback.

Guide-level explanation

As we would teach it

The following sections sketch a plausible way of teaching the module system once this RFC has been fully implemented.

Using external dependencies

To add an external dependency, record it in the [dependencies] section of Cargo.toml:

serde = "1.0.0"

By default, crates have an automatic dependency on std, the standard library.

Once your dependency has been added, you can bring it or its exports into scope with use declarations:

use std; // bring `std` itself into scope
use std::vec::Vec;

use serde::Serialize;

Note that these use declarations all begin with a crate name.

Once an item is in scope, you can reference it directly within definitions:

// Both of these work, because we brought `std` and `Vec` into scope:
fn make_vec() -> Vec<u8> { ... }
fn make_vec() -> std::vec::Vec<u8> { ... }

// Only the first of these work, because we didn't bring `serde` into scope:
impl Serialize for MyType { ... }
impl serde::Serialize for MyType { ... } // the name `serde` is not in scope here

You can also reference items from a crate without bringing them into scope by writing a fully qualified path, designated by a leading ::, as follows:

impl ::serde::Serialize for MyType { ... }

All use declarations are interpreted as fully qualified paths, making the leading :: optional for them.

Note: that means that you can write use serde::Serialize in any module without trouble, as long as serde is an external dependency!

Adding a new file to your crate

Rust crates have a distinguished entry point (generally called or which is used to determine the crate's structure. Other files and directories within src/ are not automatically included in the crate. Instead, you explicitly declare submodules using mod declarations.

Let's see how this looks with an example. First, we might set up a directory structure like the following:

├── cli
│   ├──
│   └──
├── process
│   ├──
│   └──

The intent is for the crate to have two top-level modules, cli and process, each of which contain two submodules. To turn these files into submodules, we use mod declarations as follows:

// src/
mod cli;
mod process;
// src/
mod parse;
mod usage;
// src/
mod read;
mod write;

Note how these declarations follow the structure of the filesystem (except that the entry point,, has its children modules as sibling files). By default, mod declarations assume this kind of direct mapping to the filesystem; they are used to tell Rust to incorporate those files, and to set attributes on the resulting modules (as we'll see in a moment).

Importing items from other parts of your crate

In Rust, all items defined in a module are private by default, which means they can only be accessed by the module defining them (or any of its submodules). If you want an item to have greater visibility, you can use a visibility modifier. The two most important of these are:

  • crate, which makes an item visible anywhere within the current crate, but not outside of it.
  • pub, which makes an item public, i.e. visible everywhere.

For binary crates (which have no consumers), crate and pub are equivalent.

Going back to the earlier example, we might instead write:

// src/
pub mod cli;
pub mod process;
// src/
pub mod parse;
pub mod usage;
// src/cli/
pub fn print_usage() { ... }
// src/
pub mod read;
pub mod write;

To refer to an item within your own crate, you can use a fully qualified path that starts with one of the following:

  • crate, to start at the root of your crate, e.g. crate::cli::usage::print_usage
  • self, to start at the current module
  • super, to start at the current module's parent

So we could write in

use crate::cli::usage;

fn main() {
    // ...
    // ...

In general, then, fully qualified paths always start with an initial location: an external crate name, or crate/self/super.

Guide-level thoughts when comparing to today's system

Let's revisit one of the motivating examples. Today, you might write:

extern crate futures;
fn my_poll() -> futures::Poll { ... }

and then be confused when the following doesn't work:

extern crate futures;
mod submodule {
    fn my_poll() -> futures::Poll { ... }

because you've been led to think that extern crate brings the name into scope everywhere.

After this RFC, you would no longer write extern crate futures. You might try to write just:

fn my_poll() -> futures::Poll { ... }

but the compiler would produce an error, saying that there's no futures in scope; maybe you meant the external dependency, which you can bring into scope by writing use futures;? So you do that:

use futures;
fn my_poll() -> futures::Poll { ... }

and now, when you refactor, you're much more likely to understand that the use should come along for the ride:

mod submodule {
    use futures;
    fn my_poll() -> futures::Poll { ... }

Together with the fact that you use crate:: in use declarations, this strongly reinforces the idea that:

  • use brings items into scope, based on paths that start by identifying the crate
  • an item needs to be in scope before you can refer to it

Reference-level explanation

First, a bit of terminology: a fully qualified path is a path starting with ::, which all paths in use do implicitly.

The actual changes in this RFC are fairly small tweaks to the current module system; most of the complexity comes from the migration plans.

The proposed migration plan is minimally disruptive; it does not require an epoch.

Basic changes

  • You can write mod bar; statements even when not in a or equivalent; in this case, the submodules must appear within a subdirectory with the same name as the current module. Thus, can contain mod bar; if there is also a foo/

    • It is not permitted to have both and foo/ at the same point in the file system.
    • The use of continues to be allowed without any deprecation. It is expected that tooling like Clippy will push for at least style consistency within a project, and perhaps eventually across the ecosystem.
  • We introduce crate as a new visibility specifier, shorthand for pub(crate) visibility.

  • We introduce crate as a new path component which designates the root of the current crate.

  • In a path fully qualified path ::foo, resolution will first attempt to resolve to a top-level definition of foo, and otherwise fall back to available external crates.

  • Cargo will provide a new alias key for aliasing dependencies, so that e.g. users who want to use the rand crate but call its library crate random instead can now write rand = { version = "0.3", alias = "random" }.

  • We introduce several lints, which all start out allow-by-default but are expected to ratchet up over time:

    • A lint for fully qualified paths that do not begin with one of: an external crate name, crate, super, or self.

    • A lint for use of extern crate.

    • A lint against use of bare pub for items which are not reachable via some fully-pub path. That is, bare pub should truly mean public, and crate should be used for crate-level visibility.

Resolving fully-qualified paths

The only way to refer to an external crate without using extern crate is through a fully-qualified path.

When resolving a fully-qualified path that begins with a name (and not crate, super or self, we go through a two-stage process:

  • First, attempt to resolve the name as an item defined in the top-level module.
    • If successful, issue a deprecation warning, saying that the crate prefix should be used.
  • Otherwise, attempt to resolve the name as an external crate, exactly as we do with extern crate today.

In particular, no change to the compilation model or interface between rustc and Cargo/the ambient build system is needed.

This approach is designed for backwards compatibility, but it means that you cannot have a top-level module and an external crate with the same name. Allowing that would require all fully-qualified paths into the current crate to start with crate, which can only be done on a future epoch. We can and should consider making such a change eventually, but it is not required for this RFC.

Migration experience

We will provide a high-fidelity rustfix tool that makes changes to the a crate such that the lints proposed in this RFC would not fire. In particular, the tool will introduce crate:: prefixes, downgrade from pub to crate where appropriate, and remove extern crate. It must be sound (i.e. keep the meaning of code intact and keep it compiling) but may not be complete (i.e. you may still get some deprecation warnings after running it).

Such a tool should be working at with very high coverage before we consider changing any of the lints to warn-by-default.


The most important drawback is that this RFC pushes toward ultimately changing most Rust code in existence. There is risk of this reintroducing a sense that Rust is unstable, if not handled properly. However, that risk is mitigated by several factors:

  • The fact that existing forms continue to work indefinitely.
  • The fact that we will provide migration tooling with high coverage.
  • The fact that nudges toward new forms (in the forms of lints) are introduced gradually, and only after strong tooling exists.

Imports from within your crate become more verbose, since they require a leading crate. However, this downside is considerably mitigated if nesting in use is permitted.

There is some concern that introducing and encouraging the use of crate as a visibility will, counter to the goals of the RFC, lead to people increasing the visibility of items rather than decreasing it (and hence increasing inter-module coupling). This could happen if, for example, an item needs to be exposed to a cousin module, where a Rust user might hesitate to make it pub but feel that crate is sufficiently "safe" (when really a refactoring is called for). While this is indeed a possibility, it's offset by some other cultural and design factors: Rust's design strongly encourages narrow access rights (privacy by default; immutability by default), and this orientation has a strong cultural sway within the Rust community.

In previous discussions about deprecating extern crate, there were concerns about the impact on non-Cargo tooling, and in overall explicitness. This RFC fully addresses both concerns by leveraging the new, unambiguous nature of fully qualified paths.

Moving crate renaming externally has implications for procedural macros with dependencies: their clients must include those dependencies without renaming them.

Rationale and Alternatives

The core rationale here should be clear given the detailed analysis in the motivation. The crucial insight of the design is that, by making absolute paths unambiguous about which crate they draw from, we can solve a number of confusions and papercuts with the module system.

Epoch-based migration story

We can avoid the need for fallback in resolution by leveraging epochs instead. On the current epoch, we would make crate:: paths available and start warning about not using them for crate-internal paths, but we would not issue warnings about extern crate. In the next epoch, we would change absolute path interpretations, such that warning-free code on the previous epoch would continue to compile and have the same meaning.

Bike-sheddy choices

There are a few aspects of this proposal that could be colored a bit differently without fundamental change.

  • Rather than crate::top_level_module, we could consider extern::serde or something like it, which would eliminate the need for any fallback in name resolution. That would come with some significant downsides, though.

    • First, having paths typically start with a crate name, with crate referring to the current crate, provides a very simple and easy to understand model for paths---and its one that's pretty commonly used in other languages.
    • Second, one benefit of crate is that it helps reduce confusion about paths appearing in use versus references to names elsewhere. In particular, it serves as a reminder that use paths are absolute.
  • Rather than using crate as a visibility specifier, we could use something like local. (If we used it purely as a visibility specifier, we could make it a contextual keyword). That might be preferable, since local is an adjective and is arguably more intuitive. This is an unresolved question.

  • The lint checking for pub items that are not actually public could be extended to check for all visibility levels. The RFC stuck with just pub because the ergonomics of crate make it more feasible to go from pub to crate, which should always work. It seems less feasible to ask people to annotate definitions with e.g. pub(super), though maybe this is a sign that the pub(restricted) syntax is too unergonomic or underused.

The community discussion around modules

For the past several months, the Rust community has been investigating the module system, its weaknesses, strengths, and areas of potential improvement. The discussion is far too wide-ranging to summarize here, so I'll just present links.

Two blog posts serve as milestones in the discussion, laying out a part of the argument in favor of improving the module system:

And in addition there's been extensive discussion on internals:

These discussions ultimately led to two failed RFCs.

These earlier RFCs were shooting for a more comprehensive set of improvements around the module system, and in particular both involved eliminating the need for mod declarations in common cases. However, there are enough concerns and open questions about that direction that we chose to split those more ambitious ideas off into a separate experimental RFC:

We recognize that this is a major point of controversy and so will put aside trying to complete a full RFC on the topic at this time; however, we believe the idea has enough merit that it's worth an experimental implementation in the compiler that we can use to gather more data, e.g. around the impact on workflow. We would still like to do this before the impl period, so that we can do that exploration during the impl period. (To be clear: experimental RFCs are to approve landing unstable features that seem promising but where we need more experience; they require a standard RFC to be merged before they can be stabilized.)

Unresolved questions

  • How should we approach migration? Via a fallback, as proposed, or via epochs? It is probably best to make this determination with more experience, e.g. after we have a rustfix tool in hand.