Lazy patterns

yallop edited this page Apr 1, 2015 · 3 revisions

Lazy patterns

This page documents lazy patterns in releases 0.3 and 0.4.


Lazy patterns extend OCaml's patterns with the keyword lazy. A pattern

    lazy p

matches a value of type Lazy.t by forcing it (as if with Lazy.force) and matching the result against p. You can use lazy anywhere that you can use a regular constructor such as Some: for instance, lazy can appear in let, match or try patterns, deep inside another pattern, as prefix to a deep pattern, in an "or" pattern, or in a pattern guard.

Example: implementing force

The following function behaves just like the standard Lazy.force function:

  let force (lazy v) = v

Example: Length of a lazy list

Given a type of lazy lists in the odd style

  type 'a llist = Nil | Cons of 'a * 'a llist Lazy.t

we can write a function that computes the length

  let rec llength : 'a llist -> int = function
    | Nil -> 0
    | Cons (_, lazy tl) -> 1 + llength tl

The distribution contains more examples, including functions over streams in the even style, based on the package in Chris Okasaki's dissertation.

How lazy are lazy patterns?

With regular constructors (such as Some or ::'), constructing a value may involve computation (including side effects or failure to terminate), but deconstructing a value never does. With lazy` the situation is exactly reversed. The expression

   lazy exp

always succeeds with no side effects, whereas matching against a pattern

   lazy pat

triggers evaluation of an expression, which may perform side effects, raise an exception, or fail to terminate.

These properties of lazy patterns make it desirable to define an order of evaluation for patterns, so that we can answer the following questions about any pattern involving `lazy':

Which subpatterns are evaluated?


In what order?

The order we choose (which is necessarily somewhat arbitrary) is left-to-right, depth-first, failing as soon as possible. For example, the following evaluates to true without raising an exception:

   match lazy 2, lazy (failwith "boom") with
     | lazy 3, lazy _ -> false
     | lazy 2, _      -> true
     | _, _           -> false

because the right-hand lazy value is never forced, whereas the following raises an exception because both values are forced in the first pattern:

   match lazy 2, lazy (failwith "boom") with
     | lazy 2, lazy _ -> false
     | lazy 3, _      -> true
     | _, _           -> false

In the following example, the lazy value is never forced

   match `A (lazy (failwith "boom")) with
    | `B (lazy x) -> x
    | `A _        -> true

so the expression evaluates to true.

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