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Informal specification of generalized void

This document is now obsolete, please refer to the current version.

Feature: Generalized Void

Author: eernst@

Status: Under implementation.

This document is an informal specification of the generalized support in Dart 1.x for the type void. Dart 2 will have a very similar kind of generalized support for void, without the function type subtype exception that this feature includes for backward compatibility in Dart 1.x. This document specifies the feature for Dart 1.x and indicates how Dart 2 differs at relevant points.

The feature described here, generalized void, allows for using the type void as a type annotation, and as a type argument.

The motivation for allowing the extended usage is that it helps developers state the intent that a particular value should be ignored. For example, a Future<void> may be awaited in order to satisfy ordering dependencies in the execution, but no useful value will be available at completion. Similarly, a Visitor<void> (where we assume the type argument is used to describe a value returned by the visitor) may be used to indicate that the visit is performed for its side-effects alone. The generalized void feature includes mechanisms to help developers avoid using such a value.

Note that is not technically dangerous to use a value of type void, it does not violate any constraints at the level of the language semantics. Developers just made the decision to declare that the value is useless, based on the program logic. Hence, there is no requirement for the generalized void mechanism to be strict and sound. However, it is the intention that the mechanism should be sufficiently strict to make the mechanism helpful and non-frustrating in practice.

No constraints are imposed on which values may be given type void, so in that sense void can be considered to be just another name for the type Object, flagged as useless. Note that this is an approximate rule (in Dart 1.x), it fails to hold for function types.

The mechanisms helping developers to avoid using values of type void are divided into two phases. This document specifies the first phase. The second phase may be added to Dart 1.x later, or it may only be provided in Dart 2.0, depending on the schedule.

The first phase uses restrictions which are based on syntactic criteria in order to ensure that direct usage of a value of type void is a static warning (in Dart 2: an error). A few exceptions are allowed, e.g., type casts, such that developers can explicitly make the choice to use such a value. The general rule is that all values of type void must be discarded.

The second phase will deal with casts and preservation of voidness. Some casts will cause derived expressions to switch from having type void to having some other type, and hence those casts introduce the possibility that "a void value" will get passed and used. Here is an example:

class A<T> { T foo(); }
A<Object> a = new A<void>(); // Violates voidness preservation.
var x = a.foo(); // Use a "void value", with static type Object.

We plan to introduce a voidness preservation analysis (which is similar to a small type system) to keep track of such situations. As mentioned, the second phase is not specified in this document, and it is possible that voidness preservation will be checked in Dart 2 and strong mode, but that it is never added to Dart 1.x. In any case, voidness preservation is a purely static analysis, and there are no plans to introduce dynamic checking for it.

Syntax

The reserved word void remains a reserved word, but it will now be usable in additional contexts. Below are the grammar rules affected by this change. New grammar rules are marked NEW, other grammar rules are modified. Unchanged alternatives in a rule are shown as .... The grammar rules used as a starting point for this syntax are taken from the language specification as of June 2nd, 2017 (git commit 0603b18).

typeNotVoid ::= // NEW
    typeName typeArguments?
type ::= // ENTIRE RULE MODIFIED
    typeNotVoid | 'void'
redirectingFactoryConstructorSignature ::=
    'const'? 'factory' identifier ('.' identifier)? 
    formalParameterList `=' typeNotVoid ('.' identifier)?
superclass ::=
    'extends' typeNotVoid
mixinApplication ::=
    typeNotVoid mixins interfaces?
typeParameter ::=
    metadata identifier ('extends' typeNotVoid)?
newExpression ::=
    'new' typeNotVoid ('.' identifier)? arguments
constObjectExpression ::=
    'const' typeNotVoid ('.' identifier)? arguments
typeTest ::=
    isOperator typeNotVoid
typeCast ::=
    asOperator typeNotVoid
onPart ::=
    catchPart block |
    'on' typeNotVoid catchPart? block
typeNotVoidList ::=
    typeNotVoid (',' typeNotVoid)*
mixins ::=
    'with' typeNotVoidList
interfaces ::=
    'implements' typeNotVoidList
functionSignature ::=
    metadata type? identifier formalParameterList
functionFormalParameter ::=
    metadata 'covariant'? type? identifier formalParameterList
operatorSignature ::=
    type? 'operator' operator formalParameterList
getterSignature ::=
    type? 'get' identifier
setterSignature ::=
    type? 'set' identifier formalParameterList
topLevelDefinition ::=
    ...
    type? 'get' identifier functionBody |
    type? 'set' identifier formalParameterList functionBody |
    ...
functionPrefix ::=
    type? identifier

The rule for returnType in the grammar is deleted.

This is because we can now use type, which derives the same expressions as returnType used to derive. In that sense, some of these grammar modifications are renames. Note that the grammar contains known mistakes, especially concerned with the placement of metadata. This document makes no attempt to correct those mistakes, that is a separate issue.

A complete grammar which includes support for generalized void is available in the file Dart.g from https://codereview.chromium.org/2688903004/.

Dynamic semantics

There are no values at run time whose dynamic type is the type void.

This implies that it is never required for the getter runtimeType in the built-in class Object to return a reified representation of the type void. Note, however, that apart from the fact that usage is restricted for values with the type void, it is possible for an expression of type void to evaluate to any value. In that sense, every value has the type void, it is just not the only type that it has, and loosely speaking it is not the most specific type.

There is no value which is the reified representation of the type void at run time.

Syntactically, void cannot occur as an expression, and hence expression evaluation cannot directly yield such a value. However, a formal type parameter can be used in expressions, and the actual type argument bound to that formal type parameter can be the type void. That case is specified explicitly below. Apart from the reserved word void and a formal type parameter, no other term can denote the type void.

Conversely, void cannot denote any other entity than the type void: void cannot occur as the declared name of any declaration (including library prefixes, types, variables, parameters, etc.). This implies that void is not subject to scoped lookup, and the name is not exported by any system library. Similarly, it can never be accessed using a prefixed expression (p.void). Hence, void has a fixed meaning everywhere in all Dart programs, and it can only occur as a stand-alone word.

When void is passed as an actual type argument to a generic class or a generic function, and when the type void occurs as a parameter type in a function type, the reified representation is equal (according to ==) to the reified representation of the built-in class Object.

It is encouraged for an implementation to use a reified representation for void as a type argument and as a parameter type in a function type which is not identical to the reified representation of the built-in class Object, but they must be equal. This allows implementations to produce better diagnostic messages, e.g., in case of a runtime error.

This treatment of the reified representation of the type void reinforces the understanding that "voidness" is merely a statically known flag on the built-in class Object, it is not a separate type. However, for backward compatibility we need to treat return types differently.

When void is specified as the return type of a function, the reified representation of the return type is left unspecified.

There is no way for a Dart program at run time to obtain a reified representation of that return type alone, even when the function type as a whole may be obtained (e.g., the function type could be evaluated as an expression). It is therefore not necessary to reified representation of such a return type.

It may be possible to use a reflective subsystem (mirrors) to deconstruct a function type whose return type is the type void, but the existing design of the system library dart:mirrors already handles this case by allowing for a type mirror that does not have a reflected type.

Consider a type T where the type void occurs as an actual type argument to a generic class, or as a parameter type in a function type. Dynamically, the more-specific-than relation (<<) and the dynamic subtype relation (<:) between T and other types are determined by the following rule: the type void is treated as being the built-in class Object.

Dart 1.x does not support generic function types dynamically, because they are erased to regular function types during compilation. Hence there is no need to specify the the typing relations for generic function types. In Dart 2, the subtype relationship for generic function types follows from the rule that void is treated as Object.

Consider a function type T where the return type is the type void. The dynamic more-specific-than relation, <<, and the dynamic subtype relation, <:, are determined by the existing rules in the language specification, supplemented by the above rule for handling occurrences of the type void other than as a return type.

This ensures backward compatibility for the cases where the type void can be used already today. It follows that it will be a breaking change to switch to a ruleset where the type void even as a return type is treated like the built-in class Object, i.e. when switching to Dart 2.0. However, the only situation where the semantics differs is as follows: Consider a situation where a value of type void Function(...) is assigned to a variable or parameter x whose type annotation is Object Function(...), where the argument types are arbitrary, but such that the assignment is permitted. In that situation, in checked mode, the assignment will fail with the current semantics, because the type of that value is not a subtype of the type of x. The rules in this document preserve that behavior. If we were to consistently treat the type void as Object at run time (as in Dart 2) then this assignment would be permitted (but we would then use voidness preservation to detect and avoid this situation at compile time).

The semantics of checked mode checks involving types where the type void occurs is determined by the semantics of subtype tests, so we do not specify that separately.

An instantiation of a generic class G is malbounded if it contains void as an actual type argument for a formal type parameter, unless that type parameter does not have a bound, or it has a bound which is the built-in class Object, or dynamic.

The treatment of malbounded types follows the current specification.

Static Analysis

For the static analysis, the more-specific-than relation, <<, and the subtype relation, <:, are determined by the same rules as described above for the dynamic semantics.

That is, the type void is considered to be equivalent to the built-in class Object, except when used as a return type, in which case it is effectively considered to be a proper supertype of Object. As mentioned, voidness preservation is a separate analysis which is not specified by this document, but it is intended to be used in the future to track "voidness" in types and flag implicit casts wherein information about voidness may indirectly be lost. With voidness preservation in place, we expect to be able to treat the type void as Object in all cases during subtype checks.

It is a static warning for an expression to have type void, except for the following situations:

  • In an expressionStatement e;, e may have type void.
  • In the initialization and increment expressions of a for-loop, for (e1; e2; e3) {..}, e1 and e3 may have type void.
  • In a typeCast e as T, e may have type void.
  • In a typeTest e is T or e is! T, e may have type void.
  • In a parenthesized expression (e), e may have type void.
  • In a return statement return e;, when the return type of the innermost enclosing function is the type void, e may have type void.

Note that the parenthesized expression itself has type void, so it is again subject to the same constraints. Also note that we may not allow return statements returning an expression of type void in the future, but it is allowed here for backward compatibility.

During bounds checking, it is possible that a bound of a formal type parameter of a generic class or function is statically known to be the type void. In this case, the bound is considered to be the built-in class Object.

Discussion

Expressions derived from typeCast and typeTest do not support void as the target type. We have omitted support for this situation because we consider it to be useless. If void is passed indirectly via a type variable T then e as T, e is T, and e is! T will treat T like Object. In general, the rationale is that the type void admits all values (because it is just Object plus a "static voidness flag"), but values of type void should be discarded.

The treatment of bounds is delicate. We syntactically prohibit void as a bound of a formal type parameter of a generic class or function. It is possible to pass the type void as an actual type argument to a generic class, and that type argument might in turn be used as the bound of another formal type parameter of the class, or of a generic function in the class. It would be possible to make it a compile-time error to pass void as a type argument to a generic class where it will be used as a bound, but this would presumably require a transitive traversal of all generic classes and functions where the corresponding formal type parameter is passed on to other generic classes or functions, which would be highly brittle: A tiny change to a generic class or function could break code far away. So we do not wish to prevent formal type parameter bounds from indirectly becoming the type void. This motivated the decision to treat such a void-valued bound as Object.

Updates

  • July 16th 2017: Reformatted as a gist.

  • June 13th 2017: Compile-time error for using a void value was changed to static warning.

  • June 12th 2017: Grammar changed extensively, to use typeNotVoid rather than voidOrType.

  • June 5th 2017: Added typeCast and typeTest to the locations where void expressions may occur.

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