ppx_implicits, implicit arguments and type classes for OCaml via PPX

ppx_implicits provides implicit arguments: omittable function arguments whose default values are automatically generated from their types.
Overloading, type-classes, polymorphic value printers, etc ... can be defined/mimicked with implicit arguments.

ppx_implicits is NOT a compiler modification but a PPX preprocessor. You can play type classes and etc with your official OCaml compiler.

Simple overloading

Let's start with a simple example of overloaded add function which can work both for int and float additions.

Here are two addition functions for int and float in OCaml which we want to overload to one function add:

val (+)  : int   -> int   -> int
val (+.) : float -> float -> float

We first gather them in a single module, a namespace for overload instances:

module Add = struct
  let int   = (+)
  let float = (+.) 

Then, define a type for overloading, the type of implicit argument for add:

type 'a add = ('a -> 'a -> 'a, [%imp Add]) Ppx_implicits.t

In ppx_implicits, (ty, spec) Ppx_implicits.t is the special type for implicit arguments: roughly equivalent with type ty whose default value is determined by spec. In this case, 'a add is equivalent with type 'a -> 'a -> 'a, the most general anti-unifier type of the types of (+) : int -> int -> int and (+.) : float -> float -> float, and its default value is composed using the values defined in a module named Add.

We can define the overloaded add function using this type:

let add : ?d:'a add -> 'a -> 'a -> 'a = Ppx_implicits.imp

val Ppx_implicits.imp : ?d:('a,'spec) Ppx_implicits.t -> 'a is the extractor function of implicit arguments. If the optional argument is applied then it simply gets the value of ty encapsulated in (ty, spec) Ppx_implicits.t. If the optional argument is omitted, the function fails, but it should not happen with ppx_implicits: if omitted, the optional argument of type (ty, spec) Ppx_implicits.t is applied automatically by ppx_implicits, using spec. add function is just an alias of this Ppx_implicits.imp but with a stricter type: if the optional argument of add is omitted, it is auto-applied according to the spec [%imp Add] which means using the values defined in the module named Add.

Here is an example of such auto-application:

let () = assert (add 1 1 = 2)

Ppx_implicits converts the above code to:

let () = assert (add ~d:(Ppx_implicits.embed 1 1 = 2)

where Ppx_implicits.embed encapsulate its argument into (ty,spec) Ppx_implicits.t.

Another exapmle of add used for float addition:

let () = assert (add 1.2 3.4 = 4.6)

This time, ppx_implicits converts to

let () = assert (add ~d:(Ppx_implicits.embed Add.float) 1 1 = 2)

Here is the whole code:

module Add = struct
  let int = (+)
  let float = (+.)

type 'a add = ('a -> 'a -> 'a, [%imp Add]) Ppx_implicits.t

let add : ?d:'a add -> 'a -> 'a -> 'a = Ppx_implicits.imp

let () = assert (add 1 2 = 3)
let () = assert (add 1.2 3.4 = 4.6)


ppx_implicits does not work with OCaml toplevel (REPL). Please use ocamlc or ocamlopt.

This is due to the limitation of PPX framework, which cannot pass big information from preprocessing of one compilation unit to another. In the toplevel, the compilation unit is each toplevel expression and ppx_implicits cannot share important typing information between toplevel expressions. This could be fixed by keeping one PPX process running throughout an REPL session, but it would need significant change of the REPL...

How to build

opam install ppx_implicits. Probably it may be not the latest version.

The development version source code is available at, but it is likely dependent on development versions of other libraries:

$ hg clone
$ cd ppx_implicits
$ cp OMakeroot
$ omake
$ omake install

How to use

Add -package ppx_implicits to your ocamlfind calls.

If you do not use ocamlfind, add -ppx ppx_implicits to your compiler commands.

Type class

Type class is one of the most complicated example of ppx_implicits but everyone loves type classes so let's start with it.

Class declaration

In ppx_implicits, type classes are defined like as follows:

module type Show = sig
  type a 
  val show : a -> string
end [@@typeclass]

This is almost equivalent with the following type class definition in Haskell:

-- Haskell
class Show a where
  show :: a -> String

A module type definition with attribute [@@typeclass] defines a module of the same name. The values declared in the signature are available as values in the module. In the above example, ppx_implicits defines a module named Show with a value show. Its signature is:

module Show : sig
  val show : ?_imp: 'a Show._class -> 'a -> string

Optional arguements labeled with ?_xxx are considered as type class constraints by ppx_implicits. The above signature is almost equivalent with the following Haskell signature:

show :: 'a Show => 'a -> string

Instance declaration

Now let's define instances of Show:

module M = struct

  (* Instance for int *)
  module Int = struct
    type a = int
    let show  = string_of_int
  end [@@instance Show]

  (* Instance for float *)
  module Float = struct
    type a = float
    let show  = string_of_float
  end [@@instance Show]

A module declaration with [@@instance PATH] is to declare an instance of type class PATH. The module must have a signature less general than the module type PATH.

Haskell equivalent of the above code is like as follows:

-- Haskell
module M where

instance Show Int where
  show = string_of_int

-- Haskell has Double instead of Float actually... never mind
instance Show Float where
  show = string_of_float

Use of overloaded values is now usable. Which instances should be used is controlled by open statement:

open M
let () = assert ( 1 = "1")
let () = assert ( 1.2 = "1.2")

Here, open M makes the instances declarations under M available for the use of It is as same as import M controls instance availableness in Haskell:

-- Haskell
import M
import qualified Show

main :: IO ()
main = do
  -- Haskell overloads number literals...
  assert ( (1 :: Int) = "1") $ return ()
  assert ( (1.2 :: Float) = "1.2") $ return ()

Overloading is first class

You can define a new overloaded value from one defined with [@@typeclass]. So far, manual wiring of constraint labels is required, either by explicit applications of dispatch show ?_imp x or by an explicit type annotation:

(* Explicit dispatching by application *)
let show_twice : ?_imp x = show ?_imp x  ^ show ?_imp x

let () = assert (show_twice 1.2 = "1.21.2")


(* Explicit dispatching by type annotation *)
let show_twice' : ?_imp: 'a Show._class -> 'a -> string = fun ?_imp x ->
  show x ^ show x

let () = assert (show_twice' 1.2 = "1.21.2")

They are similar to the following Haskell code:

-- Haskell
show_twice :: Show a => a -> string
show_twice x = show x ++ show x

This explicit wiring is unfortunate but currently necessary in ppx_implicits.

Implicit values

Ok, now let's go back to the basics of ppx_implicits.

[%imp SPEC] expression

Special expression [%imp SPEC] is for implicit values, whose definitions are dependent on the context type of the expression and automatically composed from the values specified by SPEC.

For example, the expression [%imp Show] is expaneded using the values defined under module Show:

module Show = struct
  let int = string_of_int
  let float = string_of_float

let () = assert ([%imp Show] 1 = "1")   
(* [%imp Show] is expanded to *)

let () = assert ([%imp Show] 1.0 = "1.")
(* [%imp Show] is expanded to Show.float *)

The values for the composition are called instances. Instances can be combined recursively:

module Show2 = struct
  include Show (* int and float are available *)

  let list ~_d:show xs = "[ " ^ String.concat "; " ( show xs) ^ " ]"
  (* currently a label starts with '_' is required to express instance dependencies *)

let () = assert ([%imp Show2] [ [ 1 ]; [ 2; 3 ]; [ 4; 5; 6 ] ] = "[ [ 1 ]; [ 2; 3 ]; [ 4; 5; 6 ] ]")
(* [%imp Show] is expanded to Show2.(list ~_d:(list ~_d: int)) *)

The special label which starts with _ attached to the argument of Show2.list denotes that the value is actually a higher order instance. Such labels of the form _LABEL or ?_LABEL are called constraint labels. If you know Haskell, constraint labels correspond with Haskell's special arrow for type classes: C => t.

Instance search policies

The spec is not a simple module path but forms a small DSL. For example, you can list policies by , to accumulate instances:

module Show3 = struct
  let twin ~_d (x,y) = "(" ^ _d x ^ ", " ^ _d y ^ ")" 

let () = assert ([%imp Show, Show3] ([ 1 ], [ 2; 3 ]) = "([ 1 ], [ 2; 3 ])")
(* [%imp Show] is expanded to Show3.list ~_d:(Show3.twin ~_d: *)

You can also write opened PATH to specify multiple modules at once which exist just under the opened module paths named PATH. This is like Haskell's import to specify class instances:

module MInt = struct
  module Show = struct
    let int = string_of_int

module MFloat = struct
  module Show = struct
    let float = string_of_float

module MList = struct
  module Show = struct
    let list ~_d:show xs = "[ " ^ String.concat "; " ( show xs) ^ " ]"

open MInt
open MFloat
open MList

let () = assert ([%imp opened Show] [ 1 ] = "[ 1 ]") (* MInt.Show, MFloat.Show and MList.Show are the instance space *)
(* Here, [%imp opened Show] is equivalent with [%imp MInt.Show, MFloat.Show, MList.Show] *)

Type dependent instance spec

With some conditions, we can simply write [%imp] and omit its spec. The spec of [%imp] is type-dependent: it is deduced from the type information of the expression.

  • The type of [%imp] must be (t1,..,tn) or (t1,...,tn) option or their alias, so that the spec can be found in module PATH.
  • The module PATH must have a special declaration [%%imp SPEC] for [%imp] expressions of a type related with PATH.

For example, if we have

module M = struct
  type 'a t = ...
  [%%imp SPEC]

and if an expression [%imp] has a type int M.t, it is equivalent with [%imp SPEC].

Let's use this [%imp] in an actual example:

module M = struct
  type 'a t = Packed of 'a -> string
  [%%imp opened Show]

let show (M.Packed x) = x

(* We use modules defined above *)
open MInt
open MFloat
open MList

let () = assert (show [%imp] [ 1 ] = "[ 1 ]")
(* [%imp] has the type int list M.t.
   Module M has [%%imp opened Show]
   Therefore this [%imp] is equivalent with [%imp opened Show] *)

We cannot define the type M.t simply as type 'a t = 'a -> string, since M.t must not be an alias. This is essential to associate data types and policies together.

The form of the type of [%imp] is not only (t1,...,tn) but also can be (t1,...,tn) option. This is for efficient handling implicit parameters explained later.

Default instances for type dependent [%imp]

If [%imp]'s spec is defined in a module M, and if this module M has a module Instances, then the values defined in this M.Instances are considered as instances of the implicit value.

Deriving value implicits

You can let-define implicit values from other implicit values:

let show (M.Packed x) = x
let show_twice imp x = show imp x ^ show imp x

let () = assert (show_twice [%imp] 1 = "11")

show_twice function takes an implicit paramter imp and delivers it to its internal uses of show. The type information of the first argument of show_twice is as same as the one of the first argument of show, 'a M.t. Therefore show_twice [%imp] 1 works as intended using the spec defined in module M.

This is classic but requires explicit code of implicit value dispatch. Actually you can let ppx_implicits to wire up this dispatch code more easily by explicitly writing some types:

let show_twice ~_imp:(_:'a M.t) (x : 'a) = show [%imp] x ^ show [%imp] x

When a function takes an argument with a constraint label (_LABEL or ?_LABEL), the argument value is automatically added to the instance search spaces for all the occurrences of [%imp] and [%imp SPEC] in its scope. In the above example, the argument labeled _imp has type 'a M.t. The argument value is an instance of implicit values for 'a M.t inside the body of this function abstraction. The uses of [%imp] in the function body have the same type 'a M.t, therefore they are expanded to the argument value and the whole code becomes as follows:

let show_twice ~_imp:(imp:'a M.t) (x : 'a) = show imp x ^ show imp x

which is equivalent with the first example of show_twice with the explicit dispatch.

Implicit parameters as optional parameter

Optional constraint labels ?_LABEL: are as same as non-optional constraint labels ~_LABEL: but they are to provide implicit parameters. Implicit parameters can be omitted at function applications. If omitted, ppx_implicits applies Some [%imp] instead:

(* Assume module M, MInt, MFloat and MList defined above are available *)

let show ?_imp = match _imp with
  | None -> assert false
  | Some (M.Packed x) -> x

let () = assert (show 1 = "1")
(* ?_imp is omitted and it is equivalent with  show ?_imp:None 1
   ppx_implicits replaces it by                show ?_imp:(Some [%imp]) 1
   which is equivalent with                    show ?_imp:(Some [%imp opened Show]) 1
   finally it is expanded to                   show ?_imp:(Some Show (M.Packed ( 1

let () = assert (show 1.2 = "1.2")
(* ?_imp is omitted and it is equivalent with  show ?_imp:None 1.2
   ppx_implicits replaces it by                show ?_imp:(Some [%imp]) 1.2
   which is equivalent with                    show ?_imp:(Some [%imp opened Show]) 1.2
   finally it is expanded to                   show ?_imp:(Some Show (M.Packed (MFloat.Show.float))) 1

Now show is overloaded!

Back to type class

Implicit policies

Expression [%imp SPEC] has SPEC parameter to specify the instance search space for the implicit value. SPEC is a comma separated list of sub-policies p1, .., pn

Type dependent spec

When [%imp] has no written policies, its spec is deduced from its static typing:

  • [%imp] must have a type whose expanded form is either ...' or... optionfor some moduleM`.
  • Module M must have a declaration [%%imp SPEC]. Under these conditions [%imp] is equilvalent with [%imp SPEC].

[%imp related] gathers instances from the modules appear in its type. For example if [%imp related] has a type 'a M.t N.t -> O.t option then its instances are obtained from module M, N and O.

Note that types are unaliased in the current typing environment to get the module names for instances. For example if M.t is defined as type t = P.t * Q.t then module M is not considered as instance space but P and Q (if P.t and Q.t are not alias.).

aggressive(p) spec

By default, higher order implicit values have constraint labels ~_LABEL and ?_LABEL to receive instances. For example:

val show_list_imp : ~_imp:('a -> string)  -> 'a -> string

here, ~_imp is the sole constraint of the function show_list_imp.

Spec aggressive removes this limitation: any function arrow can be treated as constraint arrows. This is useful to use existing functions as implicit value instances without changing types.

Suppose we have a function show_list of the following type:

val show_list : ('a -> string) -> 'a list -> string

If this function show_list is in an aggressive instance space, the function's arrows are treated as constraint arrows: the value is treated as if it had the following types:

val show_list : ~_imp:('a -> string) -> 'a list -> string
val show_list : ~_imp:('a -> string) -> ~_imp2:'a list -> string

Note that one value can provide more than one instances. For example, show_list has two ways to be used as intances. The first one is useful to provide implicit show function combining other show_xxx functions, but the second one is probably useless.

name "rex" p spec

Spec name "rex" p filters the instances obtained from the spec p by the regular expression "rex". The regular expression must be one of PCRE. name is useful to restrict instances obtained by related which tends to collect undesired values.

Recursion limit

To assure the type inference of implicit values, recursive uses of instances are limited: if one instance x is composed like x ~_imp:x ..., then the type of the internal use must be strictly smaller than the one of the outer use.