Refine the unguarded-escape-hatch from RFC 1238 (nonparametric dropck) so that instead of a single attribute side-stepping all dropck constraints for a type’s destructor, we instead have a more focused system that specifies exactly which type and/or lifetime parameters the destructor is guaranteed not to access.

Specifically, this RFC proposes adding the capability to attach attributes to the binding sites for generic parameters (i.e. lifetime and type parameters). Atop that capability, this RFC proposes adding a #[may_dangle] attribute that indicates that a given lifetime or type holds data that must not be accessed during the dynamic extent of that drop invocation.

As a side-effect, enable adding attributes to the formal declarations of generic type and lifetime parameters.

The proposal in this RFC is intended as a temporary solution (along the lines of #[fundamental] and will not be stabilized as-is. Instead, we anticipate a more comprehensive approach to be proposed in a follow-up RFC.


The unguarded escape hatch (UGEH) from RFC 1238 is a blunt instrument: when you use unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params, it is asserting that your destructor does not access borrowed data whose type includes any lifetime or type parameter of the type.

For example, the current destructor for RawVec<T> (in liballoc/) looks like this:

impl<T> Drop for RawVec<T> {
    /// Frees the memory owned by the RawVec *without* trying to Drop its contents.
    fn drop(&mut self) {
        [... free memory using global system allocator ...]

The above is sound today, because the above destructor does not call any methods that can access borrowed data in the values of type T, and so we do not need to enforce the drop-ordering constraints imposed when you leave out the unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params attribute.

While the above attribute suffices for many use cases today, it is not fine-grain enough for other cases of interest. In particular, it cannot express that the destructor will not access borrowed data behind a subset of the type parameters.

Here are two concrete examples of where the need for this arises:

Example: CheckedHashMap

The original Sound Generic Drop proposal (RFC 769) had an appendix with an example of a CheckedHashMap<K, V> type that called the hashcode method for all of the keys in the map in its destructor. This is clearly a type where we cannot claim that we do not access borrowed data potentially hidden behind K, so it would be unsound to use the blunt unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params attribute on this type.

However, the values of the V parameter to CheckedHashMap are, in all likelihood, not accessed by the CheckedHashMap destructor. If that is the case, then it should be sound to instantiate V with a type that contains references to other parts of the map (e.g., references to the keys or to other values in the map). However, we cannot express this today: There is no way to say that the CheckedHashMap will not access borrowed data that is behind just V.

Example: Vec<T, A:Allocator=DefaultAllocator>

The Rust developers have been talking for a long time about adding an Allocator trait that would allow users to override the allocator used for the backing storage of collection types like Vec and HashMap.

For example, we would like to generalize the RawVec given above as follows:

pub struct RawVec<T, A:Allocator=DefaultAllocator> {
    ptr: Unique<T>,
    cap: usize,
    alloc: A,

impl<T, A:Allocator> Drop for RawVec<T, A> {
    /// Frees the memory owned by the RawVec *without* trying to Drop its contents.
    fn drop(&mut self) {
        [... free memory using self.alloc ...]

However, we cannot soundly add an allocator parameter to a collection that today uses the unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params UGEH attribute in the destructor that deallocates, because that blunt instrument would allow someone to write this:

// (`ArenaAllocator`, when dropped, automatically frees its allocated blocks)

// (Usual pattern for assigning same extent to `v` and `a`.)
let (v, a): (Vec<Stuff, &ArenaAllocator>, ArenaAllocator);

a = ArenaAllocator::new();
v = Vec::with_allocator(&a);

... v.push(stuff) ...

// at end of scope, `a` may be dropped before `v`, invalidating
// soundness of subsequent invocation of destructor for `v` (because
// that would try to free buffer of `v` via `v.buf.alloc` (== `&a`)).

The only way today to disallow the above unsound code would be to remove unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params from RawVec/ Vec, which would break other code (for example, code using Vec as the backing storage for cyclic graph structures).

Detailed design

First off: The proposal in this RFC is intended as a temporary solution (along the lines of #[fundamental] and will not be stabilized as-is. Instead, we anticipate a more comprehensive approach to be proposed in a follow-up RFC.

Having said that, here is the proposed short-term solution:

  1. Add the ability to attach attributes to syntax that binds formal lifetime or type parameters. For the purposes of this RFC, the only place in the syntax that requires such attributes are impl blocks, as in impl<T> Drop for Type<T> { ... }

  2. Add a new fine-grained attribute, may_dangle, which is attached to the binding sites for lifetime or type parameters on an Drop implementation. This RFC will sometimes call this attribute the “eyepatch”, since it does not make dropck totally blind; just blind on one “side”.

  3. Add a new requirement that any Drop implementation that uses the #[may_dangle] attribute must be declared as an unsafe impl. This reflects the fact that such Drop implementations have an additional constraint on their behavior (namely that they cannot access certain kinds of data) that will not be verified by the compiler and thus must be verified by the programmer.

  4. Remove unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params, since all uses of it should be expressible via #[may_dangle].

Attributes on lifetime or type parameters

This is a simple extension to the syntax.

It is guarded by the feature gate generic_param_attrs.

Constructions like the following will now become legal.

Example of eyepatch attribute on a single type parameter:

unsafe impl<'a, #[may_dangle] X, Y> Drop for Foo<'a, X, Y> {

Example of eyepatch attribute on a lifetime parameter:

unsafe impl<#[may_dangle] 'a, X, Y> Drop for Bar<'a, X, Y> {

Example of eyepatch attribute on multiple parameters:

unsafe impl<#[may_dangle] 'a, X, #[may_dangle] Y> Drop for Baz<'a, X, Y> {

These attributes are only written next to the formal binding sites for the generic parameters. The usage sites, points which refer back to the parameters, continue to disallow the use of attributes.

So while this is legal syntax:

unsafe impl<'a, #[may_dangle] X, Y> Drop for Foo<'a, X, Y> {

the follow would be illegal syntax (at least for now):

unsafe impl<'a, X, Y> Drop for Foo<'a, #[may_dangle] X, Y> {

The “eyepatch” attribute

Add a new attribute, #[may_dangle] (the “eyepatch”).

It is guarded by the feature gate dropck_eyepatch.

The eyepatch is similar to unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params: it is part of the Drop implementation, and it is meant to assert that a destructor is guaranteed not to access certain kinds of data accessible via self.

The main difference is that the eyepatch is applied to a single generic parameter: #[may_dangle] ARG. This specifies exactly what the destructor is blind to (i.e., what will dropck treat as inaccessible from the destructor for this type).

There are two things one can supply as the ARG for a given eyepatch: one of the type parameters for the type, or one of the lifetime parameters for the type.

When used on a type, e.g. #[may_dangle] T, the programmer is asserting the only uses of values of that type will be to move or drop them. Thus, no fields will be accessed nor methods called on values of such a type (apart from any access performed by the destructor for the type when the values are dropped). This ensures that no dangling references (such as when T is instantiated with &'a u32) are ever accessed in the scenario where 'a has the same lifetime as the value being currently destroyed (and thus the precise order of destruction between the two is unknown to the compiler).

When used on a lifetime, e.g. #[may_dangle] 'a, the programmer is asserting that no data behind a reference of lifetime 'a will be accessed by the destructor. Thus, no fields will be accessed nor methods called on values of type &'a Struct, ensuring that again no dangling references are ever accessed by the destructor.

Require unsafe on Drop implementations using the eyepatch

The final detail is to add an additional check to the compiler to ensure that any use of #[may_dangle] on a Drop implementation imposes a requirement that that implementation block use unsafe impl.2

This reflects the fact that use of #[may_dangle] is a programmer-provided assertion about the behavior of the Drop implementation that must be valided manually by the programmer. It is analogous to other uses of unsafe impl (apart from the fact that the Drop trait itself is not an unsafe trait).

Examples adapted from the Rustonomicon

So, adapting some examples from the Rustonomicon Drop Check chapter, we would be able to write the following.

Example of eyepatch on a lifetime parameter::

struct InspectorA<'a>(&'a u8, &'static str);

unsafe impl<#[may_dangle] 'a> Drop for InspectorA<'a> {
    fn drop(&mut self) {
        println!("InspectorA(_, {}) knows when *not* to inspect.", self.1);

Example of eyepatch on a type parameter:

use std::fmt;

struct InspectorB<T: fmt::Display>(T, &'static str);

unsafe impl<#[may_dangle] T: fmt::Display> Drop for InspectorB<T> {
    fn drop(&mut self) {
        println!("InspectorB(_, {}) knows when *not* to inspect.", self.1);

Both of the above two examples are much the same as if we had used the old unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params UGEH attribute.

Example: RawVec

To generalize RawVec from the motivation with an Allocator correctly (that is, soundly and without breaking existing code), we would now write:

unsafe impl<#[may_dangle]T, A:Allocator> Drop for RawVec<T, A> {
    /// Frees the memory owned by the RawVec *without* trying to Drop its contents.
    fn drop(&mut self) {
        [... free memory using self.alloc ...]

The use of #[may_dangle] T here asserts that even though the destructor may access borrowed data through A (and thus dropck must impose drop-ordering constraints for lifetimes occurring in the type of A), the developer is guaranteeing that no access to borrowed data will occur via the type T.

The latter is not expressible today even with unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params; there is no way to say that a type will not access T in its destructor while also ensuring the proper drop-ordering relationship between RawVec<T, A> and A.

Example; Multiple Lifetimes

Example: The above InspectorA carried a &'static str that was always safe to access from the destructor.

If we wanted to generalize this type a bit, we might write:

struct InspectorC<'a,'b,'c>(&'a str, &'b str, &'c str);

unsafe impl<#[may_dangle] 'a, 'b, #[may_dangle] 'c> Drop for InspectorC<'a,'b,'c> {
    fn drop(&mut self) {
        println!("InspectorA(_, {}, _) knows when *not* to inspect.", self.1);

This type, like InspectorA, is careful to only access the &str that it holds in its destructor; but now the borrowed string slice does not have 'static lifetime, so we must make sure that we do not claim that we are blind to its lifetime ('b).

(This example also illustrates that one can attach multiple instances of the eyepatch attribute to a destructor, each with a distinct input for its ARG.)

Given the definition above, this code will compile and run properly:

fn this_will_work() {
    let b; // ensure that `b` strictly outlives `i`.
    let (i,a,c);
    a = format!("a");
    b = format!("b");
    c = format!("c");
    i = InspectorC(a, b, c);

while this code will be rejected by the compiler:

fn this_will_not_work() {
    let (a,c);
    let (i,b); // OOPS: `b` not guaranteed to survive for `i`'s destructor.
    a = format!("a");
    b = format!("b");
    c = format!("c");
    i = InspectorC(a, b, c);


How does this work, you might ask?

The idea is actually simple: the dropck rule stays mostly the same, except for a small twist.

The Drop-Check rule at this point essentially says:

if the type of v owns data of type D, where

(1.) the impl Drop for D is either type-parametric, or lifetime-parametric over 'a, and (2.) the structure of D can reach a reference of type &'a _,

then 'a must strictly outlive the scope of v

The main change we want to make is to the second condition. Instead of just saying “the structure of D can reach a reference of type &'a _”, we want first to replace eyepatched lifetimes and types within D with 'static and (), respectively. Call this revised type patched(D).

Then the new condition is:

(2.) the structure of patched(D) can reach a reference of type &'a _,

Everything else is the same.

In particular, the patching substitution is only applied with respect to a particular destructor. Just because Vec<T> is blind to T does not mean that we will ignore the actual type instantiated at T in terms of drop-ordering constraints.

For example, in Vec<InspectorC<'a,'name,'c>>, even though Vec itself is blind to the whole type InspectorC<'a, 'name, 'c> when we are considering the impl Drop for Vec, we still honor the constraint that 'name must strictly outlive the Vec (because we continue to consider all D that is data owned by a value v, including when D == InspectorC<'a,'name,'c>).


pnkfelix has implemented a proof-of-concept implementation of the #[may_dangle] attribute. It uses the substitution machinery we already have in the compiler to express the semantics above.

Limitations of prototype (not part of design)

Here we note a few limitations of the current prototype. These limitations are not being proposed as part of the specification of the feature.

2. The compiler does not yet enforce (or even allow) the use of unsafe impl for Drop implementations that use the #[may_dangle] attribute.

Fixing the above limitations should just be a matter of engineering, not a fundamental hurdle to overcome in the feature’s design in the context of the language.



This attribute, like the original unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params UGEH attribute, is ugly.

Unchecked assertions boo

It would be nicer if to actually change the language in a way where we could check the assertions being made by the programmer, rather than trusting them. (pnkfelix has some thoughts on this, which are mostly reflected in what he wrote in the RFC 1238 alternatives.)


Note: The alternatives section for this RFC is particularly note-worthy because the ideas here may serve as the basis for a more comprehensive long-term approach.

Make dropck “see again” via (focused) where-clauses

The idea is that we keep the UGEH attribute, blunt hammer that it is. You first opt out of the dropck ordering constraints via that, and then you add back in ordering constraints via where clauses.

(The ordering constraints in question would normally be implied by the dropck analysis; the point is that UGEH is opting out of that analysis, and so we are now adding them back in.)

Here is the allocator example expressed in this fashion:

impl<T, A:Allocator> Drop for RawVec<T, A> {
    /// Frees the memory owned by the RawVec *without* trying to Drop its contents.
    fn drop<'s>(&'s mut self) where A: 's {
    //                        ~~~~~~~~~~~
    //                             |
    //                             |
    // This constraint (that `A` outlives `'s`), and other conditions
    // relating `'s` and `Self` are normally implied by Rust's type
    // system, but `unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params` opts out of
    // enforcing them. This `where`-clause is opting back into *just*
    // the `A:'s` again.
    // Note we are *still* opting out of `T: 's` via
    // `unsafe_destructor_blind_to_params`, and thus our overall
    // goal (of not breaking code that relies on `T` not having to
    // survive the destructor call) is accomplished.

        [... free memory using self.alloc ...]

This approach, if we can make it work, seems fine to me. It certainly avoids a number of problems that the eyepatch attribute has.

Advantages of fn-drop-with-where-clauses:

  • Since the eyepatch attribute is to be limited to type and lifetime parameters, this approach is more expressive, since it would allow one to put type-projections into the constraints.

Drawbacks of fn-drop-with-where-clauses:

  • Its not 100% clear what our implementation strategy will be for it, while the eyepatch attribute does have a prototype.

    I actually do not give this drawback much weight; resolving this may be merely a matter of just trying to do it: e.g., build up the set of where-clauses when we make the ADT’s representations, and then have dropck insert instantiate and insert them as needed.

  • It might have the wrong ergonomics for developers: It seems bad to have the blunt hammer introduce all sorts of potential unsoundness, and rely on the developer to keep the set of where-clauses on the fn drop up to date.

    This would be a pretty bad drawback, if the language and compiler were to stagnate. But my intention/goal is to eventually put in a sound compiler analysis. In other words, in the future, I will be more concerned about the ergonomics of the code that uses the sound analysis. I will not be concerned about “gotcha’s” associated with the UGEH escape hatch.

(The most important thing I want to convey is that I believe that both the eyepatch attribute and fn-drop-with-where-clauses are capable of resolving the real issues that I face today, and I would be happy for either proposal to be accepted.)

Wait for proper parametricity

As alluded to in the drawbacks, in principle we could provide similar expressiveness to that offered by the eyepatch (which is acting as a fine-grained escape hatch from dropck) by instead offering some language extension where the compiler would actually analyze the code based on programmer annotations indicating which types and lifetimes are not used by a function.

In my opinion I am of two minds on this (but they are both in favor this RFC rather than waiting for a sound compiler analysis):

  1. We will always need an escape hatch. The programmer will always need a way to assert something that she knows to be true, even if the compiler cannot prove it. (A simple example: Calling a third-party API that has not yet added the necessary annotations.)

    This RFC is proposing that we keep an escape hatch, but we make it more expressive.

  2. If we eventually do have a sound compiler analysis, I see the compiler changes and library annotations suggested by this RFC as being in line with what that compiler analysis would end up using anyway. In other words: Assume we did add some way for the programmer to write that T is parametric (e.g. T: ?Special in the RFC 1238 alternatives). Even then, we would still need the compiler changes suggested by this RFC, and at that point hopefully the task would be for the programmer to mechanically replace occurrences of #[may_dangle] T with T: ?Special (and then see if the library builds).

    In other words, I see the form suggested by this RFC as being a step towards a proper analysis, in the sense that it is getting programmers used to thinking about the individual parameters and their relationship with the container, rather than just reasoning about the container on its own without any consideration of each type/lifetime parameter.

Do nothing

If we do nothing, then we cannot add Vec<T, A:Allocator> soundly.

Unresolved questions

Is the definition of the drop-check rule sound with this patched(D) variant? (We have not proven any previous variation of the rule sound; I think it would be an interesting student project though.)