Summary

The current compiler implements a more expansive semantics for pattern matching than was originally intended. This RFC introduces several mechanisms to reign in these semantics without actually breaking (much, if any) extant code:

  • Introduce a feature-gated attribute #[structural_match] which can be applied to a struct or enum T to indicate that constants of type T can be used within patterns.
  • Have #[derive(Eq)] automatically apply this attribute to the struct or enum that it decorates. Automatically inserted attributes do not require use of feature-gate.
  • When expanding constants of struct or enum type into equivalent patterns, require that the struct or enum type is decorated with #[structural_match]. Constants of builtin types are always expanded.

The practical effect of these changes will be to prevent the use of constants in patterns unless the type of those constants is either a built-in type (like i32 or &str) or a user-defined constant for which Eq is derived (not merely implemented).

To be clear, this #[structural_match] attribute is never intended to be stabilized. Rather, the intention of this change is to restrict constant patterns to those cases that everyone can agree on for now. We can then have further discussion to settle the best semantics in the long term.

Because the compiler currently accepts arbitrary constant patterns, this is technically a backwards incompatible change. However, the design of the RFC means that existing code that uses constant patterns will generally "just work". The justification for this change is that it is clarifying "underspecified language semantics" clause, as described in RFC 1122. A recent crater run with a prototype implementation found 6 regressions.

Note: this was also discussed on an [internals thread]. Major points from that thread are summarized either inline or in alternatives.

[internals thread]: https://internals.rust-lang.org/t/how-to-handle-pattern-matching-on-constants/2846)

Motivation

The compiler currently permits any kind of constant to be used within a pattern. However, the meaning of such a pattern is somewhat controversial: the current semantics implemented by the compiler were adopted in July of 2014 and were never widely discussed nor did they go through the RFC process. Moreover, the discussion at the time was focused primarily on implementation concerns, and overlooked the potential semantic hazards.

Semantic vs structural equality

Consider a program like this one, which references a constant value from within a pattern:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
struct SomeType {
    a: u32,
    b: u32,
}

const SOME_CONSTANT: SomeType = SomeType { a: 22+22, b: 44+44 };

fn test(v: SomeType) {
    match v {
        SOME_CONSTANT => println!("Yes"),
        _ => println!("No"),
    }
}
#}

The question at hand is what do we expect this match to do, precisely? There are two main possibilities: semantic and structural equality.

Semantic equality. Semantic equality states that a pattern SOME_CONSTANT matches a value v if v == SOME_CONSTANT. In other words, the match statement above would be exactly equivalent to an if:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
if v == SOME_CONSTANT {
    println!("Yes")
} else {
    println!("No");
}
#}

Under semantic equality, the program above would not compile, because SomeType does not implement the PartialEq trait.

Structural equality. Under structural equality, v matches the pattern SOME_CONSTANT if all of its fields are (structurally) equal. Primitive types like u32 are structurally equal if they represent the same value (but see below for discussion about floating point types like f32 and f64). This means that the match statement above would be roughly equivalent to the following if (modulo privacy):


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
if v.a == SOME_CONSTANT.a && v.b == SOME_CONSTANT.b {
    println!("Yes")
} else {
    println!("No");
}
#}

Structural equality basically says "two things are structurally equal if their fields are structurally equal". It is sort of equality you would get if everyone used #[derive(PartialEq)] on all types. Note that the equality defined by structural equality is completely distinct from the == operator, which is tied to the PartialEq traits. That is, two values that are semantically unequal could be structurally equal (an example where this might occur is the floating point value NaN).

Current semantics. The compiler's current semantics are basically structural equality, though in the case of floating point numbers they are arguably closer to semantic equality (details below). In particular, when a constant appears in a pattern, the compiler first evaluates that constant to a specific value. So we would reduce the expression:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
const SOME_CONSTANT: SomeType = SomeType { a: 22+22, b: 44+44 };
#}

to the value SomeType { a: 44, b: 88 }. We then expand the pattern SOME_CONSTANT as though you had typed this value in place (well, almost as though, read on for some complications around privacy). Thus the match statement above is equivalent to:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
match v {
    SomeType { a: 44, b: 88 } => println!(Yes),
    _ => println!("No"),
}
#}

Disadvantages of the current approach

Given that the compiler already has a defined semantics, it is reasonable to ask why we might want to change it. There are two main disadvantages:

  1. No abstraction boundary. The current approach does not permit types to define what equality means for themselves (at least not if they can be constructed in a constant).
  2. Scaling to associated constants. The current approach does not permit associated constants or generic integers to be used in a match statement.

Disadvantage: Weakened abstraction bounary

The single biggest concern with structural equality is that it introduces two distinct notions of equality: the == operator, based on the PartialEq trait, and pattern matching, based on a builtin structural recursion. This will cause problems for user-defined types that rely on PartialEq to define equality. Put another way, it is no longer possible for user-defined types to completely define what equality means for themselves (at least not if they can be constructed in a constant). Furthermore, because the builtin structural recursion does not consider privacy, match statements can now be used to observe private fields.

Example: Normalized durations. Consider a simple duration type:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
#[derive(Copy, Clone)]
pub struct Duration {
    pub seconds: u32,
    pub minutes: u32,
}
#}

Let's say that this Duration type wishes to represent a span of time, but it also wishes to preserve whether that time was expressed in seconds or minutes. In other words, 60 seconds and 1 minute are equal values, but we don't want to normalize 60 seconds into 1 minute; perhaps because it comes from user input and we wish to keep things just as the user chose to express it.

We might implement PartialEq like so (actually the PartialEq trait is slightly different, but you get the idea):


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
impl PartialEq for Duration {
    fn eq(&self, other: &Duration) -> bool {
        let s1 = (self.seconds as u64) + (self.minutes as u64 * 60);
        let s2 = (other.seconds as u64) + (other.minutes as u64 * 60);
        s1 == s2
    }
}
#}

Now imagine I have some constants:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
const TWENTY_TWO_SECONDS: Duration = Duration { seconds: 22, minutes: 0 };
const ONE_MINUTE: Duration = Duration { seconds: 0, minutes: 1 };
#}

And I write a match statement using those constants:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
fn detect_some_case_or_other(d: Duration) {
    match d {
        TWENTY_TWO_SECONDS => /* do something */,
        ONE_MINUTE => /* do something else */,
        _ => /* do something else again */,
    }
}
#}

Now this code is, in all probability, buggy. Probably I meant to use the notion of equality that Duration defined, where seconds and minutes are normalized. But that is not the behavior I will see -- instead I will use a pure structural match. What's worse, this means the code will probably work in my local tests, since I like to say "one minute", but it will break when I demo it for my customer, since she prefers to write "60 seconds".

Example: Floating point numbers. Another example is floating point numbers. Consider the case of 0.0 and -0.0: these two values are distinct, but they typically behave the same; so much so that they compare equal (that is, 0.0 == -0.0 is true). So it is likely that code such as:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
match some_computation() {
    0.0 => ...,
    x => ...,
}
#}

did not intend to discriminate between zero and negative zero. In fact, in the compiler today, match will compare 0.0 and -0.0 as equal. We simply do not extend that courtesy to user-defined types.

Example: observing private fields. The current constant expansion code does not consider privacy. In other words, constants are expanded into equivalent patterns, but those patterns may not have been something the user could have typed because of privacy rules. Consider a module like:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
mod foo {
    pub struct Foo { b: bool }
    pub const V1: Foo = Foo { b: true };
    pub const V2: Foo = Foo { b: false };
}
#}

Note that there is an abstraction boundary here: b is a private field. But now if I wrote code from another module that matches on a value of type Foo, that abstraction boundary is pierced:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
fn bar(f: x::Foo) {
    // rustc knows this is exhaustive because if expanded `V1` into
    // equivalent patterns; patterns you could not write by hand!
    match f {
        x::V1 => { /* moreover, now we know that f.b is true */ }
        x::V2 => { /* and here we know it is false */ }
    }
}
#}

Note that, because Foo does not implement PartialEq, just having access to V1 would not otherwise allow us to observe the value of f.b. (And even if Foo did implement PartialEq, that implementation might not read f.b, so we still would not be able to observe its value.)

More examples. There are numerous possible examples here. For example, strings that compare using case-insensitive comparisons, but retain the original case for reference, such as those used in file-systems. Views that extract a subportion of a larger value (and hence which should only compare that subportion). And so forth.

Disadvantage: Scaling to associated constants and generic integers

Rewriting constants into patterns requires that we can fully evaluate the constant at the time of exhaustiveness checking. For associated constants and type-level integers, that is not possible -- we have to wait until monomorphization time. Consider:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
trait SomeTrait {
    const A: bool;
    const B: bool;
}

fn foo<T:SomeTrait>(x: bool) {
    match x {
        T::A => println!("A"),
        T::B => println!("B"),
    }
}

impl SomeTrait for i32 {
    const A: bool = true;
    const B: bool = true;
}

impl SomeTrait for u32 {
    const A: bool = true;
    const B: bool = false;
}
#}

Is this match exhaustive? Does it contain dead code? The answer will depend on whether T=i32 or T=u32, of course.

Advantages of the current approach

However, structural equality also has a number of advantages:

Better optimization. One of the biggest "pros" is that it can potentially enable nice optimization. For example, given constants like the following:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
struct Value { x: u32 }
const V1: Value = Value { x: 0 };
const V2: Value = Value { x: 1 };
const V3: Value = Value { x: 2 };
const V4: Value = Value { x: 3 };
const V5: Value = Value { x: 4 };
#}

and a match pattern like the following:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
match v {
    V1 => ...,
    ...,
    V5 => ...,
}
#}

then, because pattern matching is always a process of structurally extracting values, we can compile this to code that reads the field x (which is a u32) and does an appropriate switch on that value. Semantic equality would potentially force a more conservative compilation strategy.

Better exhautiveness and dead-code checking. Similarly, we can do more thorough exhaustiveness and dead-code checking. So for example if I have a struct like:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
struct Value { field: bool }
const TRUE: Value { field: true };
const FALSE: Value { field: false };
#}

and a match pattern like:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
match v { TRUE => .., FALSE => .. }
#}

then we can prove that this match is exhaustive. Similarly, we can prove that the following match contains dead-code:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
const A: Value { field: true };
match v {
    TRUE => ...,
    A => ...,
}
#}

Again, some of the alternatives might not allow this. (But note the cons, which also raise the question of exhaustiveness checking.)

Nullary variants and constants are (more) equivalent. Currently, there is a sort of equivalence between enum variants and constants, at least with respect to pattern matching. Consider a C-like enum:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
enum Modes {
    Happy = 22,
    Shiny = 44,
    People = 66,
    Holding = 88,
    Hands = 110,
}

const C: Modes = Modes::Happy;
#}

Now if I match against Modes::Happy, that is matching against an enum variant, and under all the proposals I will discuss below, it will check the actual variant of the value being matched (regardless of whether Modes implements PartialEq, which it does not here). On the other hand, if matching against C were to require a PartialEq impl, then it would be illegal. Therefore matching against an enum variant is distinct from matching against a constant.

Detailed design

The goal of this RFC is not to decide between semantic and structural equality. Rather, the goal is to restrict pattern matching to that subset of types where the two variants behave roughly the same.

The structural match attribute

We will introduce an attribute #[structural_match] which can be applied to struct and enum types. Explicit use of this attribute will (naturally) be feature-gated. When converting a constant value into a pattern, if the constant is of struct or enum type, we will check whether this attribute is present on the struct -- if so, we will convert the value as we do today. If not, we will report an error that the struct/enum value cannot be used in a pattern.

Behavior of #[derive(Eq)]

When deriving the Eq trait, we will add the #[structural_match] to the type in question. Attributes added in this way will be exempt from the feature gate.

Exhaustiveness and dead-code checking

We will treat user-defined structs "opaquely" for the purpose of exhaustiveness and dead-code checking. This is required to allow for semantic equality semantics in the future, since in that case we cannot rely on Eq to be correctly implemented (e.g., it could always return false, no matter values are supplied to it, even though it's not supposed to). The impact of this change has not been evaluated but is expected to be very small, since in practice it is rather challenging to successfully make an exhaustive match using user-defined constants, unless they are something trivial like newtype'd booleans (and, in that case, you can update the code to use a more extended pattern).

Similarly, dead code detection should treat constants in a conservative fashion. that is, we can recognize that if there are two arms using the same constant, the second one is dead code, even though it may be that neither will matches (e.g., match foo { C => _, C => _ }). We will make no assumptions about two distinct constants, even if we can concretely evaluate them to the same value.

One unresolved question (described below) is what behavior to adopt for constants that involve no user-defined types. There, the definition of Eq is purely under our control, and we know that it matches structural equality, so we can retain our current aggressive analysis if desired.

Phasing

We will not make this change instantaneously. Rather, for at least one release cycle, users who are pattern matching on struct types that lack #[structural_match] will be warned about imminent breakage.

Drawbacks

This is a breaking change, which means some people might have to change their code. However, that is considered extremely unlikely, because such users would have to be pattern matching on constants that are not comparable for equality (this is likely a bug in any case).

Alternatives

Limit matching to builtin types. An earlier version of this RFC limited matching to builtin types like integers (and tuples of integers). This RFC is a generalization of that which also accommodates struct types that derive Eq.

Embrace current semantics (structural equality). Naturally we could opt to keep the semantics as they are. The advantages and disadvantages are discussed above.

Embrace semantic equality. We could opt to just go straight towards "semantic equality". However, it seems better to reset the semantics to a base point that everyone can agree on, and then extend from that base point. Moreover, adopting semantic equality straight out would be a riskier breaking change, as it could silently change the semantics of existing programs (whereas the current proposal only causes compilation to fail, never changes what an existing program will do).

Discussion thread summary

This section summarizes various points that were raised in the [internals thread] which are related to patterns but didn't seem to fit elsewhere.

Overloaded patterns. Some languages, notably Scala, permit overloading of patterns. This is related to "semantic equality" in that it involves executing custom, user-provided code at compilation time.

Pattern synonyms. Haskell offers a feature called "pattern synonyms" and it was argued that the current treatment of patterns can be viewed as a similar feature. This may be true, but constants-in-patterns are lacking a number of important features from pattern synonyms, such as bindings, as discussed in this response. The author feels that pattern synonyms might be a useful feature, but it would be better to design them as a first-class feature, not adapt constants for that purpose.

Unresolved questions

What about exhaustiveness etc on builtin types? Even if we ignore user-defined types, there are complications around exhaustiveness checking for constants of any kind related to associated constants and other possible future extensions. For example, the following code fails to compile because it contains dead-code:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
const X: u64 = 0;
const Y: u64 = 0;
fn bar(foo: u64) {
    match foo {
        X => { }
        Y => { }
        _ => { }
    }
}
#}

However, we would be unable to perform such an analysis in a more generic context, such as with an associated constant:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
trait Trait {
    const X: u64;
    const Y: u64;
}

fn bar<T:Trait>(foo: u64) {
    match foo {
        T::X => { }
        T::Y => { }
        _ => { }
    }
}
#}

Here, although it may well be that T::X == T::Y, we can't know for sure. So, for consistency, we may wish to treat all constants opaquely regardless of whether we are in a generic context or not. (However, it also seems reasonable to make a "best effort" attempt at exhaustiveness and dead pattern checking, erring on the conservative side in those cases where constants cannot be fully evaluated.)

A different argument in favor of treating all constants opaquely is that the current behavior can leak details that perhaps were intended to be hidden. For example, imagine that I define a fn hash that, given a previous hash and a value, produces a new hash. Because I am lazy and prototyping my system, I decide for now to just ignore the new value and pass the old hash through:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
const fn add_to_hash(prev_hash: u64, _value: u64) -> u64 {
    prev_hash
}
#}

Now I have some consumers of my library and they define a few constants:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
const HASH_OF_ZERO: add_to_hash(0, 0);
const HASH_OF_ONE: add_to_hash(0, 1);
#}

And at some point they write a match statement:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
fn process_hash(h: u64) {
    match h {
        HASH_OF_ZERO => /* do something */,
        HASH_OF_ONE => /* do something else */,
        _ => /* do something else again */,
}
#}

As before, what you get when you compile this is a dead-code error, because the compiler can see that HASH_OF_ZERO and HASH_OF_ONE are the same value.

Part of the solution here might be making "unreachable patterns" a warning and not an error. The author feels this would be a good idea regardless (though not necessarily as part of this RFC). However, that's not a complete solution, since -- at least for bool constants -- the same issues arise if you consider exhaustiveness checking.

On the other hand, it feels very silly for the compiler not to understand that match some_bool { true => ..., false => ... } is exhaustive. Furthermore, there are other ways for the values of constants to "leak out", such as when part of a type like [u8; SOME_CONSTANT] (a point made by both arielb1 and glaebhoerl on the [internals thread]). Therefore, the proper way to address this question is perhaps to consider an explicit form of "abstract constant".