Summary

Add the ability to create named existential types and support impl Trait in let, const, and static declarations.


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
// existential types
existential type Adder: Fn(usize) -> usize;
fn adder(a: usize) -> Adder {
    |b| a + b
}

// existential type in associated type position:
struct MyType;
impl Iterator for MyType {
    existential type Item: Debug;
    fn next(&mut self) -> Option<Self::Item> {
        Some("Another item!")
    }
}

// `impl Trait` in `let`, `const`, and `static`:

const ADD_ONE: impl Fn(usize) -> usize = |x| x + 1;
static MAYBE_PRINT: Option<impl Fn(usize)> = Some(|x| println!("{}", x));
fn my_func() {
    let iter: impl Iterator<Item = i32> = (0..5).map(|x| x * 5);
    ...
}
#}

Motivation

This RFC proposes two expansions to Rust's impl Trait feature. impl Trait, first introduced in RFC 1522, allows functions to return types which implement a given trait, but whose concrete type remains anonymous. impl Trait was expanded upon in RFC 1951, which added impl Trait to argument position and resolved questions around syntax and parameter scoping. In its current form, the feature makes it possible for functions to return unnameable or complex types such as closures and iterator combinators. impl Trait also allows library authors to hide the concrete type returned by a function, making it possible to change the return type later on.

However, the current feature has some severe limitations. Right now, it isn't possible to return an impl Trait type from a trait implementation. This is a huge restriction which this RFC fixes by making it possible to create a named existential type:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
// `impl Trait` in traits:
struct MyStruct;
impl Iterator for MyStruct {

    // Here we can declare an associated type whose concrete type is hidden
    // to other modules.
    //
    // External users only know that `Item` implements the `Debug` trait.
    existential type Item: Debug;

    fn next(&mut self) -> Option<Self::Item> {
        Some("hello")
    }
}
#}

This syntax allows us to declare multiple items which refer to the same existential type:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
// Type `Foo` refers to a type that implements the `Debug` trait.
// The concrete type to which `Foo` refers is inferred from this module,
// and this concrete type is hidden from outer modules (but not submodules).
pub existential type Foo: Debug;

const FOO: Foo = 5;

// This function can be used by outer modules to manufacture an instance of
// `Foo`. Other modules don't know the concrete type of `Foo`,
// so they can't make their own `Foo`s.
pub fn get_foo() -> Foo {
    5
}

// We know that the argument and return value of `get_larger_foo` must be the
// same type as is returned from `get_foo`.
pub fn get_larger_foo(x: Foo) -> Foo {
    let x: i32 = x;
    x + 10
}

// Since we know that all `Foo`s have the same (hidden) concrete type, we can
// write a function which returns `Foo`s acquired from different places.
fn one_of_the_foos(which: usize) -> Foo {
    match which {
        0 => FOO,
        1 => foo1(),
        2 => foo2(),
        3 => opt_foo().unwrap(),

        // It also allows us to make recursive calls to functions with an
        // `impl Trait` return type:
        x => one_of_the_foos(x - 4),
    }
}
#}

Separately, this RFC adds the ability to store an impl Trait type in a let, const or static. This makes const and static declarations more concise, and makes it possible to store types such as closures or iterator combinators in consts and statics.

In a future world where const fn has been expanded to trait functions, one could imagine iterator constants such as this:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
const THREES: impl Iterator<Item = i32> = (0..).map(|x| x * 3);
#}

Since the type of THREES contains a closure, it is impossible to write down. The const/static type annotation elison RFC has suggested one possible solution. That RFC proposes to let users omit the types of consts and staticss. However, in some cases, completely omitting the types of const and static items could make it harder to tell what sort of value is being stored in a const or static. Allowing impl Trait in consts and statics would resolve the unnameable type issue while still allowing users to provide some information about the type.

Guide-Level Explanation

Guide: impl Trait in let, const and static:

impl Trait can be used in let, const, and static declarations, like this:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
use std::fmt::Display;

let displayable: impl Display = "Hello, world!";
println!("{}", displayable);
#}

Declaring a variable of type impl Trait will hide its concrete type. This is useful for declaring a value which implements a trait, but whose concrete type might change later on. In our example above, this means that, while we can "display" the value of displayable, the concrete type &str is hidden:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
use std::fmt::Display;

// Without `impl Trait`:
const DISPLAYABLE: &str = "Hello, world!";
fn display() {
    println!("{}", DISPLAYABLE);
    assert_eq!(DISPLAYABLE.len(), 5);
}

// With `impl Trait`:
const DISPLAYABLE: impl Display = "Hello, world!";

fn display() {
    // We know `DISPLAYABLE` implements `Display`.
    println!("{}", DISPLAYABLE);

    // ERROR: no method `len` on `impl Display`
    // We don't know the concrete type of `DISPLAYABLE`,
    // so we don't know that it has a `len` method.
    assert_eq!(DISPLAYABLE.len(), 5);
}
#}

impl Trait declarations are also useful when declaring constants or static with types that are impossible to name, like closures:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
// Without `impl Trait`, we can't declare this constant because we can't
// write down the type of the closure.
const MY_CLOSURE: ??? = |x| x + 1;

// With `impl Trait`:
const MY_CLOSURE: impl Fn(i32) -> i32 = |x| x + 1;
#}

Finally, note that impl Trait let declarations hide the concrete types of local variables:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let displayable: impl Display = "Hello, world!";

// We know `displayable` implements `Display`.
println!("{}", displayable);

// ERROR: no method `len` on `impl Display`
// We don't know the concrete type of `displayable`,
// so we don't know that it has a `len` method.
assert_eq!(displayable.len(), 5);
#}

At first glance, this behavior doesn't seem particularly useful. Indeed, impl Trait in let bindings exists mostly for consistency with consts and statics. However, it can be useful for documenting the specific ways in which a variable is used. It can also be used to provide better error messages for complex, nested types:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
// Without `impl Trait`:
let x = (0..100).map(|x| x * 3).filter(|x| x % 5 == 0);

// ERROR: no method named `bogus_missing_method` found for type
// `std::iter::Filter<std::iter::Map<std::ops::Range<{integer}>, [closure@src/main.rs:2:26: 2:35]>, [closure@src/main.rs:2:44: 2:58]>` in the current scope
x.bogus_missing_method();

// With `impl Trait`:
let x: impl Iterator<Item = i32> = (0..100).map(|x| x * 3).filter(|x| x % 5);

// ERROR: no method named `bogus_missing_method` found for type
// `impl std::iter::Iterator` in the current scope
x.bogus_missing_method();
#}

Guide: Existential types

Rust allows users to declare existential types. An existential type allows you to give a name to a type without revealing exactly what type is being used.


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
use std::fmt::Debug;

existential type Foo: Debug;

fn foo() -> Foo {
    5i32
}
#}

In the example above, Foo refers to i32, similar to a type alias. However, unlike a normal type alias, the concrete type of Foo is hidden outside of the module. Outside the module, the only thing that is known about Foo is that it implements the traits that appear in its declaration (e.g. Debug in existential type Foo: Debug;). If a user outside the module tries to use a Foo as an i32, they will see an error:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
use std::fmt::Debug;

mod my_mod {
  pub existential type Foo: Debug;

  pub fn foo() -> Foo {
      5i32
  }

  pub fn use_foo_inside_mod() -> Foo {
      // Creates a variable `x` of type `i32`, which is equal to type `Foo`
      let x: i32 = foo();
      x + 5
  }
}

fn use_foo_outside_mod() {
    // Creates a variable `x` of type `Foo`, which is only known to implement `Debug`
    let x = my_mod::foo();

    // Because we're outside `my_mod`, the user cannot determine the type of `Foo`.
    let y: i32 = my_mod::foo(); // ERROR: expected type `i32`, found existential type `Foo`

    // However, the user can use its `Debug` impl:
    println!("{:?}", x);
}
#}

This makes it possible to write modules that hide their concrete types from the outside world, allowing them to change implementation details without affecting consumers of their API.

Note that it is sometimes necessary to manually specify the concrete type of an existential type, like in let x: i32 = foo(); above. This aids the function's ability to locally infer the concrete type of Foo.

One particularly noteworthy use of existential types is in trait implementations. With this feature, we can declare associated types as follows:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
struct MyType;
impl Iterator for MyType {
    existential type Item: Debug;
    fn next(&mut self) -> Option<Self::Item> {
        Some("Another item!")
    }
}
#}

In this trait implementation, we've declared that the item returned by our iterator implements Debug, but we've kept its concrete type (&'static str) hidden from the outside world.

We can even use this feature to specify unnameable associated types, such as closures:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
struct MyType;
impl Iterator for MyType {
    existential type Item: Fn(i32) -> i32;
    fn next(&mut self) -> Option<Self::Item> {
        Some(|x| x + 5)
    }
}
#}

Existential types can also be used to reference unnameable types in a struct definition:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
existential type Foo: Debug;
fn foo() -> Foo { 5i32 }

struct ContainsFoo {
    some_foo: Foo
}
#}

It's also possible to write generic existential types:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
#[derive(Debug)]
struct MyStruct<T: Debug> {
    inner: T
};

existential type Foo<T>: Debug;

fn get_foo<T: Debug>(x: T) -> Foo<T> {
    MyStruct {
        inner: x
    }
}
#}

Similarly to impl Trait under RFC 1951, existential type implicitly captures all generic type parameters in scope. In practice, this means that existential associated types may contain generic parameters from their impl:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
struct MyStruct;
trait Foo<T> {
    type Bar;
    fn bar() -> Bar;
}

impl<T> Foo<T> for MyStruct {
    existential type Bar: Trait;
    fn bar() -> Self::Bar {
        ...
        // Returns some type MyBar<T>
    }
}
#}

However, as in 1951, lifetime parameters must be explicitly annotated.

Reference-Level Explanation

Reference: impl Trait in let, const and static:

The rules for impl Trait values in let, const, and static declarations work mostly the same as impl Trait return values as specified in RFC 1951.

These values hide their concrete type and can only be used as a value which is known to implement the specified traits. They inherit any type parameters in scope. One difference from impl Trait return types is that they also inherit any lifetime parameters in scope. This is necessary in order for let bindings to use impl Trait. let bindings often contain references which last for anonymous scope-based lifetimes, and annotating these lifetimes manually would be impossible.

Reference: Existential Types

Existential types are similar to normal type aliases, except that their concrete type is determined from the scope in which they are defined (usually a module or a trait impl). For example, the following code has to examine the body of foo in order to determine that the concrete type of Foo is i32:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
existential type Foo: Debug;

fn foo() -> Foo {
    5i32
}
#}

Foo can be used as i32 in multiple places throughout the module. However, each function that uses Foo as i32 must independently place constraints upon Foo such that it must be i32:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
fn add_to_foo_1(x: Foo) {
    x + 1 // ERROR: binary operation `+` cannot be applied to existential type `Foo`
//  ^ `x` here is type `Foo`.
//    Type annotations needed to resolve the concrete type of `x`.
//    (^ This particular error should only appear within the module in which
//      `Foo` is defined)
}

fn add_to_foo_2(x: Foo) {
    let x: i32 = x;
    x + 1
}

fn return_foo(x: Foo) -> Foo {
    // This is allowed.
    // We don't need to know the concrete type of `Foo` for this function to
    // typecheck.
    x
}
#}

Each existential type declaration must be constrained by at least one function body or const/static initializer. A body or initializer must either fully constrain or place no constraints upon a given existential type.

Outside of the module, existential types behave the same way as impl Trait types: their concrete type is hidden from the module. However, it can be assumed that two values of the same existential type are actually values of the same type:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
mod my_mod {
    pub existential type Foo: Debug;
    pub fn foo() -> Foo {
        5i32
    }
    pub fn bar() -> Foo {
        10i32
    }
    pub fn baz(x: Foo) -> Foo {
        let x: i32 = x;
        x + 5
    }
}

fn outside_mod() -> Foo {
    if true {
        my_mod::foo()
    } else {
        my_mod::baz(my_mod::bar())
    }
}
#}

One last difference between existential type aliases and normal type aliases is that existential type aliases cannot be used in impl blocks:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
existential type Foo: Debug;
impl Foo { // ERROR: `impl` cannot be used on existential type aliases
    ...
}
impl MyTrait for Foo { // ERROR ^
    ...
}
#}

While this feature may be added at some point in the future, it's unclear exactly what behavior it should have-- should it result in implementations of functions and traits on the underlying type? It seems like the answer should be "no" since doing so would give away the underlying type being hidden beneath the impl. Still, some version of this feature could be used eventually to implement traits or functions for closures, or to express conditional bounds in existential type signatures (e.g. existential type Foo<T>: Debug; impl<T: Clone> Clone for Foo<T> { ... }). This is a complicated design space which has not yet been explored fully enough. In the future, such a feature could be added backwards-compatibly.

Drawbacks

This RFC proposes the addition of a complicated feature that will take time for Rust developers to learn and understand. There are potentially simpler ways to achieve some of the goals of this RFC, such as making impl Trait usable in traits. This RFC instead introduces a more complicated solution in order to allow for increased expressiveness and clarity.

This RFC makes impl Trait feel even more like a type by allowing it in more locations where formerly only concrete types were allowed. However, there are other places such a type can appear where impl Trait cannot, such as impl blocks and struct definitions (i.e. struct Foo { x: impl Trait }). This inconsistency may be surprising to users.

Alternatives

We could instead expand impl Trait in a more focused but limited way, such as specifically extending impl Trait to work in traits without allowing full existential type aliases. A draft RFC for such a proposal can be seen here. Any such feature could, in the future, be added as essentially syntax sugar on top of this RFC, which is strictly more expressive. The current RFC will also help us to gain experience with how people use existential type aliases in practice, allowing us to resolve some remaining questions in the linked draft, specifically around how impl Trait associated types are used.

Throughout the process we have considered a number of alternative syntaxes for existential types. The syntax existential type Foo: Trait; is intended to be a placeholder for a more concise and accessible syntax, such as abstract type Foo: Trait;. A variety of variations on this theme have been considered:

  • Instead of abstract type, it could be some single keyword like abstype.
  • We could use a different keyword from abstract, like opaque or exists.
  • We could omit a keyword altogether and use type Foo: Trait; syntax (outside of trait definitions).

A more divergent alternative is not to have an "existential type" feature at all, but instead just have impl Trait be allowed in type alias position. Everything written existential type $NAME: $BOUND; in this RFC would instead be written type $NAME = impl $BOUND;.

This RFC opted to avoid the type Foo = impl Trait; syntax because of its potential teaching difficulties. As a result of RFC 1951, impl Trait is sometimes universal quantiifcation and sometimes existential quantification. By providing a separate syntax for "explicit" existential quantification, impl Trait can be taught as a syntactic sugar for generics and existential types. By "just using impl Trait" for named existential type declarations, there would be no desugaring-based explanation for all forms of impl Trait.

This choice has some disadvantages in comparison impl Trait in type aliases:

  • We introduce another new syntax on top of impl Trait, which inherently has some costs.
  • Users can't use it in a nested fashion without creating an addiitonal existential type.

Because of these downsides, we are open to reconsidering this question with more practical experience, and the final syntax is left as an unresolved question for the RFC.

Unresolved questions

As discussed in the alternatives section above, we will need to reconsider the optimal syntax before stabilizing this feature.

Additionally, the following extensions should be considered in the future:

  • Conditional bounds. Even with this proposal, there's no way to specify the impl Trait bounds necessary to implement traits like Iterator, which have functions whose return types implement traits conditional on the input, e.g. fn foo<T>(x: T) -> impl Clone if T: Clone.
  • Associated-type-less impl Trait in trait declarations and implementations, such as the proposal mentioned in the alternatives section. As mentioned above, this feature would be strictly less expressive than this RFC. The more general feature proposed in this RFC would help us to define a better version of this alternative which could be added in the future.
  • A more general form of inference for impl Trait type aliases. This RFC forces each function to either fully constrain or place no constraints upon an impl Trait type. It's possible to allow some partial constraints through a process like the one described in this comment. However, these partial bounds present implementation concerns, so they have been removed from this RFC. If it turns out that partial bounds would be greatly useful in practice, they can be added backwards-compatibly in a future RFC.