Variance of type and lifetime parameters
For a more general background on variance, see the background appendix.
During type checking we must infer the variance of type and lifetime parameters. The algorithm is taken from Section 4 of the paper "Taming the Wildcards: Combining Definition and UseSite Variance" published in PLDI'11 and written by Altidor et al., and hereafter referred to as The Paper.
This inference is explicitly designed not to consider the uses of
types within code. To determine the variance of type parameters
defined on type X
, we only consider the definition of the type X
and the definitions of any types it references.
We only infer variance for type parameters found on data types
like structs and enums. In these cases, there is a fairly straightforward
explanation for what variance means. The variance of the type
or lifetime parameters defines whether T<A>
is a subtype of T<B>
(resp. T<'a>
and T<'b>
) based on the relationship of A
and B
(resp. 'a
and 'b
).
We do not infer variance for type parameters found on traits, functions, or impls. Variance on trait parameters can indeed make sense (and we used to compute it) but it is actually rather subtle in meaning and not that useful in practice, so we removed it. See the addendum for some details. Variances on function/impl parameters, on the other hand, doesn't make sense because these parameters are instantiated and then forgotten, they don't persist in types or compiled byproducts.
Notation
We use the notation of The Paper throughout this chapter:
+
is covariance.
is contravariance.*
is bivariance.o
is invariance.
The algorithm
The basic idea is quite straightforward. We iterate over the types
defined and, for each use of a type parameter X
, accumulate a
constraint indicating that the variance of X
must be valid for the
variance of that use site. We then iteratively refine the variance of
X
until all constraints are met. There is always a solution, because at
the limit we can declare all type parameters to be invariant and all
constraints will be satisfied.
As a simple example, consider:
enum Option<A> { Some(A), None }
enum OptionalFn<B> { Some(B), None }
enum OptionalMap<C> { Some(C > C), None }
Here, we will generate the constraints:
1. V(A) <= +
2. V(B) <= 
3. V(C) <= +
4. V(C) <= 
These indicate that (1) the variance of A must be at most covariant; (2) the variance of B must be at most contravariant; and (3, 4) the variance of C must be at most covariant and contravariant. All of these results are based on a variance lattice defined as follows:
* Top (bivariant)
 +
o Bottom (invariant)
Based on this lattice, the solution V(A)=+
, V(B)=
, V(C)=o
is the
optimal solution. Note that there is always a naive solution which
just declares all variables to be invariant.
You may be wondering why fixedpoint iteration is required. The reason is that the variance of a use site may itself be a function of the variance of other type parameters. In full generality, our constraints take the form:
V(X) <= Term
Term := +    *  o  V(X)  Term x Term
Here the notation V(X)
indicates the variance of a type/region
parameter X
with respect to its defining class. Term x Term
represents the "variance transform" as defined in the paper:
If the variance of a type variable
X
in type expressionE
isV2
and the definitionsite variance of the corresponding type parameter of a classC
isV1
, then the variance ofX
in the type expressionC<E>
isV3 = V1.xform(V2)
.
Constraints
If I have a struct or enum with where clauses:
struct Foo<T: Bar> { ... }
you might wonder whether the variance of T
with respect to Bar
affects the
variance T
with respect to Foo
. I claim no. The reason: assume that T
is
invariant with respect to Bar
but covariant with respect to Foo
. And then
we have a Foo<X>
that is upcast to Foo<Y>
, where X <: Y
. However, while
X : Bar
, Y : Bar
does not hold. In that case, the upcast will be illegal,
but not because of a variance failure, but rather because the target type
Foo<Y>
is itself just not wellformed. Basically we get to assume
wellformedness of all types involved before considering variance.
Dependency graph management
Because variance is a wholecrate inference, its dependency graph can become quite muddled if we are not careful. To resolve this, we refactor into two queries:
crate_variances
computes the variance for all items in the current crate.variances_of
accesses the variance for an individual reading; it works by requestingcrate_variances
and extracting the relevant data.
If you limit yourself to reading variances_of
, your code will only
depend then on the inference of that particular item.
Ultimately, this setup relies on the redgreen algorithm. In particular,
every variance query effectively depends on all type definitions in the entire
crate (through crate_variances
), but since most changes will not result in a
change to the actual results from variance inference, the variances_of
query
will wind up being considered green after it is reevaluated.
Addendum: Variance on traits
As mentioned above, we used to permit variance on traits. This was
computed based on the appearance of trait type parameters in
method signatures and was used to represent the compatibility of
vtables in trait objects (and also "virtual" vtables or dictionary
in trait bounds). One complication was that variance for
associated types is less obvious, since they can be projected out
and put to myriad uses, so it's not clear when it is safe to allow
X<A>::Bar
to vary (or indeed just what that means). Moreover (as
covered below) all inputs on any trait with an associated type had
to be invariant, limiting the applicability. Finally, the
annotations (MarkerTrait
, PhantomFn
) needed to ensure that all
trait type parameters had a variance were confusing and annoying
for little benefit.
Just for historical reference, I am going to preserve some text indicating how one could interpret variance and trait matching.
Variance and object types
Just as with structs and enums, we can decide the subtyping
relationship between two object types &Trait<A>
and &Trait<B>
based on the relationship of A
and B
. Note that for object
types we ignore the Self
type parameter – it is unknown, and
the nature of dynamic dispatch ensures that we will always call a
function that is expected the appropriate Self
type. However, we
must be careful with the other type parameters, or else we could
end up calling a function that is expecting one type but provided
another.
To see what I mean, consider a trait like so:
#![allow(unused_variables)] fn main() { trait ConvertTo<A> { fn convertTo(&self) > A; } }
Intuitively, If we had one object O=&ConvertTo<Object>
and another
S=&ConvertTo<String>
, then S <: O
because String <: Object
(presuming Javalike "string" and "object" types, my go to examples
for subtyping). The actual algorithm would be to compare the
(explicit) type parameters pairwise respecting their variance: here,
the type parameter A is covariant (it appears only in a return
position), and hence we require that String <: Object
.
You'll note though that we did not consider the binding for the
(implicit) Self
type parameter: in fact, it is unknown, so that's
good. The reason we can ignore that parameter is precisely because we
don't need to know its value until a call occurs, and at that time (as
you said) the dynamic nature of virtual dispatch means the code we run
will be correct for whatever value Self
happens to be bound to for
the particular object whose method we called. Self
is thus different
from A
, because the caller requires that A
be known in order to
know the return type of the method convertTo()
. (As an aside, we
have rules preventing methods where Self
appears outside of the
receiver position from being called via an object.)
Trait variance and vtable resolution
But traits aren't only used with objects. They're also used when deciding whether a given impl satisfies a given trait bound. To set the scene here, imagine I had a function:
fn convertAll<A,T:ConvertTo<A>>(v: &[T]) { ... }
Now imagine that I have an implementation of ConvertTo
for Object
:
impl ConvertTo<i32> for Object { ... }
And I want to call convertAll
on an array of strings. Suppose
further that for whatever reason I specifically supply the value of
String
for the type parameter T
:
let mut vector = vec!["string", ...];
convertAll::<i32, String>(vector);
Is this legal? To put another way, can we apply the impl
for
Object
to the type String
? The answer is yes, but to see why
we have to expand out what will happen:

convertAll
will create a pointer to one of the entries in the vector, which will have type&String

It will then call the impl of
convertTo()
that is intended for use with objects. This has the typefn(self: &Object) > i32
.It is OK to provide a value for
self
of type&String
because&String <: &Object
.
OK, so intuitively we want this to be legal, so let's bring this back
to variance and see whether we are computing the correct result. We
must first figure out how to phrase the question "is an impl for
Object,i32
usable where an impl for String,i32
is expected?"
Maybe it's helpful to think of a dictionarypassing implementation of
type classes. In that case, convertAll()
takes an implicit parameter
representing the impl. In short, we have an impl of type:
V_O = ConvertTo<i32> for Object
and the function prototype expects an impl of type:
V_S = ConvertTo<i32> for String
As with any argument, this is legal if the type of the value given
(V_O
) is a subtype of the type expected (V_S
). So is V_O <: V_S
?
The answer will depend on the variance of the various parameters. In
this case, because the Self
parameter is contravariant and A
is
covariant, it means that:
V_O <: V_S iff
i32 <: i32
String <: Object
These conditions are satisfied and so we are happy.
Variance and associated types
Traits with associated types – or at minimum projection expressions – must be invariant with respect to all of their inputs. To see why this makes sense, consider what subtyping for a trait reference means:
<T as Trait> <: <U as Trait>
means that if I know that T as Trait
, I also know that U as Trait
. Moreover, if you think of it as dictionary passing style,
it means that a dictionary for <T as Trait>
is safe to use where
a dictionary for <U as Trait>
is expected.
The problem is that when you can project types out from <T as Trait>
, the relationship to types projected out of <U as Trait>
is completely unknown unless T==U
(see #21726 for more
details). Making Trait
invariant ensures that this is true.
Another related reason is that if we didn't make traits with associated types invariant, then projection is no longer a function with a single result. Consider:
trait Identity { type Out; fn foo(&self); }
impl<T> Identity for T { type Out = T; ... }
Now if I have <&'static () as Identity>::Out
, this can be
validly derived as &'a ()
for any 'a
:
<&'a () as Identity> <: <&'static () as Identity>
if &'static () < : &'a ()  Identity is contravariant in Self
if 'static : 'a  Subtyping rules for relations
This change otoh means that <'static () as Identity>::Out
is
always &'static ()
(which might then be upcast to 'a ()
,
separately). This was helpful in solving #21750.