What is a type?

Posted on March 17, 2021

My fascination for types rivals my inability to define the concept.

Even though I don’t know what a type is, I can still recognize when a paper “is about types”: the paper usually contains many occurrences of formulas of the form “t : T”, where “t” is some piece of code, some program, and “T” is one of these mysterious types. The colon in the middle is of no technical significance, but it signals some cultural awareness on the part of authors.

Hypothesis: Types are a meme.

My experience is also that things are very very bad when “t : T” does not hold. Types are a way to tell right from wrong, for some domain-specific definitions of correctness.

Hypothesis: Types are specifications.

One idea that really narrows it down for me is that programming languages have types. You can assign types to everything in a language: static types to source code, dynamic types to run-time values.

Another way to look at this is to compare with other forms of specifications. How do you prove a specification? A priori, you could use any method, and all you care about is that it is somehow “sound”, but otherwise the proof method is a black box.

Approaches using “types” seem different. To prove a specification, a typing judgement “t : T”, the way forward is to prove more typing judgements by following the rules of some “type system”. Types tell me both “how to specify things” and “how to verify things”—by specifying and verifying sub-things.

Hypothesis: Types are compositional specifications.

I originally posted this question on the recently created TYPES Zulip server, a spin-off of the TYPES mailing list. Those are nice hangouts for people who like types, whatever you believe they are (and also for getting spammed with Calls-For-Papers).

  1. Whereas most formal methods are sound for proving the absence of certain bugs, testing is a sound method of finding bugs.↩︎