Method lookup

Method lookup can be rather complex due to the interaction of a number of factors, such as self types, autoderef, trait lookup, etc. This file provides an overview of the process. More detailed notes are in the code itself, naturally.

One way to think of method lookup is that we convert an expression of the form receiver.method(...) into a more explicit fully-qualified syntax (formerly called UFCS):

  • Trait::method(ADJ(receiver), ...) for a trait call
  • ReceiverType::method(ADJ(receiver), ...) for an inherent method call

Here ADJ is some kind of adjustment, which is typically a series of autoderefs and then possibly an autoref (e.g., &**receiver). However we sometimes do other adjustments and coercions along the way, in particular unsizing (e.g., converting from [T; n] to [T]).

Method lookup is divided into two major phases:

  1. Probing ( The probe phase is when we decide what method to call and how to adjust the receiver.
  2. Confirmation ( The confirmation phase "applies" this selection, updating the side-tables, unifying type variables, and otherwise doing side-effectful things.

One reason for this division is to be more amenable to caching. The probe phase produces a "pick" (probe::Pick), which is designed to be cacheable across method-call sites. Therefore, it does not include inference variables or other information.

The Probe phase


The first thing that the probe phase does is to create a series of steps. This is done by progressively dereferencing the receiver type until it cannot be deref'd anymore, as well as applying an optional "unsize" step. So if the receiver has type Rc<Box<[T; 3]>>, this might yield:

  1. Rc<Box<[T; 3]>>
  2. Box<[T; 3]>
  3. [T; 3]
  4. [T]

Candidate assembly

We then search along those steps to create a list of candidates. A Candidate is a method item that might plausibly be the method being invoked. For each candidate, we'll derive a "transformed self type" that takes into account explicit self.

Candidates are grouped into two kinds, inherent and extension.

Inherent candidates are those that are derived from the type of the receiver itself. So, if you have a receiver of some nominal type Foo (e.g., a struct), any methods defined within an impl like impl Foo are inherent methods. Nothing needs to be imported to use an inherent method, they are associated with the type itself (note that inherent impls can only be defined in the same crate as the type itself).

FIXME: Inherent candidates are not always derived from impls. If you have a trait object, such as a value of type Box<ToString>, then the trait methods (to_string(), in this case) are inherently associated with it. Another case is type parameters, in which case the methods of their bounds are inherent. However, this part of the rules is subject to change: when DST's "impl Trait for Trait" is complete, trait object dispatch could be subsumed into trait matching, and the type parameter behavior should be reconsidered in light of where clauses.

TODO: Is this FIXME still accurate?

Extension candidates are derived from imported traits. If I have the trait ToString imported, and I call to_string() as a method, then we will list the to_string() definition in each impl of ToString as a candidate. These kinds of method calls are called "extension methods".

So, let's continue our example. Imagine that we were calling a method foo with the receiver Rc<Box<[T; 3]>> and there is a trait Foo that defines it with &self for the type Rc<U> as well as a method on the type Box that defines foo but with &mut self. Then we might have two candidates:

  • &Rc<U> as an extension candidate
  • &mut Box<U> as an inherent candidate

Finally, to actually pick the method, we will search down the steps, trying to match the receiver type against the candidate types. At each step, we also consider an auto-ref and auto-mut-ref to see whether that makes any of the candidates match. For each resulting receiver type, we consider inherent candidates before extension candidates. If there are multiple matching candidates in a group, we report an error, except that multiple impls of the same trait are treated as a single match. Otherwise we pick the first match we find.

In the case of our example, the first step is Rc<Box<[T; 3]>>, which does not itself match any candidate. But when we autoref it, we get the type &Rc<Box<[T; 3]>> which matches &Rc<U>. We would then recursively consider all where-clauses that appear on the impl: if those match (or we cannot rule out that they do), then this is the method we would pick. Otherwise, we would continue down the series of steps.