Trait resolution (old-style)

This chapter describes the general process of trait resolution and points out some non-obvious things.

Note: This chapter (and its subchapters) describe how the trait solver currently works. However, we are in the process of designing a new trait solver. If you'd prefer to read about that, see this subchapter.

Major concepts

Trait resolution is the process of pairing up an impl with each reference to a trait. So, for example, if there is a generic function like:

fn clone_slice<T:Clone>(x: &[T]) -> Vec<T> { ... }

and then a call to that function:

let v: Vec<isize> = clone_slice(&[1, 2, 3])

it is the job of trait resolution to figure out whether there exists an impl of (in this case) isize : Clone.

Note that in some cases, like generic functions, we may not be able to find a specific impl, but we can figure out that the caller must provide an impl. For example, consider the body of clone_slice:

fn clone_slice<T:Clone>(x: &[T]) -> Vec<T> {
    let mut v = Vec::new();
    for e in &x {
        v.push((*e).clone()); // (*)

The line marked (*) is only legal if T (the type of *e) implements the Clone trait. Naturally, since we don't know what T is, we can't find the specific impl; but based on the bound T:Clone, we can say that there exists an impl which the caller must provide.

We use the term obligation to refer to a trait reference in need of an impl. Basically, the trait resolution system resolves an obligation by proving that an appropriate impl does exist.

During type checking, we do not store the results of trait selection. We simply wish to verify that trait selection will succeed. Then later, at trans time, when we have all concrete types available, we can repeat the trait selection to choose an actual implementation, which will then be generated in the output binary.


Trait resolution consists of three major parts:

  • Selection: Deciding how to resolve a specific obligation. For example, selection might decide that a specific obligation can be resolved by employing an impl which matches the Self type, or by using a parameter bound (e.g. T: Trait). In the case of an impl, selecting one obligation can create nested obligations because of where clauses on the impl itself. It may also require evaluating those nested obligations to resolve ambiguities.

  • Fulfillment: The fulfillment code is what tracks that obligations are completely fulfilled. Basically it is a worklist of obligations to be selected: once selection is successful, the obligation is removed from the worklist and any nested obligations are enqueued.

  • Coherence: The coherence checks are intended to ensure that there are never overlapping impls, where two impls could be used with equal precedence.


Selection is the process of deciding whether an obligation can be resolved and, if so, how it is to be resolved (via impl, where clause, etc). The main interface is the select() function, which takes an obligation and returns a SelectionResult. There are three possible outcomes:

  • Ok(Some(selection)) – yes, the obligation can be resolved, and selection indicates how. If the impl was resolved via an impl, then selection may also indicate nested obligations that are required by the impl.

  • Ok(None) – we are not yet sure whether the obligation can be resolved or not. This happens most commonly when the obligation contains unbound type variables.

  • Err(err) – the obligation definitely cannot be resolved due to a type error or because there are no impls that could possibly apply.

The basic algorithm for selection is broken into two big phases: candidate assembly and confirmation.

Note that because of how lifetime inference works, it is not possible to give back immediate feedback as to whether a unification or subtype relationship between lifetimes holds or not. Therefore, lifetime matching is not considered during selection. This is reflected in the fact that subregion assignment is infallible. This may yield lifetime constraints that will later be found to be in error (in contrast, the non-lifetime-constraints have already been checked during selection and can never cause an error, though naturally they may lead to other errors downstream).

Candidate assembly

Searches for impls/where-clauses/etc that might possibly be used to satisfy the obligation. Each of those is called a candidate. To avoid ambiguity, we want to find exactly one candidate that is definitively applicable. In some cases, we may not know whether an impl/where-clause applies or not – this occurs when the obligation contains unbound inference variables.

The subroutines that decide whether a particular impl/where-clause/etc applies to a particular obligation are collectively referred to as the process of matching. As of May 2022, this amounts to unifying the Self types, but in the future we may also recursively consider some of the nested obligations, in the case of an impl.

TODO: what does "unifying the Self types" mean? The Self of the obligation with that of an impl?

The basic idea for candidate assembly is to do a first pass in which we identify all possible candidates. During this pass, all that we do is try and unify the type parameters. (In particular, we ignore any nested where clauses.) Presuming that this unification succeeds, the impl is added as a candidate.

Once this first pass is done, we can examine the set of candidates. If it is a singleton set, then we are done: this is the only impl in scope that could possibly apply. Otherwise, we can winnow down the set of candidates by using where clauses and other conditions. If this reduced set yields a single, unambiguous entry, we're good to go, otherwise the result is considered ambiguous.

The basic process: Inferring based on the impls we see

This process is easier if we work through some examples. Consider the following trait:

trait Convert<Target> {
    fn convert(&self) -> Target;

This trait just has one method. It's about as simple as it gets. It converts from the (implicit) Self type to the Target type. If we wanted to permit conversion between isize and usize, we might implement Convert like so:

impl Convert<usize> for isize { ... } // isize -> usize
impl Convert<isize> for usize { ... } // usize -> isize

Now imagine there is some code like the following:

let x: isize = ...;
let y = x.convert();

The call to convert will generate a trait reference Convert<$Y> for isize, where $Y is the type variable representing the type of y. Of the two impls we can see, the only one that matches is Convert<usize> for isize. Therefore, we can select this impl, which will cause the type of $Y to be unified to usize. (Note that while assembling candidates, we do the initial unifications in a transaction, so that they don't affect one another.)

TODO: The example says we can "select" the impl, but this section is talking specifically about candidate assembly. Does this mean we can sometimes skip confirmation? Or is this poor wording? TODO: Is the unification of $Y part of trait resolution or type inference? Or is this not the same type of "inference variable" as in type inference?

Winnowing: Resolving ambiguities

But what happens if there are multiple impls where all the types unify? Consider this example:

trait Get {
    fn get(&self) -> Self;

impl<T: Copy> Get for T {
    fn get(&self) -> T {

impl<T: Get> Get for Box<T> {
    fn get(&self) -> Box<T> {

What happens when we invoke get_it(&Box::new(1_u16)), for example? In this case, the Self type is Box<u16> – that unifies with both impls, because the first applies to all types T, and the second to all Box<T>. In order for this to be unambiguous, the compiler does a winnowing pass that considers where clauses and attempts to remove candidates. In this case, the first impl only applies if Box<u16> : Copy, which doesn't hold. After winnowing, then, we are left with just one candidate, so we can proceed.

where clauses

Besides an impl, the other major way to resolve an obligation is via a where clause. The selection process is always given a parameter environment which contains a list of where clauses, which are basically obligations that we can assume are satisfiable. We will iterate over that list and check whether our current obligation can be found in that list. If so, it is considered satisfied. More precisely, we want to check whether there is a where-clause obligation that is for the same trait (or some subtrait) and which can match against the obligation.

Consider this simple example:

trait A1 {
    fn do_a1(&self);
trait A2 : A1 { ... }

trait B {
    fn do_b(&self);

fn foo<X:A2+B>(x: X) {
    x.do_a1(); // (*)
    x.do_b();  // (#)

In the body of foo, clearly we can use methods of A1, A2, or B on variable x. The line marked (*) will incur an obligation X: A1, while the line marked (#) will incur an obligation X: B. Meanwhile, the parameter environment will contain two where-clauses: X : A2 and X : B. For each obligation, then, we search this list of where-clauses. The obligation X: B trivially matches against the where-clause X: B. To resolve an obligation X:A1, we would note that X:A2 implies that X:A1.


Confirmation unifies the output type parameters of the trait with the values found in the obligation, possibly yielding a type error.

Suppose we have the following variation of the Convert example in the previous section:

trait Convert<Target> {
    fn convert(&self) -> Target;

impl Convert<usize> for isize { ... } // isize -> usize
impl Convert<isize> for usize { ... } // usize -> isize

let x: isize = ...;
let y: char = x.convert(); // NOTE: `y: char` now!

Confirmation is where an error would be reported because the impl specified that Target would be usize, but the obligation reported char. Hence the result of selection would be an error.

Note that the candidate impl is chosen based on the Self type, but confirmation is done based on (in this case) the Target type parameter.

Selection during translation

As mentioned above, during type checking, we do not store the results of trait selection. At trans time, we repeat the trait selection to choose a particular impl for each method call. In this second selection, we do not consider any where-clauses to be in scope because we know that each resolution will resolve to a particular impl.

One interesting twist has to do with nested obligations. In general, in trans, we only need to do a "shallow" selection for an obligation. That is, we wish to identify which impl applies, but we do not (yet) need to decide how to select any nested obligations. Nonetheless, we do currently do a complete resolution, and that is because it can sometimes inform the results of type inference. That is, we do not have the full substitutions in terms of the type variables of the impl available to us, so we must run trait selection to figure everything out.

TODO: is this still talking about trans?

Here is an example:

trait Foo { ... }
impl<U, T:Bar<U>> Foo for Vec<T> { ... }

impl Bar<usize> for isize { ... }

After one shallow round of selection for an obligation like Vec<isize> : Foo, we would know which impl we want, and we would know that T=isize, but we do not know the type of U. We must select the nested obligation isize : Bar<U> to find out that U=usize.

It would be good to only do just as much nested resolution as necessary. Currently, though, we just do a full resolution.