TypeFoldable and TypeFolder

How is this subst query actually implemented? As you can imagine, we might want to do substitutions on a lot of different things. For example, we might want to do a substitution directly on a type like we did with Vec above. But we might also have a more complex type with other types nested inside that also need substitutions.

The answer is a couple of traits: TypeFoldable and TypeFolder.

  • TypeFoldable is implemented by types that embed type information. It allows you to recursively process the contents of the TypeFoldable and do stuff to them.
  • TypeFolder defines what you want to do with the types you encounter while processing the TypeFoldable.

For example, the TypeFolder trait has a method fold_ty that takes a type as input a type and returns a new type as a result. TypeFoldable invokes the TypeFolder fold_foo methods on itself, giving the TypeFolder access to its contents (the types, regions, etc that are contained within).

You can think of it with this analogy to the iterator combinators we have come to love in rust:

vec.iter().map(|e1| foo(e2)).collect()
//             ^^^^^^^^^^^^ analogous to `TypeFolder`
//         ^^^ analogous to `TypeFoldable`

So to reiterate:

  • TypeFolder is a trait that defines a “map” operation.
  • TypeFoldable is a trait that is implemented by things that embed types.

In the case of subst, we can see that it is implemented as a TypeFolder: SubstFolder. Looking at its implementation, we see where the actual substitutions are happening.

However, you might also notice that the implementation calls this super_fold_with method. What is that? It is a method of TypeFoldable. Consider the following TypeFoldable type MyFoldable:

struct MyFoldable<'tcx> {
  def_id: DefId,
  ty: Ty<'tcx>,

The TypeFolder can call super_fold_with on MyFoldable if it just wants to replace some of the fields of MyFoldable with new values. If it instead wants to replace the whole MyFoldable with a different one, it would call fold_with instead (a different method on TypeFoldable).

In almost all cases, we don’t want to replace the whole struct; we only want to replace ty::Tys in the struct, so usually we call super_fold_with. A typical implementation that MyFoldable could have might do something like this:

my_foldable: MyFoldable<'tcx>
my_foldable.subst(..., subst)

impl TypeFoldable for MyFoldable {
  fn super_fold_with(&self, folder: &mut impl TypeFolder<'tcx>) -> MyFoldable {
    MyFoldable {
      def_id: self.def_id.fold_with(folder),
      ty: self.ty.fold_with(folder),

  fn super_visit_with(..) { }

Notice that here, we implement super_fold_with to go over the fields of MyFoldable and call fold_with on them. That is, a folder may replace def_id and ty, but not the whole MyFoldable struct.

Here is another example to put things together: suppose we have a type like Vec<Vec<X>>. The ty::Ty would look like: Adt(Vec, &[Adt(Vec, &[Param(X)])]). If we want to do subst(X => u32), then we would first look at the overall type. We would see that there are no substitutions to be made at the outer level, so we would descend one level and look at Adt(Vec, &[Param(X)]). There are still no substitutions to be made here, so we would descend again. Now we are looking at Param(X), which can be substituted, so we replace it with u32. We can’t descend any more, so we are done, and the overall result is Adt(Vec, &[Adt(Vec, &[u32])]).

One last thing to mention: often when folding over a TypeFoldable, we don’t want to change most things. We only want to do something when we reach a type. That means there may be a lot of TypeFoldable types whose implementations basically just forward to their fields’ TypeFoldable implementations. Such implementations of TypeFoldable tend to be pretty tedious to write by hand. For this reason, there is a derive macro that allows you to #![derive(TypeFoldable)]. It is defined here.

subst In the case of substitutions the actual folder is going to be doing the indexing we’ve already mentioned. There we define a Folder and call fold_with on the TypeFoldable to process yourself. Then fold_ty the method that process each type it looks for a ty::Param and for those it replaces it for something from the list of substitutions, otherwise recursively process the type. To replace it, calls ty_for_param and all that does is index into the list of substitutions with the index of the Param.