The ty module: representing types

The ty module defines how the Rust compiler represents types internally. It also defines the typing context (tcx or TyCtxt), which is the central data structure in the compiler.


When we talk about how rustc represents types, we usually refer to a type called Ty . There are quite a few modules and types for Ty in the compiler (Ty documentation).

The specific Ty we are referring to is rustc_middle::ty::Ty (and not rustc_hir::Ty). The distinction is important, so we will discuss it first before going into the details of ty::Ty.

rustc_hir::Ty vs ty::Ty

The HIR in rustc can be thought of as the high-level intermediate representation. It is more or less the AST (see this chapter) as it represents the syntax that the user wrote, and is obtained after parsing and some desugaring. It has a representation of types, but in reality it reflects more of what the user wrote, that is, what they wrote so as to represent that type.

In contrast, ty::Ty represents the semantics of a type, that is, the meaning of what the user wrote. For example, rustc_hir::Ty would record the fact that a user used the name u32 twice in their program, but the ty::Ty would record the fact that both usages refer to the same type.

Example: fn foo(x: u32) → u32 { x }

In this function, we see that u32 appears twice. We know that that is the same type, i.e. the function takes an argument and returns an argument of the same type, but from the point of view of the HIR, there would be two distinct type instances because these are occurring in two different places in the program. That is, they have two different Spans (locations).

Example: fn foo(x: &u32) -> &u32

In addition, HIR might have information left out. This type &u32 is incomplete, since in the full Rust type there is actually a lifetime, but we didn’t need to write those lifetimes. There are also some elision rules that insert information. The result may look like fn foo<'a>(x: &'a u32) -> &'a u32.

In the HIR level, these things are not spelled out and you can say the picture is rather incomplete. However, at the ty::Ty level, these details are added and it is complete. Moreover, we will have exactly one ty::Ty for a given type, like u32, and that ty::Ty is used for all u32s in the whole program, not a specific usage, unlike rustc_hir::Ty.

Here is a summary:

Describe the syntax of a type: what the user wrote (with some desugaring).Describe the semantics of a type: the meaning of what the user wrote.
Each rustc_hir::Ty has its own spans corresponding to the appropriate place in the program.Doesn’t correspond to a single place in the user’s program.
rustc_hir::Ty has generics and lifetimes; however, some of those lifetimes are special markers like LifetimeName::Implicit.ty::Ty has the full type, including generics and lifetimes, even if the user left them out
fn foo(x: u32) → u32 { } - Two rustc_hir::Ty representing each usage of u32, each has its own Spans, and rustc_hir::Ty doesn’t tell us that both are the same typefn foo(x: u32) → u32 { } - One ty::Ty for all instances of u32 throughout the program, and ty::Ty tells us that both usages of u32 mean the same type.
fn foo(x: &u32) -> &u32) - Two rustc_hir::Ty again. Lifetimes for the references show up in the rustc_hir::Tys using a special marker, LifetimeName::Implicit.fn foo(x: &u32) -> &u32)- A single ty::Ty. The ty::Ty has the hidden lifetime param.


HIR is built directly from the AST, so it happens before any ty::Ty is produced. After HIR is built, some basic type inference and type checking is done. During the type inference, we figure out what the ty::Ty of everything is and we also check if the type of something is ambiguous. The ty::Ty is then used for type checking while making sure everything has the expected type. The hir_ty_lowering module is where the code responsible for lowering a rustc_hir::Ty to a ty::Ty is located. The main routine used is lower_ty. This occurs during the type-checking phase, but also in other parts of the compiler that want to ask questions like "what argument types does this function expect?"

How semantics drive the two instances of Ty

You can think of HIR as the perspective of the type information that assumes the least. We assume two things are distinct until they are proven to be the same thing. In other words, we know less about them, so we should assume less about them.

They are syntactically two strings: "u32" at line N column 20 and "u32" at line N column 35. We don’t know that they are the same yet. So, in the HIR we treat them as if they are different. Later, we determine that they semantically are the same type and that’s the ty::Ty we use.

Consider another example: fn foo<T>(x: T) -> u32. Suppose that someone invokes foo::<u32>(0). This means that T and u32 (in this invocation) actually turns out to be the same type, so we would eventually end up with the same ty::Ty in the end, but we have distinct rustc_hir::Ty. (This is a bit over-simplified, though, since during type checking, we would check the function generically and would still have a T distinct from u32. Later, when doing code generation, we would always be handling "monomorphized" (fully substituted) versions of each function, and hence we would know what T represents (and specifically that it is u32).)

Here is one more example:

fn main() {
mod a {
    type X = u32;
    pub fn foo(x: X) -> u32 { 22 }
mod b {
    type X = i32;
    pub fn foo(x: X) -> i32 { x }

Here the type X will vary depending on context, clearly. If you look at the rustc_hir::Ty, you will get back that X is an alias in both cases (though it will be mapped via name resolution to distinct aliases). But if you look at the ty::Ty signature, it will be either fn(u32) -> u32 or fn(i32) -> i32 (with type aliases fully expanded).

ty::Ty implementation

rustc_middle::ty::Ty is actually a wrapper around Interned<WithCachedTypeInfo<TyKind>>. You can ignore Interned in general; you will basically never access it explicitly. We always hide them within Ty and skip over it via Deref impls or methods. TyKind is a big enum with variants to represent many different Rust types (e.g. primitives, references, algebraic data types, generics, lifetimes, etc). WithCachedTypeInfo has a few cached values like flags and outer_exclusive_binder. They are convenient hacks for efficiency and summarize information about the type that we may want to know, but they don’t come into the picture as much here. Finally, Interned allows the ty::Ty to be a thin pointer-like type. This allows us to do cheap comparisons for equality, along with the other benefits of interning.

Allocating and working with types

To allocate a new type, you can use the various new_* methods defined on Ty. These have names that correspond mostly to the various kinds of types. For example:

let array_ty = Ty::new_array_with_const_len(tcx, ty, count);

These methods all return a Ty<'tcx> – note that the lifetime you get back is the lifetime of the arena that this tcx has access to. Types are always canonicalized and interned (so we never allocate exactly the same type twice).

You can also find various common types in the tcx itself by accessing its fields: tcx.types.bool, tcx.types.char, etc. (See CommonTypes for more.)

Comparing types

Because types are interned, it is possible to compare them for equality efficiently using == – however, this is almost never what you want to do unless you happen to be hashing and looking for duplicates. This is because often in Rust there are multiple ways to represent the same type, particularly once inference is involved.

For example, the type {integer} (ty::Infer(ty::IntVar(..)) an integer inference variable, the type of an integer literal like 0) and u8 (ty::UInt(..)) should often be treated as equal when testing whether they can be assigned to each other (which is a common operation in diagnostics code). == on them will return false though, since they are different types.

The simplest way to compare two types correctly requires an inference context (infcx). If you have one, you can use infcx.can_eq(param_env, ty1, ty2) to check whether the types can be made equal. This is typically what you want to check during diagnostics, which is concerned with questions such as whether two types can be assigned to each other, not whether they're represented identically in the compiler's type-checking layer.

When working with an inference context, you have to be careful to ensure that potential inference variables inside the types actually belong to that inference context. If you are in a function that has access to an inference context already, this should be the case. Specifically, this is the case during HIR type checking or MIR borrow checking.

Another consideration is normalization. Two types may actually be the same, but one is behind an associated type. To compare them correctly, you have to normalize the types first. This is primarily a concern during HIR type checking and with all types from a TyCtxt query (for example from tcx.type_of()).

When a FnCtxt or an ObligationCtxt is available during type checking, .normalize(ty) should be used on them to normalize the type. After type checking, diagnostics code can use tcx.normalize_erasing_regions(ty).

There are also cases where using == on Ty is fine. This is for example the case in late lints or after monomorphization, since type checking has been completed, meaning all inference variables are resolved and all regions have been erased. In these cases, if you know that inference variables or normalization won't be a concern, #[allow] or #[expect]ing the lint is recommended.

When diagnostics code does not have access to an inference context, it should be threaded through the function calls if one is available in some place (like during type checking).

If no inference context is available at all, then one can be created as described in type-inference. But this is only useful when the involved types (for example, if they came from a query like tcx.type_of()) are actually substituted with fresh inference variables using fresh_args_for_item. This can be used to answer questions like "can Vec<T> for any T be unified with Vec<u32>?".

ty::TyKind Variants

Note: TyKind is NOT the functional programming concept of Kind.

Whenever working with a Ty in the compiler, it is common to match on the kind of type:

fn foo(x: Ty<'tcx>) {
  match x.kind {

The kind field is of type TyKind<'tcx>, which is an enum defining all of the different kinds of types in the compiler.

N.B. inspecting the kind field on types during type inference can be risky, as there may be inference variables and other things to consider, or sometimes types are not yet known and will become known later.

There are a lot of related types, and we’ll cover them in time (e.g regions/lifetimes, “substitutions”, etc).

There are many variants on the TyKind enum, which you can see by looking at its documentation. Here is a sampling:

  • Algebraic Data Types (ADTs) An algebraic data type is a struct, enum or union. Under the hood, struct, enum and union are actually implemented the same way: they are all ty::TyKind::Adt. It’s basically a user defined type. We will talk more about these later.
  • Foreign Corresponds to extern type T.
  • Str Is the type str. When the user writes &str, Str is the how we represent the str part of that type.
  • Slice Corresponds to [T].
  • Array Corresponds to [T; n].
  • RawPtr Corresponds to *mut T or *const T.
  • Ref Ref stands for safe references, &'a mut T or &'a T. Ref has some associated parts, like Ty<'tcx> which is the type that the reference references. Region<'tcx> is the lifetime or region of the reference and Mutability if the reference is mutable or not.
  • Param Represents a type parameter (e.g. the T in Vec<T>).
  • Error Represents a type error somewhere so that we can print better diagnostics. We will discuss this more later.
  • And many more...

Import conventions

Although there is no hard and fast rule, the ty module tends to be used like so:

use ty::{self, Ty, TyCtxt};

In particular, since they are so common, the Ty and TyCtxt types are imported directly. Other types are often referenced with an explicit ty:: prefix (e.g. ty::TraitRef<'tcx>). But some modules choose to import a larger or smaller set of names explicitly.

Type errors

There is a TyKind::Error that is produced when the user makes a type error. The idea is that we would propagate this type and suppress other errors that come up due to it so as not to overwhelm the user with cascading compiler error messages.

There is an important invariant for TyKind::Error. The compiler should never produce Error unless we know that an error has already been reported to the user. This is usually because (a) you just reported it right there or (b) you are propagating an existing Error type (in which case the error should've been reported when that error type was produced).

It's important to maintain this invariant because the whole point of the Error type is to suppress other errors -- i.e., we don't report them. If we were to produce an Error type without actually emitting an error to the user, then this could cause later errors to be suppressed, and the compilation might inadvertently succeed!

Sometimes there is a third case. You believe that an error has been reported, but you believe it would've been reported earlier in the compilation, not locally. In that case, you can create a "delayed bug" with delayed_bug or span_delayed_bug. This will make a note that you expect compilation to yield an error -- if however compilation should succeed, then it will trigger a compiler bug report.

For added safety, it's not actually possible to produce a TyKind::Error value outside of rustc_middle::ty; there is a private member of TyKind::Error that prevents it from being constructable elsewhere. Instead, one should use the Ty::new_error or Ty::new_error_with_message methods. These methods either take an ErrorGuaranteed or call span_delayed_bug before returning an interned Ty of kind Error. If you were already planning to use span_delayed_bug, then you can just pass the span and message to ty_error_with_message instead to avoid a redundant delayed bug.