Types and type declarations

This page is about types and type expressions. There is a separate page about type declarations in general and further pages about class declarations and interface declarations in particular.


The following are all type expressions:

HashSet<in Human&Female>
HashSet<out Human|Fish>


Types and type constructors

It is extremely important to understand that a type declaration such as

class Generic<Argument>(){

does not introduce a new type. Instead it introduces a type constructor, called Generic, from which we can construct other types such as


These are called applied types (or produced types), because we're applying a list of type arguments to the type constructor to create a type.

A non-generic class or interface declaration (one without type arguments) such as

interface NonGeneric {

does appear to introduce a type, simply because it requires no type arguments so the expression NonGeneric is a valid type expression, but conceptually it is still a type constructor.

Note that Ceylon doesn't allow raw types which allow a type constructor to be treated as a type.

This might seem like pedantry, but understanding the difference between the declaration of a type (i.e. a type constructor) and the types which are produced from it will prove helpful.

Union and intersection

Apart from producing types by applying type arguments to type constructors, Ceylon also allows us to produce types by forming intersections (using &) and unions (using |) of other types.



Ceylon supports subtype polymorphism (which just means inheritance) in addition to parameteric polymorphism (which means having type constructors).

Subtype polymorphism means that as well as applying type arguments to type declarations, and producing unions and intersections of types, we can ask whether one type is a subtype of another. Being a subtype means all instances of the subtype must also be instances of the other type.

In particular Ceylon supports declarative subtyping. That means the declaration of a type includes listing what are the supertypes of types produced from the declaration.

It's worth mentioning two important types at this point:

  • Anything is the supertype of all types; you can't do anything with an instanceof Anything except narrow it to some more useful type,
  • Nothing is a subtype of all types; there are no instances of Nothing.

Subtypes of unions and intersections

Assume that

interface Human satisfies Mammal {

So that the type Human is a subtype of the type Mammal. Then Human is also a subtype of Human|Fish because every human is also a human or a fish. (Fish is also a subtype of Human|Fish). Generalizing, we can say that any case of a union is trivially a subtype of that union:

X and Y are both subtypes of X|Y

With intersections it works the other way around. Every Human&Male is both a Human and a Male, so an intersection is trivially a subtype of all of its constituent types:

X&Y is a subtype of both X and Y

Be aware that the ceylon typechecker is quite powerful in dealing with unions and intersections:

  • it will simplify Human|Mammal to Mammal and Human&Mammal to Human
  • it can often reason that an intersection type is Nothing (which is does for things like Integer&String, for example).

This can be important when it comes to understanding compiler errors, because the type you wrote might not be the type the typechecker is using.

Subtypes and type constructors

Combining subtypes and type constructors, we can ask whether a List<Mammal> is a subtype of List<Mammal|Fish>.

It's not meaningful to start thinking "well List is a subtype of List" because List itself isn't a type, remember.

Instead we need to think about whether every possible instance of List<Mammal> must also be an instance of List<Mammal|Fish>. The answer depends on how we use the list.

If we only "get elements out of the list", then from a List<Mammal> we might get a dog and a cat and a platypus and those would be perfectly good things to find in a List<Mammal|Fish> too. In other words in this "getting things out" case List<Mammal> is a subtype of List<Mammal|Fish>.

Now, if we only "add elements to the list", then into a list of List<Mammal|Fish> we could add a dog and a cat and a shark, but we couldn't put all those things into a List<Mammal> (hint: a shark is not a mammal). So a List<Mammal> is not a subtype of List<Mammal|Fish>.

It turns out that this rule for "out" not to be limited to unions, so more generally

if X is a subtype of Y then Out<X> is a subtype of Out<Y>.

This is called covariance (the type parameter of Out is covariant).

Now let's think about intersections.

Into a List<Human> we could add Alice, Bob and Carol, but into a List<Human&Male> we could only add Bob. So a List<Human> is a subtype of List<Human&Male> (which is the other way around from the type arguments, where Human&Male is a subtype of Human). In general in this "putting into" case we find that

if X is a subtype of Y then In<Y> is a subtype of In<X>

This is called contravariance (the type parameter of In is contravariant).

Sometimes you have an reference where you need to get things out and put them in. That's called invariance. In general if X is a strict subtype of Y neither Both<X> not Both<Y> is a subtype of the other. This fact turns out to be rather inconvenient.

There are formal rules for what constitutes "in" and "out", but the simplest and most commonly needed one is:

  • If a type parameter appears just in attribute and method return types it's "out" (covariant).
  • If a type parameter appears just in method and member class parameter types, it's "in" (contravariant).
  • If a type parameter appears on both places it's invariant.

We want to be able to make use of the subtype relationships for In and Out types. To do this the typechecker needs to enforce that we don't go passing a reference to an "out thing" to something which wants to put things into the reference. Likewise passing a "in thing" to something which wants to get things out of the reference doesn't work either.

Declaration-site variance

One way to do this is for the declaration of a type to say it whether it is an "in thing" or an "out thing":

interface Out<out Thing>{}
interface In<in Thing>{}

The members of those interfaces then have to respect the in or out nature of Thing: We can't have a member of In which returns a Thing because that's a way of getting something out of an In. And we can't have a method which takes a Thing in an Out because that's a way to put something into an Out.

Using these in and out to label the type parameter of a declaration is called declaration-site variance and it is the preferred way of handling variance in Ceylon.

There's a trick we can often use to get around the inconvenience of invariance. Suppose we want

interface Both<Thing> {
    shared formal Thing getThing;
    shared formal Thing makeThing();
    shared formal void consumeThing(Thing thing);

We can put all the Thing-producing operations in an out declaration and all the Thing-consuming operations in a different in declaration and then combine them in a class:

interface OutThings<out Thing>{
    shared formal Thing getThing;
    shared formal Thing makeThing();
interface InThings<in Thing>{
    shared formal void consumeThing(Thing thing);
class BothThings<Thing>()
        satisfies OutThings<Thing> & InThings<Thing> {
    // ...

This trick starts to break down when there's a member which itself has Thing as a result type and parameter type:

Thing transformThing(Thing thing);

We can declare

interface TransformThing<out Output, in Input> {
    shared formal Output transformThing(Input thing);

And then satisfy TransformThing<Thing, Thing>, but this starts to get cumbersome.

Use-site variance

Ceylon has another way of expressing variance: At the place where we apply a type argument list to a type constructor. Reusing the invariant declaration Both we can write:

Both<out Mammal>

Every occurence of Thing as a return type in Both then has the type Mammal in Both<out Mamma>, as we might hope.

However, every occurence of Thing as a parameter type in Both has the type Nothing in Both<out Mammal>. We know there are no instances of Nothing, so we can never supply a valid argument to such a parameter. Thus we cannot call those members of Both<out Mammal> which have a Thing-typed parameter.

Similar things happen with

Both<in Mammal>

Those members would return Thing-typed results Both return Anything in Both<in Mammal>: We can obtain a result, but can't do much with it.

Strictly, use-site variance is more powerful than declaration-side variance, but:

  • it's also less intuitive for most people
  • we can end up constructing some extremely complicated type expressions.

An example of such an "extremely complicated type expression" is the type of the partition() of List<out Y>. Technically this is

List<in List<in Y out Nothing> out List<in Nothing out Y>>

But Ceylon doesn't actually support in and out type arguments (each type argument must be just in or just out), because thinking about this stuff is just too hard for most programmers.

So, in general, we avoid using use-site variance in Ceylon.

See also