Tagless Final For Writing Compilers

Writing a compiler could consist of numerous steps.

Therefore, a solution to allow compiler writers to - merely focus on only one step of the whole compilation at one time, - keep away from awaring other dependent steps, and - able to composite the separate steps into a big one,

could be beneficial(better for collaborations as well?).

Tagless Final can be an approach for this demand, due to one of its useful feature: “interpreting one term from various perspectives”.


Given a BNF grammar(hereafter as Lamu0),

expr ::= let | lam | app
let  ::= 'let' ID '=' expr 'in' expr
lam  ::= 'fn' ID '=>' expr
app  ::= atomexpr
     |   app atomexpr
atomexpr ::= INT | STRING | FLOAT | '(' expr ')'

To compile the language Lamu0 to a lower representation(like C), there’re quite a lot of phases we have to go through, even though we don’t take GC or optimizations into consideration here:

  • To generate low level code, we shall

    • check validity of program: type inference

    • eliminate high level language constructs like:

      • lambda

      • name shadowing(let binding)

      • closure(free variables)

  • To perform type inference

    we’re supposed to correctly identify different occurrences for a symbol, and assign the same type to the symbol’s occurrences.

  • To eliminate name shadowings

    we’re supposed to rename duplicate symbols to make all of them unique.

  • To eliminate closures, we do closure conversions

    we’re supposed to find free variables for each lambda, and do some extra code generation such as creating closure data structures.

    note, we’re supposed to design the data structures to represent closures, and different free variables might be stored using different low level representations. So we need type inference.

    type inference < closure conversion

  • To eliminate lambdas

    we’re supposed to recursively lift lambdas to global functions, but any free variable shall be rejected here, thus this phase should start after closure conversions.

    closure conversion < eliminating lambdas

Distinguishing scoped symbols from each other, detecting free variables, both of them are involved in the analysis for Scopes, or name resolution, thus

name resolution < type inference

name resolution < eliminating name shadowing

name resolution < closure conversion

Next, we can make a order for compiler phases, from source code to low level code:

name resolution(1)    < type infer(2)
name resolution(1)    < eliminating name shadowing(3)
name resolution(1)    < closure conversion(4)
type infer(2)         < closure conversion(4)
closure conversion(4) < eliminating lambdas(5)

One solution for these compiler phases is

1. name resolution(1)     <
2. type infer(2)          <
3. closure conversion(4)  <
4. elim lambdas(5)        <
5. elim name shadowing(3)

Recall our goals: 1. allow compiler writers to focus on only one phase, and no need to care about the dependent phases(e.g., when writing type inference, no need to care about name resolution) 2. the separately implemented compiler phases can be composited into a big one

We can use an example to illustrate the obstacles. Check following inference rule:

     A |- e: \sigma  A_x \cup {x : \sigma} |- e' : \tau
          A |- (let x = e in e') : \tau

In this case, I’d ask, what’s the form of the type environment A?

This might be considered trivial in many cases, but is crucial in my concerns.

Of course, we can maintain a map from string to type, and push and pop string-type pairs when inferencing.

However, it’d be beneficial if we have already transformed the symbols (like x in let x = e in e') into unique ones, which will then make A_x \cup {x: \sigma} unnecessary, and the inference becomes:

          A |- e: \sigma  A |- e' : \tau
          A |- (let x = e in e') : \tau

In this way, the overlap between name resolution and type inference gets eliminated. Further, operations like pushing and popping names are already done during name resolution, we don’t have to repeat it. We do dependent phases separately, things get decoupled.

However, the problem comes: How can we make sure the separately implemented compiler phases can get composited?

Tagless Final For Compiler Phases

Quick Start for Tagless Final

module type SYM = sig
   type repr
   val zero: repr
   val succ: repr -> repr

(* we want: pass in a module, get a new interpretation *)

module SYMSelf = struct
   type repr = {e : 'a. (module SYM with type repr = 'a) -> 'a}
   let zero = {e = fun (type a) (module M: SYM with type repr=a) -> M.zero}
   let succ {e} = {e = fun (type a) ((module M: SYM with type repr=a) as m)-> M.succ (e m)}

let run (type a) ((module M: SYM with type repr=a) as m) (SYMSelf.({e})) = e m

let term = let open SYMSelf in succ @@ succ @@ zero

What is the term in the last line?

module SYMShow = struct
   type repr = string
   let zero = "0"
   let succ x = "succ(" ^ x ^ ")"

module SYMList = struct
   type repr = {f: 'a. 'a -> 'a list}
   let zero = {f = fun _ -> []}
   let succ {f=x} = {f=fun a -> a::x a}

module SYMNat = struct
   type repr = int
   let zero = 0
   let succ x = x + 1

run (module SYMShow) term
-- succ(succ(zero))
let (SYMList.{f}) = run (module SYMList) term in f 1
-- [1; 1]
run (module SYMList) term
-- 2

This is neat!

Think that we implement each compiler phase, just like SYMShow, SYMList, SYMNat?


Tagless Final firstly requires a grammar for the DSL, and it corresponds to our BNF gramamr.

We now give the structure of interpretion(incidentally, it’s called “grammar”) for aforementioned BNF grammar:

type litype = IntT | FloatT | StringT

module type SYM = sig
  type repr
  val letl : string -> repr -> repr -> repr
  val lam  : string -> repr -> repr
  val app  : repr -> repr -> repr
  val lit  : litype -> string -> repr
  val var  : string -> repr

See the implementation of parser:

    LET n=ID ASSIGN bound=expr IN body=expr {SYMSelf.letl n bound body}
  | FN n=ID ARROW body=expr {SYMSelf.lam n body}
  | ...

Then we got something that can be interpreted in various ways, instead of an AST!

Expanding Representation

The compiler phases are usually dependent.

Type inference requires name resolution, so how can we - implement them separately, and - finally composite them by using Tagless Final?

Guess we have implemented these phases, for type infer and name resolution, we shall have

(* name resolution *)
module SYMScope = struct
   type repr = scope

(* type infer*)
module SYMType = struct
   type repr = typ (* your type representation *)
   let letl : string -> typ -> typ -> typ = ..

Alas, we cannot use the information from SYMScope in SYMType!

So.. how could we address this problem?

Recall the order of phases,

1. name resolution(1)     <
2. type infer(2)  <
3. closure conversion(4)  <
4. elim lambdas(5)        <
5. elim name shadowing(3)

I guess, the ``repr`` is expanding bigger and bigger when passing the phases in order?

type repr = scope ->
type repr = scope * typ ->
type repr = scope * typ * closureinfo ->
type repr = scope * typ * closureinfo * lambdainfo ->
type repr = scope * typ * closureinfo * lambdainfo * unique_name ->

Problems of Decoupling and Compositing

However, if we implement a SYM with type repr = scope * typ,

  • Repetition, loss of decoupling: we have to repeat ourselves for writing code for SYM with type repr = scope. It seems impossible to reuse SYM with type repr = scope in SYM with type repr = scope * typ.

  • Inflexibility, loss of compositing: and further, the most severe thing is, the order of phases gets fixed, and if we misdesign the order of phases, we cannot compose things in a flexible style.

To avoid above losses, just figure out a new abstraction on SYM, called FSYM.


module type FSYM = sig
   type o
   type c
   type r
   val combine : o -> c -> r
   val project : r -> o

   val letl : o -> string -> r -> r -> c
   val lam  : o -> string -> r -> c
   val app  : o -> r -> r -> c
   val lit  : o -> litype -> string -> c
   val var  : o -> string -> c

module Grow (Base: SYM) (Incr: FSYM with type o = Base.repr): SYM with type repr = Incr.r = struct
  type repr = Incr.r

  let lam n r =
     let o = Base.lam n @@ Incr.project r in
     let c = Incr.lam o n r in
     Incr.combine o c

We can use FSYM to decouple and composite dependent compiler phases, which is demonstrated in Lamu0 by FSYM.

Besides, the functor Grow also has a function form taking advantage of the first class modules:

let grow = fun
   (type o c r')
   (module Base: SYM with type r = o)
   (module Incr: FSYM with type r = r' and type c = c and type o = o) ->
  (module struct
   end: SYM with type r = r')

Laziness, for Mutual Dependencies

Given 2 compiler phases A and B, there might be such a case:

  • A depends on a semi-complete B,

  • total-completion of B depends on a whole A, and

  • B’s semi-completion can be done independently.

module AB = Grow(A)(B)

(* including semi-completion of B *)
let (repr_a, repr_b) = run (module AB) parsed_term

Assume repr_a and repr_b are both lazy, we can finish the semi-completion of B when calling run, and then

let repr_a = Lazy.force repr_a (* total completion of A *)
let repr_b = Lazy.force repr_b (* total completion of B *)


A cleaner implementation of Tagless Final compiler is Lamu1 instead of Lamu0.

Lamu1 extends lamu0 with principal types.

You can try type inference of Lamu1 in a REPL, by following the simple guideline at here.