What makes type checking Ruby hard?

December 29, 2019

Mutation makes typechecking Ruby harder than many other programming languages. Most people will immediately think I mean mutation in the sense of x += 1 or something—that’s not what I’m referring to. In fact, that’s the easy kind of mutation to model in a type system.

What I mean is that nearly everything worth knowing statically about a Ruby program involves mutation. Defining a class?

class A
end

That mutates the global namespace of constants. After those lines run, all code in the project can reference the class A.

Defining a method?

class A
  def foo
    puts 'hello'
  end
end

The method foo is undefined just before the def block (at runtime!), but defined after—mutation again.

Ruby provides things like attr_reader and attr_accessor to define getter and setter methods:

class B
  attr_reader :foo
end

attr_reader is not a Ruby keyword, contrary to popular belief: it’s a method on the singleton class which takes an argument. It defines an instance method called foo as a side effect by mutating the class B.

It’s the same for mixing modules into classes:

module M; end
class C
  include M
end

include is another method disguised like a keyword which mutates the class’s list of ancestors.

One of my least favorite Ruby features: you can redefine (not override) a method:

class D
  attr_reader :foo
  alias_method :old_foo, :foo
  def foo
    puts 'Calling D#foo'
    old_foo
  end
end

Because D#foo is defined by the attr_reader line, the subsequent def overwrites it (akin to mutating a local variable, like x += 1). Oh and that alias_method? Another method looking like a keyword which mutates the class.

Even the way libraries work in Ruby is powered by mutation:

require 'some_gem'

require is a method (again, not a keyword) that looks up and runs arbitrary Ruby code, whose result we discard. It’s only convention that the primary side effect of the require’d code is to mutate the global namespace, defining more classes and methods.

DSLs and metaprogramming

It would be one thing if Ruby constrained the places where this mutation could occur. But instead, it provides first-class support for these features anywhere Ruby code runs. Everything we’ve seen so far can be hidden behind arbitrary computation at runtime:

It’s not uncommon to see Ruby libraries embrace this rather than avoid it (Rails definitely does). Ruby programs frequently build up large abstractions and do tons of computation which at the end of the day result in a define_method or a const_set.

Rubyists call this “metaprogramming” or “building DSLs” but I call it like I see it: mutation.

Modeling mutation

Type systems are notoriously bad at modelling this kind of mutation. Look at other typed, object-oriented languages: Java, Scala, C++, … Each of these languages forbids this kind of mutation. (Whether because it’s hard to implement support for it or because they’re making a value judgement is beyond me.)

So how can Sorbet can model this? Mostly, it just cheats. Err, “approximates.” From my experience working on the Sorbet team, I can think of three main ways it cheats.

First, Sorbet assumes that if a class or method might exist, it does exist, and universally throughout a project.1 It pretends that all include, extend, and alias_method statements in a class run first, before all other code at the top-level of that class. It restricts method redefinitions—the old and new methods must take the same number and kinds of arguments. And it restricts alias_method: you can only alias to a method on your class, not to a parent class. Sorbet makes no attempt to model undef_method at all (another method-not-keyword!).

Second, Sorbet cheats by implementing heuristics for the most common DSLs. To support attr_reader, Sorbet says, “Hey, this method call happens to be to some method named attr_reader. I’m not sure if it’s to Module#attr_reader or to some other attr_reader definition or to any definition at all, but it’s provided with a single Symbol argument, the result is discarded, and it’s called at the syntactic top-level of a class, so I bet that it is a call to Module#attr_reader.” It’s similar for many other popular DSLs: it makes decent educated guesses.

But after all that, it sort of gives up. Sorbet makes no attempts to work backwards from a call to define_method or const_set inside a method body to learn that a class or method might have been defined somewhere. Instead, it cheats one last time and uses runtime information.

As a part of initializing a Sorbet project, Sorbet requires (read: executes) as much code in a project as it can: all the gems listed in the Gemfile and all the Ruby files in the current folder. Afterwards, it can see the result of all that’s been mutated thus far (via reflection) and serialize what it sees into RBI files to convey what it saw to the static checker. This is still imperfect (it completely misses things that are defined after require time), but empirically it finds most of the remaining undiscovered definitions.

Beyond mutation

Don’t get me wrong, those approximations are really useful and effective. But really, the way Sorbet handles mutation in a codebase is by incentivicing people to get rid of it.

Programming languages are tools to change and structure the way we think. In the long run, all code can be changed. We adopt type systems specifically to help guide these changes, which I’ve touched on before. When it comes to mutation in Ruby, Sorbet makes a solid effort to model the helpful parts, while providing guide rails and suggestions to deal with the rest.


Appendix A: By comparison with typed JavaScript

You might say, “the things that you’re talking about aren’t unique to Ruby! It’s the same for all dynamic programming languages!” But is that true in practice?

Let’s compare our Ruby snippets from before with JavaScript.

Ruby:

class A
  def self.my_dsl(name)
    define_method(name) do; end
  end
end

JavaScript:

class A {
  static myDsl(name) {
    this.prototype[name] = function() {}
  }
}

First I’ll point out: the mutation becomes way more obvious in the JavaScript program! But second: both TypeScript and Flow report static errors on this program. They both complain that there’s no type annotation declaring that it’s ok to treat this.prototype as if it were a key-value mapping.

The fact that both Flow and TypeScript report an error here speak to how common this idiom is in practice. It’s not common, and they’d rather not encourage programs like this, so they forbid it.

Here’s another example, first in Ruby:

require 'some_gem'

SomeNamespace::SomeClass.new

And then in JavaScript:

import someNamespace from 'some_package';

new someNamespace.SomeClass();

With no RBI files declaring whether SomeNamespace::SomeClass exists or not, Sorbet will report an error that the class doesn’t exist. But in TypeScript and Flow, the code is just fine, even if there’s no type declaration file. Both can still see that whatever vale is imported will be bound to the someNamespace variable (even if it’s treated as any).

Sorbet is thus forced to come up with ways to generate RBI files for all new projects, because without them Sorbet would be crippled: it would have no way to distinguish between a class name that has actually been typoed vs one that is typed correctly but for which there’s no visible definition. Meanwhile, TypeScript and Flow work completely fine in new codebases out of the box.

So my claim is that: no, these problems are unique to Ruby, because the design of the language and the culture of its use so pervasively promote or require mutation.

Appendix B: More things that are actually mutation


  1. Frequently this assumption is backed up by an autoloader. For example, Rails includes an autoloader that loads constants lazily on demand, so that the programmer doesn’t have to sprinkle require statements throughout the code. But how do autoloads work? Mutation again 🙂.

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