A property list is a dictionary-like data structure into which properties (name-value pairs) can be inserted and from which properties can be looked up by name. The term comes from the Lisp language, where every symbol has a property list for storing information, and where the names are typically symbols and keys can be any type of value.

Here is an SML signature for property lists such that for any type of value a new property can be dynamically created to manipulate that type of value in a property list.

signature PROPERTY_LIST =
      type t

      val new: unit -> t
      val newProperty: unit -> {add: t * 'a -> unit,
                                peek: t -> 'a option}

Here is a functor demonstrating the use of property lists. It first creates a property list, then two new properties (of different types), and adds a value to the list for each property.

functor Test (P: PROPERTY_LIST) =
      val pl = P.new ()

      val {add = addInt: P.t * int -> unit, peek = peekInt} = P.newProperty ()
      val {add = addReal: P.t * real -> unit, peek = peekReal} = P.newProperty ()

      val () = addInt (pl, 13)
      val () = addReal (pl, 17.0)
      val s1 = Int.toString (valOf (peekInt pl))
      val s2 = Real.toString (valOf (peekReal pl))
      val () = print (concat [s1, " ", s2, "\n"])

Applied to an appropriate implementation PROPERTY_LIST, the Test functor will produce the following output.

13 17.0


Because property lists can hold values of any type, their implementation requires a UniversalType. Given that, a property list is simply a list of elements of the universal type. Adding a property adds to the front of the list, and looking up a property scans the list.

functor PropertyList (U: UNIVERSAL_TYPE): PROPERTY_LIST =
      datatype t = T of U.t list ref

      fun new () = T (ref [])

      fun 'a newProperty () =
            val (inject, out) = U.embed ()
            fun add (T r, a: 'a): unit = r := inject a :: (!r)
            fun peek (T r) =
               Option.map (valOf o out) (List.find (isSome o out) (!r))
            {add = add, peek = peek}

If U: UNIVERSAL_TYPE, then we can test our code as follows.

structure Z = Test (PropertyList (U))

Of course, a serious implementation of property lists would have to handle duplicate insertions of the same property, as well as the removal of elements in order to avoid space leaks.

Also see