The value restriction is a rule that governs when type inference is allowed to polymorphically generalize a value declaration. In short, the value restriction says that generalization can only occur if the right-hand side of an expression is syntactically a value. For example, in

val f = fn x => x
val _ = (f "foo"; f 13)

the expression fn x => x is syntactically a value, so f has polymorphic type 'a -> 'a and both calls to f type check. On the other hand, in

val f = let in fn x => x end
val _ = (f "foo"; f 13)

the expression let in fn x => end end is not syntactically a value and so f can either have type int -> int or string -> string, but not 'a -> 'a. Hence, the program does not type check.

The Definition of Standard ML spells out precisely which expressions are syntactic values (it refers to such expressions as non-expansive). An expression is a value if it is of one of the following forms.

  • a constant (13, "foo", 13.0, …)

  • a variable (x, y, …)

  • a function (fn x => e)

  • the application of a constructor other than ref to a value (Foo v)

  • a type constrained value (v: t)

  • a tuple in which each field is a value (v1, v2, ...)

  • a record in which each field is a value {l1 = v1, l2 = v2, ...}

  • a list in which each element is a value [v1, v2, ...]

Why the value restriction exists

The value restriction prevents a ref cell (or an array) from holding values of different types, which would allow a value of one type to be cast to another and hence would break type safety. If the restriction were not in place, the following program would type check.

val r: 'a option ref = ref NONE
val r1: string option ref = r
val r2: int option ref = r
val () = r1 := SOME "foo"
val v: int = valOf (!r2)

The first line violates the value restriction because ref NONE is not a value. All other lines are type correct. By its last line, the program has cast the string "foo" to an integer. This breaks type safety, because now we can add a string to an integer with an expression like v + 13. We could even be more devious, by adding the following two lines, which allow us to threat the string "foo" as a function.

val r3: (int -> int) option ref = r
val v: int -> int = valOf (!r3)

Eliminating the explicit ref does nothing to fix the problem. For example, we could replace the declaration of r with the following.

val f: unit -> 'a option ref = fn () => ref NONE
val r: 'a option ref = f ()

The declaration of f is well typed, while the declaration of r violates the value restriction because f () is not a value.

Unnecessarily rejected programs

Unfortunately, the value restriction rejects some programs that could be accepted.

val id: 'a -> 'a = fn x => x
val f: 'a -> 'a = id id

The type constraint on f requires f to be polymorphic, which is disallowed because id id is not a value. MLton reports the following type error.

Error: z.sml 2.19.
  Can't bind type variable: 'a.
    in: val 'a (f): ('a -> 'a) = id id

MLton indicates the inability to make f polymorphic by saying that it can’t bind the type variable 'a at the declaration. MLton doesn’t explicitly mention the value restriction, but that is the reason. If we leave the type constraint off of f

val id: 'a -> 'a = fn x => x
val f = id id

then the program succeeds; however, MLton gives us the following warning.

Warning: z.sml 2.1.
  Unable to locally determine type of variable: f.
    type: ??? -> ???
    in: val f = id id

This warning indicates that MLton couldn’t polymorphically generalize f, nor was there enough context using f to determine its type. This in itself is not a type error, but it it is a hint that something is wrong with our program. Using f provides enough context to eliminate the warning.

val id: 'a -> 'a = fn x => x
val f = id id
val _ = f 13

But attempting to use f as a polymorphic function will fail.

val id: 'a -> 'a = fn x => x
val f = id id
val _ = f 13
val _ = f "foo"

Alternatives to the value restriction

There would be nothing wrong with treating f as polymorphic in

val id: 'a -> 'a = fn x => x
val f = id id

One might think that the value restriction could be relaxed, and that only types involving ref should be disallowed. Unfortunately, the following example shows that even the type 'a -> 'a can cause problems. If this program were allowed, then we could cast an integer to a string (or any other type).

val f: 'a -> 'a =
      val r: 'a option ref = ref NONE
      fn x =>
         val y = !r
         val () = r := SOME x
         case y of
            NONE => x
          | SOME y => y
val _ = f 13
val _ = f "foo"

The previous version of Standard ML took a different approach (MilnerEtAl90, Tofte90, ImperativeTypeVariable) than the value restriction. It encoded information in the type system about when ref cells would be created, and used this to prevent a ref cell from holding multiple types. Although it allowed more programs to be type checked, this approach had significant drawbacks. First, it was significantly more complex, both for implementers and for programmers. Second, it had an unfortunate interaction with the modularity, because information about ref usage was exposed in module signatures. This either prevented the use of references for implementing a signature, or required information that one would like to keep hidden to propagate across modules.

In the early nineties, Andrew Wright studied about 250,000 lines of existing SML code and discovered that it did not make significant use of the extended typing ability, and proposed the value restriction as a simpler alternative (Wright95). This was adopted in the revised Definition.

Working with the value restriction

One technique that works with the value restriction is EtaExpansion. We can use eta expansion to make our id id example type check follows.

val id: 'a -> 'a = fn x => x
val f: 'a -> 'a = fn z => (id id) z

This solution means that the computation (in this case id id) will be performed each time f is applied, instead of just once when f is declared. In this case, that is not a problem, but it could be if the declaration of f performs substantial computation or creates a shared data structure.

Another technique that sometimes works is to move a monomorphic computation prior to a (would-be) polymorphic declaration so that the expression is a value. Consider the following program, which fails due to the value restriction.

datatype 'a t = A of string | B of 'a
val x: 'a t = A (if true then "yes" else "no")

It is easy to rewrite this program as

datatype 'a t = A of string | B of 'a
   val s = if true then "yes" else "no"
   val x: 'a t = A s

The following example (taken from Wright95) creates a ref cell to count the number of times a function is called.

val count: ('a -> 'a) -> ('a -> 'a) * (unit -> int) =
   fn f =>
      val r = ref 0
      (fn x => (r := 1 + !r; f x), fn () => !r)
val id: 'a -> 'a = fn x => x
val (countId: 'a -> 'a, numCalls) = count id

The example does not type check, due to the value restriction. However, it is easy to rewrite the program, staging the ref cell creation before the polymorphic code.

datatype t = T of int ref
val count1: unit -> t = fn () => T (ref 0)
val count2: t * ('a -> 'a) -> (unit -> int) * ('a -> 'a) =
   fn (T r, f) => (fn () => !r, fn x => (r := 1 + !r; f x))
val id: 'a -> 'a = fn x => x
val t = count1 ()
val countId: 'a -> 'a = fn z => #2 (count2 (t, id)) z
val numCalls = #1 (count2 (t, id))

Of course, one can hide the constructor T inside a local or behind a signature.

Also see