Scope escape

[scoping] [polymorphism]

When both polymorphism (generic functions) and type inference are present, an issue known as scope escape can arise. Suppose that inside the scope of a variable f whose type is being inferred, we define a polymorphic function of type α.αα∀ α . α → α. While type-checking this function, we must ensure that we do not accidentally infer a type for f that mentions the polymorphic variable αα, as it was not in scope when f was introduced.

Languages that mix type inference and polymorphic definitions must check that this does not occur:

{-# LANGUAGE RankNTypes #-}

idful :: (forall a. a -> a) -> (Int,String)
idful id = (id 5, id "hello")

g f = idful (\x -> let _ = f x in x)
-- GHC error:
--     Couldn't match expected type ‘a -> p0’ with actual type ‘p’
--     because type variable ‘a’ would escape its scope
type idful = { id : 'a . 'a -> 'a }
let idful i = 5, "hello"

let g f = idful { id = fun x -> f x; x }
(* Error: This field value has type 'b -> 'b which is less general than
         'a. 'a -> 'a *)

Above, the idful function requires an argument of type α.αα∀α. α → α, but the function it is given leaks its argument to f. Naively, we might infer f takes arguments of type αα, but this is invalid as αα is not in scope outside the argument to idful.

The consequences of accidental scope escape are often an internal error later in the compiler, when it tries to examine the invalid type that mentions an out-of-scope variable. If scope escape does not cause the compiler to crash, it is often a soundness issue: inferred types that escape their scope can cause, for instance, the creation of polymorphic references.

Scope escape bugs have occurred at one time or another in almost every implementation of polymorphism (especially higher-rank polymorphism), including Haskell1, OCaml2, Rust3 and Scala4:

-- Counterexample by Simon Peyton Jones
{-# LANGUAGE MultiParamTypeClasses, TypeFamilies, FlexibleContexts #-} 

module Foo where

type family F a

class C b where {}

foo :: a -> F a
foo x = error "urk"

h :: (b -> ()) -> Int
h = error "urk"

f = h (\x -> let g :: C (F a) => a -> Int
                 g y = length [x, foo y]
             in ())
-- Causes an internal compiler error in Core Lint
(* Counterexample by Leo White *)
let (n : 'b -> < m : 'a . ([< `Foo of int] as 'b) -> 'a >) = 
  fun x -> object
    method m : 'x. [< `Foo of 'x] -> 'x = fun x -> assert false
(* Type inference gave:
   Error: Values do not match:
          val n : ([< `Foo of int & 'a ] as 'b) -> < m : 'a0. 'b -> 'a0 >
        is not included in
          val n : ([< `Foo of int & 'a ] as 'b) -> < m : 'a0. 'b -> 'a0 >
   Note the & 'a in the argument type.
   That is the univar from 'a . ([< `Foo of int] as 'b) -> 'a.
   (Unknown whether this is a soundness issue) *)
// Counterexample by @WildCryptoFox
fn f<I>(i: I)
    I: IntoIterator,
    I::Item: for<'a> Into<&'a ()>,

fn main() {
    // triggers internal compiler error
// Counterexample by Nada Amin
object Test {
  trait A { a =>
    type X
    val x: a.X
  val a = new A {
    type X = Int
    val x = 1
  def f(arg: A): arg.X = arg.x
  val x = f(a: A)
  // Inferred type of x references out-of-scope 'arg'
  // (Still unknown whether this is a soundness issue)

Scope escape bugs are notably absent from Idris 25, a self-hosting dependently-typed language whose compiler encodes scoping in the types it uses to manipulate programs, so that the compiler successfully builds only if it does not have any scope escape errors.