Liskov and type safety
I've been fascinated by type systems in programming languages for a while now. Recently, something clicked for me about inheritance and types.
Not only did it clarify type variance, I also understood what the Liskov substitution principle actually is about. Today, I'm going to share these insights with you.
I'll be writing pseudo code to make clear what I'm talking about. So let's make sure you know what the syntax of this pseudo code will be.
A function is defined like so.
foo(T) : void bar(S) : T
First comes the function name, second the argument list with types as parameters,
and finally the return type.
When a function returns nothing, it's indicated as
A function can extend another function, as can types. Inheritance is defined like so.
bar > baz(S) : T T > S
In this example,
S is a subtype of
The last step is being able to invoke the function, which is done like so.
foo(T) a = bar(S)
Once again: it's all pseudo code and I'll use it to show what types are, how they can and cannot be defined in combination with inheritance, and how this results in type-safe systems.
# Liskov substitution principle
Let's look at the official definition of the LSP.
Sis a subtype of
T, then objects of type
Tmay be replaced with objects of type
Instead of using
T, I'll be using more concrete types in my examples.
Organism > Animal > Cat
These are the three types we'll be working with.
Liskov tells us that wherever objects of type
Organism appear in our code,
they must be replaceable by subtypes like
Let's say there's a function used to
feed(Organism) : void
It must be possible to call it like so:
I tend to see a function definition as a contract, a promise; for the programmer to be used. The contract states:
Given an object of the type
Organism, I'll be able to execute and
Cat are subtypes of
the LSP states that this function should also work when one of these subtypes are used.
This brings us to one of the key properties of inheritance.
If Liskov states that objects of type
Organism must be replaceable by objects of type
it means that
Animal may not change the expectations we have of
Animal may extend
Organism, meaning it may add functionality,
Animal may not change the certainties given by
This is where many OO programmers make mistakes. They see inheritance more like "re-using parts of the parent type, and overriding other parts in the sub-type", rather than extending the behaviour defined by its parent. This is what the LSP guards against.
# Benefits of the LSP
Before exploring the details of type safety with inheritance, we should stop and ask ourselves what's to gain by following this principle. I've explained what Barbara Liskov meant when she defined it, but why is it necessary? Is it bad to break it?
I mentioned the idea of a "promise" or "contract".
If a function or type makes a promise about what it can do,
we should be able to blindly trust it.
If we can't rely on function
feed being able to feed all
there's a piece of undocumented behaviour in our code.
If we know that the LSP is respected, there's a level of security. We may trust that this function will do the thing we expect; even without looking at the implementation of that function. When the contract is breached, however; there's a chance of runtime errors that both the programmer and the compiler could not –or did not– anticipate for.
In the above examples, we looked at respecting the LSP form the developer's point of view. There's another party involved though: a language's type system. A language can be designed in a type-safe way or not. Types are the building blocks to mathematically proof whether a function will do the thing you want it to do.
So, next up; we're going to look at the other side: type-safety on the language level.
# Type safety
To understand how type safety can –or cannot– be guaranteed by a language, let's look at these functions.
take_care(Animal) : void take_care > feed(Animal) : void
As you can see,
take_care and follows its parent signature one-to-one.
Some programming languages don't allow children to change the type signature of their parent.
This is called type invariance.
It's the easiest approach to handle type safety with inheritance, as types are not allowed to vary when inheriting.
But when you think back at how our example types are related to each other,
we know that
Let's see whether the following is possible.
take_care(Animal) : void take_care > feed(Cat) : void
The LSP only defines rules about objects, so on first sight, the function definition itself doesn't break any rules. The real question is: does this function allow for proper use of the LSP when it's called?
We know that
feed extends from
take_care, and thus provides at least the same contract as its parent.
We also know that
Animal and its sub-types to be used.
feed should also be able to take an
feed(Animal) // Type error
Unfortunately, this is not the case. There's a type error occurring. Can you see what we're doing here? Instead of applying the LSP only to the parameters of a function, we're also applying the same principles to the function itself.
Wherever an invocation of
take_careis used, we must be able to replace it with an invocation of
This especially makes sense in an OO language where a function is no standalone entity in your code, but rather part of a class, which represents a type itself.
To keep a system type-safe, it may not allow children to make the parameter types more specific. This breaks the promises given by the parent.
However, take a look at the following definition:
take_care(Animal) : void take_care > feed(Organism) : void
Does this definition ensures type safety?
It may seem backwards at first, but it does.
feed still follows the contract specified by
It can take
Animal as an argument, and work just fine.
In this case,
feed widens the parameter types allowed,
while still respecting the parent's contract.
This is called contravariance.
Types in argument lists should be contravariant for a type system to be safe.
# Return type variance
Moving on to return types. There are a few more types we'll have to define, in order for the examples to make sense. I'm sorry in advance for the choice of words!
Excretion > Poop
And these are the functions we're working with.
take_care(Animal) : Excretion take_care > feed(Animal) : Poop
The question now: is the overridden return type safe? In contrast to the contravariance for the argument list, this example actually is type safe!
The parent definition
take_care tells us that this function will always return
an object of type
excretion = take_care(Animal) excretion = feed(Animal)
Poop is a subtype of
Excretion, we can be a 100% sure that whatever
it will be within the category of
You see the opposite rule applies for return types compared to function parameters. In the case of return types, we're calling it covariance, or covariant types.
# Real-life impact
There' no guarantee that a type-safe language will always write a bug-free program. We've seen that the language design only carries half the responsibility of respecting the LSP. The other half is the programmer's task.
Languages differ though, all have their own type system, and each will have a different level of type safety.
Eiffel, for example, allows for parameter covariance. By now you know this means there's an area of wrong behaviour possible that's undetectable by the compiler. Hence there's the possibility of runtime errors.
PHP allows for constructors of child classes to have another signature, while keeping an invariant type system for all other functions. As with many things PHP, this inconsistency increases the confusion for developers.
Some languages like Java, C# and Rust have a concept that I didn't cover today: generics. Type variance also plays a big role there. That topic is out of scope for this blog post, but I might cover it in the future.
With all these differences, there's one thing to keep in mind. The safety of a type system doesn't mean a language is better or worse. I think it's fair to say that some cases would benefit from a very strong type system, while others need the exact opposite. The key takeaway is that every programmer should learn more than just the concepts and paradigms of the languages they are used to the most. A broadened view will be beneficial, now and in the future.
So what's your opinion on type safety? If you're up for it, I'd love to talk about it even more: you can reach me on Twitter or e-mail.
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