Union Types

by James Phillips

A union type is something which can be realised as one of many (usually two) types. Either is an example in scala — Either can be Left[A] or Right[B]— a value of either type can be used in a place where we ask for an Either[A,B].

However, this is boxed so it’s a bit clunky to use. Ideally we want to be able to drop an A or a B directly into the space occupied by Either[A,B] without having to wrap it in Left/Right first. It’s clunky enough doing this
once but if you had nested Eithers it would get tedious very quickly.

Miles Sabin came up with a great way to represent unboxed union types in scala, a long time ago now.

His final example is:

One thing I will repeat here from the blog post is the unfortunate state of escaping the union context. When you have a value t: T which is understood by the compiler to be Int or String, how do you actually get the Int or the String out?

The easiest way is to pattern match like in the example given:

This is equivalent to what we might do with an `Either[Int, String]`:

But unfortunately due to erasure in the first example we lose the compiler’s ability to check the pattern match. If we forget a case, our code will just fail. If we add a case which cannot be reached, the compiler will not warn us about it. We will not be solving this problem (yet) — I am just pointing it out as a drawback to unboxed union types in scala.

Arbitrary Arity

One downfall with the approach in Miles’ blog post is the fact you’re stuck with just two values in the union. What if we wanted A or B or C? What if we wanted an arbitrarily wide union type? How would you achieve that without defining Union3 and Union4, etc?

First of all, we must be aware of additional concerns with nested unions that do not exist when dealing with unions
of only two types:

- Union[A, B] should be able to be used in place of a Union[A, B, C] (if T is A or B it is certainly A or B or C!)
- Union[A, A, B] should be able to be used in place of a Union[A, B]

Our first attempt looked a lot like Miles’ approach, just nested. So one might end up with something that looked a little like this:

Union[Union[Union[G, H], K], Union[B, C]]

which would be read as ‘G or H or K or B or C’.

But that was very noisy, and bug-ridden. The implicits required to generate it were constructive:

  • Commutativity: Union[A, B] => Union[B, A]
  • Associativity: Union[A, Union[B, C]] => Union[Union[A, B], C]
  • Point: A => Union[A, T] for any T

Because these are constructive there are a lot of different ways of combining them to prove the following two types are the ‘same’:

  • Union[Union[Union[G, H], K], Union[Union[H, U], C]]
  • Union[Union[Union[Union[C, G], H], K], U]

This led to a lot of diverging implicit expansion compile-time errors in unexpected places. It just wasn’t working, so we adjusted our thinking.

All those repeated ‘unions’ and brackets are just fluff; implementation details. What we actually want to do is represent the union types as a Set of types: we have this collection of types and we’re ignoring duplicates and the order does not matter.

A true set of types is difficult, since in any implementation (afaik!) there will be a natural order of types imposed by the compiler. But a list is easy, it’s just an HList. As long as our type classes and code around our HList implementation ignore repetitions and order, it should represent precisely what we want to represent.

HList approach

So here’s a basic Union implementation, built exactly the same way as an HList (but just type-level only, no values allowed)

A union type would end up looking like this:

  • Int :|: String :|: Boolean :|: UNil

— easily extendable to an arbitrary number of types.

Now we just have to be able to use and interpret it. The first thing we did was decide on what we wanted our user-interface to be.
We chose the following type class:

  • trait OneOf[T, U <: Union]

which represents evidence that T satisfies the union U (that is, T is one U’s constituent types). If we have one of these objects in scope we can proceed and we know that our eventual pattern match will be safe even if the compiler sadly doesn’t.

A function that uses it might look like this:

Our implicit functions generating OneOf instances would only let such a OneOf be generated in the case of T being Int or String.
So what are these implicits?

We need some utilities first.


First, a way of telling if a type T is a member of a union U. We do this with the following type class:

  • trait MemberOf[T, U <: Union]

If we have an implicit in scope with this type, we understand it to mean ‘T is a member of U’

We generate these implicit values below:

This covers all cases for MemberOf.


Our next utility type class is a way of proving that a certain Union is a subunion of another — that is, every constituent type of the first appears in the second. We do this with the following trait:

  • trait SubUnionOf[U <: Union, T <: Union]

If we have an implicit object in scope with type SubUnionOf[A, B] it acts as proof that every member of A is also a member of B, and that we can freely use an A union in place of a B union. We generate these implicit values as below:

It’s a little bit more complicated but if you ignore the syntax bloat and read it as logical implication, as in my comments, it’s not too bad.

Note that we have (A :|: A :|: UNil) SubUnionOf (A :|: UNil) available for any A, thanks to our MemberOf type class. This takes care of our ‘repeated type’ requirement. Also note that because we ask for each type’s membership proof individually, the order does not matter either. We have

(A :|: B :|: UNil) SubUnionOf (B :|: A :|: UNil)

for any types A and B.


Finally, we have enough to construct our OneOf implicit functions.

There are two cases we need to construct a OneOf for:

  • The case where we’re using a type we know about (simple MemberOf checking).
  • The case where we’re trying to use a union type in place of another union type (SubUnion checking).

In words, if we have an existing OneOf[T, U] for a certain generic type T and some
union U, we can repurpose it into another OneOf[T, X] if we can squeeze U into X via our utility type classes.


One last thing is the syntax for use. It’s a bit annoying to have a OneOf implicit parameter explicitly passed around, we’d ideally like it more obvious that our generic T is constrained to be a union type.

Thankfully we can do the same trick Miles Sabin does in his blog post, and have a type alias:

Now instead of writing
- def foo[T](t: T)(implicit unionEv: OneOf[T, Int :|: String :|: Boolean :|: UNil]): Any = ???

we can write
- def foo[T: OneOf[Int :|: String :|: Boolean :|: UNil]#l](t: T): Any = ???

which makes it a bit nicer to read and explain what’s going on with T. It’s a shame about the lambda l hanging around, but it is what it is.

Final code

Our final code looks like this:

It all works as expected!


Note that because we’re working with an unboxed union type, we can’t use it as a real type. We can’t have a List of our union types, or have a function return one. They exist purely as flags in the compiler, interpreted by us
in our implicit methods generating our utility type classes.

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