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Type-safe printf in Coq

Many languages provide mechanisms for formatted output, with C's printf undoubtedly being the most influential one. Some of these functions allow a format to be specified using a concise and intuitive syntax, which is probably part of the reason for them being so popular. For printf, for instance, a format is described using just a plain string.
Unfortunately, this convenience often comes with a price. In C, a mismatch between the output format and the other arguments results in incorrect behavior. This non-trivial dependency can't be expressed in the language's type system and requires additional compiler checks to be enforced. Other languages suffer from similar problems. Haskell's standard printf also causes a run-time error when a format mismatch occurs. OCaml is able to enforce that format and arguments are compatible at compile-time, but at the cost of extending the language with an ad-hoc format type that is also represented as strings. Other approaches solve the problem by adopting different representations for the output format, which can make it slightly less convenient to specify. In Functional Unparsing, Olivier Danvy showed how to implement an analogue of printf using formatting combinators. More recently, Oleg Kieslyov used delimited control operators to implement his own type-safe version of printf in Haskell, an idea that has also been ported to Coq by Matthieu Sozeau.
It would be a shame if we had to extend our language in an ad-hoc manner just to get safe and convenient formatting. We will see how we can use Coq's expressive type system to describe the dependency between a format string and the arguments it requires, and implement a version of sprintf that doesn't suffer from the aforementioned issues.
Let's begin by defining some useful notations for lists and strings.

Notation "[ ]" := nil : list_scope.
Notation "[ x , .. , y ]" := (cons x .. (cons y nil) ..) : list_scope.
Notation "x ::: y" := (String x y)
                        (at level 60, right associativity) : string_scope.

Open Scope list_scope.
Open Scope char_scope.

Directives and format

Before working directly with strings, we will define a new data type to describe an output format, and then use it to implement a preliminary version of sprintf. As we shall see, this will help us express the not-so-trivial type of sprintf and simplify our implementation. Later, we will write a separate function to convert strings to this new type, and combine both programs to obtain our final result.
Our format type is inspired by printf formats in C, which can be seen as a sequence of directives. Each directive can be either a literal character, to be printed verbatim, or a control sequence, which instructs the function to print one of its arguments in a certain format. Thus, we begin by defining a directive type, loosely based upon what is available in C:

Inductive directive : Type :=
| DLit : ascii -> directive
| DNum : option nat -> directive
| DBool : directive
| DString : directive
| DChar : directive.

Directive DLit c outputs the literal character c, while DNum s, DBool, DString, and DChar take an argument of the corresponding type and print it. The s field of DNum s controls how its argument should be printed. If s = Some n, then we output exactly the n least-significant digits of the number, padding it with zeros if necessary. Otherwise, if s = None, we just print the whole number. Thus, the number 4 should be printed as 4 using the DNum None, but as 04 using DNum (Some 2).
With the directive type in hand, defining format is straightforward:

Definition format := list directive.

Relating format and arguments

As noted above, sprintf f should be a function that returns a string and takes one argument for each directive in f that requires one. For instance, sprintf [DBool, DString] should have type bool -> string -> string, whereas sprintf [DLit "a", DLit "b", DNum None] should have type nat -> string.
This relation is easy to express in Coq using dependent types. Since types can be the result of computations, it is possible to write a formatType function that takes a format f and returns the type of sprintf f. Let's begin by defining a function that maps each directive to the corresponding argument type. Notice that its result type must be an option, since DLit doesn't need arguments.

Definition directiveType (dir : directive) :=
  match dir with
    | DLit _ => None
    | DNum _ => Some nat
    | DBool => Some bool
    | DString => Some string
    | DChar => Some ascii

Now, formatType itself is just a direct translation of what we stated above.

Fixpoint formatType (f : format) : Type :=
  match f with
    | [] => string
    | dir :: dirs =>
      match directiveType dir with
        | Some T => T -> formatType dirs
        | None => formatType dirs

We can check if this definition makes sense on simple examples.

Example formatTypeTest1 : formatType [DBool, DString] =
                          (bool -> string -> string).
Proof. reflexivity. Qed.

Example formatTypeTest2 : formatType [DLit "a", DLit "b", DNum None] =
                          (nat -> string).
Proof. reflexivity. Qed.

The implementation

Now that we can express the type of sprintf, we can try to implement it. We might be tempted to try something like this:

Fixpoint sprintf (f : format) : formatType f :=
  match f with
    | [] => ""
    | dir :: dirs =>
      match dir with
        | DLit c => c ::: sprintf dirs
        (* ... *)
Alas, this approach doesn't work. The problem here is that our recursive call to sprintf returns a formatType dirs instead of a string, which means that we are unable to add character c in front of it.
Instead of building the string directly on the body of the match, we will add an auxiliary parameter k to sprintf. k will be a continuation of type string -> string that builds the final output using the result of the recursive calls. The implementation uses some auxiliary functions, such as writeNat, that have been omitted in the interest of space. Their definitions can be found in the original .v file.

Module Internal.

Fixpoint sprintf (f : format) (k : string -> string) : formatType f :=
  match f with
    | [] => k ""
    | dir :: dirs =>
      match dir return formatType (dir :: dirs) with
        | DLit c => sprintf dirs (fun res => k (c ::: res))
        | DNum o =>
          fun n =>
            let k' := match o with
                        | Some size => fun res => k (writeNatSize size n res)
                        | None => fun res => k (writeNat n res)
                      end in
            sprintf dirs k'
        | DBool =>
          fun b =>
            sprintf dirs (fun res => k (writeBool b ++ res))
        | DString =>
          fun s =>
            sprintf dirs (fun res => k (s ++ res))
        | DChar =>
          fun c =>
            sprintf dirs (fun res => k (c ::: res))

Most directives generate an additional argument to sprintf by wrapping the recursive call with an anonymous function. Also, notice the type annotation on the inner match: return formatType (dir :: dirs). As one could hope, this mysterious expression is telling Coq which type is being returned on each branch of the match. Dependent types require more sophisticated type inference, and in some cases it is necessary to provide these annotations explicitly.
To use sprintf, we just have to pass it the identity continuation fun res => res, which will receive the value built by sprintf and return it as-is.

Example sprintfTest1 :
  sprintf [DNum None, DString] (fun res => res)
          42 "This is a string" = "42This is a string".
Proof. reflexivity. Qed.

Example sprintfTest2 :
  sprintf [DNum (Some 2), DLit "/", DNum (Some 2)] (fun res => res)
          2 4 = "02/04".
Proof. reflexivity. Qed.

End Internal.

Strings as format

Now that we have our first implementation, we will write the code needed to parse the format from a string. Our format syntax is inspired by C's own syntax. All characters are interpreted literally, except for %, which signals the beginning of a control sequence. As in C, we can write %<n>d, where <n> is a number, to specify how many digits we want when printing a nat.
The parseFormat function below tries to read a format, returning Some f if the string argument represents f, and None if there was a parse error. parseFormatSize is used to read the %<n>d directives. The auxiliary function addDir adds a directive to an option format when possible, returning None otherwise.

Definition addDir (o : option format) (dir : directive) : option format :=
  match o with
    | Some f => Some (dir :: f)
    | None => None

Fixpoint parseFormat (s : string) : option format :=
  match s with
    | "" => Some []
    | "%" ::: s' =>
      match s' with
        | "%" ::: s'' => addDir (parseFormat s'') (DLit "%")
        | "b" ::: s'' => addDir (parseFormat s'') DBool
        | "s" ::: s'' => addDir (parseFormat s'') DString
        | "c" ::: s'' => addDir (parseFormat s'') DChar
        | "d" ::: s'' => addDir (parseFormat s'') (DNum None)
        | _ => parseFormatSize s' 0
    | c ::: s' =>
      addDir (parseFormat s') (DLit c)

with parseFormatSize (s : string) (acc : nat) : option format :=
       match s with
         | "" => None
         | "d" ::: s' => addDir (parseFormat s') (DNum (Some acc))
         | c ::: s' =>
           match digitToNat c with
             | Some n => parseFormatSize s' (10 * acc + n)
             | None => None

We can test our function in some simple cases.

Example parseFormatTest1 :
  parseFormat "%d%4da" = Some [DNum None, DNum (Some 4), DLit "a"].
Proof. reflexivity. Qed.

Example parseFormatTest2 :
  parseFormat "%ca%s%" = None.
Proof. reflexivity. Qed.

Example parseFormatTest3 :
  parseFormat "%s%b" = Some [DString, DBool].
Proof. reflexivity. Qed.

Putting the pieces together

Using parseFormat, we can now write a convenient wrapper for our first sprintf. Just as we did in the previous post, we ensure that invalid format strings are detected right away by producing a value of a different type when we hit a parse error.

Inductive printfError := InvalidFormat.

Definition sprintfOpt (o : option format) : match o with
                                              | Some f => formatType f
                                              | None => printfError
                                            end :=
  match o with
    | Some f => Internal.sprintf f (fun res => res)
    | None => InvalidFormat

Definition sprintf (s : string) := sprintfOpt (parseFormat s).

Despite its intricate type, using our function is simple, as the examples below show.

Definition greet name y m d : string :=
  sprintf "Hello %s, today is %d/%2d/%2d" name y m d.

Example greetTest1 : greet "readers" 2013 4 19 =
                     "Hello readers, today is 2013/04/19".
Proof. reflexivity. Qed.

Definition tableRow name value : string :=
  sprintf "<tr><td>%s</td><td>%b</td></tr>" name value.

Example tableRowTest1 : tableRow "x1" true =
Proof. reflexivity. Qed.

Trying to pass the wrong number of arguments to sprintf, or giving it arguments of the wrong type, will result in a type error.

(* Example greetTest2 : string := greet 2013 4 19 "readers". *)

(* Error: The term "2013" has type "nat" while it is expected to have type
  "string". *)

(* Example tableRowTest2 : string := tableRow "x1". *)

(* Error: The term "tableRow "x1"" has type "bool -> string"
   while it is expected to have type "string". *)


We've seen how to implement a type-safe version of sprintf in Coq. Unlike other approaches to the problem, our solution did not require abandoning strings for specifying formats, nor relies on any special extensions to the language. Type computation and dependent types, the key ingredients in our implementation, are powerful general-purpose features that lie at the heart of Coq.
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