This is a proposal to unify the mechanics of alt and destructuring assignment. It was born out of discussion between erickt, pcwalton, and I amidst various bugs in the bug tracker but I wanted to float it around to a larger audience. I’d like to discuss this on Tuesday, because one of the logical next steps for the regions work is to begin deciding precisely what to do about the types of identifiers in alts.

Today

Currently, alt always creates implicit references into the structure you are alting over. For example, in this code:

let p = {x:1, y:2};
alt p {
    {x: x, y: y} {
       ...
    }
}

the bound variables x and y are actually pointers to the interior of p.

In addition, one can use let to match infallible patterns:

let p = {x: 3, y: 4};
let {x: x, y: y} = p;

Here, however, the values are actually not pointers to the interior of p but rather are copied out of p.

Shortcomings

Sometimes it is useful to get a pointer to the interior of a pattern in a let and sometimes it is useful to copy out in an alt, but the current system does not let you choose. In addition, it is often very useful to move out of the discriminant in an alt, but that is not currently an option.

The matter of copying out of an alt is somewhat more important under the new borrowck rules. This is because the older system would implicitly copy out of the discriminant when it appeared that the value being matched was residing in mutable memory or that it might be invalidated in some way. This is no longer the case, which means that more explicit copies are required in order to match against the contents of an enum or unique pointer that lives in mutable memory (I am actively working on a blog post / tutorial about the details of this new check).

The proposal

The proposal is to distinguish between copying bindings and reference bindings. A copying binding, indicating by either a variable name alone (x) copies/moves the value out of the discriminant. A reference binding, indicated using *x (see some notes on syntax below), takes the address of the value within the discriminant. For types that are not implicitly copyable, copying bindings must be preceded by a copy keyword (copy x).

Here is an example of creating references into the interior:

let p = {x:1, y:2};
alt p {
    {x: *x, y: *y} {
       ...
    }
}

And the same example using let:

let p = {x:1, y:2};
let {x: *x, y: *y} = p;

Here is an example of copying the values out:

let p = {x:1, y:2};
alt p {
    {x: x, y: y} {
       ...
    }
}
let {x: x, y: y} = p;

And finally an example that requires an explicit copy keyword:

let p = {x: ~1, y: ~2};
alt p {
    {x: copy x, y: copy y} {
        ....
    }
}
let {x: copy x, y: copy y} = p;

Here, a pattern like {x: x, y: y} would result in a warning because a unique value is being copied (which requires memory allocation and is a performance red-flag).

Moves

As a bonus, this idea transparently permits data to be moved as part of an alt (hat tip to pcwalton for this observation). For example, the function called option::unwrap() could be written as follows (here I am assuming a unary move operator; something generally agreed to but not yet implemened):

fn unwrap<T>(-opt: option<T>) -> T {
    alt move opt {
        some(v) { ret v; }
        none { fail; }
    }
}

Basically, if the discriminant is moved into the alt then its pieces can be carved up and moved into the bindings. This is equivalent to lets like the following (which is legal today):

let (x, y) = move v;

For symmetry, the move keyword could be permitted on copying bindings (move x). It seems though that this would always be superfluous except in the case of last use, where it could serve as useful documentation:

fn unwrap<T>(-opt: option<T>) -> T {
    alt opt {
        some(move v) { ret v; }
        none { fail; }
    }
}

Syntax

I borrowed the *identifier syntax from Cyclone. However, I would personally prefer &identifier, as it is more reminiscent of the “take the address of” operator. However, I presume that &P will eventually become a pattern, like @P and ~P today (currently, there is no pattern to match against an &T type). There was some talk at various points of making unsafe pointers be a special kind of lifetime, like static, so that one would write *unsafe T in which case *r.T could replace &r.T as the type of safe references. That would in turn permit switching the role of & and * in patterns.