Video: GHC Core language (14'04")

The Core type

The Core language is GHC's central data types. Core is a very small, explicitly-typed, variant of System F. The exact variant is called System FC, which embodies equality constraints and coercions.

The CoreSyn type, and the functions that operate over it, gets an entire directory compiler/coreSyn:

  • compiler/coreSyn/CoreLint.hs: type-check the Core program. This is an incredibly-valuable consistency check, enabled by the flag -dcore-lint.

Here is the entire Core type compiler/coreSyn/CoreSyn.hs:

type CoreExpr = Expr Var

data Expr b	-- "b" for the type of binders, 
  = Var	  Id
  | Lit   Literal
  | App   (Expr b) (Arg b)
  | Lam   b (Expr b)
  | Let   (Bind b) (Expr b)
  | Case  (Expr b) b Type [Alt b]
  | Cast  (Expr b) Coercion
  | Tick  (Tickish Id) (Expr b)
  | Type  Type

type Arg b = Expr b
type Alt b = (AltCon, [b], Expr b)

data AltCon = DataAlt DataCon | LitAlt  Literal | DEFAULT

data Bind b = NonRec b (Expr b) | Rec [(b, (Expr b))]

That's it. All of Haskell gets compiled through this tiny core.

Expr is parameterised over the type of its binders, b. This facility is used only rarely, and always temporarily; for example, the let-floater SetLevels pass attaches a binding level to every binder. By far the most important type is CoreExpr, which is Expr with Var binders. If you want to learn more about such AST-parametrization, I encourage you to read a blog post about it: .

Binder is used (as the name suggest) to bind a variable to an expression. The Expr data type is parametrized by the binder type. The most common one is the type CoreBndr = Var where Var comes from compiler/basicTypes/Var.hs, which in fact is a Name with some extra informations attached (like types).

Here are some notes about the individual constructors of Expr.

  • Var represents variables. The Id it contains is essentially an OccName plus a Type; however, equality (==) on Ids is based only on their OccName's, so two Vars with different types may be (==)-equal.
  • Lam is used for both term and type abstraction (small and big lambdas).
  • Type appears only in type-argument positions (e.g. App (Var f) (Type ty)). To emphasise this, the type synonym Arg is used as documentation when we expect that a Type constructor may show up. Anything not called Arg should not use a Type constructor. Additional GHC Core uses so called type-lambdas, they are like lambdas, but instead of taking a real argument, they take a type instead. You should not confuse them with TypeFamilies, because type-lambdas are working on a value level, while type families are functions on the type level. The simplies example for a type-lambda usage is a polymorphic one: \x -> x. It will be represented in Core as = \ (@ t_aeK) (x_aeG :: t_aeK) -> x_aeG, where t_aeK is a *type argument*, so when specyfying the argument of x_aeG we can refer to t_aeK. This is how polymorphism is represented in Core.
  • Let handles both recursive and non-recursive let-bindings; see the the two constructors for Bind. The Let constructor contains both binders as well as the resulting expression. The resulting expression is the e in expression let x = r in e.
  • Tick is used to represent all the kinds of source annotation we support: profiling SCCs, HPC ticks, and GHCi breakpoints. Was named Note some time ago.

Case expressions

Case expressions are the most complicated bit of Core. In the term Case scrut case_bndr res_ty alts:

  • scrut is the scrutinee
  • case_bndr is the case binder (see notes below)
  • res_ty is the type of the entire case expression (redundant once FC is in HEAD -- was for GADTs)
  • alts is a list of the case alternatives

A case expression can scrutinise

  • a data type (the alternatives are DataAlts), or
  • a primitive literal type (the alternatives are LitAlts), or
  • a value of any type at all (if there is one DEFAULT alternative).

A case expression is always strict, even if there is only one alternative, and it is DEFAULT. (This differs from Haskell!) So

case error "urk" of { DEFAULT -> True }

will call error, rather then returning True.

The case_bndr field, called the case binder, is an unusual feature of GHC's case expressions. The idea is that in any right-hand side, the case binder is bound to the value of the scrutinee. If the scrutinee was always atomic nothing would be gained, but real expressiveness is added when the scrutinee is not atomic. Here is a slightly contrived example:

case (reverse xs) of y 
  Nil       -> Nil
  Cons x xs -> append y y

(Here, "y" is the case binder; at least that is the syntax used by the Core pretty printer.) This expression evaluates reverse xs; if the result is Nil, it returns Nil, otherwise it returns the reversed list appended to itself. Since the returned value of reverse xs is present in the implementation, it makes sense to have a name for it!

The most common application is to model call-by-value, by using case instead of let. For example, here is how we might compile the call f (reverse xs) if we knew that f was strict:

case (reverse xs) of y { DEFAULT -> f y }

Case expressions have several invariants

  • The res_ty type is the same as the type of any of the right-hand sides (up to refining unification -- coreRefineTys in compiler/types/Unify.hs -- in pre-FC).

  • If there is a DEFAULT alternative, it must appear first. This makes finding a DEFAULT alternative easy, when it exists.
  • The remaining non-DEFAULT alternatives must appear in order of
    • tag, for DataAlts
    • lit, for LitAlts

This makes finding the relevant constructor easy, and makes comparison easier too.

  • The list of alternatives is always exhaustive, meaning that it covers all reachable cases. Note, however, that an "exhausive" case does not necessarily mention all constructors:
    data Foo = Red | Green | Blue x of 
    	Red   -> True
    	other -> f (case x of 
    			Green -> ...
    			Blue  -> ... )
    The inner case does not need a Red alternative, because x can't be Red at that program point. Furthermore, GADT type-refinement might mean that some alternatives are not reachable, and hence can be discarded.


One of the important things when working with Core is that variable shadowing is allowed. In other words, it is possible to come across a definition of a variable that has the same name (realUnique) as some other one that is already in scope. One of the possible ways to deal with that is to use Subst (substitution environment from compiler/coreSyn/CoreSubst.hs), which maintains the list of variables in scope and makes it possible to clone (i.e. rename) only the variables that actually capture names of some earlier ones. For some more explanations about this approach see Secrets of the Glasgow Haskell Compiler inliner (JFP'02) (section 4 on name capture).

Human readable Core generation

If you are interested in the way Core is translated into human readable form, you should check the sources for compiler/coreSyn/PprCore.hs. It is especially usefull if you want to see how the Core data types are being build, especially when there is no Show instance defined for them.

Last modified 2 months ago Last modified on Dec 23, 2014 9:22:44 PM