Macro idea: total case statements

Hi everyone!

I recently had an idea. This is by no means a revolutionary concep, and other people probably have thought about it before (but maybe not in the context of Elixir), but I think it might be a useful one.

I have not gotten around to (attempt to) implement it yet. I do think it is possible (and of ‘average’ implementation difficulty. Not trivial, but not ridiculously hard either), but I would like to give the community the opportunity to shoot holes in the idea, as well as gauge if I am the only one excited about this, or if other people would like to use it as well.

Total Case Statements

It is very frequent that we pattern-match in a case-statement or function-head on the different possibilities a value might take. Of course, since Elixir is a dynamically/unityped language, a value might be ‘anything’ at any given time, but usually we expect only one of a small subset of these values, especially when we are using a(n approximation of a) sum type. Examples of those are for instance:

  • true | false,
  • [] | [head | tail]
  • :lt | :gt | :eq
  • {:ok, value} | {:error, problem}-tuples,
  • Ecto.action() :: nil | :insert | :update | :delete | :replace | :ignore
  • The atom-names of the fields in your struct.

Now, it would be nice if we can somehow indicate that there is a case-statement where we expect such a sum type, and we want to make sure that we have cases for all possible values of that type. In a statically-typed language, this is usually built-in. In a dynamic language, it is not. But if we indicate to the case-statement the typespec that we want to handle, then it could be able to check if we have implemented clauses for each of the inhabitants of the type.

So I propose a macro, with a signature like e.g. total_case typespec, value do ... end, which could be implemented in a library, which would:

  1. Check, at compile-time, if the different match-handlers in the block together cover all possibilities of the type that is passed in.
  2. Maybe (if possible and not ridiculously hard to implement) warn about clauses that prevent later clauses from ever matching.
  3. After this check, compile down to a simple case value do ... end.

Sounds this useful to anyone?
The main thing that I don’t know about currently (besides having not enough spare time to start working on this right away) is how easy it is to programmatically interpret typespecs at compile-time.
It might also be possible that Dialyzer/Dialyxir already does some case-checking; this is something I don’t know, since until today I have struggled to set up + configure Dialyzer properly for my code. But even then I think that having a macro that would enforce this behaviour once set up would make a lot of sense over/alongside using an opt-in typechecker.

What do you think?


I think this would be fantastically useful and I previously started work on such a macro before getting distracted by Gleam.

You can see the API I was working with here ->

If you build it I certainly would use this :slight_smile:


Isn‘t a function with many heads essentially a case statement, which you can typespec?

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Yep, but it’s also not ‘total’, meaning that if something new is added elsewhere it may (often won’t) catch it and tell you to add a case for it.