Haxe Code Cookbook
Haxe programming cookbookAbstract typesStrict typing for stringly-typed extern code

Strict typing for stringly-typed extern code

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A common pattern, often found in (but not only in) dynamic languages, is to denote the type of some object with a string, for example:

// the actual `listener` function arguments depend on the `eventName`
function addEventListener(eventName:String, listener:Function):Void;

// the returned value depends on `property`
function getProperty(property:String):Dynamic;

// the expected `value` value depends on `property`
function setProperty(property:String, value:Dynamic):Void;

For the Haxe code, this is considered a bad pattern, since it doesn't provide compile-time type checking and thus is unsafe. There are ways to do this safer, for example leveraging ADT (enums), however we often need to provide extern definitions for some code that follows this pattern.

Good news are - with Haxe we can stay type-safe by using type parameters and abstracts!

Let's examine the setProperty example from the code above.

Step 1. Proper typing of string values

Step 1 is to define a concrete type for our property argument, so we can't pass arbitrary string to it. But at run-time a string is still expected, so our type should be represented as strings at run-time, which is exactly what abstract types are for:

abstract Property(String) {
  public inline function new(name) {
    this = name;

Then, let's change the property argument type to our new Property abstract type:

function setProperty(property:Property, value:Dynamic):Void;

This already provides some compile-time safety because we need to have values of the Property type, not plain String, so we can't confuse it with other strings:

var playerName = new Property("playerName"); // this could be some inlined constant

setProperty(playerName, "Dan");

// won't compile: String should be Property
// setProperty("whatever", "Dan");

However we still can pass any value as the value argument, since it's typed Dynamic.

Step 2. Binding value type to a property name

We want to associate our Property values with a concrete type for this property value. This is where type parameters come into play.

Let's parametrize our Property abstract type so its instances carry information about value type:

abstract Property<T>(String) { // note the T type parameter
  public inline function new(name) {
    this = name;

Now we can create "property" values specifying types of corresponding values, like this:

// the value stored in playerName is String
var playerName = new Property<String>("playerName");

// playerLevel values are Int
var playerLevel = new Property<Int>("playerLevel");

// the info property is an object with given fields
var info = new Property<{age:Int, dead:Bool}>("info");

Looks descriptive, but useless until we implement step 3.

Step 3. Using type parameter in a function

Finally, let's make use of that type parameter T in our setProperty function. For that we also parametrize the function and use the type parameter for the value instead of Dynamic:

function setProperty<T>(property:Property<T>, value:T):Void;

Note that we use the type T for both value and a type parameter for the Property abstract, which ensures that they are the same.

Now we can call our parametrized function with properly-typed property names and get type-checking for values.

Full example

Here's an example of extern class for some database object that supports getProperty and setProperty:

extern class Database {
  function new();
  function getProperty<T>(property:Property<T>):T;
  function setProperty<T>(property:Property<T>, value:T):Void;

abstract Property<T>(String) {
  public inline function new(name) {
    this = name;

And an example usage:

class Main {
  static inline var PLAYER_NAME = new Property<String>("playerName");
  static inline var PLAYER_LEVEL = new Property<Int>("playerLevel");

  static function main() {
    var db = new Database();

    // playerName variable will be typed as String
    var playerName = db.getProperty(PLAYER_NAME);

    // works: expected value is Int
    db.setProperty(PLAYER_LEVEL, 1);

    // compile error: String should be Int
    // db.setProperty(PLAYER_LEVEL, "not an int");

Let's look at the main function compiled to JavaScript to see what it translates to:

var db = new Database();
var playerName = db.getProperty("playerName");

Typed event listeners example

In the beginning of this article we also mentioned the addEventListener function, so for the sake of completeness, let's also apply our new knowledge to it. Here, we use type parameter to specify listener function type:

import haxe.Constraints.Function;

abstract Event<T:Function>(String) {
  public inline function new(name) {
    this = name;

extern class EventEmitter {
  function new();
  function addEventListener<T:Function>(event:Event<T>, listener:T):Void;

class Main {
  static inline var EVENT_START = new Event<Array<String>->Void>("start");
  static inline var EVENT_EXIT = new Event<Int->Void>("exit");

  static function main() {
    var emitter = new EventEmitter();

    // arr is inferred as Array<String>
    emitter.addEventListener(EVENT_START, function(arr) trace(arr));

    // compile error: String -> Void should be Int -> Void
    // emitter.addEventListener(EVENT_EXIT, function(s:String) {});

Note how we also constrained our type parameter to the haxe.Constraints.Function which makes sure that we can only specify function types as event type parameter.

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Category:  Abstract types