Rust's language ergonomics initiative

Mar. 2, 2017 · Aaron Turon

To help bring our 2017 vision for Rust to fruition, the Rust subteams are launching initiatives targeted at specific roadmap goals. This post covers the language team's major initiative: improving the ergonomics of the core language. The aim is to improve productivity and bring down the learning curve by streamlining features and glossing over irrelevant details.


Ergonomics is a measure of the friction you experience when trying to get things done with a tool. You want to achieve a state of "flow", in which ideas and intuitions are steadily transformed into working code with a minimum of fuss. (And, with Rust, we want that code to be reliable and fast as well.) The great threat to this experience is interruptions, which come in many forms: looking things up, switching contexts, going through a large amount of ceremony, or dealing with reams of errors where the compiler pedantically points out tiny things you forgot. Anything that takes your attention away from the problem at hand and puts it on details that don't really matter (or don't matter just yet).

A corollary is that ergonomics is rarely about raw character count. When you have good momentum, the difference between typing pos and position isn't so significant; what matters much more is how easy it is to remember the right one to type. Similarly, typing ref in a match pattern, or * to dereference an &i32, is easy; knowing or remembering to type them, on the other hand...

The same things you have to remember as an expert are things you have to learn as a newbie. Ergonomic improvements make life better for everyone.

Often, the heart of the matter is the question of what to make implicit. In the rest of this post, I'll present a basic framework for thinking about this question, and then apply that framework to three areas of Rust, analyzing both the current design and some streamlining we may want to consider this year.

Implicit vs explicit

Information is implicit when it is implied but not expressed. The potential ergonomic wins are pretty easy to see: forcing you to write down information that's obvious (because it's already implied) is a pain, because it adds distracting noise and is easy to forget. Allowing you to leave it implicit reduces that friction. Yet implicitness gets a bad rap, with Python going so far as to state "explicit is better than implicit" as a core design rule. Why?

Implicitness can be very powerful. After all, the compiler knows a lot about your code, and it's possible to leverage that to inject behavior in all kinds of subtle ways. If taken too far, these techniques can impair readability, or worse: introduce surprising behavior that can be tricky to track down, because it's the result of a subtle chain of inference. If you've had first-hand experience with these pitfalls, it's easy to come away with the sense that implicitness itself is to blame.

But this, in my opinion, is a misdiagnosis of the problem, one that throws out the baby with the bathwater. The root issue is instead: how much information do you need to confidently understand what a particular line of code is doing, and how hard is that information to find? Let's call this the reasoning footprint for a piece of code. The pitfalls above come from the reasoning footprint getting out of hand, rather than implicitness per se.

Does readability then demand that we minimize the reasoning footprint? I don't think so: make it too small, and code becomes hopelessly verbose, making it difficult to read by forcing too much information into view at all times. What we want is a sweet spot, where routine or easy to find details can be left out, but relevant or surprising information is kept front and center.

How to analyze and manage the reasoning footprint

There are three dimensions of the reasoning footprint for implicitness:

  • Applicability. Where are you allowed to elide implied information? Is there any heads-up that this might be happening?

  • Power. What influence does the elided information have? Can it radically change program behavior or its types?

  • Context-dependence. How much of do you have to know about the rest of the code to know what is being implied, i.e. how elided details will be filled in? Is there always a clear place to look?

The basic thesis of this post is that implicit features should balance these three dimensions. If a feature is large in one of the dimensions, it's best to strongly limit it in the other two.

The ? operator in Rust is a good example of this kind of tradeoff. It explicitly (but concisely) marks a point where you will bail out of the current context on an error, possibly doing an implicit conversion on the way. The fact that it's marked means the feature has strongly limited applicability: you'll never be surprised that it's coming into play. On the other hand, it's fairly powerful, and somewhat context-dependent, since the conversion can depend on the type where ? is used, and the type expected in the scope it's jumping to. Altogether, this careful balance makes error handling in Rust feels as ergonomic as working with exceptions while avoiding some of their well-known downsides.

By contrast, a feature like unrestricted implicit conversion rightfully has a bad reputation, because it's universally applicable, quite powerful, and context-dependent. If we were to expand implicit conversions in Rust, we would likely limit their power (by, say, restricting them to AsRef-style coercions, which can do very little).

One route for strongly limiting context-dependence is employing conventions, in which the compiler is simply assuming a default unless told otherwise. Often such conventions are universal and well-known, meaning that you don't need to know anything about the rest of the code to know what they are. A good example of this technique in Rust is the fact that mod foo; looks for (or foo/ by default.

One final point. "Implicitness" is often relative to where the language is today, something that seems radical at first—like type inference!—but then quickly disappears into the background, to the point that it no longer feels implicit at all (see Stroustrup's rule). But sometimes a bit of implicitness really is a bad idea. The key is to carefully consider the impact on the reasoning footprint.

Example: type annotations

One bit of ergonomics that is increasingly taken for granted is type inference. In the days of yore, you'd have to annotate every local variable with its type, a practice that seems wildly verbose now—but at the time, type inference seemed wildly implicit.

Type inference in Rust is quite powerful, but we limit the other two dimensions:

  • Applicability: type inference happens only for variable bindings; data types and functions must include complete, explicit signatures.

  • Context-dependence: because data types and functions are annotated, it's easy to determine the information that's influencing the outcome of inference. You only need to look shallowly at code outside of the current function. Another way of saying this is that type inference is performed modularly, one function body at a time.

By and large, the amount of type inference we do in Rust seems to be a good match for what you can hold in your head.

The type system also provides a good example of using conventions for ergonomics: lifetime elision. That feature allows you to leave off lifetimes from function signatures in the vast majority of cases (check out the RFC—we measured!). Lifetime elision greatly aids learnability, because it allows you to work at an intuitive level with borrowing before you grapple with explicit lifetimes.

  • Applicability: lifetime elision applies to a broad class of locations—any function signature—but is limited to those cases for which the lifetimes are strongly implied.

  • Power: limited; elision is just a shorthand for a use of lifetime parameters, and if you get this wrong, the compiler will complain.

  • Context-dependence: here, we overshot. The fact that elision applies to types other than & and &mut, means that to even know whether reborrrowing is happening in a signature like fn lookup(&self) -> Ref<T>, you need to know whether Ref has a lifetime parameter that's being left out. For something as common as function signatures, this is too much context. We've been considering pushing in the direction of a small but explicit marker to say that a lifetime is being elided for Ref, a strategy similar to the one for ? mentioned earlier.

There's also been some extensions to the original elision proposal, again carefully crafted to follow these rules, like the lifetimes in statics RFC.

Idea: implied bounds

One papercut with Rust today is the fact that, for certain data structures, you end up having to repeat the same set of trait bounds over and over. HashMap is a good example; it takes a key type which, in practice, must satisfy the Hash and Eq traits. So the question is, how should we understand a signature like the following?

fn use_map<K, V>(map: HashMap<K, V>) { ... }

Right now, such a signature would be accepted, but if you tried to use any of map's methods, you'd get an error that K needs to be Hash and Eq, and have to go back and add those bounds. That's an example of the compiler being pedantic in a way that can interrupt your flow, and doesn't really add anything; the fact that we're using K as a hashmap key essentially forces some additional assumptions about the type. But the compiler is making us spell out those assumptions explicitly in the signature. This situation seems ripe for an ergonomic improvement.

It's straightforward to assume bounds that are "implied" by the type, like assuming that K must be Hash and Eq above, by tying it to the type definition:

struct HashMap<K: Hash + Eq, V> { ... }

What's the impact on the reasoning footprint? It means that to completely understand a signature like

fn use_map<K, V>(map: HashMap<K, V>) { ... }

you need to be aware of the bounds on any type constructor like HashMap that you're applying to a type variable like K. So in particular, if you're trying to invoke use_map, you need to know that there are some unstated constraints on K.

  • Applicability: very broad; applies to any use of generics.

  • Power: very limited; the bounds will almost always be needed anyway, and in any case adding bounds is not very risky.

  • Context-dependence: fairly limited; it draws from the bounds on all type constructors that are applied to type variables (like HashMap<K, V>). Usually you will be well aware of these bounds anyway, and when using a function like use_map, you're generally going to be passing in an existing HashMap, which by construction will ensure that the bounds already hold. The compiler can reliably also produce an error pointing directly to the type(s) imposing unfulfilled bounds.

Example: ownership

A lot of work went into making Rust's ownership system ergonomic, and that work entailed judicious use of "implicit" features. It's particularly instructive to look at the places where borrowing is explicit, and places where it's not:

  • Borrowing is implicit for the receiver when invoking a method.
  • Borrowing is explicit for normal function arguments and in other expressions.

Ownership is important in Rust, and reasoning locally about it is vital. So why did we end up with this particular mix of implicit and explicit ownership tracking?

  • Applicability: common, but narrowly-described: it applies only to the receiver of method calls.

  • Power: moderately powerful, since it can determine whether the receiver can be mutated (by mutably borrowing it). That's mitigated to some degree by borrow checking, which will at least ensure that it's permitted to do such a borrow.

  • Context-dependence: in principle, you need to know how the method is resolved, and then its signature. In practice, the style of self borrowing is almost always implied by the method name (e.g. push() versus len()). Notably, this point does not apply to function arguments.

This design also aids learnability, by often just doing "the obvious thing" for borrowing, and thereby limiting the situations in which newcomers have to grapple with choices about it.

Ideas: implied borrows

Nevertheless, there are some pain points around borrowing in Rust today. To wit:

Discarding ownership. Sometimes you have ownership of a value, like a String, and want to pass it to a function that only needs a borrow (say, &str), after which you no longer need the value. Today, you must borrow the value in the argument:

fn read_config(path: &Path) -> Config { ... }

let mut path = PathBuf::new(src_dir);

// we have to borrow `path` with `&` even though we're done with it
let config = read_config(&path);

But we could easily allow you to write read_config(path), implicitly borrowing path for read_config and then dropping it immediately afterwards. That would retain one's ability to reason locally about ownership, since ownership of path is indeed fully relinquished from the caller's perspective (and the buffer is destroyed at the end of the call to read_config). But it allows you to gloss over the unimportant detail that the callee happened to only need a borrow. And again, if you just forgot to borrow, and try to use path afterward, the compiler will catch it, just as it does today. This is an example of a not terribly powerful bit of inference (it's only introducing a shared borrow for an object about to be dropped) that we'd allow to occur virtually everywhere.

Borrowing in match patterns. One stumbling block when learning Rust is the interaction between pattern matching and borrowing. In particular, when you're pattern matching against borrowed data, you often have to do a little reborrowing dance:

match *foo {
    Some(ref contents) => { ... }
    None => { ... }

Here we're using * to dereference an Option, and then ref to rereference its contents. Beginners and experienced Rustaceans alike tend to miss one or both of these markers, in part because it's usually the only thing you could be doing. Thus, we could consider inferring these markers from context:

  • Infer the need for dereferencing based on the type of the expression being matched and the arms of the match. That's a very limited amount of context that will already be front and center in the programmer's head.

  • Infer the need for ref (or ref mut) based on the borrowing usage in the match arm, much like we do for closures already. That expands the reasoning footprint a bit, since you can't tell at a glance from the pattern what kind of borrow is being taken. But examining code blocks to determine the borrows they take is something Rust programmers do all the time, and as explained in the ownership section, the borrowing system is designed to make that easy to do. And in any case, it's still quite local context. As usual, if you get this wrong, the borrow checker will catch it.

In addition to that story for context-dependence, the feature would be only narrowly applicable (only to match) and only moderately powerful (since, again, the borrower checker will catch mistakes).

Both of these changes would expand the reasoning footprint slightly, but in a very controlled way. They remove the need to write down annotations which are essentially already forced by nearby code. And that in turn lowers the learning curve for match.

Example: the module system

Finally, let's take the module system. In the most common usage, modules are defined like so:

mod some_module;

where is a file at an appropriate place in the source tree. You can specify an explicit path if you prefer, so this is a case of implicitness through convention. But while this bit of implicitness helps, the module system still makes a number of fine distinctions that trip up newcomers and require redundancy that even old hands can forget.

Idea: eliminate the need for extern crate, and maybe mod too

The clearest-cut case is the extern crate declaration, which is used to bring an external crate into scope. The vast majority of Rust projects use Cargo for dependency management, and already specify the crates they depend on in their Cargo.toml file. Hence, extern crate is usually redundant, and it's easy to forget to add it after updating Cargo.toml. New users often complain about baroque distinctions between mod, use, extern crate, and entries in Cargo.toml; maybe we could improve matters by obviating the need for extern crate. What does that mean for the reasoning footprint?

It means that to know what crates are in scope at the root, you need to consult the Cargo.toml, which becomes the sole source of truth for this concern. That's a pretty limited context: it's single place to look, and in many cases you already need some level of awareness of its contents, to know which version of the crate is being assumed. Inferring extern crate also fares well on the applicability front: only root modules are affected, so it's easy to know precisely when you need to consult Cargo.toml.

Thinking along similar, but more radical lines, an argument could be made about the need for mod itself. After all, if we're usually just writing mod some_module to tell Rust to pull in a file at a canonical location with the same name, we're being forced to duplicate information that was already readily available. You could instead imagine the filesystem hierarchy directly informing the module system hierarchy. The concerns about limited context and applicability work out pretty much the same way as with Cargo.toml, and the learnability and ergonomic gains are significant.

Now, both of these proposals assume your code follows the typical patterns, not making use of extra, non-default flexibility. There are a lot of questions about the fine details and expressiveness. But, at least from an implicitness perspective, neither of these changes set off any alarm bells for the reasoning footprint.

The initiative

With those aims and that design philosophy in mind, how do we plan to proceed?

First off, we'll be using the roadmap tracker to help organize ideas for ergonomic improvements. The tracker is already populated with some of the ideas the language team has been mulling over, but we'll keep it updated as proposals emerge on the the internals forum and elsewhere. The language team is eager to mentor, so if one of the ideas catches your eye and you'd like guidance working toward a full-blown RFC, log your interest on the tracker! And similarly for implementation, once the RFC has merged.

Digging deeper, there's a vital cross-cutting concern: empathy. The goal here is to try to imagine and evaluate ways that Rust could be different. To do this well, we need to be able to put ourselves back in the shoes of a newcomer. Of someone who prefers a different workflow. We need to be able to come to Rust fresh, shedding our current habits and mental models and trying on new ones.

And, perhaps most importantly, we need empathy for each other. Transformative insights can be fragile; they can start out embedded in ideas that have lots of problems. If we're too quick to shut down a line of thought based on those problems, we risk foreclosing on avenues to something better. We've got to have the patience to sit with ideas that are foreign and uncomfortable, and gain some new perspective from them. We've got to trust that we all want to make Rust better, and that good faith deliberation is the way to make productivity a core value, without sacrificing the others.

Let's do this!