Higher-order Abstract Syntax

In the previous chapter, we looked at a deep embedding of the simply typed lambda calculus (STLC). The encoding is “deep” in the sense that we used an inductive type to represent the syntax of the lambda calculus in F*, and then defined and proved some properties of its semantics represented mathematically in F*.

Another way to embed a language like the STLC in F* is a shallow embedding. F* is itself a functional programming language, and it has a type system that is certainly powerful enough to represent simply typed terms, so why not use lambda terms in F* itself to represent STLC, rather than merely encoding STLC’s abstract syntax in F*. This kind of encoding is called a shallow embedding, where we use semantic constructs in the host (or meta) language (F*) to represent analogous features of the embedded (or object) language (STLC, in our example).

In this chapter, we look at a particularly elegant technique for doing this called higher-order abstract syntax (or HOAS). For more background about this, a 2008 paper by Adam Chlipala is a good resource, though it develops a more sophisticated parametric version.

Our small case study in HOAS is meant to illustrate the use of inductive types with non-trivial indexes while also containing strictly positive functions as arguments, and also a bit of type-level computation.


The type typ below represents the types we’ll use in our STLC object language, i.e., the base types Bool and Int, and function types Arrow t1 t2.

type typ =
  | Bool
  | Int
  | Arrow : typ -> typ -> typ

This is analogous to our representation of STLC types in the deep embedding of the previous chapter.

Where things get interesting is in the representation of STLC terms and their semantics. To set the goal posts, we want to

  1. Give an interpretation of STLC types into F* types, by defining a function denote_typ : typ -> Type

  2. Define a type term t, to represent well-typed STLC terms whose type is t:typ

  3. Give an intepretation of STLC terms in to F* terms of the suitable type, i.e., define a function denote_term (#t:typ) (e:term t) : denote_typ t, proving that every well-typed STLC term at type t can be represented in F* as a function of type denote_typ t.

Such a result would encompass the type soundness results we proved in the previous chapter (proving that well-typed programs can always make progress), but would go substantially further to show that the reduction of all such terms always terminates producing F* values that model their semantics.

Denotation of types

Step 1 in our roadmap is to give an interpreration of STLC types typ into F* types. This is easily done, as shown below.

let rec denote_typ (t:typ)
  : Type
  = match t with
    | Bool -> bool
    | Int -> int
    | Arrow t1 t2 -> (denote_typ t1 -> denote_typ t2)

We have here a recursive function that computes a Type from its argument. This is may seem odd at first, but it’s perfectly legal in a dependently typed language like F*.

The function denote_typ The interpretation of Bool and Int are the F* type bool and int, while the interpretation of Arrow is an F* arrow. Note, the function terminates because the two recursive calls are on strict sub-terms of the argument.

Term representation

The main difficulty in representing a language like STLC (or any language with lambda-like variable-binding structure), is the question of how to represent variables and their binders.

In the deep embedding of the previous chapter, our answer to this questions was very syntactic—variables are de Bruijn indexes, where, at each occurrence, the index used for a variable counts the number of lambdas to traverse to reach the binder for that variable.

The HOAS approach to answering these questions is very different. The idea is to use the binding constructs and variables already available in the host language (i.e., lambda terms in F*) to represent binders and variables in the object language (STLC).

The main type in our representation of terms is the term defined below. There are several clever subtleties here, which we’ll try to explain briefly.

type term : typ -> Type =
  | Var : #t:typ -> denote_typ t -> term t
  | TT  : term Bool
  | FF  : term Bool
  | I   : int -> term Int
  | App : #t1:typ -> #t2:typ ->
          term (Arrow t1 t2) ->
          term t1 ->
          term t2
  | Lam : #t1:typ -> #t2:typ ->
          (denote_typ t1 -> term t2) ->
          term (Arrow t1 t2)

First, the term type represents both the abstract syntax of the STLC as well as its typing rules. We’ll see in detail how this works, but notice already that term is is indexed by a t:typ, which describes the type of encoded STLC term. The indexing structure encodes the typing rules of STLC, ensuring that only well-typed STLC terms can be constructed.

The second interesting part is the use of denote_typ within the syntax—variables and binders at a given STLC type t will be represented by F* variables and binders of the corresponding F* type denote_typ t.

  • Var : Variables are represented as Var #t n : term t, where n is a term of type denote_typ t.

  • TT and FF: The two boolean constansts are represented by these constructors, both of type term  Bool, where the index indicates that they have type Bool.

  • I: STLC integers are represented by tagged F* integers.

  • App: To apply e1 to e2 in a well-typed way, we must prove that e1 has an arrow type TArrow t1 t2, while e2 has type t2, and the resulting term App e1 e2 has type t2. Notice how the indexing structure of the App constructor precisely captures this typing rule.

  • Lam: Finally, and crucially, we represent STLC lambda terms using F* functions, i.e., Lam f has type Arrow t1 t2, when f is represented by an F* function from arguments of type denote_typ t1, to terms of type term t. The Lam case includes a function-typed field, but the type of that field, denote_typ t1 -> term t2 is strictly positive—unlike the the dyn type, shown earlier.

Denotation of terms

Finally, we come to Step 3 (below), where we give an interpretation to term t as an F* term of type denote_typ t. The trickiest part of such a interpretation is to handle functions and variables, but this part is already done in the representation, since these are already represented by the appropriate F* terms.

let rec denote_term (#t:typ) (e:term t)
  : Tot (denote_typ t)
        (decreases e)
  = match e with
    | Var x -> x
    | TT -> true
    | FF -> false
    | I i -> i
    | App f a -> (denote_term f) (denote_term a)
    | Lam f -> fun x -> denote_term (f x)

Let’s look at each of the cases:

  • The Var case is easy, since the variable x is already interpreted into an element of the appropriate F* type.

  • The constants TT, FF, and I are easy too, since we can just interpret them as the suitable boolean or integer constants.

  • For the App #t1 #t2 f a case, we recursively interpret f and a. The type indices tell us that f must be interpreted into an F* function of type denote_typ t1 -> denote_typ t2 and that denote_term a has type denote_typ t1. So, we can simply apply the denotation of f to the denotation of a to get a term of type denote_typ t2. In other words, function application in STLC is represented semantically by function application in F*.

  • Finally, in the Lam #t1 #t2 f case, we need to produce a term of type denote_typ t1 -> denote_typ t2. So, we build an F* lambda term (where the argument x has type denote_typ t1), and in the body we apply f x and recursively call denote_term on f x.

If that felt a little bit magical, it’s because it almost is! We’ve defined the syntax, typing rules, and an interpreter that doubles as a denotational semantics for the STLC, and proved everything sound in around 30 lines of code and proof. By picking the right representation, everything just follows very smoothly.


You may be wondering why F* accepts that denote_term e terminates. There are three recursive calls to consider

  • The two calls in the App case are easy: The recursive calls are on strict sub-terms of App f a.

  • In the Lam f case, we have one recursive call denote_term (f x), and F* accepts that f x is strictly smaller than Lam f. This is an instance of the sub-term ordering on inductive types explained earlier, as part of F*’s precedes relation, explained earlier.

For a bit of intuition, one way to understand the type term is by thinking of it as a tree of finite depth, but possibly infinite width:

  • The leaves of the tree are the Var, TT, and FF cases.

  • The internal node App e0 e1 composes two sub-trees, e0 and e1.

  • The internal node Lam #t1 #t2 f composes a variable number of sub-trees, where the number of sub-trees depends on the parameter t1. For example:

    • If t1 = Unit, then f : unit -> term v t, i.e., there is only one child node, f().

    • If t1 = Bool, then f : bool -> term v t, i.e., there are two children, f true and f false.

    • if t1 = Int, then f : int -> term v t, i.e., there are infinitely many children, ..., f -1, f 0, f 1, ....

With this intuition, informally, it is safe to recursively call denote_term e on any of the children of e, since the depth of the tree will decrease on each recursive call. Hence the call denote_term (f x) terminates.

We’ll revisit termination arguments for recursive functions more formally in a subsequent chapter on well-founded recursion.


Giving a semantics to STLC is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more one can do with HOAS and Chlipala’s paper gives lots of examples and sample code in Coq.

For several more advanced exercises, based on the definitions shown below, try reconstructing other examples from Chlipala’s paper, including a proof of correctness of a compiler implementing a continuation-passing style (CPS) transformation of STLC.

Exercise file

(* This example is transcribed from Adam Chlipala's
   Parametric Higher-order Abstract Syntax (ICFP 2008) paper.

module Part2.PHOAS

type typ =
  | Bool
  | Arrow : typ -> typ -> typ

type term0 (v: typ -> Type) : typ -> Type =
  | Var : #t:typ -> v t -> term0 v t
  | TT  : term0 v Bool
  | FF  : term0 v Bool
  | App : #t1:typ -> #t2:typ ->
          term0 v (Arrow t1 t2) ->
          term0 v t1 ->
          term0 v t2
  | Lam : #t1:typ -> #t2:typ ->
          (v t1 -> term0 v t2) ->
          term0 v (Arrow t1 t2)

let term (t:typ) = v:(typ -> Type) -> term0 v t

let rec denote_typ (t:typ)
  : Type
  = match t with
    | Bool -> bool
    | Arrow t1 t2 -> (denote_typ t1 -> denote_typ t2)

let rec denote_term0 (#t:typ) (e:term0 denote_typ t)
  : Tot (denote_typ t)
        (decreases e)
  = match e with
    | Var x -> x
    | TT -> true
    | FF -> false
    | App f a -> (denote_term0 f) (denote_term0 a)
    | Lam f -> fun x -> denote_term0 (f x)

let denote_term (t:typ) (e:term t)
  : denote_typ t
  = denote_term0 (e _)