Up to now, when writing rules "on the whiteboard", we have been blase about our syntactic representation of variables and binding. In particular, all the rules given only make sense if we implicitly assume that all rules apply up to alpha equivalence, and that all substitutions are capture-avoiding. In doing so, however, we necessarily gloss over any details of what an actual program implementing these algorithms may need to ensure these invariants are upheld.

We now give some discussion on how these may be implemented in an actual compiler. In the structural code for this class, we will use a hybrid of the techniques discussed here -- terms will use explicit variables and constructors will use De Bruijin indices. Past this explanation, we will continue to use the notation for explicit variables everywhere, which should be implicitly converted to De Bruijin where appropriate.

Explicit Variables

Consider (syntactically) the lambda calculus whose terms consist of variables, lambda abstractions, and applications. Variables and bindings are "explicit", represented and differentiated with a literal string of characters (say \(x\)). This has the example of being extremely simple to read, and has comparatively few pitfalls to other approaches.

What would a substitution function on these terms look like? Certainly, substituting into a variable or an application is easy. What about the lambda case?

\[\require{bussproofs} \begin{aligned}[] [M/x]\lambda x.N &= \lambda x.N \hfill& \\ [M/x]\lambda y.N &= \lambda y.[M/x]N \hfill& (y \not\in FV(M)) \\ [M/x]\lambda y.N &= \lambda y'.[M/x][y/y']N \hfill& (y' \ne x, y \in FV(M), y' \not\in FV(M)) \end{aligned} \]

In the first case, we ignore the substitution -- the variable \(x\) is bound in the lambda, so any suboccurrences of \(x\) aren't free (and thus shouldn't be subbed). In the other two cases, we are forced to check whether \(y\) is free in the substitutee \(M\), traversing the entire term each time. Then, if it is free in \(M\), we also need to traverse the subterm \(N\) to alpha-vary it properly.

This is, as you may have surmised, not an ideal state of affairs. One alternative is to just always alpha-vary the bound term, giving us the clause

\[ \begin{aligned}[] [M/x]\lambda y.N &= \lambda y'.[M/x][y/y']N \hfill& (x \ne y, y' \ne x, y' \ne FV(M)) \end{aligned} \]

where we generate a fresh variable each time. This is marginally better for simplicity, but now requires us to traverse the subterm \(N\) every time.

De Bruijin Indices

Clearly, we need a better way. Another alternative we can use is De Bruijin indices, in which a variable is represented by the number of binders between the variable itself and its introduction. So the term \(\lambda x.x\ (\lambda y. x\ y)\) would be written as \(\lambda . 0\ (\lambda. 1\ 0)\).

Related is the idea of De Bruijin levels, which count the indices backwards, from the outermost binder. However, these are unwieldy and nobody uses them, so we won't either.

Our substitution function, then, will look like this (remember that \(i\) and \(j\) are natural numbers here):

\[ \begin{aligned}[] [M/i]i &= M \\ [M/i]j &= j-1 \hfill& (j > i) \\ [M/i]j &= j \hfill& (j \lt i) \\ [M/i](N_1\ N_2) &= [M/i]N_1\ ([M/i]N_2) \\ [M/i]\lambda.N &= \lambda.[M\uparrow^1_0/i+1]N \end{aligned} \]

where \(\uparrow\) is an operation that shifts the variables in a subterm (to be defined). If \(j \lt i\), on the other hand, we can leave it be, as there isn't an intermediate binding that has been removed.

In the \(j > i\) case, we need to lower the variable by 1, because if we're substituting for it, it means we've removed a binding site (namely, the binding \(i\)).

When going underneath a binder (in the \(\lambda\)-abstraction case), we need to adjust any variables in the substitutee \(M\) to account for the extra binder -- if \(M\) refers to some free variable at index \(0\), then that needs to become index \(1\) once we go underneath the lambda binder. This is where the \(\uparrow\) operation comes in:

\[ \begin{aligned}[] i \uparrow^j_k &= i + j \hfill& (i \ge k) \\ i \uparrow^j_k &= i \hfill& (\text{otherwise}) \\ (M\ N) \uparrow^j_k &= (M \uparrow^j_k)\ (N \uparrow^j_k) \\ (\lambda.M) \uparrow^j_k &= \lambda.(M \uparrow^j_{k+1}) \end{aligned} \]

Let's try this on some concrete examples. Consider the eta rule for \(\Pi\)-kinds:

\[ \begin{prooftree} \AxiomC{$\Gamma, \alpha:k_1 \vdash c\ \alpha:k_2$} \UnaryInfC{$\Gamma \vdash c : \Pi(\alpha:k_1).k_2$} \end{prooftree} \]

Under De Bruijin, this becomes

\[ \begin{prooftree} \AxiomC{$\Gamma, k_1 \vdash c\uparrow^1_0\ 0 : k_2$} \UnaryInfC{$\Gamma \vdash c : \Pi(k_1).k_2$} \end{prooftree} \]

In the premise, we need to upshift any variables in the constructor \(c\), because we're adding a new variable (namely, \(\alpha\)) without going underneath an explicit binding site.

What about application?

\[ \begin{prooftree} \AxiomC{$\Gamma \vdash c:\Pi(\alpha:k_1).k_2$} \AxiomC{$\Gamma \vdash c':k_1$} \BinaryInfC{$\Gamma \vdash c\ c' : [c'/\alpha]k_2$} \end{prooftree} \]

This becomes

\[ \begin{prooftree} \AxiomC{$\Gamma \vdash c:\Pi(k_1).k_2$} \AxiomC{$\Gamma \vdash c':k_1$} \BinaryInfC{$\Gamma \vdash c\ c' : [c'/0]k_2$} \end{prooftree} \]

Here, because of how we defined substitution, we can avoid needing to do the explicit downshift that comes from instantiating the \(\alpha\) binding.

Explicit substitutions

When working with such a representation, it can often be extremely unwieldy to need to use the above definition for every substitution. Instead, we can use a compositional representation acting on terms. Let \(\sigma\) be the syntactic class of substitutions, which are, spiritually, functions from term to term, applied as \(M[\sigma]\) (the reverse of the usual notation). Some presentations of this system may even add \(M[\sigma]\) to the grammar as a term itself (called a "closure", confusingly), but we will not, for simplicit. We have

\[ \begin{aligned} \sigma &:= \uparrow^i \mid M.\sigma \\ \end{aligned} \]

where \(M.\sigma\) is the substitution replacing variable \(0\) with \(M\) and performing \(\sigma\) to \(i-1\) for each other variable \(i\). We will also define the substitution \(id\) to be \(\uparrow^0\).

The substitution \([M_0/0, M_1/1, M_2/2]\), then, will be represented by the operation \(\).

With substitutions now represented as first-class, it makes sense to define the composition of substitutions. Namely, we want \(\sigma \circ \sigma'\) to be the transformation such that \(M[\sigma \circ \sigma'] = (M[\sigma])[\sigma']\).

Our application rules become:

\[\begin{aligned} 0[M.\sigma] &= M \\ i+1[M.\sigma] &= i[\sigma] \\ i [\uparrow^j] &= i+j \\ (N\ P)[\sigma] &= (N[\sigma]\ P[\sigma]) \\ (\lambda.M)[\sigma] &= \lambda.(M[0.(\sigma \circ \uparrow^1)]) \end{aligned} \]

with composition defined as

\[\begin{aligned} (M.\sigma) \circ \sigma' &= (M[\sigma']) . (\sigma \circ \sigma') \\ \uparrow^i \circ \uparrow^j &= \uparrow^{i+j} \\ id \circ M.\sigma &= M.\sigma \\ \uparrow^{i+1} \circ M.\sigma &= \uparrow^i \circ \sigma \end{aligned} \]

Suppose, then, that we wanted to apply an operation \(\sigma\) to the second variable in our binding list. To do that with what we have, we'd need to leave all \(0\)s and \(1\)s untouched. We can do that with

\[ \sigma \rightsquigarrow 0.(\sigma \circ \uparrow) \rightsquigarrow 0.((0.(\sigma \circ \uparrow)) \circ \uparrow) \]

where \(\rightsquigarrow\) is a transformation shifting a substitution to act under one binding, and the last term is equal to

\[ 0.(0[\uparrow].(\sigma \circ \uparrow) \circ \uparrow) = 0.1.(\sigma \circ \uparrow^2) \]

This suggests a pattern:

\[ under_i(\sigma) = 0.1.\dots.i-1.\sigma \circ \uparrow^i \]

which is to apply the operation \(\sigma\) under \(i\) bindings.

A typical use case may look like

\[ 0.1.\dots.i-1.M_1[\uparrow^i].\dots.M_j[\uparrow^i].\uparrow^{i+k} \]

In the starter code, this pattern is implemented for us as the function

subst_term : nat -> term list -> nat -> subst


  • I always find it simplest to think of the variable \(0\) as being an index into the ordered context list. In this way, any time something is added to the context without an explicit binder, it makes sense to increment the internal vars.