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Xtext/TS - a Typesystem Framework for Xtext


Starting with version 1.0, it has become feasible to build complex languages in Xtext. One common aspect of a complex language is support for expressions. Expressions require recursive grammar definitions, for which assignment actions in Xtext provide reasonable support. However, once you have expressions, you typically also need a type system. Whilst it can be argued that type checks are nothing more than constraints, building a reasonably-sized type system is a lot of work that can offer additional support over plain constraint checks. This article describes a framework for specifying type systems for (expression) languages built with Xtext.

You can get the framework from here[2].

What is a Type System?

Here is a definition from Wikipedia:

In computer science, a type system may be defined as a tractable syntactic framework for classifying phrases according to the kinds of values they compute. A type system associates types with each computed value. By examining the flow of these values, a type system attempts to prove that no type errors can occur. The type system in question determines what constitutes a type error, but a type system generally seeks to guarantee that operations expecting a certain kind of value are not used with values for which that operation makes no sense.

Let us show an intuitive example. In the last line of the code below we assign an integer value (the result of the calculation on the right side of the equals) to a variable of type bool. This is a type error. Note that the program is structurally and syntactically correct, but the types don't compute. It is the job of a type system to notice this problem and report it to the user, as shown in the screenshot.

A type system generally consists of the following building blocks:

  • type assignments: certain language elements, such as the int and bool keywords have a fixed type.
  • type calculation rules: for all the language elements, the type can be computed, typically from the types of their constituent elements or by following references.
  • typeonstraints: checks that verify that the types of certain elements conform to expectations defined by the language designer.

The type system framework described in this paper allows the efficient implementation of all of these building blocks, and integrates with the Xtext validation framework.

When to use a Typesystem

You could (and should) ask the question when to use a typesystem, and when to simply use "normal" constraints.

First of all, the two aren't mutually exclusive; you can easily mix them. After all, the type system constraints are checked as part of Xtext's validation.

Typesystems are especially useful for languages that contain expressions, assignments, function calls and - most importantly - many different runtime variable types, possibly with a type hierarchy. For example, you can use the type system to check that in a (Java-style) local variable declaration, the type of the init expression is compatible with the declared type of the variable. Most obviously, however, type systems are useful if you have expression trees in your language, as illustrated in the following diagram:

In most expression languages, expressions are trees where each node has zero, one or two children and types are calculated recursively. So in the above example the type of the root (Plus) is calculated by recursively calculating the types of the child expressions.

The typesystem framework is optimized for these kinds of languages.

Example Grammar

We start out with a simple language for defining variables and expressions for calculating values. For the time being, we support integer and boolean types. Here is an example program/model.

var int a
var int b
var int c

calc int x = a
calc int y = a + c
calc int z = a * a + b

The grammar to define this language should look familiar to Xtext users. Note that it is not the goal of this paper to explain how grammars for (recursive) expression languages are defined; you might want to take a look at the Xtext documentation [1] to understand the notation. Here is the grammar:

grammar expr.ExprDemo with org.eclipse.xtext.common.Terminals

generate exprDemo "http://www.ExprDemo.expr"

import "" as ecore


  VarDecl | Formula;

VarDecl returns Symbol:
  {VarDecl} "var" type=Type name=ID ";";

  IntType | BoolType | FloatType;

  {IntType} "int";

  {BoolType} "bool";

  {FloatType} "float";

  "calc" type=Type name=ID "=" expr=Expr ";";


Addition returns Expression:
  Multiplication ({Plus.left=current}"+" right=Multiplication)*;

Multiplication returns Expression:
  Atomic ( {Multi.left=current} "*" right=Atomic)*;

Atomic returns Expression:
  {SymbolRef} symbol=[Symbol|QID] |
  {NumberLiteral} value=NUMBER;

terminal NUMBER returns ecore::EBigDecimal:
  ('0'..'9')* ('.' ('0'..'9')+)?;

terminal INT returns ecore::EInt:
  "$$$don't use this anymore$$$";

QID:   ID ("." ID)*;

Note how we use a general concept Symbol for items that can be referenced; because we want to be able to define other kinds of referenceable things later and, because of limitations in Xtext's linking mechanism, we have to do it that way. For some references we will later need qualified (dotted) names, hence the QID.

Setting Up

Please make sure the de.itemis.xtext.typesystem plug-in is available in your Eclipse installation or in the workspace. This plug-in, in turn, has dependencies on Xtext, so at this time it cannot be used without Xtext installed.

Then make sure that your language project (expr in the example) has a dependency on the type system plug-in.

The Typesystem Class

The first programming task is to implement a class that implements the type system itself. In sticking with the Xtext project structure, we create a class called ExprTypesystem, which we put in the appropriate place within the expr language project.

In theory, this class has to implement the ITypesystem interface, but in the vast majority of cases you want to directly inherit from DefaultTypesystem. Doing this, will require you to implement its initialize method, which we will do further down.

In theory, this class has to implement the ITypesystem interface, but in the vast majority of cases you want to directly inherit from DefaultTypesystem. Doing this, will require you to implement its initialize method, which we will do further down.

public class ExprTypesystem extends DefaultTypesystem {

  @Override   protected void initialize() {

Integration with the Validator

As mentioned above, one aspect of the type system is support for type checks, which obviously have to be integrated with the Xtext validation framework. To achieve this, please insert the following code into your validator:

public class ExprDemoJavaValidator
    extends AbstractExprDemoJavaValidator {

  @Inject   private ITypesystem ts;

  @Check   public void checkTypesystemRules( EObject x ) {
   ts.checkTypesystemConstraints(x, this);


As you can see, the validation method calls the type checking method for every object in the model. Notice how we use Xtext-style Google Guice injection to get a hold of the type system. To make this work, we have to implement a binder method in the runtime module (for details take a look at the Xtext documentation) that associates the interface with our implementation class:

public class ExprDemoRuntimeModule
    extends expr.AbstractExprDemoRuntimeModule {

  public Class<? extends ITypesystem> bindITypesystem() {
    return ExprTypesystem.class;


The Info Popup

It is important to be able to trace the types in a program. Ideally, you want to select any program element, press some kind of key combination and get information about the run-time type, as shown in the following screenshot:

The info pop-up shows the qualified name of the element, its meta class, its type, as well as a trace that explains how the type was calculated. In the example above it is trivial, since the int concept has a type directly associated with it. If more complex type calculation rules are involved, this calculation is shown as a tree structure in the pop-up, allowing you to understand and trace your own typing rules (which can be nontrivial because of their recursive nature).

To make this pop up work, you basically have to implement a normal Eclipse text editor pop-up. The important bit is the code that assembles the text content for the pop-up:

private String getDescription(final int offset,
    final XtextResource resource) {
IParseResult parseResult = resource.getParseResult();
CompositeNode rootNode = parseResult.getRootNode();
AbstractNode currentNode =
    ParseTreeUtil.getLastCompleteNodeByOffset(rootNode, offset);
EObject semanticObject = NodeUtil.getNearestSemanticObject(currentNode);
StringBuffer bf = new StringBuffer();
bf.append( "QName: "+qfnp.getQualifiedName(semanticObject )+"\n" );
bf.append( "Metaclass: "+semanticObject.eClass().getName()+"\n" );
TypeCalculationTrace trace = new TypeCalculationTrace();
EObject type = ts.typeof(semanticObject, trace);
if ( type != null ) {
        bf.append("Runtime Type: "+ts.typeString(type));
} else {
        bf.append("Runtime Type: <no type>");
bf.append("\n\nTrace: ");
for (String s: trace.toStringArray()) {
        bf.append("\n "+s);
return bf.toString();

We are now ready to implement our first typing rules.

Basic Typing Rules

Typing rules and type checks come in two categories: declarative and procedural. For the time being we stick with declarative ones. Currently, the declarative ones are implemented in Java method calls from within an initialize method. Subsequent versions of this framework may use an Xtext DSL for that part.

Clones as Types

Let us start by defining that the type of either an int or a bool is a clone of itself. This is the simplest kind of typing rule. It also showcases that any EObject can be used as a type. Here all the rules:

protected void initialize() {
      ExprDemoPackage lang = ExprDemoPackage.eINSTANCE;

      try {


      } catch (TypesystemConfigurationException e) {
           // TODO Auto-generated catch block            e.printStackTrace();       }


The above code states that whenever someone or something wants to know the type of the IntType (int) or BoolType (bool) concept, a clone of the element itself is returned.

We can try this out by running the editor and pressing Ctrl-Shift-I on one of these int or bool types. The pop-up will show us the types.

Derive Type from Feature

Let us now look at the type of the var (as in var int i;) and the calc (as in calc x = 2*i;). Their type can be derived from their type child, to which we already assigned types in the previous section (sorry for the heavy overloading of the word "type", can't be avoided here!). We add the following two lines to the type system specification:

useTypeOfFeature(lang.getVarDecl(), lang.getElement_Type());
useTypeOfFeature(lang.getFormula(), lang.getElement_Type()); 


Notice how this is already the first example of a type calculation rule, since we don't prescribe a fixed type, but rather derive the type from a feature of the respective element.

We can implement a similar typing rule for variable (i.e. symbol) references. The type of a symbol reference is the type of the symbol it references:


Using Fixed Type

For now, let’s also prescribe the type of the Plus and Multi expressions as ints.

useFixedType(lang.getPlus(), lang.getIntType() );
useFixedType(lang.getMulti(), lang.getIntType() ); 

The useFixedType method associates a fixed type class (second argument) with a language construct (first argument). When asked for the type of the concept, the class is instantiated. It is also possible to pass in an object (maybe with certain properties set to certain values) as the second argument, notice the different name of the method:

usePrototypeAsType( <concept class>, <an EObject instance> ); 

For the time being, these are all the typing rules we need. Every element of the program should now have a type associated, which can be validated through the pop-up (automated testing is covered later).

Simple Type Checks

Of course you can use standard Xtext validation to implement type checks. However, for common checks, there are declarative shortcuts.

In our language, we have to make sure that the types of the arguments for Plus and Multi are int and not bool. This can be specified as follows:

       lang.getPlus_Left(), lang.getIntType());
       lang.getPlus_Right(), lang.getIntType());


       lang.getMulti_Left(), lang.getIntType());
       lang.getMulti_Right(), lang.getIntType());

You can pass in any number of types to this function, to specify alternatives. So if you wanted to allow the second argument of a Plus to be an int or bool, you can write the following:

ensureFeatureType(lang.getPlus(), lang.getPlus_Right(),
       lang.getIntType(), lang.getBoolType() ); 


Alternatively, you can also pass in one or more instances of CustomTypeChecker, implementing its isValid method in any way you like.

public abstract class CustomTypeChecker {

  private String info;

  public CustomTypeChecker( String info ) {
 = info;

  @Override   public String toString() {
          return info;

  public abstract boolean isValid( ITypesystem ts,
          EObject type, TypeCalculationTrace trace );


In the final step we should make sure that the right side of the equals sign in a Formula is compatible with the left side. In simple type systems, "compatible" means "the same". In more complex type systems, various kinds of subtype relationships have to be supported (we will cover this below). Here is the code we need:

      lang.getElement_Type(), lang.getFormula_Expr()); 


This specifies that for Formulas, the type of the expr must be "compatible" with the type of the type (notice how the type property has been pulled up to Element because both VarDecl and Formula have that property). You could also write the following:



By calling the method with only one argument, the type of the element itself is used as the left side of comparison. In our case this would also work, because the type inference rule specified above says:

useTypeOfFeature(lang.getFormula(), lang.getElement_Type()); 

There are actually two related methods: ensureOrderedCompatibility and ensureUnorderedCompatibility.

When calling

ensureOrderedCompatibility(c, f1, f2 ); 

then the constraint requires the types of f1 and f2 to be the same, or f2 to be a subtype of f1. In our formula example, if int were a subtype of float (which makes sense because ints can be seen as a special case of float) then a program

calc float x = <something with int type> 

would be ok. ensureOrderedCompatibility will check for this.

In contrast, when calling

ensureUnorderedCompatibility(c, f1, f2 ); 

then the constraint requires the types of f1 and f2 to be the same, or f2 to be a subtype of f1, or vice versa. So this constraint is bidirectional. This is useful for our Plus, for example, where either left or right arguments could be ints or floats, and it would still be valid:

    lang.getPlus_Left(), lang.getPlus_Right() ); 


Let us introduce number literals. Here is the necessary change to the grammar:

Atomic returns Expression:
  {SymbolRef} var=[Symbol] |
  {NumberLiteral} value=NUMBER;

terminal NUMBER returns ecore::EBigDecimal:
  ('0'..'9')* ('.' ('0'..'9')+)?;

terminal INT returns ecore::EInt:
  "$$$don't use this anymore$$$";

Notice that the decimal dot, and the digits behind it, are optional. In other words, if there is a dot, then we have a float; if not, it's an int. We have to implement this typing rule. Let us first introduce float as a type:

  IntType | BoolType | FloatType;

  {IntType} "int";

  {BoolType} "bool";

  {FloatType} "float";

This typing of NumberLiteral is an example where the declarative approach used above does not work. The type of a NumberLiteral is not fixed, instead it depends on the value of the number. If the value contains a decimal dot, then it is a float, otherwise it is an int.

Here is the code; it is implemented in a type method in the type system class that is called via Xtext's polymorphic dispatcher:

public EObject type( NumberLiteral l,
                       TypeCalculationTrace trace ) {
       if ( l.getValue().toString().indexOf(".") > 0 ) {
              return Utils.create(lang.getFloatType());
       } else {
              return Utils.create(lang.getIntType());


You verify that it works by using the pop-up in the editor. Of course we have to make more changes to our type system to make the typing work. Here are the changes.

First, the left and right properties of the Plus and Multi should also be able to be floats, not just ints. We simply pass in the additional type to the ensureFeatureType method.

ensureFeatureType(lang.getPlus(), lang.getPlus_Left(),
       lang.getIntType(), lang.getFloatType());
ensureFeatureType(lang.getPlus(), lang.getPlus_Right(),
       lang.getIntType(), lang.getFloatType());

ensureFeatureType(lang.getMulti(), lang.getMulti_Left(),
       lang.getIntType(), lang.getFloatType());
ensureFeatureType(lang.getMulti(), lang.getMulti_Right(),
       lang.getIntType(), lang.getFloatType());

Also, the type of the Plus and Multi themselves are now not simply a fixed type (int), but rather a computation that should calculate the common (i.e. less specific) type of the two:

       lang.getPlus_Left(), lang.getPlus_Right() );
       lang.getMulti_Left(), lang.getMulti_Right() ); 


To make this work, we have to declare int a subtype of float (in a mathematical sense, float is more general!)

declareSubtype(lang.getIntType(), lang.getFloatType()); 

Then we can write code like this, and we should get the respective error markers.

calc int t1 = 2;       // works
calc int t2 = 2.2;     // error: float cannot be assigned to int
calc float t3 = 2.2;   // works
calc float t4 = 2;     // works; int can be assigned to float
calc int t5 = 2 + 2;   // works; type of plus is int
calc int t6 = 2 + 2.3; // error:common type of 2 and 2.3 is float
                       // which cannot be assigned to int 


Structured Types

Until now, we have only looked at types as opaque objects. An int is an int is an int. Let's now consider structured types, where the properties of the type objects are relevant for the type checks.

Type Comparison Features

We use enums as the example. Here is some example code:

enum color {
   red green blue

enum shape {
   rect triangle circle

var color col1;
calc color col2 =;

The changes necessary to the grammar are shown in the following code:

 VarDecl | Formula | EnumDecl;

 "enum" name=ID "{"         (literals+=EnumLiteral)*  "}";

EnumLiteral returns Symbol:
 {EnumLiteral} name=ID;

// …

 IntType | BoolType | FloatType | EnumType;


// …

If we don't make any changes to the type system, we'll get a warning: as the system tries to ensure that the types of the calc are compatible, it notices that the type of the color symbol reference is null. This is because EnumTypes don't have a type yet.

Let us first define the type of the EnumDecl. It should be an EnumType whose enumRef reference points to the enum it represents. Here is where the "structured" part comes in. It is not enough (usually) to say that something is an enum. We have to say which enum it is. The custom type function below builds this structure for the EnumDecl.

public EObject type( EnumDecl l, TypeCalculationTrace trace ) {
       EnumType t = (EnumType) Utils.create(lang.getEnumType());
       trace.add(l, "enum, type is "+typeString(t));
       return t;


We also define that the type of an EnumType is the type of the enum it references - i.e. the thing we created in the above method:

useTypeOfFeature(lang.getEnumType(), lang.getEnumType_EnumRef()); 

This makes the warning go away, but it makes a new one show up. Now the system complains that the enum literal reference (on the right side of the calculation's equals sign) has no type. If we look at the trace we see that the type of the reference is the type of the referenced object, but the type of that object - the enum literal - is null. Let's fix this; useTypeOfAncestor uses the type of the ancestor of the given element, here the EnumDecl, as the type of the element in question.

useTypeOfAncestor(lang.getEnumLiteral(), lang.getEnumDecl()); 

This makes all warnings go away but doesn't solve the obvious issue: we should not be able to assign a shape enum literal to a variable of type color. Although they are both EnumTypes, they are different enums, which makes them different types. We have to make one last specification:



This makes sure that when types are compared, and both types are EnumTypes, the system then compares the values of the enumRef reference. Note that this is really just an equals comparison; no subtyping rules etc. are considered. We'll address this in the next example.

Type Recursion Features

Let us introduce arrays to demonstrate this. Here is the code we want to be able to write:

var int i;
var array[int] anIntArray;
var array[float] aFloatArray;

// works: assign two int arrays
calc array[int] anotherOne = anIntArray;

// error: cannot assign float array to int array
calc array[int] anotherOne2 = aFloatArray;

// works: int array is a "subtype" of float array
calc array[float] arr3 = anIntArray;

// works: array access makes it an int
calc int atest = anIntArray[i+1];

// works :-)

calc float atest2 = anIntArray[i+1] + 3.7;

Let us first extend the grammar accordingly. Here are the relevant parts:

 PrimitiveType | ArrayType;

 IntType | BoolType | FloatType | EnumType;

 {ArrayType} "array" "[" baseType=Type "]";

Multiplication returns Expression:
 PostfixOperators ( {Multi.left=current} "*"    right=PostfixOperators)*;

PostfixOperators returns Expression:
 Atomic ({ArrayAccess.expr=current} "[" index=Expr "]")?;

Atomic returns Expression:
 {SymbolRef} symbol=[Symbol|QID] |
 {NumberLiteral} value=NUMBER;

Let us address typing now. We first have to assemble the structured type of the ArrayType as in

var array[int] anIntArray; 

Here is the code that does it:

public EObject type( ArrayType a, TypeCalculationTrace trace ) {
       ArrayType arraytype =
          (ArrayType) Utils.create(lang.getArrayType());
       EObject basetype = typeof( a.getBaseType(), trace );
       arraytype.setBaseType( (Type) basetype );
       trace.add(a, "base type is "+typeString(basetype));
       return arraytype;

Doing this we will be able to assign any two arrays to each other, because we have not yet declared that the base type of an ArrayType should be taken into account when comparing types. However, in contrast to the enum example, we want to be able to assign an array of ints to an array of floats, as in this example:

// works: int array is a "subtype" of float array
calc array[float] arr3 = anIntArray; 


So we have to make sure that the subtype relationship of the base type inside the ArrayType is considered. Here is how we do that (note the Recursion as opposed to the Comparison above):



This allows us to work with array-type variables and make the type system work. However, we still need to address the ArrayAccess problem as in

// works: array access makes it an int
calc int atest = anIntArray[i+1]; 


First we have to make sure that the expression to which we apply the [] is actually an array:

      lang.getArrayAccess_Expr(), lang.getArrayType()); 


Then we have to make sure that the expression in the square brackets is of type int:

lang.getArrayAccess_Index(), lang.getIntType()); 

Finally, we have to define the type of the ArrayAccess and extract that base type from the array:

public EObject type( ArrayAccess a, TypeCalculationTrace trace )
       ArrayType arrayType =
            (ArrayType) typeof( a.getExpr(), trace );
       trace.add( a, "array type is "+typeString(arrayType));
       Type bt = arrayType.getBaseType();
       trace.add( a, "base type is "+typeString(bt));
       return bt;


That's it.

Type Characteristics

Types can be associated with so-called characteristics. These are a little bit like tags or marker interfaces. The example in this document doesn’t lend itself to using characteristics, so here is a general explanation.

You can define a characteristic by instantiating the respective class:

TypeCharacteristic iterable = new TypeCharacteristic("iterable"); 

You can now associate any type with such a characteristic, like so:

declareCharacteristic( lang.getSomeClass(), iterable );

You can now use this as a type for which you can check:

ensureFeatureType( lang.getAnotherClass(),
 lang.getAnotherClass_Feature(), iterable ); 

Of course, the idea is to declare the same characteristic for several types, and then just check for this characteristic.

Type Coercion

A type coercion is an implicit type conversion. If, for example, an int is expected in a given context (i.e. an expression of type int would be valid), but we actually provide a string, then, without coercion, this would be a mistake:

var int v4 = "Hallo"; // error without coercion 

Now assume we had the following coercion rule:

  • if an int is expected,
  • and we actually provide a string,
  • and the element is a string literal,
  • and it’s value can be transformed to an int (i.e. the string contains just numbers)
  • then consider it an int.

We could then write the following code:

var int v4 = "Hallo"; // error: string, but int expected
var int v5 = "100"; // works, because of custom coercion rule!

calc int cc = 10 + "100"; // works, coercion

While this is a somewhat contrived example, I have had to use coercion in many places in real world projects. Notice that a coercion rule is not the same as simply changing the type definition. We don’t want number-only-string literals to be treated as int everywhere – we just want to consider them ints if the program would otherwise be invalid.

Coercion rules are implemented as polymorphically dispatched methods in the type system class. Here is the implementation of our coercion rule:

public EObject typeCoerce( EObject candidateElement,
         StringType candidate, IntType expected,
         TypeCalculationTrace trace ) {
 if ( candidateElement instanceof StringLiteral ) {
     try {
         ((StringLiteral) candidateElement).getValue());
       return create(lang.getIntType());
     } catch ( NumberFormatException fallthrough ) {}
 return null;

The signature has to be:

  • element whose type we want to coerce
  • its current type (polymorphic)
  • the type we’re trying to coerce to (polymorphic)
  • and a TypeCalculationTrace, as usual.

The method has to return the calculated type, or null if no coercion is possible.


Testing the language structure is simple: just write down the model in the syntax you expect, and see if it parses. By providing a reasonably large set of example models (coverage), you can make sure all the programs you want to write are possible. Running the parser over all these programs in a batch basically provides the necessary automation.

Constraint checks, and type checks specifically, are not as simple to test, especially because of regressions. Type system rules are non-trivial, and often recursive. Dedicated support is useful; the support should be able to load models from within a JUnit test.


The typesystem framework comes with a couple of helper classes for testing constraints as part of a JUnit 4 test case. The project that contains the tests needs to have a dependency on the de.itemis.xtext.typesystem.testing plugin, which contains all the base classes and utilities.

Here is a trivial test:

public class Basic extends XTextTestCase {
public void testTypesOfParams() throws Exception {
      EObject root =
            initializeAndGetRoot(new ExprDemoStandaloneSetup(),
      assertConstraints( allIssues.errorsOnly().sizeIs(0) );

Using the initializeAndGetRoot method you can read model files. You can pass in any number of files, they are all loaded into the same resource set, so cross-references into other files will work. However, the allIssues collection only contains the issues from the first file (we call it the primary file).

Writing the actual tests is based on two main ingredients: the assertConstraints method, and a fluent-interface-based way of filtering issues. In the above example, you can see that we assert that the issues collection contains zero errors.

If an assertion fails, the exception error message contains a trace of which of the constraints or filters (see below) actually failed.

You can also pass in an additional ID to the assertConstraints method as the first argument. If you do so, this ID is output in the error message in the constraints and helps you track down the location of the problem.

Filtering Issues

In the following example we assert that there are incompatible types ion two of the calculations:

assertConstraints( allIssues.forType(Formula.class).named("t2").
       theOneAndOnlyContains("incompatible") );
assertConstraints( allIssues.forType(Formula.class).named("t6").
       theOneAndOnlyContains("incompatible") ); 


There are a number of methods available on the IssueCollection that are useful for filtering. Here is the list:

The method…

… returns a new IssueCollection that

forType( t )

contains only those issues that are attached to an instance of t

get( index )

are at position index in the IssueCollection

inLine( line )

are in line line in the model file

withStringFeatureValue( n, v )

whose feature named n has the value (tostring()) v


contains no warnings

named( n )

contains only those issues that are attached to an element with name property value n

forElement( t, n )

contains only those issues that are attached to elements of type t that have the name n

under( t )

contains only those issues whose element has an ancestor of type t

under( t, n )

contains only those issues whose element has an ancestor of type t named n

We also use a few assertion methods:

The method…

… asserts that

sizeIs( s )

the size of the current collection is s

oneOfThemContains( t )

the collection has any size, and one of the error messages contains the substring t

allOfThemContain( t )

the collection has any size, and all the error messages contains the substring t


the collection is of size 1 and the message of the singe error contains the substring t

Finally, you can use dumpIssues() on any IssueCollection to output the issues to the console.


Special Type Comparison Functions

In case the default type comparison facilities including subtypes don't work for you, you can implement your own strategy by implementing a compareTypes polymorphic method:

protected Boolean compareTypes( EObject type1, EObject type2,
      CheckKind kind, TypeCalculationTrace trace ) {
      if ( kind == CheckKind.same ) {
            } else ….

The CheckKind (same, unordered, ordered) determines which kind of comparison is expected. Don’t forget to put some information into the trace to help users understand how a type was calculated.

Type Strings

Sometimes the default string representation (as created by typeString(t)) is not very nice; the polymorphically dispatched typeToString(t) method can be used to customize the string representation of a type the framework uses in in error messages, as the following example shows. The methods have to be defined in the Typesystem class.

public String typeToString( EObject o ) {
      String cn = o.eClass().getName();
      if ( cn.toLowerCase().endsWith("type"))
            return cn.substring(0,cn.length()-4);
      return null;

public String typeToString( ArrayType a ) {
      return "array["+typeString(a.getBaseType())+"]";


Custom Error Messages

All the ensure… methods that express type system constraints are overloaded to take an additional string as the first argument. This string serves as a custom error message, as in

ensureFeatureType("array index must be Int, idiot :)",


Type Root Classes

Sometimes the type system rules can be non trivial and it is hard to keep an overview of what's happening. TypeCalculationTrace is one way of keeping track. Another approach is to declare which classes should be used as types. You can declare a set of valid (super) classes for your types like so:

declareTypeRootEClasses(EClass1, EClass2, …);

After this declaration, whenever your typing rules return a type object that is not an instance of one of these classes (or subtypes of them), you'll get a InvalidType runtime exception.

The ITypesystem API

The ITypesystem interface is the primary API to interact with the typesystem from within a validator, for when you don't want to use the declarative functionality available in DefaultTypesystem, or if you need to know the type of an element for other reasons.

Take a look at the JavaDoc of the class to learn how to use it. Based on the tutorial above it should be relatively simple to work out what the methods do based on their names.

Using the Typesystem in Scopes

Sometimes it is useful to query the typesystem in a scope provider, to restrict code completion to type-compatible proposals.

In principle, this is straightforward: inject the typesystem into the scope provider and use it to filter the proposals. In practice, it's not so simple.

If your scope is local (i.e. within the same file), the approach might work. If however the targets of your references are in other resources, the problem is that the target objects aren't yet loaded, and you have to make do with the IEObjectDescriptions. These, however, have no type, and hence cannot be used for filtering. The trick is to make sure the IEObjectDescriptions (as stored in the index) actually do contain some type information.

Customizing the IEObjectDescriptions

We have to provide our own implementation of DefaultResourceDescription, as shown in the following code. In essence, we calculate a type and store it, as a string, in a user data field of the IEObjectDescription.

public class MyResourceDescription
        extends DefaultResourceDescription {

public static final String KEY_TYPE = "type";  private IQualifiedNameProvider nameProv;
 private ITypesystem typesystem;

 public MyResourceDescription(Resource resource,
        IQualifiedNameProvider nameProvider, ITypesystem ts) {
  super(resource, nameProvider );
  this.nameProv = nameProvider;
  this.typesystem = ts;

@Override protected IEObjectDescription
            createIEObjectDescription(EObject from) {
 if (nameProv == null) return null;
 String qualifiedName = nameProv.getQualifiedName(from);
 if (qualifiedName != null) {
  if ( from instanceof WhatEverYouWantToIndex ) {
    EObject o = // … the element whose type you want to store
    EObject type = typesystem.typeof(o,
                new TypeCalculationTrace());
    return createWithUserData(qualifiedName, from,
          KEY TYPE, type.eClass().getName());
 return super.createIEObjectDescription(from);
private IEObjectDescription createWithUserData(String qname,
        EObject object, String key, String value) {
  Map<String, String> userData = new HashMap<String, String>();
  userData.put(key, value);
  return EObjectDescription.create(qname, object, userData);

To make sure our new ResourceDescription is used, we also have to implement our own Manager:

public class MyManager
     extends DefaultResourceDescriptionManager {

 @Inject  private ITypesystem ts;

 @Override  protected IResourceDescription
    internalGetResourceDescription(Resource resource,
    IQualifiedNameProvider nameProvider) {
  return new MyResourceDescription(resource, nameProvider, ts);

We also have to register it in the runtime module.

public Class<? extends IResourceDescription.Manager>
                       bindIResourceDescriptionManager() {
  return MyManager.class;


Using the information in the Scope Provider

We are now finally ready to enhance the scope provider. It will extract the user data from the IEObjectDescriptions and use it for type filtering:

public IScope scope WhatEverYouWantToIndex(
       final ContextType ctx, EReference ref ) {
  Map<String, IEObjectDescription> map =
 IScope all = delegateGetScope(ctx, ref);
 for (IEObjectDescription od: all.getContents()) {
    String odtype =
         od.getUserData(MyResourceDescription.KEY TYPE);
    String contextType = ts.typeof(ctx, new
    if ( odtype.equals(contextType) ) {
         String localName = // … od.getName();
         map.put(localName, new
                AliasedEObjectDescription(localName, od));
  return new MapBasedScope(IScope.NULLSCOPE, map);


The type system framework introduced in this article of course is not the world’s most powerful type system framework. JetBrains MPS, for example, uses unification instead of the relatively simple recursive type computation model introduced here. Also, I am not sure I want to implement Java’s type system (with Generics) or even type systems like Scala’s within this framework. However, for typical DSLs it is absolutely good enough. I (and some others) have implemented several non-trivial DSLs based on the framework and it works well.


[1] Xtext user documentation

[2] Xtext type system framework

About the Author

Markus Völter works as an independent researcher, consultant and coach for itemis AG in Stuttgart, Germany. His focus is on software architecture, model-driven software development and domain specific languages as well as on product line engineering. Markus also regularly writes (articles, patterns, books) and speaks (trainings, conferences) on those subjects. You can contact him via

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