Advanced Static Types in TypeScript

This course explores the capabilities of TypeScript’s type system and shows how to use advanced static types in practice.

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TypeScript 2.0: Control Flow Based Type Analysis

The recent release of TypeScript 2.0 shipped with plenty of new features. I previously wrote about the new non-nullable types, which go hand in hand with another feature we're going to look at in this post: type analysis based on control flow.

Control Flow Based Type Analysis

The official What's new in TypeScript page summarizes control flow based type analysis as follows (emphasis mine):

With TypeScript 2.0, the type checker analyses all possible flows of control in statements and expressions to produce the most specific type possible (the narrowed type) at any given location for a local variable or parameter that is declared to have a union type.

That's a pretty dense explanation. Here's an example that illustrates how TypeScript understands the effect of assignments to a local variable, and how it narrows the type of that variable accordingly:

let command: string | string[];

command = "pwd";
command.toLowerCase();    // Here, command is of type 'string'

command = ["ls", "-la"];
command.join(" ");        // Here, command is of type 'string[]'

Note that all code resides within the same scope. Still, the type checker uses the most specific type possible for the command variable at any given location:

  • After the string "pwd" has been assigned, there's no way for the command variable to be a string array (the only other option within the union type). Therefore, TypeScript treats command as a variable of type string and allows the call to the toLowerCase() method.
  • After the string array ["ls", "-la"] is assigned, the command variable is no longer treated as a string. It is now known to be a string array, so the call to the join method succeeds.

Because of the same control flow analysis, the following function type-checks correctly in TypeScript 2.0:

function composeCommand(command: string | string[]): string {
    if (typeof command === "string") {
        return command;
    }

    return command.join(" ");
}

The compiler now understands that if the command parameter is of type string, the function always returns early from within the if-statement. Because of the early exit behavior, the type of the command parameter is narrowed to string[] after the if-statement. As a result, the call to the join method type-checks correctly.

Prior to TypeScript 2.0, the compiler was not able to deduce the above semantics. Therefore, the string type was not removed from the union type of the command variable, and the following compile-time error was produced:

Property 'join' does not exist on type 'string | string[]'.

Strict Null Checks

Control flow based type analysis is particularly helpful when used in conjunction with nullable types, which are represented using union types including null or undefined. Usually, we need to check whether a variable of a nullable type has a non-null value before we can work with it:

type Person = {
    firstName: string;
    lastName?: string | null | undefined;
};

function getFullName(person: Person): string {
    const { firstName, lastName } = person;

    // Here, we check for a falsy value of the `lastName` property,
    // which covers `null` and `undefined` (and other values like "")
    if (!lastName) {
        return firstName;
    }

    return `${firstName} ${lastName}`;
}

Here, the Person type defines a non-nullable firstName property and a nullable lastName property. If we compose a full name out of both, we need to check whether lastName is null or undefined to avoid appending the string "null" or "undefined" to the first name.

For the purpose of clarity, I added the undefined type to the union type of the lastName property, although that's a redundant piece of information. In strict null checking mode, the undefined type is added automatically to the union type of optional properties, so we don't have to explicitly write it out. For more information, please refer to my previous post about non-nullable types.

Definite Assignment Analysis

Another new feature built on top of control flow is definite assignment analysis. In strict null checking mode, local variables cannot be referenced before they have been assigned:

let name: string;

// Error: Variable 'name' is used before being assigned.
console.log(name);

An exception to this rule are local variables whose type includes undefined:

let name: string | undefined;
console.log(name);  // No error

Definite assignment analysis is another protection measure against nullability bugs. The idea is to make sure that every non-nullable local variable has been initialized properly before it's being used.

Summary

Control flow based type analysis is a powerful addition to TypeScript's type system. The type checker now understands the semantics of assignments and jumps in control flow, thereby greatly reducing the need for type guards. Working with nullable variables can be facilitated by the elimination of the null and undefined types. Finally, control flow analysis prevents referencing variables that have not definitely been assigned at the given location.

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