Language Design: Unions

Published on 2021-08-26. Last updated on 2022-11-26

TL;DR: Tagged unions whose variants do not require syntactic wrappers.


A “traditional” enum (ADT) definition as it exists in various languages defines both the enum itself (Pet), as well as its variants (Cat and Dog):

enum Pet {
  Cat(name: String, lives: Int),
  Dog(name: String, age: Int)
let pet: Pet = Cat("Molly", 9)

Some languages like Rust, C or C++ provide untagged unions, where the chosen variant has to be specified on creation and access:

union Pet {
  cat: Cat,
  dog: Dog
let pet = Pet { cat: Cat("Molly", 9) }

Other languages provide untagged union types where the union type itself (Pet) is defined, and its variants (Cat and Dog) refer to existing types in scope that may or may not allow detecting the chosen variant1:

type Pet = Cat | Dog
let pet: Pet = Cat("Molly", 9)


  • ADTs are generally tagged unions (their variants can be told apart, even if they contain the same values) and come with wrappers (Cat, Dog) around their payloads.
  • Untagged unions do not contain metadata (runtime tags) to distinguish variants, but require that every access is qualified with variant information.
  • Union types do not contain metadata (runtime tags) to distinguish variants and do not use syntactic wrappers.
Syntactic Wrapping No Syntactic Wrapping
Runtime Tagging tagged union/ADT/enum ?
No Runtime Tagging untagged union (Rust, C, C++) union type

Filling in the upper right quadrant

Let’s think about the combination of tagged union without syntactic wrapping in the upper right quadrant:

class Cat(name: String, lives: Int)
class Dog(name: String, age: Int)
union Pet of Cat, Dog

let pet: Pet = Cat("Molly", 9)

This defines the union Pet, refers to existing types Cat and Dog, and assigns an instance of Cat to a binding pet of type Pet without syntactic wrapping.

Intuitively, this works similarly to permits clauses of sealed interfaces in Java in the sense that

sealed interface Pet permits Cat, Dog { ... }

does not define Cat or Dog, but refers to existing Cat and Dog types in scope.2

Benefits of such unions

  1. Union variants have types, because they have a “real” class/struct/… declaration.
    (This fixes a mistake that some languages like Rust or Haskell made with their enums/ADTs.34)
  2. Variants can be reference types or value types (as they refer to “real” class or value definitions).
  3. No “stutter”, where variant names have to be invented to wrap existing types. (Rust has this issue.)
  4. Union values can be passed/created more easily, as no syntactic wrapping is required.
  5. Variants can be re-used in different unions.
  6. The ability to build ad-hoc unions out of existing types obviates the need for a separate type alias feature.

Example for 1., 2., 3.

enum Option[T] { Some(value: T), None }

… would receive little benefit from being written as …

union Option[T] of Some[T], None
value Some[T](value: T)
module None

…, but even trivial ADTs like a JSON representation would benefit.

Instead of …

enum JsonValue {
  JsonObject(Map[String, JsonValue])
  JsonArray (Array[JsonValue]),
  JsonBool  (Bool),

… one would write (with Array, Float64 and String being existing types in the language):

union JsonValue of
  Map[String, JsonValue]

module JsonNull

Example for 4.

No wrapping required when passing arguments (unlike “traditional” enum approaches):

fun someValue(value: JsonValue) = ...
someValue(JsonString("test")) // "traditional" approach
someValue("test")             // with non-definitional unions

Example for 5.

Consider this class definition:

class Name(name: String)

With non-definitional unions, Name can be used multiple times – in different unions (and elsewhere):

union PersonIdentifier of
  ... // other identifiers like TaxId, Description, PhoneNumber etc.

union DogTag of
  ... // other identifiers like RegId, ...

Non-definitional unions reduce indirection at use-sites and can be used in more scenarios (compared to more “traditional” enums), while not changing their runtime costs or representation.

  1. type Num = Int | Int does not allow detecting whether an Int instance is the first or the second variant; the definition is equivalent to type Num = Int 

  2. Unlike sealed interfaces in Java though, Cat and Dog are not subtypes of Pet in non-definitional unions. 

  3. Types for enum variants 

  4. Enum variant types