Equations is a plugin for that comes with a few support modules defining classes and tactics for running it. We will introduce its main features through a handful of examples. We start our Coq primer session by importing the Equations module.

Inductive types

In its simplest form, Equations allows to define functions on inductive datatypes. Take for example the booleans defined as an inductive type with two constructors true and false:

   Inductive bool : Set := true : bool | false : bool 

We can define the boolean negation as follows:

Equations declarations are formed by a signature definition and a set of clauses that must form a covering of this signature. The compiler is then expected to automatically find a corresponding case-splitting tree that implements the function. In this case, it simply needs to split on the single variable b to produce two new programming problems neg true and neg false that are directly handled by the user clauses. We will see in more complex examples that this search for a splitting tree may be non-trivial.

Reasoning principles

In the setting of a proof assistant like Coq, we need not only the ability to define complex functions but also get good reasoning support for them. Practically, this translates to the ability to simplify applications of functions appearing in the goal and to give strong enough proof principles for (recursive) definitions.

Equations provides this through an automatic generation of proofs related to the function. Namely, each defining equation gives rise to a lemma stating the equality between the left and right hand sides. These equations can be used as rewrite rules for simplification during proofs, without having to rely on the fragile simplifications implemented by raw reduction. We can also generate the inductive graph of any Equations definition, giving the strongest elimination principle on the function.

I.e., for neg the inductive graph is defined as:

Inductive neg_ind : bool -> bool -> Prop :=
| neg_ind_equation_1 : neg_ind true false
| neg_ind_equation_2 : neg_ind false true 

Along with a proof of Π b, neg_ind b (neg b), we can eliminate any call to neg specializing its argument and result in a single command. Suppose we want to show that neg is involutive for example, our goal will look like:
  b : bool
   neg (neg b) = b 

An application of the tactic funelim (neg b) will produce two goals corresponding to the splitting done in neg: neg false = true and neg true = false. These correspond exactly to the rewriting lemmas generated for neg.

In the following sections we will show how these ideas generalize to more complex types and definitions involving dependencies, overlapping clauses and recursion.

Building up


Coq's inductive types can be parameterized by types, giving polymorphic datatypes. For example the list datatype is defined as:

No special support for polymorphism is needed, as type arguments are treated like regular arguments in dependent type theories. Note however that one cannot match on type arguments, there is no intensional type analysis. We can write the polymorphic tail function as follows:

Note that the argument {A} is declared implicit and must hence be omitted in the defining clauses. In each of the branches it is named A. To specify it explicitely one can use the syntax (A:=B), renaming that implicit argument to B in this particular case

Recursive inductive types

Of course with inductive types comes recursion. Coq accepts a subset of the structurally recursive definitions by default (it is incomplete due to its syntactic nature). We will use this as a first step towards a more robust treatment of recursion via well-founded relations. A classical example is list concatenation:

Recursive definitions like app can be unfolded easily so proving the equations as rewrite rules is direct. The induction principle associated to this definition is more interesting however. We can derive from it the following elimination principle for calls to app:

   app_elim :
   forall P : forall (A : Type) (l l' : list A), list A -> Prop,
   (forall (A : Type) (l' : list A), P A nil l' l') ->
   (forall (A : Type) (a : A) (l l' : list A),
   P A l l' (app l l') -> P A (a :: l) l' (a :: app l l')) ->
   forall (A : Type) (l l' : list A), P A l l' (app l l') 

Using this eliminator, we can write proofs exactly following the structure of the function definition, instead of redoing the splitting by hand. This idea is already present in the Function package that derives induction principles from function definitions.

Moving to the left

The structure of real programs is richer than a simple case tree on the original arguments in general. In the course of a computation, we might want to scrutinize intermediate results (e.g. coming from function calls) to produce an answer. This literally means adding a new pattern to the left of our equations made available for further refinement. This concept is know as with clauses in the Agda community and was first presented and implemented in the Epigram language .

The compilation of with clauses and its treatment for generating equations and the induction principle are quite involved in the presence of dependencies, but the basic idea is to add a new case analysis to the program. To compute the type of the new subprogram, we actually abstract the discriminee term from the expected type of the clause, so that the type can get refined in the subprogram. In the non-dependent case this does not change anything though.

Each with node generates an auxiliary definition from the clauses in the curly brackets, taking the additional object as argument. The equation for the with node will simply be an indirection to the auxiliary definition and simplification will continue as usual with the auxiliary definition's rewrite rules.

By default, equations makes definitions opaque after definition, to avoid spurious unfoldings, but this can be reverted on a case by case basis, or using the global Set Equations Transparent option.

A common use of with clauses is to scrutinize recursive results like the following:

The real power of with however comes when it is used with dependent types.

Dependent types

Coq supports writing dependent functions, in other words, it gives the ability to make the results type depend on actual values, like the arguments of the function. A simple example is given below of a function which decides the equality of two natural numbers, returning a sum type carrying proofs of the equality or disequality of the arguments. The sum type { A } + { B } is a constructive variant of disjunction that can be used in programs to give at the same time a boolean algorithmic information (are we in branch A or B) and a logical information (a proof witness of A or B). Hence its constructors left and right take proofs as arguments. The eq_refl proof term is the single proof of x = x (the x is generaly infered automatically).

Of particular interest here is the inner program refining the recursive result. As equal n m is of type { n = m } + { n <> m } we have two cases to consider:

  • Either we are in the left p case, and we know that p is a proof of n = m, in which case we can do a nested match on p. The result of matching this equality proof is to unify n and m, hence the left hand side patterns become S n and S ?(n) and the return type of this branch is refined to { n = n } + { n <> n }. We can easily provide a proof for the left case.

  • In the right case, we mark the proof unfilled with an underscore. This will generate an obligation for the hole, that can be filled automatically by a predefined tactic or interactively by the user in proof mode (this uses the same obligation mechanism as the Program extension ). In this case the automatic tactic is able to derive by itself that n <> m -> S n <> S m.
Dependent types are also useful to turn partial functions into total functions by restricting their domain. Typically, we can force the list passed to head to be non-empty using the specification:

We decompose the list and are faced with two cases:

  • In the first case, the list is empty, hence the proof pf of type nil <> nil allows us to derive a contradiction by applying it to reflexivity. We make use of another category of right-hand sides, which we call empty nodes to inform the compiler that a contradiction is derivable in this case. In general we cannot expect the compiler to find by himself that the context contains a contradiction, as it is undecidable .

    However, in this case, one could also write an empty set of clauses for the with subprogram, as Equations applies a heuristic in case of an empty set of clause: it tries to split each of the variables in the context to find an empty type.

  • In the second case, we simply return the head of the list, disregarding the proof.

Inductive families

The next step is to make constraints such as non-emptiness part of the datatype itself. This capability is provided through inductive families in Coq , which are a similar concept to the generalization of algebraic datatypes to GADTs in functional languages like Haskell . Families provide a way to associate to each constructor a different type, making it possible to give specific information about a value in its type.


The alma mater of inductive families is the propositional equality eq defined as:
Inductive eq (A : Type) (x : A) : A -> Prop := 
 eq_refl : eq A x x. 

Equality is a polymorphic relation on A. (The Prop sort (or kind) categorizes propositions, while the Set sort, equivalent to $$ $$ in Haskell categorizes computational types.) Equality is parameterized by a value x of type A and indexed by another value of type A. Its single constructor states that equality is reflexive, so the only way to build an object of eq x y is if x ~= y, that is if x is definitionaly equal to y.

Now what is the elimination principle associated to this inductive family? It is the good old Leibniz substitution principle:

forall (A : Type) (x : A) (P : A -> Type), P x -> forall y : A, x = y -> P y 

Provided a proof that x = y, we can create on object of type P y from an existing object of type P x. This substitution principle is enough to show that equality is symmetric and transitive. For example we can use pattern-matching on equality proofs to show:

Let us explain the meaning of the non-linear patterns here that we slipped through in the equal example. By pattern-matching on the equalities, we have unified x, y and z, hence we determined the values of the patterns for the variables to be x. The ?(x) notation is essentially denoting that the pattern is not a candidate for refinement, as it is determined by another pattern. This particular patterns are called inaccessible. When they are variables the inaccessibility annotation is optional.

Indexed datatypes

Functions on vectors provide more stricking examples of this situation. The vector family is indexed by a natural number representing the size of the vector: [ Inductive vector (A : Type) : nat -> Type := | Vnil : vector A O | Vcons : A -> forall n : nat, vector A n -> vector A (S n) ]

The empty vector Vnil has size O while the cons operation increments the size by one. Now let us define the usual map on vectors:

Here the value of the index representing the size of the vector is directly determined by the constructor, hence in the case tree we have no need to eliminate n. This means in particular that the function vmap does not do any computation with n, and the argument could be eliminated in the extracted code. In other words, it provides only logical information about the shape of v but no computational information.

The vmap function works on every member of the vector family, but some functions may work only for some subfamilies, for example vtail:

The type of v ensures that vtail can only be applied to non-empty vectors, moreover the patterns only need to consider constructors that can produce objects in the subfamily vector A (S n), excluding Vnil. The pattern-matching compiler uses unification with the theory of constructors to discover which cases need to be considered and which are impossible. In this case the failed unification of 0 and S n shows that the Vnil case is impossible. This powerful unification engine running under the hood permits to write concise code where all uninteresting cases are handled automatically.

Derived notions, No-Confusion

For this to work smoothlty, the package requires some derived definitions on each (indexed) family, which can be generated automatically using the generic Derive command. Here we ask to generate the signature, heterogeneous no-confusion and homogeneous no-confusion principles for vectors:

The precise specification of these derived definitions can be found in the manual section . Signature is used to pack a value in an inductive family with its index, e.g. the total space of every index and value of the family. This can be used to derive the heterogeneous no-confusion principle for the family, which allows to discriminate between objects in potentially different instances/fibers of the family, or deduce injectivity of each constructor. The NoConfusionHom variant derives the homogeneous no-confusion principle between two objects in the same instance of the family, e.g. to simplify equations of the form Vnil = Vnil :> vector A 0. This last principle can only be defined when pattern-matching on the inductive family does not require the K axiom and will otherwise fail.

Unification and indexed datatypes

Back to our example, of course the equations and the induction principle are simplified in a similar way. If we encounter a call to vtail in a proof, we can use the following elimination principle to simplify both the call and the argument which will be automatically substituted by an object of the form Vcons _ _ _:

forall P : forall (A : Type) (n : nat), vector A (S n) -> vector A n -> Prop,
(forall (A : Type) (n : nat) (a : A) (v : vector A n), 
  P A n (Vcons a v) v) ->
forall (A : Type) (n : nat) (v : vector A (S n)), P A n v (vtail v) 

As a witness of the power of the unification, consider the following function which computes the diagonal of a square matrix of size n * n.

Here in the second equation, we know that the elements of the vector are necessarily of size S n too, hence we can do a nested refinement on the first one to find the first element of the diagonal.


Notice how in the diag example above we explicitely pattern-matched on the index n, even though the Vnil and Vcons pattern matching would have been enough to determine these indices. This is because the following definition also fails:

Indeed, Coq cannot guess the decreasing argument of this fixpoint using its limited syntactic guard criterion: vmap vtail v' cannot be seen to be a (large) subterm of v' using this criterion, even if it is clearly smaller. In general, it can also be the case that the compilation algorithm introduces decorations to the proof term that prevent the syntactic guard check from seeing that the definition is structurally recursive.

To aleviate this problem, Equations provides support for well-founded recursive definitions which do not rely on syntactic checks.

The simplest example of this is using the lt order on natural numbers to define a recursive definition of identity:

Here id is defined by well-founded recursion on lt on the (only) argument n using the by wf annotation. At recursive calls of id, obligations are generated to show that the arguments effectively decrease according to this relation. Here the proof that n' < S n' is discharged automatically.

Wellfounded recursion on arbitrary dependent families is not as easy to use, as in general the relations on families are heterogeneous, as they must relate inhabitants of potentially different instances of the family. Equations provides a Derive command to generate the subterm relation on any such inductive family and derive the well-foundedness of its transitive closure. This provides course-of-values or so-called mathematical induction on these objects, reflecting the structural recursion criterion in the logic.

For vectors for example, the relation is defined as:

Inductive t_direct_subterm (A : Type) :
  forall n n0 : nat, vector A n -> vector A n0 -> Prop :=
    t_direct_subterm_1_1 : forall (h : A) (n : nat) (H : vector A n),
      t_direct_subterm A n (S n) H (Vcons h H) 

That is, there is only one recursive subterm, for the subvector in the Vcons constructor. We also get a proof of:

The relation is actually called t_subterm as vector is just a notation for Vector.t. t_subterm itself is the transitive closure of the relation seen as an homogeneous one by packing the indices of the family with the object itself. Once this is derived, we can use it to define recursive definitions on vectors that the guard condition couldn't handle. The signature provides a signature_pack function to pack a vector with its index. The well-founded relation is defined on the packed vector type.

We can use the packed relation to do well-founded recursion on the vector. Note that we do a recursive call on a substerm of type vector A n which must be shown smaller than a vector A (S n). They are actually compared at the packed type { n : nat & vector A n}. The default obligation tactic defined in Equations.Init includes a proof-search for subterm proofs which can resolve the recursive call obligation automatically in this case.

For the diagonal, it is easier to give n as the decreasing argument of the function, even if the pattern-matching itself is on vectors:

One can check using Extraction diag' that the computational behavior of diag' is indeed not dependent on the index n.

Pattern-matching and axiom K

To use the K axiom or UIP with Equations, one must first set an option allowing its use during dependenet pattern-matching compilation.

By default we disallow the user of UIP, but it can be set.

The user must declare this axiom itself, as an instance of the UIP class.

In this case the following definition uses the UIP axiom just declared.

Note that the definition loses its computational content: it will get stuck on an axiom. We hence do not recommend its use.

Equations allows however to use constructive proofs of UIP for types enjoying decidable equality. The following example relies on an instance of the EqDec typeclass for natural numbers, from which we can automatically derive a UIP nat instance. Note that the computational behavior of this definition on open terms is not to reduce to p but pattern-matches on the decidable equality proof. However the defining equation still holds as a propositional equality, and the definition of K' is axiom-free.