Dotty Documentation


Typeclass Derivation

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Typeclass derivation is a way to generate given instances for certain type classes automatically or with minimal code hints. A type class in this sense is any trait or class with a type parameter that describes the type being operated on. Commonly used examples are Eql, Ordering, Show, or Pickling. Example:

enum Tree[T] derives Eql, Ordering, Pickling {
  case Branch(left: Tree[T], right: Tree[T])
  case Leaf(elem: T)

The derives clause generates given instances for the Eql, Ordering, and Pickling traits in the companion object Tree:

given [T: Eql]      as Eql[Tree[T]]      = Eql.derived
given [T: Ordering] as Ordering[Tree[T]] = Ordering.derived
given [T: Pickling] as Pickling[Tree[T]] = Pickling.derived

Deriving Types

Besides for enums, typeclasses can also be derived for other sets of classes and objects that form an algebraic data type. These are:

  • individual case classes or case objects
  • sealed classes or traits that have only case classes and case objects as children.


case class Labelled[T](x: T, label: String) derives Eql, Show

sealed trait Option[T] derives Eql
case class Some[T] extends Option[T]
case object None extends Option[Nothing]

The generated typeclass instances are placed in the companion objects Labelled and Option, respectively.

Derivable Types

A trait or class can appear in a derives clause if its companion object defines a method named derived. The type and implementation of a derived method are arbitrary, but typically it has a definition like this:

  def derived[T] given Mirror.Of[T] = ...

That is, the derived method takes an implicit parameter of (some subtype of) type Mirror that defines the shape of the deriving type T and it computes the typeclass implementation according to that shape. A given Mirror instance is generated automatically for

  • case classes and objects,
  • enums and enum cases,
  • sealed traits or classes that have only case classes and case objects as children.

The description that follows gives a low-level way to define a type class.

The Shape Type

For every class with a derives clause, the compiler computes the shape of that class as a type. For example, here is the shape type for the Tree[T] enum:

  Case[Branch[T], (Tree[T], Tree[T])],
  Case[Leaf[T], T *: Unit]

Informally, this states that

The shape of a Tree[T] is one of two cases: Either a Branch[T] with two elements of type Tree[T], or a Leaf[T] with a single element of type T.

The type constructors Cases and Case come from the companion object of a class scala.compiletime.Shape, which is defined in the standard library as follows:

sealed abstract class Shape

object Shape {

  /** A sum with alternative types `Alts` */
  case class Cases[Alts <: Tuple] extends Shape

  /** A product type `T` with element types `Elems` */
  case class Case[T, Elems <: Tuple] extends Shape

Here is the shape type for Labelled[T]:

Case[Labelled[T], (T, String)]

And here is the one for Option[T]:

  Case[Some[T], T *: Unit],
  Case[None.type, Unit]

Note that an empty element tuple is represented as type Unit. A single-element tuple is represented as T *: Unit since there is no direct syntax for such tuples: (T) is just T in parentheses, not a tuple.

The Generic Typeclass

For every class C[T_1,...,T_n] with a derives clause, the compiler generates in the companion object of C a given instance for Generic[C[T_1,...,T_n]] that follows the outline below:

given [T_1, ..., T_n] as Generic[C[T_1,...,T_n]] {
  type Shape = ...

where the right hand side of Shape is the shape type of C[T_1,...,T_n]. For instance, the definition

enum Result[+T, +E] derives Logging {
  case Ok[T](result: T)
  case Err[E](err: E)

would produce:

object Result {
  import scala.compiletime.Shape._

  given [T, E] as Generic[Result[T, E]] {
    type Shape = Cases[(
      Case[Ok[T], T *: Unit],
      Case[Err[E], E *: Unit]

The Generic class is defined in package scala.reflect.

abstract class Generic[T] {
  type Shape <: scala.compiletime.Shape

  /** The mirror corresponding to ADT instance `x` */
  def reflect(x: T): Mirror

  /** The ADT instance corresponding to given `mirror` */
  def reify(mirror: Mirror): T

  /** The companion object of the ADT */
  def common: GenericClass

It defines the Shape type for the ADT T, as well as two methods that map between a type T and a generic representation of T, which we call a Mirror: The reflect method maps an instance of the ADT T to its mirror whereas the reify method goes the other way. There's also a common method that returns a value of type GenericClass which contains information that is the same for all instances of a class (right now, this consists of the runtime Class value and the names of the cases and their parameters).


A mirror is a generic representation of an instance of an ADT. Mirror objects have three components:

  • adtClass: GenericClass: The representation of the ADT class
  • ordinal: Int: The ordinal number of the case among all cases of the ADT, starting from 0
  • elems: Product: The elements of the instance, represented as a Product.

The Mirror class is defined in package scala.reflect as follows:

class Mirror(val adtClass: GenericClass, val ordinal: Int, val elems: Product) {

  /** The `n`'th element of this generic case */
  def apply(n: Int): Any = elems.productElement(n)

  /** The name of the constructor of the case reflected by this mirror */
  def caseLabel: String = adtClass.label(ordinal)(0)

  /** The label of the `n`'th element of the case reflected by this mirror */
  def elementLabel(n: Int): String = adtClass.label(ordinal)(n + 1)


Here's the API of scala.reflect.GenericClass:

class GenericClass(val runtimeClass: Class[_], labelsStr: String) {

  /** A mirror of case with ordinal number `ordinal` and elements as given by `Product` */
  def mirror(ordinal: Int, product: Product): Mirror =
    new Mirror(this, ordinal, product)

  /** A mirror with elements given as an array */
  def mirror(ordinal: Int, elems: Array[AnyRef]): Mirror =
    mirror(ordinal, new ArrayProduct(elems))

  /** A mirror with an initial empty array of `numElems` elements, to be filled in. */
  def mirror(ordinal: Int, numElems: Int): Mirror =
    mirror(ordinal, new Array[AnyRef](numElems))

  /** A mirror of a case with no elements */
  def mirror(ordinal: Int): Mirror =
    mirror(ordinal, EmptyProduct)

  /** Case and element labels as a two-dimensional array.
   *  Each row of the array contains a case label, followed by the labels of the elements of that case.
  val label: Array[Array[String]] = ...

The class provides four overloaded methods to create mirrors. The first of these is invoked by the reify method that maps an ADT instance to its mirror. It simply passes the instance itself (which is a Product) to the second parameter of the mirror. That operation does not involve any copying and is thus quite efficient. The second and third versions of mirror are typically invoked by typeclass methods that create instances from mirrors. An example would be an unpickle method that first creates an array of elements, then creates a mirror over that array, and finally uses the reify method in Reflected to create the ADT instance. The fourth version of mirror is used to create mirrors of instances that do not have any elements.

How to Write Generic Typeclasses

Based on the machinery developed so far it becomes possible to define type classes generically. This means that the derived method will compute a type class instance for any ADT that has a given Generic instance, recursively. The implementation of these methods typically uses three new type-level constructs in Dotty: inline methods, inline matches, and implicit matches. As an example, here is one possible implementation of a generic Eql type class, with explanations. Let's assume Eql is defined by the following trait:

trait Eql[T] {
  def eql(x: T, y: T): Boolean

We need to implement a method Eql.derived that produces a given instance for Eql[T] provided a given Generic[T]. Here's a possible solution:

  inline def derived[T] given (ev: Generic[T]): Eql[T] = new Eql[T] {
    def eql(x: T, y: T): Boolean = {
      val mx = ev.reflect(x)                    // (1)
      val my = ev.reflect(y)                    // (2)
      inline erasedValue[ev.Shape] match {
        case _: Cases[alts] =>
          mx.ordinal == my.ordinal &&           // (3)
          eqlCases[alts](mx, my, 0)             // [4]
        case _: Case[_, elems] =>
          eqlElems[elems](mx, my, 0)            // [5]

The implementation of the inline method derived creates a given instance for Eql[T] and implements its eql method. The right-hand side of eql mixes compile-time and runtime elements. In the code above, runtime elements are marked with a number in parentheses, i.e (1), (2), (3). Compile-time calls that expand to runtime code are marked with a number in brackets, i.e. [4], [5]. The implementation of eql consists of the following steps.

  1. Map the compared values x and y to their mirrors using the reflect method of the implicitly passed Generic (1), (2).
  2. Match at compile-time against the shape of the ADT given in ev.Shape. Dotty does not have a construct for matching types directly, but we can emulate it using an inline match over an erasedValue. Depending on the actual type ev.Shape, the match will reduce at compile time to one of its two alternatives.
  3. If ev.Shape is of the form Cases[alts] for some tuple alts of alternative types, the equality test consists of comparing the ordinal values of the two mirrors (3) and, if they are equal, comparing the elements of the case indicated by that ordinal value. That second step is performed by code that results from the compile-time expansion of the eqlCases call [4].
  4. If ev.Shape is of the form Case[elems] for some tuple elems for element types, the elements of the case are compared by code that results from the compile-time expansion of the eqlElems call [5].

Here is a possible implementation of eqlCases:

  inline def eqlCases[Alts <: Tuple](mx: Mirror, my: Mirror, n: Int): Boolean =
    inline erasedValue[Alts] match {
      case _: (Shape.Case[_, elems] *: alts1) =>
        if (mx.ordinal == n)                    // (6)
          eqlElems[elems](mx, my, 0)            // [7]
          eqlCases[alts1](mx, my, n + 1)        // [8]
      case _: Unit =>
        throw new MatchError(mx.ordinal)        // (9)

The inline method eqlCases takes as type arguments the alternatives of the ADT that remain to be tested. It takes as value arguments mirrors of the two instances x and y to be compared and an integer n that indicates the ordinal number of the case that is tested next. It produces an expression that compares these two values.

If the list of alternatives Alts consists of a case of type Case[_, elems], possibly followed by further cases in alts1, we generate the following code:

  1. Compare the ordinal value of mx (a runtime value) with the case number n (a compile-time value translated to a constant in the generated code) in an if-then-else (6).
  2. In the then-branch of the conditional we have that the ordinal value of both mirrors matches the number of the case with elements elems. Proceed by comparing the elements of the case in code expanded from the eqlElems call [7].
  3. In the else-branch of the conditional we have that the present case does not match the ordinal value of both mirrors. Proceed by trying the remaining cases in alts1 using code expanded from the eqlCases call [8].

If the list of alternatives Alts is the empty tuple, there are no further cases to check. This place in the code should not be reachable at runtime. Therefore an appropriate implementation is by throwing a MatchError or some other runtime exception (9).

The eqlElems method compares the elements of two mirrors that are known to have the same ordinal number, which means they represent the same case of the ADT. Here is a possible implementation:

  inline def eqlElems[Elems <: Tuple](xs: Mirror, ys: Mirror, n: Int): Boolean =
    inline erasedValue[Elems] match {
      case _: (elem *: elems1) =>
        tryEql[elem](                           // [12]
          xs(n).asInstanceOf[elem],             // (10)
          ys(n).asInstanceOf[elem]) &&          // (11)
        eqlElems[elems1](xs, ys, n + 1)         // [13]
      case _: Unit =>
        true                                    // (14)

eqlElems takes as arguments the two mirrors of the elements to compare and a compile-time index n, indicating the index of the next element to test. It is defined in terms of another compile-time match, this time over the tuple type Elems of all element types that remain to be tested. If that type is non-empty, say of form elem *: elems1, the following code is produced:

  1. Access the n'th elements of both mirrors and cast them to the current element type elem (10), (11). Note that because of the way runtime reflection mirrors compile-time Shape types, the casts are guaranteed to succeed.
  2. Compare the element values using code expanded by the tryEql call [12].
  3. "And" the result with code that compares the remaining elements using a recursive call to eqlElems [13].

If type Elems is empty, there are no more elements to be compared, so the comparison's result is true. (14)

Since eqlElems is an inline method, its recursive calls are unrolled. The end result is a conjunction test_1 && ... && test_n && true of test expressions produced by the tryEql calls.

The last, and in a sense most interesting part of the derivation is the comparison of a pair of element values in tryEql. Here is the definition of this method:

  inline def tryEql[T](x: T, y: T) = implicit match {
    case ev: Eql[T] =>
      ev.eql(x, y)                              // (15)
    case _ =>
      error("No `Eql` instance was found for $T")

tryEql is an inline method that takes an element type T and two element values of that type as arguments. It is defined using an implicit match that tries to find a given instance for Eql[T]. If an instance ev is found, it proceeds by comparing the arguments using ev.eql. On the other hand, if no instance is found this signals a compilation error: the user tried a generic derivation of Eql for a class with an element type that does not have an Eql instance itself. The error is signaled by calling the error method defined in scala.compiletime.

Note: At the moment our error diagnostics for metaprogramming does not support yet interpolated string arguments for the scala.compiletime.error method that is called in the second case above. As an alternative, one can simply leave off the second case, then a missing typeclass would result in a "failure to reduce match" error.

Example: Here is a slightly polished and compacted version of the code that's generated by inline expansion for the derived Eql instance for class Tree.

given [T] as Eql[Tree[T]] where (elemEq: Eql[T]) {
  def eql(x: Tree[T], y: Tree[T]): Boolean = {
    val ev = the[Generic[Tree[T]]]
    val mx = ev.reflect(x)
    val my = ev.reflect(y)
    mx.ordinal == my.ordinal && {
      if (mx.ordinal == 0) {
        this.eql(mx(0).asInstanceOf[Tree[T]], my(0).asInstanceOf[Tree[T]]) &&
        this.eql(mx(1).asInstanceOf[Tree[T]], my(1).asInstanceOf[Tree[T]])
      else if (mx.ordinal == 1) {
        elemEq.eql(mx(0).asInstanceOf[T], my(0).asInstanceOf[T])
      else throw new MatchError(mx.ordinal)

One important difference between this approach and Scala-2 typeclass derivation frameworks such as Shapeless or Magnolia is that no automatic attempt is made to generate typeclass instances for elements recursively using the generic derivation framework. There must be a given instance for Eql[T] (which can of course be produced in turn using Eql.derived), or the compilation will fail. The advantage of this more restrictive approach to typeclass derivation is that it avoids uncontrolled transitive typeclass derivation by design. This keeps code sizes smaller, compile times lower, and is generally more predictable.

Deriving Instances Elsewhere

Sometimes one would like to derive a typeclass instance for an ADT after the ADT is defined, without being able to change the code of the ADT itself. To do this, simply define an instance with the derived method of the typeclass as right-hand side. E.g, to implement Ordering for Option, define:

instance [T: Ordering] as Ordering[Option[T]] = Ordering.derived

Usually, the Ordering.derived clause has an implicit parameter of type Generic[Option[T]]. Since the Option trait has a derives clause, the necessary instance is already present in the companion object of Option. If the ADT in question does not have a derives clause, a Generic instance would still be synthesized by the compiler at the point where derived is called. This is similar to the situation with type tags or class tags: If no instance is found, the compiler will synthesize one.


Template          ::=  InheritClauses [TemplateBody]
EnumDef           ::=  id ClassConstr InheritClauses EnumBody
InheritClauses    ::=  [‘extends’ ConstrApps] [‘derives’ QualId {‘,’ QualId}]
ConstrApps        ::=  ConstrApp {‘with’ ConstrApp}
                    |  ConstrApp {‘,’ ConstrApp}


The typeclass derivation framework is quite small and low-level. There are essentially two pieces of infrastructure in the compiler-generated Generic instances:

  • a type representing the shape of an ADT,
  • a way to map between ADT instances and generic mirrors.

Generic mirrors make use of the already existing Product infrastructure for case classes, which means they are efficient and their generation requires not much code.

Generic mirrors can be so simple because, just like Products, they are weakly typed. On the other hand, this means that code for generic typeclasses has to ensure that type exploration and value selection proceed in lockstep and it has to assert this conformance in some places using casts. If generic typeclasses are correctly written these casts will never fail.

It could make sense to explore a higher-level framework that encapsulates all casts in the framework. This could give more guidance to the typeclass implementer. It also seems quite possible to put such a framework on top of the lower-level mechanisms presented here. -->