Includes

Recall our implementation of sets as lists that allow duplicates:

module type Set = sig
  type 'a t
  val empty : 'a t
  val mem   : 'a -> 'a t -> bool
  val add   : 'a -> 'a t -> 'a t
  val elts  : 'a t -> 'a list
end

module ListSetDups : Set = struct
  type 'a t   = 'a list
  let empty   = []
  let mem     = List.mem
  let add x s = x::s
  let elts s  = List.sort_uniq Pervasives.compare s
end

Suppose we wanted to add a function of_list : 'a list -> 'a t to the ListSetDups module that could construct a set out of a list. If we had access to the source code of both ListSetDups and Set, and if we were permitted to modify it, this wouldn't be hard. But what if they were third-party libraries for which we didn't have source code?

In CS 2110, you learned about extending classes and inheriting methods of a superclass. Those object-oriented language features provide (among many other things) the ability to reuse code. For example, a subclass includes all the methods of its superclasses, though some might by overridden.

OCaml provides a language features called includes that also enables code reuse. This feature is similar to the object-oriented example we just gave: it enables a structure to include all the values defined by another structure, or a signature to include all the names declared by another signature.

We can use includes to solve the problem of adding of_list to ListSetDups:

module ListSetDupsExtended = struct
  include ListSetDups
  let of_list lst = List.fold_right add lst empty
end

This code says that ListSetDupsExtended is a structure containing all the definitions of the ListSetDups structure, as well as a definition of of_list. We don't have to know the source code implementing ListSetDups to make this happen. (You might wonder we why can't simply write let of_list lst = lst. See the section on the semantics of includes, below, for the answer.)

If we want to provide a new implementation of one of the included functions we could do that too:

module ListSetDupsExtended = struct
  include ListSetDups
  let of_list lst = List.fold_right add lst empty
  let rec elts = function
    | [] -> []
    | h::t -> if mem h t then elts' t else h::(elts' t)
end

But that's actually a less efficient implementation of elts, so we probably shouldn't do that for real.

One misconception to watch out for is that the above example does not replace the original implementation of elts. If any code inside ListSetDups called that original implementation, it still would in ListSetDupsExtended. Why? Remember the semantics of modules: all definitions are evaluated from top to bottom, in order. So the new definition of elts above won't come into use until the very end of evaluation. This differs from what you might expect from object-oriented languages like Java, which use a language feature called dynamic dispatch to figure out which implementation to invoke.

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