Types ELI5

Erlang is dynamically typed language. It means that any variable, field or function argument can contain any allowed value.

Type Specs

There is the type description language, which you can use to describe what YOU think your functions should take and return. These type specs are optional and the compiler will run your program like nothing happened even if a type violation exists. To ensure that your type specs do not contradict each other, there is another tool called Dialyzer.

A type spec is a directive in source ERL file, which looks like

-spec func_name(Arg :: integer(), _, Y :: any()) -> float().

Type specs are not code, they neither run nor prevent your program from compiling.

See also

You can read more about specifying types of your program in Typespec Reference Manual and other existing books, such as Learn You Some Erlang

Dialyzer

Dialyzer takes compiled BEAM or ERL source files as input, then tries to guess types (type inference).

How This Works

Say you have written a function, f which takes one argument X and returns something. Dialyzer first does a general assumption that f is a fun(), which takes any value (X :: any()) and returns whatever (any()). This is what Dialyzer guesses initially:

-spec f(X :: any()) -> any().

Any() is the widest type possible which covers any value. Then Dialyzer analyzes usage of this function and its code and tries to reduce argument and return types to more narrow specific set of types.

For example, if Dialyzer discovers that the only two places which call your function f pass an integer or an atom argument, then X‘s type is reduced to integer()|atom() (a set of two types). This is what Dialyzer may possibly calculate:

-spec f(X :: integer() | atom()) -> any().

If Dialyzer finds a contradiction, i.e. some types collapse to an empty type (none()) or incompatible types are found, Dialyzer reports an error. These errors may look confusing, but they often (always?) point to an existing problem in the code.

Typer

Typer is another optional tool, found in your OTP distribution. Using same algorithm as Dialyzer, it infers the types for a given module and prints them. You can take them and insert into your program for future use or to better document a large legacy project.