Algebraic data types in Lua (Almost)

Posted on August 17, 2023

Lua, in the realm of Neovim, is a curious companion. For personal configuration tweaks, it’s incredibly responsive, giving me immediate feedback. Moreover, when I’m uncertain about an idea’s potential, Lua offers a forgiving platform for prototyping without commitment.

Yet, as the maintainer of a few plugins, who otherwise works with Haskell professionally, I have mixed feelings. Its dynamic typing casts shadows of unpredictability, making Neovim plugins susceptible to unexpected bugs at the wrong time.

When it comes to Neovim plugin (and Lua) development, the right tools can be game-changers. I’m aware of typed languages that compile to Lua, but here’s a native approach. Here, I’ll delve into my experiences in leveraging lua-language-server and its support for type annotations, demonstrating how they can elevate the robustness and expressiveness of your Lua code.

As an example, we will be attempting to define an algebraic data type (ADT), and using lua-language-server for static type checking.

What are algebraic data types (ADT)s?

For those steeped in the world of functional languages like Haskell, F#, or OCaml, the term ADT might sound familiar. If that’s you, feel free to skip ahead.

But if ADTs sound Greek to you, a straightforward analogy would be Rust Enums, which are, in fact, ADTs. They’re powerful constructs allowing versatile and type-safe data modeling.

I want to keep this post short, so I will assume this is enough information for you to know all the niceties that come with ADTs.

For a deeper dive, there’s a vast sea of resources available for you to explore.

Lua type annotations - the basics

As mentioned previously, lua-language-server is capable of producing diagnostics based on type annotations.

Here’s a basic example of defining a data type with a table:

---@class Foo
---@field bar string

---@type Foo
x = {
  bar = "hello",

And now the magic: Witness how lua-language-server utilizes these annotations to pinpoint type errors within Neovim:


Dynamic type annotations

In Lua, we’re not restricted to a single type. With annotations and runtime checks, we can express flexibility in our type expectations. For instance, consider a function that can accept either an instance of Foo or a string:

---@param foo Foo|string
local function print_foo(foo)
  if type(foo) == 'string' then

Towards ADTs

Type annotations also permit the creation of aliases, streamlining the way we reference combined types. For instance:

---@alias FooOrString Foo|string

---@param foo FooOrString
local function print_foo(foo)

For those accustomed to Haskell, this syntax might ring a bell. Diving a bit deeper, let’s consider a more intricate use-case that I’ve employed in my neotest-haskell plugin. Here, I’ve depicted a type that might refer to an unopened file or, alternatively, its contents:

---Reference to a file
---@class FileRef
---@field file string

---Reference to a file's content
---@class FileContentRef
---@field content string

---@alias TestFile FileRef | FileContentRef

---Read a FileRef.
---@param file_ref FileRef
---@return FileContentRef content_ref
local function to_file_content_ref(file_ref)
  return {
    content =,

---@param query string|table The tree-sitter query.
---@param ref TestFile The test file.
---@return ...
function treesitter.iter_ts_matches(query, ref)
  local source
  if ref.file then
    ---@cast ref FileRef
    source = to_file_content_ref(ref)
    ---@cast ref FileContentRef
    source = ref
  -- <omitted for brevity> ...

With these annotations, we inch Lua ever closer to the potent expressiveness of ADTs. This achieves a harmonious blend of type versatility and precision.

Yet, it’s essential to acknowledge certain distinctions compared to real ADTs:

  • FileRef and FileContentRef are independent type definitions, rather than data constructors.
  • TestFile is an alias, not a concrete type.
  • Lua doesn’t natively facilitate pattern matching.

This boils down to the fact that Haskell and Rust’s type systems are nominal, while Lua’s is structural1.

Nevertheless, it’s feasible to simulate basic pattern matching with a function like this one:

---@generic T
---@param ref TestFile
---@param onFileRef fun(ref:FileRef):T
---@param onContentRef fun(ref:FileContentRef):T
---@return T
local function matchTestFile(ref, onFileRef, onContentRef)
  return ref.content
    ---@cast ref FileContentRef
    and onContentRef(ref)
    ---@cast ref FileRef
    or onFileRef(ref)

There’s an important caveat to note: While both the type annotation capabilities of lua-language-server and Neovim’s type annotations are continually evolving and improving, they’re not flawless. As of writing this post, the following misalignment can still occur:

---@type FileRef
x = {
  file = "/path/to/file",
  content = 5, -- Type-checks and breaks `matchTestFile` at runtime

There is a feature request, with an active discussion, so I’m optimistic about a resolution in the near future.

[Update]: Support for ---@class (exact) annotations has been added.

I’d also love to see the ability to report diagnostics if variables or functions are not annotated.

In the meantime, it pays to tread with caution.

Statically type checking your plugins

Diagnostics in your editor are great, but they’re not much of a defense if contributors or yourself can open PRs that disregard your type constraints. The silver lining? lua-language-server comes with a command-line interface.

> lua-language-server --checklevel=Warning --logpath=/tmp --configpath=.luarc.json --check ./lua
Diagnosis complete, 1 problems found, see /tmp/check.json

Here’s what’s happening:

  • The --configpath option points to a configuration file, which can specify paths to dependencies, such as plugins and Neovim’s runtime path, among other things.
  • --check specifies a file or a project directory.
  • If there are any diagnostics (according to the --checklevel), lua-language-server will log a diagnostics report, check.json, inside the directory provided to --logpath.

To make this actionable in your workflow, I’ve crafted two utilities that integrate with GitHub Actions for static type-checking:

For Nix enthusiasts

For those in the Nix ecosystem, I’ve introduced a lua-ls hook to the pre-commit-hooks-nix framework. This serves dual purposes: as a git pre-commit hook and for Nix checks. I personally prefer this for my projects, though some optimization on the lua-ls pre-commit hook is on my to-do list. If you’re developing Neovim plugins, consider my template repository.

Why I prefer this approach: Any GitHub Actions can easily be reproduced locally, assuming you’ve set up Nix and have flakes enabled.

For the broader audience

For those not on the Nix train, I’ve got you covered with a simple GitHub action, named lua-typecheck-action. The setup is straightforward (albeit more limited), driven by a GitHub workflow YAML (eww).

I must mention that my focus has shifted away from this action, so major updates might be sparse. While there’s no direct support for dependencies, a workaround exists.

P.S. A plugin that I recommend adding as a dependency for lua-ls type-checking (as well as in your editor) is neodev.nvim. It is regularly updated with Neovim API type annotations for Neovim stable and nightly.

Wrapping up

Embracing tools like lua-language-server can significantly enhance our experience with Lua, while still allowing for rapid prototyping and ease of configuration. Although Lua might not naturally possess the rich type systems of languages like Haskell and Rust, with the right techniques, we can attempt to approximate their rigor and reliability. Here’s to safer, more expressive Lua coding in the future!

Dive Deeper

Inspired by this exploration into ADTs in Lua? I’d love to see how you apply these concepts:

  • Try it out: Use these techniques in your own Neovim plugins.
  • Share: Found a new approach or insight? Spread the word.
  • Connect: Have feedback or questions? Feel free to open an issue on GitHub.


  • Thanks to Owen for input and proof-reading.

  1. It appears that Lua’s union annotations are inspired by TypeScript.↩︎