Structural types increase data compatibility

🌱February 4, 2024.
seedling 🌱
1 minute read ⏱

Typescript uses an approach to types called “structural typing”. Structural types are compatible if they share the same structure: the same named members and those members have the same types. This differs from languages such as C & C++ which use an approach called “nominal typing.” Nominal types are only equivalent if they share the same structure and name. Here’s a quick reference:

Nominal Structural
Languages C, C++, Java, C# TypeScript, Go
Type compatibility requirements Structure and name Structure
Specificity Strict Flexible

I find it easiest to understand how structural types work with code examples:

type A = { a: number };
type B = { a: number, b: string };
// `a1` is explicitly typed as an `A` object
let a1: A = { a: 123 };
// `a2` is not explicitly typed as `A`...
let a2 = { a: 321 };
// But its structure matches,
// so it can be assigned to a type `A` object
a1 = a2; // Valid
// `b` is explicitly typed as a `B` object
let b: B = {a: 135, b: "abc"};
// `b` can be assigned to an `A` object
// because it is a superset of the structure of A
a2 = b; // Valid

This approach is really convenient on the web where it’s common for data to come from external APIs; they may change the data provided. Structural typing makes it easy to handle extra data. In the a2 = b example above, the extra data on b is “sliced” off, narrowing it to an A object. The extra field on B doesn’t cause any issues! This makes it easy to opt-in to using additional data on a type when I’m ready, and to continue working until then.

TypeScript type compatibility can reduce clarity that a developer could otherwise provide using a named type. This might be an issue when trying to distinguish between structurally equivalent types that are nominally different. As an example, consider a UserID and PostID that are both represented as strings:

type UserID = string;
type PostID = string;
let user: UserID = "allan";
let post: PostID = user;

These are two different named types but because they are structurally identical TypeScript will allow you to assign a UserID value to a PostID object. Yikes! Compatibility makes problems like this possible.

Fortunately, it can be solved in TypeScript. Type branding removes structural type compatibility, and can be used to prevent this type of problem.