TypeScript Tidbits

February 01, 2018 • 7 minute read

Photo by Tatiana Lapina on Unsplash

This article is about TypeScript. It’s not specifically about Angular, NgRx, React or redux-observable; it’s about what I learned — the hard way — when I built ts-action.

Literal types: widening and narrowing

TypeScript has the concept of string, numeric, boolean and enum literal types. Variables having a literal type may only be assigned the specified literal value. For example, this variable has a literal type:

let foo: "FOO";

And can only be assigned a value of "FOO":

foo = "FOO"; // OK
foo = "BAR"; // Type '"BAR"' is not assignable to type '"FOO"'.

When a literal or a variable that has a literal type is assigned to a constant, a literal type is inferred — the inference is safe, as the constant’s value cannot be changed. Here, foo will be inferred to be of type "FOO":

const foo = "FOO";

When a constant or variable with a literal type is assigned to a variable, the literal type cannot be inferred, as the variable’s value could be changed after the assignment. In these situations, the inference is widened:

const foo = "FOO"; // Inferred to be "FOO".
let val = foo; // Inferred to be string.

A literal type is also inferred when a constant or variable with a literal type is assigned to a read-only property. The inference is widened for properties that are not read-only:

const foo = "FOO";
class Foo {
  readonly type = foo; // Inferred to be "FOO".
  val = foo; // Inferred to be string.

ts-action relies upon the inference of literal types for read-only properties in its implementation of user-defined type guards for actions. Consider this snippet:

class Foo {
  readonly type = "FOO"

class Bar {
  readonly type = "BAR";

let action: Foo | Bar;
switch (action.type) {
case "FOO":
  // action is narrowed to be Foo.
  return ...;
case "BAR":
  // action is narrowed to be Bar.
  return ...;

In the snippet, the read-only type properties are inferred to be literal types: "FOO" and "BAR". Because of the literal types, when action.type is used in the switch statement, TypeScript will narrow the type of action within each case. That is, because the action variable is either Foo or Bar, if its type property is "FOO", it’s narrowed to an instance of Foo — allowing type-safe access to the action’s properties.

The narrowing only occurs because of the literal types. If the type properties are specified as strings, TypeScript does not narrow the action within each case — it will remain Foo | Bar.

Literal-types as parameters

When used with generic functions, literal types behave as you’d expect. Here, foo will be inferred to be of type "FOO" as that is the type of the "FOO" literal:

function identity<T>(val: T): T {
  return val;
const foo = identity("FOO");

It’s possible to constrain T so that it can only be a string or a string-literal type, like this:

function identity<T extends string>(val: T): T {
  return val;
const foo = identity("FOO");

Again, foo will be inferred to be of type "FOO". The constraint just prevents non-string values from being passed to the function.

Sometimes it’s useful to pass functions an options object containing a number of properties and it’s here that literal types get a little strange. Have a look at this snippet:

function identity<T>(options: { val: T }): T {
  return options.val;
const foo = identity({ val: "FOO" });

You might think that foo will still be inferred to be of type "FOO", but it won’t be; it’ll be inferred to be a string. Using readonly val won’t help, either; it’ll still be inferred to be a string.

Interestingly, if T is constrained to extend string, the type will be inferred as you might expect (or hope):

function identity<T extends string>(options: { val: T }): T {
  return options.val;
const foo = identity({ val: "FOO" });

In the above snippet, foo will be inferred to be of type "FOO".

Mixin classes

TypeScript 2.2 introduced mixin classes. Mixin classes rely upon some complicated TypeScript features — the intersection of constructor signatures — but they are conceptually straightforward.

A mixin class extends a base class — about which the mixin knows nothing — but instances of the mixin class are constructed using the base class’s constructor’s signature. Let’s look at how they work.

A class constructor can be represented using this type:

type Ctor<T> = new (...args: any\[\]) => T;

To create a mixin class, a generic function that has a type parameter that extends Ctor<{}> is used. This mixin just adds a mixed property:

function mix<C extends Ctor<{}>>(Base: C) {
  return class extends Base {
    mixed = true;
    constructor(...args: any\[\]) {

Note that the constructor used for the mixin class takes its arguments using the rest syntax and calls super using the spread syntax. TypeScript recognises this arrangement as a mixin class. And when an instance of the mixin class is created, the constructor arguments need to be those accepted by the Base class’s constructor. Let’s look at an example:

class Foo {
  constructor(public foo: string) {}
const MixedFoo = mix(Foo);
const mixed = new MixedFoo("mixed");
console.log(mixed); // { foo: "mixed", mixed: true }

Here, although the mix function known nothing about Foo, the returned mixin class’s constructor requires the same arguments as Foo’s constructor.

ts-action uses mixin classes in its action function. The action function takes a base class that represents action’s data and mixes in the literal-type properties necessary to represent the action’s type. Using a mixin the constructors in the created actions can accept either payloads, props or named parameters.

Inferring a function’s return type

An interesting feature of mixin classes is that the functions that create them return constructors. And obtaining a constructor’s return type from the constructor is tricky.

One way of obtaining is to write a generic function with a signature takes a parameterised constructor, like this:

function returns<T>(C: Ctor<T>): T {
  return undefined!;

The function returns undefined, because the return value isn’t going to be used — only the return type will be used. The function can be used like this:

const Returned = false || returns(MixedFoo);
let r: typeof Returned;

In the snippet, Returned will be inferred to be of the type returned by the MixedFoo constructor. Note that false can be included in the expression to prevent the returns function from being called: TypeScript will infer the return type, but at runtime the function will not be called.

ts-action uses this mechanism in its union function — for constructing the union types that TypeScript requires for its type guards.

Union and intersection types

Something that had always confused me with union and intersection types was that a union type contained the intersection of the types’ properties and an intersection type contained the union of the properties. It turned out I was just thinking about it the wrong way. As Ryan Cavanaugh explains it:

Here’s another way to think about it. Consider four sets: Red things, blue things, big things, and small things.

If you intersect the set of all red things and all small things, you end up with the union of the properties — everything in the set has both the red property and the small property.

But if you took the union of red small things and blue small things, only the smallness property is universal in the resulting set. Intersecting “red small” with “blue small” produces “small”.

In other words, taking the union of the domain of values produces an intersected set of properties, and vice versa.

It all makes sense, now.

And that’s it; those are the TypeScript features and quirks that I got to know when building ts-action. Hopefully, the few minutes you’ve spent reading about them here has been as informative as the … well, let’s just say it took me a little longer than a few minutes understand all of this.

Nicholas Jamieson’s personal blog.
Mostly articles about RxJS, TypeScript and React.

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