Tagged unions in JavaScript

2020-10-21

# Why tagged unions?

Redux. MobX. XState. Vuex. RxJS. State management is hard, and developers are always looking for a tool to help them. Tagged unions are a programming pattern that you can use with immutable state libraries, or even on their own. Tagged unions make it possible to visualize all the states your application can be in, and prevent you from accessing the wrong data at the wrong time.

Note: Tagged unions are also called “algebraic data types”, “variants”, “sum types”, “discriminated unions”, or “enums” in different programming languages.

# What to expect

This post covers the following topics in order:

# Pizza app: classic style

For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to use a small React UI as an example. Tagged unions work well with many libraries (and without any libraries), and even with many other programming langauges.

Let’s look at an example React app for online pizza delivery.

// function PizzaDelivery()

const [state, setState] = React.useState({
error: null,
orderReceived: false,
outForDelivery: false,
size: "small",
style: "regular",
toppings: [],
});

You’ve probably worked with state like this before: there’s a couple boolean properties controlling what mode you’re in, there’s a property that might be null, and there’s state (size, style, toppings) that’s not always relevant (I’ll take a large pepperoni with errors).

if (state.error) {
return <ErrorScreen>{error.message}</ErrorScreen>;
}

First up, we check if state.error is not null. If so, we show the error screen. Even though you probably won’t see this much, it has to be the first if statement. After all, if there’s an error, it’s definitely the most important thing to show.

if (state.outForDelivery) {
return (
<OrderOutForDeliveryScreen
onError={(error) => {
setState((state) => ({ ...state, error: error }));
}}
>
Your order is on its way!
</OrderOutForDeliveryScreen>
);
}

Next up, we have to check outForDelivery before orderReceived. After all, your order is still technically received while your pizza is out for delivery, so that screen should take priority.

if (state.orderReceived) {
return (
<OrderReceivedScreen
onOutForDelivery={() => {
setState((state) => ({ ...state, outForDelivery: true }));
}}
onError={(error) => {
setState((state) => ({ ...state, error: error }));
}}
>
Your order has been received
</OrderReceivedScreen>
);
}

If your order has been received, we should show a screen letting you know that, rather than staying on the order form.

return (
<PizzaOrderForm
onCheckout={async () => {
try {
await fetch("/pizza/checkout", state);
setState((state) => ({ ...state, orderReceived: true }));
} catch (error) {
setState((state) => ({ ...state, error: error }));
}
}}
>
<PizzaSizeSelect
value={state.size}
onChange={(size) => {
setState((state) => ({ ...state, size: size }));
}}
/>
<PizzaStyleSelect
value={state.style}
onChange={(style) => {
setState((state) => ({ ...state, style: style }));
}}
/>
<PizzaToppingsChooser
value={state.toppings}
onChange={(toppings) => {
setState((state) => ({ ...state, toppings: toppings }));
}}
/>
</PizzaOrderForm>
);

// end function PizzaDelivery()

Finally, we have a bunch of form logic for updating the pizza information before we place our order.

The order of these if statements is critical to this component working correctly. error, orderReceived, and outForDelivery are all trying to tell us which screen to show, but we have to resort to a hierarchy when they conflict with each other.

With tagged unions, we pick one property (the “tag”) to be in charge of which screen to show, and we only keep track of the properties related to the current screen.

# Pizza app: tagged unions

The key difference here is this mode property with 4 different string possibilities.

// function PizzaDelivery()

const [state, setState] = React.useState({
mode: "ordering", // "ordering" | "received" | "delivery" | "error"
size: "small",
style: "regular",
toppings: [],
});

This mode is in charge of what screen to show. We’ve listed which values are allowed, and there’s nothing to second guess. It’s not possible to have a confusing state like “order received” AND “out for delivery” AND “error” in this system. If you wanted to keep track of a complicated state like that, you would make a new mode like delivery-error (we can assume order is received if the order is out for delivery, so it doesn’t need to be received-delivery-error).

if (state.mode === "ordering") {
return (
<PizzaOrderForm
onCheckout={async () => {
try {
await fetch("/pizza/checkout", state);
setState({ mode: "received" });
} catch (error) {
setState({ mode: "error", error: error });
}
}}
>
<PizzaSizeSelect
value={state.size}
onChange={(size) => {
setState((state) => ({ ...state, size: size }));
}}
/>
<PizzaStyleSelect
value={state.style}
onChange={(style) => {
setState((state) => ({ ...state, style: style }));
}}
/>
<PizzaToppingsChooser
value={state.toppings}
onChange={(toppings) => {
setState((state) => ({ ...state, toppings: toppings }));
}}
/>
</PizzaOrderForm>
);
}

Now that we have a single source of truth on the current mode, we can write the if statements in any order. I’m choosing to put ordering first since it’s the first step in the user workflow.

if (state.mode === "received") {
return (
<OrderReceivedScreen
onOutForDelivery={() => {
setState({ mode: "delivery" });
}}
onError={(error) => {
setState({ mode: "error", error: error });
}}
>
Your order has been placed
</OrderReceivedScreen>
);
}

For the next if statement, we can use the 2nd step in the workflow. You can see that this time around, we did not have to use the “updater function” style of setState. When transitioning from one mode to another, you’ll usually want a full new object from scratch, since most modes don’t share properties with each other.

if (state.mode === "delivery") {
return (
<OrderOutForDeliveryScreen
onError={(error) => {
setState({ mode: "error", error: error });
}}
>
Your order is on its way!
</OrderOutForDeliveryScreen>
);
}

Again we use the next step of the workflow, and we use a full new object from scratch with setState, since we are transitioning modes.

if (state.mode === "error") {
// Check error first since it's higher priority than the other states
return <ErrorScreen>{state.error.message}</ErrorScreen>;
}

Last but not least, we check for the error state. Notice how we can grab state.error just like before, but this time we’ve checked state.mode first to make sure it makes sense to do that. With tagged union code, you should always check state.mode before attempting to use properties that only exist on certain modes.

# A real life example

Small examples are all well and good for learning, but how does this work on large apps? At my current job, I refactored a large portion of our most complicated screen (8,000+ lines of TypeScript) to use tagged unions to store most of the state. The rest of the team agreed the code was easier to reason about, and we now have lots of errors TypeScript can catch automatically for us.

That application has 30 (!) different modes within its tagged union. To help make sense of these, we arranged them hierarchically, similar to URLs.

// Code simplified for clarity
export type MapMode =
| MapPlacemarkEditMode
| MapPlacemarkBrowseMode
| MapBeaconsBrowseMode;

export type MapPlacemarkEditMode =
| { mode: "placemark/edit/area"; areaPlacemark: AreaPlacemark }
| { mode: "placemark/edit/label"; labelPlacemark: LabelPlacemark }
| { mode: "placemark/edit/regular"; placemark: Placemark };

export type MapPlacemarkBrowseMode = {
mode: "placemark/browse";
placemarks: Placemark[];
};

export type MapBeaconsBrowseMode = {
mode: "beacons/browse";
beacons: Beacon[];
};

This way you can narrow down your modes to be more specific. For example, a form component that lets you edit a placemark can take in mode: MapPlacemarkEditMode so that it’s only possible to render the form when in those 3 modes. This also means that the form code can be simplified since it only needs to check 3 different modes internally.

I’ll admit that it was a little tricky hooking these modes up to URLs within the browser. We wrote some code so that when you updated the mode, we automatically set the route using React Router to the URL that most closely matches your current state. Of course, URLs can’t preserve all the same state as these JavaScript objects, but people expect to lose unsaved changes when they refresh the browser anyway.

# Conclusion

Tagged unions can be used to model all your possible application states. They can be used in pure JavaScript without any libraries. They are even stronger in TypeScript where mistakes can be caught before running your program. And most importantly, they can reduce the confusion about what state your application is in.

# Further reading

I have included several appendixes containing more things to learn about.

Want to use tagged unions, but still using React class components? Learn about the React class component gotchas first.

Love TypeScript? Add type safety with TypeScript.

Not interested in TypeScript? Fortify your tagged unions using this one little helper functions (developers love it!)

Need to add “Undo” to your app? Add “Undo” in one line of code.

Do you use Vue? Check out tagged unions in Vue.

Want to use tagged unions for more than just application state? Tagged unions are great for data modeling.

If you’re still itching to learn more, try searching for algebraic data types (the more popular term compared with “tagged union”), and sum types. Many of these results use Haskell or other functional programming languages for their code examples.

# Appendix: React class component gotchas

If you are using React, be careful with this.setState, the state management method for class components. React’s this.setState merges its parameter into the current state, so it is not suitable for use with tagged unions, which need to be able to add/remove properties. If you have to use this.setState, you can nest your tagged union state within an object like this:

class MyComponent extends React.Component {
constructor() {
this.state = {
union: {
mode: "loading",
},
};
}

componentDidMount() {
this.load();
}

async load() {
try {
const resp = await fetch("/api/data");
const data = await resp.json();
this.setState({
union: {
mode: "success",
flavors: data.flavors,
},
});
} catch (err) {
this.setState({
union: {
mode: "error",
message: err.message,
},
});
}
}

render() {
const state = this.state.union;
switch (state.mode) {
case "loading":
return <div>Loading...</div>;
case "error":
return <div>Error: {state.message}</div>;
case "success":
return (
<ul>
{state.flavors.map((flavor) => {
return <li key={flavor}>{flavor}</li>;
})}
</ul>
);
default:
console.warn("MyComponent: unknown mode", state.mode);
return null;
}
}
}

# Appendix: Catching errors in TypeScript

For TypeScript, you should make a tagged union type instead, which can catch your type errors at compile time, before your code is even run:

type State =
| { mode: "loading" }
| { mode: "error"; message: string }
| { mode: "success"; flavors: string[] };

let state: State = { mode: "loading" };

state.flavors;
// TypeScript error: You have to check `.mode` before
// using any other property from `State`, since `.mode`
// is the only property present in all 3 cases.

if (state.mode === "loading") {
console.log("Loading...");
} else if (state.mode === "error") {
// Because we checked the value of `.mode`, TypeScript
// figured out which of the 3 State objects we are using,
// so it's OK to use `.message` inside this code block.
console.error(state.message);
} else {
// We are in the "success" case now since it's the only
// option left of the 3 cases we put into the State type
console.log(state.flavors.join(", "));
}

You can even take it one step further in TypeScript with something called exhaustiveness checking. If you add another case to your State type, TypeScript will emit a type error until you fix your code to support that newly added case. This means that you can automatically find most of the code you need to update when adding new modes.

function assertNever(value: never): never {
throw new Error(`assertNever: ${value}`);
}

type State =
| { mode: "apple pie" }
| { mode: "banana split" }
| { mode: "cherry turnover" };

let state: State = "apple pie";

switch (state.mode) {
case "apple pie":
console.log(1);
break;
case "banana split":
console.log(2);
break;
case "cherry turnover":
console.log(3);
break;
default:
// Note: You pass `state` not `state.mode` to it
assertNever(state);
break;
}

Now if you update the State type with a 4th mode dark chocolate, you’ll get a TypeScript error on your assertNever call, saying:

Argument of type `{ mode: "dark chocolate"; }` is not
assignable to parameter of type 'never'.

The error message looks a bit weird, but you’ll get used to it. You can go to all the places in your code that produce errors like this and fix them. You might actually have a fully functioning app that responds to your new state afterward.

# Appendix: Catching errors in JavaScript

When using tagged unions, you might enjoy this helper function if you’re using JavaScript instead of TypeScript. Strict objects throw errors when you try to access properties that don’t exist, something that happens a lot more frequently when you’re using tagged unions.

If you’re using TypeScript, you can omit this, since TypeScript will catch your type errors at compile time.

/**
* Returns an immutable object that throws a TypeError
* when you try to get a property that doesn't exist,
* or when you try to add, update, or delete a property.
*/

function strictObject(object) {
return new Proxy(object, {
get(target, prop) {
// JSON.stringify and various JS methods will try to
// access properties that may or may not exist on your
// object, and we don't want to crash, so we have to
// allow symbols and "toJSON" through, even if
// they're not defined.
if (prop in target || prop === "toJSON" || typeof prop === "symbol") {
return target[prop];
}
throw new TypeError(`strictObject: can't get property "${prop}"`);
},

set(target, prop) {
throw new TypeError(`strictObject: can't set property "${prop}"`);
},

deleteProperty(target, prop) {
throw new TypeError(`strictObject: can't delete property "${prop}"`);
},
});
}

this.state = strictObject({
mode: "purchase-complete",
orderNumber: "JS-1312-420",
});

this.state.mode;
// => "purchase-complete"

this.state.orderNumber;
// => "JS-1312-420"

this.state.flavors;
// => TypeError: strictObject: can't access property "flavors"

this.state.isSaving;
// => TypeError: strictObject: can't access property "isSaving"

You’ll have to remember to use strictObject every time you assign to this.state, but it can really save you from some headaches if you remember to use it. Nobody likes getting undefined when they expect a real value.

# Appendix: Undo support

Have you ever been asked to add “undo” to your application? It can be daunting to figure out where to even start. If you store your state in a tagged union, you have a huge advantage.

I will leave the implementation of redo as an exercise for the reader.

class App {
constructor() {
this.state = { mode: "loading" };
this.undoStack = [];
}

update(state) {
this.undoStack.push(this.state);
this.state = state;
}

undo() {
this.state = this.undoStack.pop();
}
}

Note: The | symbol means “this type OR that type” in TypeScript. Normally it’s written like type T = A | B;, but when you have lots of types over multiple lines, you can “line up the pipes” on the left to look nice. This is the “union” part of “tagged unions”. TypeScript will ensure that you check the mode before you access other parts of your state, so you only ever access the right state at the right time.

# Appendix: Tagged unions in Vue

Vue is well suited to use tagged unions. Just remember to assign the entire state object every time, rather than modifying its properties.

const html = String.raw;
const app = new Vue({
el: "#app",

data() {
return {
state: {
mode: "a",
},
};
},

methods: {
goA() {
this.state = { mode: "a" };
},

goB() {
this.state = { mode: "b" };
},
},

template: html`
<div>
<button v-if="state.mode === 'b'" @click="goA">Go to A</button>
<button v-else-if="state.mode === 'a'" @click="goB">Go to B</button>
<p v-else>This shouldn't render</p>
<pre v-text="JSON.stringify(state, null, 2)"></pre>
</div>
`
,
});

# Appendix: Tagged unions for data modeling

Tagged unions don’t have to be used for state management. You could use them for data modeling as well. Consider these two ways to model mathematical shapes.

class Rectangle {
constructor(width, height) {
this.width = width;
this.height = height;
}

area() {
return this.width * this.height;
}
}

class Circle {
constructor(radius) {
this.radius = radius;
}

area() {
return Math.PI * Math.pow(this.radius, 2);
}
}

new Circle(10).area();
// => 314.1592653589793

new Rectangle(3, 4).area();
// => 12

The class approach is nice because people expect it, and you can write .area() for both rectangles and circles. But what if you’re getting a shape back from a server as JSON? You have to worry about serializing and deserializing these objects as plain JSON objects.

Using plain JSON objects as tagged unions means that anyone can write a function that operates on any plain JSON object.

function rectangle(width, height) {
return { type: "rectangle", width, height };
}

function circle(radius) {
return { type: "circle", radius };
}

function area(shape) {
switch (shape.type) {
case "rectangle":
return shape.width * shape.height;
case "circle":
return Math.PI * Math.pow(shape.radius, 2);
default:
throw new Error(`unknown shape "${shape.type}"`);
}
}

area(circle(10));
// => 314.1592653589793

area(rectangle(3, 4));
// => 12