Designing Crux – Import Statements

Manipulating a module’s import list is a high-frequency activity in modern programming languages. Sadly, few popular languages perfect the usability of the import list.

To do a good job in Crux, let’s start from the use cases, roughly sorted by importance:

  • import a module and refer to it by a qualified import name
  • import a list of names unqualified into this module’s scope
  • import everything unqualified into this module’s scope
  • import a module solely for its side effects, without importing any symbols
  • visually scan the import list
  • sort the import list (with Emacs’s sort-lines or the like)
  • and, of course, tools must easily parse the import list

Designing for usability means optimizing for the most common use cases, while making sure the less common use cases are still possible.

The most common use case is to import a module and refer to it qualified. Consider this hypothetical syntax:

import fs.path
path.combine("/usr", "local")

The qualified import reference (here, path) defaults to the last segment of the module name. Now, for this to work well, the basename has to be short, distinct, and meaningful.

Haskell gets this wrong.

import qualified Data.ByteString as BS

From left to right: import qualified is long to start with. Then you have most packages in some kind of arbitary namespace like Data. Then, since ByteString is too long to be convenient (especially with the mixed case), people typically name the import BS. Typically being the key word. Sometimes people name it Bytes. Sometimes ByteString. Sometimes B. Sometimes Data.ByteString.Char8 is imported as BS. The fact that the programmer has to make a choice here naturally leads to inconsistency.

Go does a great job here. In Go, you import like this:

import "fs/path"

Afterwards, path functions can be accessed as path.Function. Short and meaningful.

Go goes even further and provides guidelines for naming functions in the context of a module. Conventions tend to be copied, so by setting a good standard early on, Go positively affected every project built then on.

ES6 modules are also pretty interesting. They are statically analyzable and syntactically lightweight, but they have a fairly significant problem at scale: sorting imports.

import Dispatcher from 'flux/dispatcher';
import {foo, bazzle} from 'app/utils';

The problem with having the list of imported symbols first is that they can’t easily be machine-sorted. Every ES6 project I’ve worked on has encouraged its engineers to sort the imports by hand. Also, the import list coming first gets annoying when import lists are long.

import {
  foo, bar, baz,
  qux, harf, barf,
  hurp, floop
} from 'my_module';

With Crux, we learned from all of the above import systems and came up with something that meets every use case. Here is the proposed syntax:

import {
  my_encoding_system as mes,
  imported_only_for_side_effects as _,
  utils(foo, bar, baz),
  all_the_utils(...), // import everything into scope

The easiest import syntax is most common one, but other types of imports, like renaming the import or importing some symbols unqualified, are straightforward too.

This directly satisfies all of our use cases!

We may change our minds and make the commas after each import optional in the future.

Side Note: Implicit vs. Explicit Imports

OCaml and Java allow qualifying names at their use sites, making import statements unnecessary. Import statements are syntax sugar at that point. I don’t have a strong justification here, but Crux went with explicit import statements (like Go, Python, Haskell, ES6) because it’s easier for humans and machines to see a module’s dependencies at a glance.

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