The Agda type checker knows about, and has special treatment for, a number of different concepts. The most prominent is natural numbers, which has a special representation as Haskell integers and support for fast arithmetic. The surface syntax of these concepts are not fixed, however, so in order to use the special treatment of natural numbers (say) you define an appropriate data type and then bind that type to the natural number concept using a BUILTIN pragma.

Some built-in types support primitive functions that have no corresponding Agda definition. These functions are declared using the primitive keyword by giving their type signature.

Using the built-in types

While it is possible to define your own versions of the built-in types and bind them using BUILTIN pragmas, it is recommended to use the definitions in the Agda.Builtin modules. These modules are installed when you install Agda and so are always available. For instance, built-in natural numbers are defined in Agda.Builtin.Nat. The standard library and the agda-prelude reexport the definitions from these modules.

The unit type

module Agda.Builtin.Unit

The unit type is bound to the built-in UNIT as follows:

record: Set where
{-# BUILTIN UNIT ⊤ #-}

Agda needs to know about the unit type since some of the primitive operations in the reflected type checking monad return values in the unit type.


module Agda.Builtin.Bool where

Built-in booleans are bound using the BOOLEAN, TRUE and FALSE built-ins:

data Bool : Set where
  false true : Bool
{-# BUILTIN BOOL  Bool  #-}
{-# BUILTIN TRUE  true  #-}
{-# BUILTIN FALSE false #-}

Note that unlike for natural numbers, you need to bind the constructors separately. The reason for this is that Agda cannot tell which constructor should correspond to true and which to false, since you are free to name them whatever you like.

The only effect of binding the boolean type is that you can then use primitive functions returning booleans, such as built-in NATEQUALS.

Natural numbers

module Agda.Builtin.Nat

Built-in natural numbers are bound using the NATURAL built-in as follows:

data Nat : Set where
  zero : Nat
  suc  : Nat  Nat

The names of the data type and the constructors can be chosen freely, but the shape of the datatype needs to match the one given above (modulo the order of the constructors). Note that the constructors need not be bound explicitly.

Binding the built-in natural numbers as above has the following effects:

  • The use of natural number literals is enabled. By default the type of a natural number literal will be Nat, but it can be overloaded to include other types as well.
  • Closed natural numbers are represented as Haskell integers at compile-time.
  • The compiler backends compile natural numbers to the appropriate number type in the target language.
  • Enabled binding the built-in natural number functions described below.

Functions on natural numbers

There are a number of built-in functions on natural numbers. These are special in that they have both an Agda definition and a primitive implementation. The primitive implementation is used to evaluate applications to closed terms, and the Agda definition is used otherwise. This lets you prove things about the functions while still enjoying good performance of compile-time evaluation. The built-in functions are the following:

_+_ : Nat  Nat  Nat
zero  + m = m
suc n + m = suc (n + m)

_-_ : Nat  Nat  Nat
n     - zero  = n
zero  - suc m = zero
suc n - suc m = n - m

_*_ : Nat  Nat  Nat
zero  * m = zero
suc n * m = (n * m) + m

_==_ : Nat  Nat  Bool
zero  == zero  = true
suc n == suc m = n == m
_     == _     = false

_<_ : Nat  Nat  Bool
_     < zero  = false
zero  < suc _ = true
suc n < suc m = n < m

div-helper : Nat  Nat  Nat  Nat  Nat
div-helper k m  zero    j      = k
div-helper k m (suc n)  zero   = div-helper (suc k) m n m
div-helper k m (suc n) (suc j) = div-helper k m n j
{-# BUILTIN NATDIVSUCAUX div-helper #-}

mod-helper : Nat  Nat  Nat  Nat  Nat
mod-helper k m  zero    j      = k
mod-helper k m (suc n)  zero   = mod-helper 0 m n m
mod-helper k m (suc n) (suc j) = mod-helper (suc k) m n j
{-# BUILTIN NATMODSUCAUX mod-helper #-}

The Agda definitions are checked to make sure that they really define the corresponding built-in function. The definitions are not required to be exactly those given above, for instance, addition and multiplication can be defined by recursion on either argument, and you can swap the arguments to the addition in the recursive case of multiplication.

The NATDIVSUCAUX and NATMODSUCAUX are built-ins bind helper functions for defining natural number division and modulo operations, and satisfy the properties

div n (suc m) ≡ div-helper 0 m n m
mod n (suc m) ≡ mod-helper 0 m n m


module Agda.Builtin.Int

Built-in integers are bound with the INTEGER built-in to a data type with two constructors: one for positive and one for negative numbers. The built-ins for the constructors are INTEGERPOS and INTEGERNEGSUC.

data Int : Set where
  pos    : Nat  Int
  negsuc : Nat  Int
{-# BUILTIN INTEGER       Int    #-}
{-# BUILTIN INTEGERPOS    pos    #-}

Here negsuc n represents the integer -n - 1. Unlike for natural numbers, there is no special representation of integers at compile-time since the overhead of using the data type compared to Haskell integers is not that big.

Built-in integers support the following primitive operation (given a suitable binding for String):

  primShowInteger : Int  String


module Agda.Builtin.Float

Floating point numbers are bound with the FLOAT built-in:

postulate Float : Set
{-# BUILTIN FLOAT Float #-}

This lets you use floating point literals. Floats are represented by the type checker as IEEE 754 binary64 double precision floats, with the restriction that there is exactly one NaN value. The following primitive functions are available (with suitable bindings for Nat, Bool, String and Int):

  primNatToFloat             : Nat  Float
  primFloatPlus              : Float  Float  Float
  primFloatMinus             : Float  Float  Float
  primFloatTimes             : Float  Float  Float
  primFloatNegate            : Float  Float
  primFloatDiv               : Float  Float  Float
  primFloatEquality          : Float  Float  Bool
  primFloatNumericalEquality : Float  Float  Bool
  primFloatNumericalLess     : Float  Float  Bool
  primRound                  : Float  Int
  primFloor                  : Float  Int
  primCeiling                : Float  Int
  primExp                    : Float  Float
  primLog                    : Float  Float
  primSin                    : Float  Float
  primCos                    : Float  Float
  primTan                    : Float  Float
  primASin                   : Float  Float
  primACos                   : Float  Float
  primATan                   : Float  Float
  primATan2                  : Float  Float  Float
  primShowFloat              : Float  String

The primFloatEquality primitive is intended to be used for decidable propositional equality. To enable proof carrying comparisons while preserving consisteny, the following laws apply:

  • primFloatEquality NaN NaN returns true.
  • primFloatEquality NaN (primFloatNegate NaN) returns true.
  • primFloatEquality 0.0 -0.0 returns false.

For numerical comparisons, use the primFloatNumericalEquality and primFloatNumericalLess primitives. These are implemented by the corresponding Haskell functions with the following behaviour and exceptions:

  • primFloatNumericalEquality 0.0 -0.0 returns true.
  • primFloatNumericalEquality NaN NaN returns false.
  • primFloatNumericalLess NaN NaN returns false.
  • primFloatNumericalLess (primFloatNegate NaN) (primFloatNegate NaN) returns false.
  • primFloatNumericalLess NaN (primFloatNegate NaN) returns false.
  • primFloatNumericalLess (primFloatNegate NaN) NaN returns false.
  • primFloatNumericalLess sorts NaN below everything but negative infinity.
  • primFloatNumericalLess -0.0 0.0 returns false.


Do not use primFloatNumericalEquality to establish decidable propositional equality. Doing so makes Agda inconsistent, see Issue #2169.


module Agda.Builtin.List

Built-in lists are bound using the LIST, NIL and CONS built-ins:

data List {a} (A : Set a) : Set a where
  []  : List A
  _∷_ : (x : A) (xs : List A)  List A
{-# BUILTIN LIST List #-}
{-# BUILTIN NIL  []   #-}
{-# BUILTIN CONS _∷_  #-}
infixr 5 _∷_

Even though Agda could easily tell which constructor is NIL and which is CONS you still have to bind them separately.

As with booleans, the only effect of binding the LIST built-in is to let you use primitive functions working with lists, such as primStringToList and primStringFromList.


module Agda.Builtin.Char

The character type is bound with the CHARACTER built-in:

postulate Char : Set
{-# BUILTIN CHAR Char #-}

Binding the character type lets you use character literals. The following primitive functions are available on characters (given suitable bindings for Bool, Nat and String):

  primIsLower    : Char  Bool
  primIsDigit    : Char  Bool
  primIsAlpha    : Char  Bool
  primIsSpace    : Char  Bool
  primIsAscii    : Char  Bool
  primIsLatin1   : Char  Bool
  primIsPrint    : Char  Bool
  primIsHexDigit : Char  Bool
  primToUpper    : Char  Char
  primToLower    : Char  Char
  primCharToNat  : Char  Nat
  primNatToChar  : Nat  Char
  primShowChar   : Char  String

These functions are implemented by the corresponding Haskell functions from Data.Char (ord and chr for primCharToNat and primNatToChar). To make primNatToChar total chr is applied to the natural number modulo 0x110000.


module Agda.Builtin.String

The string type is bound with the STRING built-in:

postulate String : Set
{-# BUILTIN STRING String #-}

Binding the string type lets you use string literals. The following primitive functions are available on strings (given suitable bindings for Bool, Char and List):

postulate primStringToList   : String  List Char
postulate primStringFromList : List Char  String
postulate primStringAppend   : String  String  String
postulate primStringEquality : String  String  Bool
postulate primShowString     : String  String

String literals can be overloaded.


module Agda.Builtin.Equality

The identity type can be bound to the built-in EQUALITY as follows:

infix 4 _≡_
data _≡_ {a} {A : Set a} (x : A) : A  Set a where
  refl : x ≡ x

This lets you use proofs of type lhs rhs in the rewrite construction.

Other variants of the identity type are also accepted as built-in:

data _≡_ {A : Set} : (x y : A)  Set where
  refl : (x : A)  x ≡ x

The type of primTrustMe has to match the flavor of identity type.


module Agda.Builtin.TrustMe

Binding the built-in equality type also enables the primTrustMe primitive:

  primTrustMe :  {a} {A : Set a} {x y : A}  x ≡ y

As can be seen from the type, primTrustMe must be used with the utmost care to avoid inconsistencies. What makes it different from a postulate is that if x and y are actually definitionally equal, primTrustMe reduces to refl. One use of primTrustMe is to lift the primitive boolean equality on built-in types like String to something that returns a proof object:

eqString : (a b : String)  Maybe (a ≡ b)
eqString a b = if primStringEquality a b
               then just primTrustMe
               else nothing

With this definition eqString "foo" "foo" computes to just refl. Another use case is to erase computationally expensive equality proofs and replace them by primTrustMe:

eraseEquality :  {a} {A : Set a} {x y : A}  x ≡ y  x ≡ y
eraseEquality _ = primTrustMe

Universe levels

module Agda.Primitive

Universe levels are also declared using BUILTIN pragmas. In contrast to the Agda.Builtin modules, the Agda.Primitive module is auto-imported and thus it is not possible to change the level built-ins. For reference these are the bindings:

  Level : Set
  lzero : Level
  lsuc  : Level  Level
  _⊔_   : Level  Level  Level
{-# BUILTIN LEVEL     Level #-}
{-# BUILTIN LEVELSUC  lsuc  #-}
{-# BUILTIN LEVELMAX  _⊔_   #-}

Sized types

module Agda.Builtin.Size

The built-ins for sized types are different from other built-ins in that the names are defined by the BUILTIN pragma. Hence, to bind the size primitives it is enough to write:

{-# BUILTIN SIZEUNIV SizeUniv #-}  --  SizeUniv : SizeUniv
{-# BUILTIN SIZE     Size     #-}  --  Size     : SizeUniv
{-# BUILTIN SIZELT   Size<_   #-}  --  Size<_   : ..Size → SizeUniv
{-# BUILTIN SIZESUC  ↑_       #-}  --  ↑_       : Size → Size
{-# BUILTIN SIZEINF   ω       #-}  --  ω        : Size
{-# BUILTIN SIZEMAX  _⊔ˢ_     #-}  --  _⊔ˢ_     : Size → Size → Size


module Agda.Builtin.Coinduction

The following built-ins are used for coinductive definitions:

    :  {a} (A : Set a)  Set a
  ♯_ :  {a} {A : Set a}  A  ∞ A
    :  {a} {A : Set a}  ∞ A  A
{-# BUILTIN SHARP    ♯_ #-}
{-# BUILTIN FLAT     ♭  #-}

See Coinduction for more information.


module Agda.Builtin.IO

The sole purpose of binding the built-in IO type is to let Agda check that the main function has the right type (see Compilers).

postulate IO : Set  Set

Literal overloading

module Agda.Builtin.FromNat
module Agda.Builtin.FromNeg
module Agda.Builtin.FromString

The machinery for overloading literals uses built-ins for the conversion functions.


module Agda.Builtin.Reflection

The reflection machinery has built-in types for representing Agda programs. See Reflection for a detailed description.


The experimental and totally unsafe rewriting machinery (not to be confused with the rewrite construct) has a built-in REWRITE for the rewriting relation:

postulate _↦_ :  {a} {A : Set a}  A  A  Set a

There is no Agda.Builtin module for the rewrite relation since different rewriting experiments typically want different relations.


module Agda.Builtin.Strict

There are two primitives for controlling evaluation order:

  primForce      :  {a b} {A : Set a} {B : A  Set b} (x : A)  ( x  B x)  B x
  primForceLemma :  {a b} {A : Set a} {B : A  Set b} (x : A) (f :  x  B x)  primForce x f ≡ f x

where _≡_ is the built-in equality. At compile-time primForce x f evaluates to f x when x is in weak head normal form (whnf), i.e. one of the following:

  • a constructor application
  • a literal
  • a lambda abstraction
  • a type constructor application (data or record type)
  • a function type
  • a universe (Set _)

Similarly primForceLemma x f, which lets you reason about programs using primForce, evaluates to refl when x is in whnf. At run-time, primForce e f is compiled (by the GHC backend) to let x = e in seq x (f x).

For example, consider the following function:

-- pow’ n a = a 2ⁿ
pow’ : Nat  Nat  Nat
pow’ zero    a = a
pow’ (suc n) a = pow’ n (a + a)

At compile-time this will be exponential, due to call-by-name evaluation, and at run-time there is a space leak caused by unevaluated a + a thunks. Both problems can be fixed with primForce:

infixr 0 _$!_
_$!_ :  {a b} {A : Set a} {B : A  Set b}  ( x  B x)   x  B x
f $! x = primForce x f

-- pow n a = a 2ⁿ
pow : Nat  Nat  Nat
pow zero    a = a
pow (suc n) a =  pow n $! a + a