Builtin types


The built-in QNAME type represents quoted names and comes equipped with equality, ordering and a show function.

postulate Name : Set
{-# BUILTIN QNAME Name #-}

  primQNameEquality : Name  Name  Bool
  primQNameLess     : Name  Name  Bool
  primShowQName     : Name  String

Name literals are created using the quote keyword and can appear both in terms and in patterns

nameOfNat : Name
nameOfNat = quote Nat

isNat : Name  Bool
isNat (quote Nat) = true
isNat _           = false

Note that the name being quoted must be in scope.


Metavariables are represented by the built-in AGDAMETA type. They have primitive equality, ordering and show:

postulate Meta : Set

  primMetaEquality : Meta  Meta  Bool
  primMetaLess     : Meta  Meta  Bool
  primShowMeta     : Meta  String

Builtin metavariables show up in reflected terms.


Literals are mapped to the built-in AGDALITERAL datatype. Given the appropriate built-in binding for the types Nat, Float, etc, the AGDALITERAL datatype has the following shape:

data Literal : Set where
  nat    : (n : Nat)     Literal
  float  : (x : Float)   Literal
  char   : (c : Char)    Literal
  string : (s : String)  Literal
  name   : (x : Name)    Literal
  meta   : (x : Meta)    Literal

{-# BUILTIN AGDALITNAT    nat     #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDALITCHAR   char    #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDALITMETA   meta    #-}


Arguments can be (visible), {hidden}, or {{instance}}:

data Visibility : Set where
  visible hidden instance: Visibility

{-# BUILTIN HIDING   Visibility #-}
{-# BUILTIN VISIBLE  visible    #-}
{-# BUILTIN HIDDEN   hidden     #-}
{-# BUILTIN INSTANCE instance′  #-}

Arguments can be relevant or irrelevant:

data Relevance : Set where
  relevant irrelevant : Relevance

{-# BUILTIN RELEVANCE  Relevance  #-}
{-# BUILTIN RELEVANT   relevant   #-}
{-# BUILTIN IRRELEVANT irrelevant #-}

Visibility and relevance characterise the behaviour of an argument:

data ArgInfo : Set where
  arg-info : (v : Visibility) (r : Relevance)  ArgInfo

data Arg (A : Set) : Set where
  arg : (i : ArgInfo) (x : A)  Arg A

{-# BUILTIN ARGINFO    ArgInfo  #-}
{-# BUILTIN ARGARGINFO arg-info #-}
{-# BUILTIN ARG        Arg      #-}
{-# BUILTIN ARGARG     arg      #-}


Reflected patterns are bound to the AGDAPATTERN built-in using the following data type.

data Pattern : Set where
  con    : (c : Name) (ps : List (Arg Pattern))  Pattern
  dot    : Pattern
  var    : (s : String)   Pattern
  lit    : (l : Literal)  Pattern
  proj   : (f : Name)     Pattern
  absurd : Pattern

{-# BUILTIN AGDAPATCON    con     #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDAPATDOT    dot     #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDAPATVAR    var     #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDAPATLIT    lit     #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDAPATPROJ   proj    #-}

Name abstraction

data Abs (A : Set) : Set where
  abs : (s : String) (x : A)  Abs A

{-# BUILTIN ABS    Abs #-}
{-# BUILTIN ABSABS abs #-}


Terms, sorts and clauses are mutually recursive and mapped to the AGDATERM, AGDASORT and AGDACLAUSE built-ins respectively. Types are simply terms. Terms use de Bruijn indices to represent variables.

data Term : Set
data Sort : Set
data Clause : Set
Type = Term

data Term where
  var       : (x : Nat) (args : List (Arg Term))  Term
  con       : (c : Name) (args : List (Arg Term))  Term
  def       : (f : Name) (args : List (Arg Term))  Term
  lam       : (v : Visibility) (t : Abs Term)  Term
  pat-lam   : (cs : List Clause) (args : List (Arg Term))  Term
  pi        : (a : Arg Type) (b : Abs Type)  Term
  agda-sort : (s : Sort)  Term
  lit       : (l : Literal)  Term
  meta      : (x : Meta)  List (Arg Term)  Term
  unknown   : Term -- Treated as '_' when unquoting.

data Sort where
  set     : (t : Term)  Sort -- A Set of a given (possibly neutral) level.
  lit     : (n : Nat)  Sort  -- A Set of a given concrete level.
  unknown : Sort

data Clause where
  clause        : (ps : List (Arg Pattern)) (t : Term)  Clause
  absurd-clause : (ps : List (Arg Pattern))  Clause

{-# BUILTIN AGDASORT    Sort   #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATERM    Term   #-}

{-# BUILTIN AGDATERMVAR         var       #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATERMCON         con       #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATERMDEF         def       #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATERMMETA        meta      #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATERMLAM         lam       #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATERMEXTLAM      pat-lam   #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATERMPI          pi        #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATERMSORT        agda-sort #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATERMLIT         lit       #-}

{-# BUILTIN AGDASORTSET         set     #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDASORTLIT         lit     #-}

{-# BUILTIN AGDACLAUSECLAUSE clause        #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDACLAUSEABSURD absurd-clause #-}

Absurd lambdas λ () are quoted to extended lambdas with an absurd clause.

The built-in constructors AGDATERMUNSUPPORTED and AGDASORTUNSUPPORTED are translated to meta variables when unquoting.


There is a built-in type AGDADEFINITION representing definitions. Values of this type is returned by the AGDATCMGETDEFINITION built-in described below.

data Definition : Set where
  function    : (cs : List Clause)  Definition
  data-type   : (pars : Nat) (cs : List Name)  Definition  -- parameters and constructors
  record-type : (c : Name)  Definition                     -- name of data/record type
  data-cons   : (d : Name)  Definition                     -- name of constructor
  axiom       : Definition
  prim-fun    : Definition

{-# BUILTIN AGDADEFINITION                Definition  #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDADEFINITIONFUNDEF          function    #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDADEFINITIONDATADEF         data-type   #-}

Type errors

Type checking computations (see below) can fail with an error, which is a list of ErrorParts. This allows metaprograms to generate nice errors without having to implement pretty printing for reflected terms.

-- Error messages can contain embedded names and terms.
data ErrorPart : Set where
  strErr  : String  ErrorPart
  termErr : Term  ErrorPart
  nameErr : Name  ErrorPart

{-# BUILTIN AGDAERRORPART       ErrorPart #-}

Type checking computations

Metaprograms, i.e. programs that create other programs, run in a built-in type checking monad TC:

  TC       :  {a}  Set a  Set a
  returnTC :  {a} {A : Set a}  A  TC A
  bindTC   :  {a b} {A : Set a} {B : Set b}  TC A  (A  TC B)  TC B

{-# BUILTIN AGDATCM       TC       #-}

The TC monad provides an interface to the Agda type checker using the following primitive operations:

  -- Unify two terms, potentially solving metavariables in the process.
  unify : Term  Term  TC ⊤

  -- Throw a type error. Can be caught by catchTC.
  typeError :  {a} {A : Set a}  List ErrorPart  TC A

  -- Block a type checking computation on a metavariable. This will abort
  -- the computation and restart it (from the beginning) when the
  -- metavariable is solved.
  blockOnMeta :  {a} {A : Set a}  Meta  TC A

  -- Prevent current solutions of metavariables from being rolled back in
  -- case 'blockOnMeta' is called.
  commitTC : TC ⊤

  -- Backtrack and try the second argument if the first argument throws a
  -- type error.
  catchTC :  {a} {A : Set a}  TC A  TC A  TC A

  -- Infer the type of a given term
  inferType : Term  TC Type

  -- Check a term against a given type. This may resolve implicit arguments
  -- in the term, so a new refined term is returned. Can be used to create
  -- new metavariables: newMeta t = checkType unknown t
  checkType : Term  Type  TC Term

  -- Compute the normal form of a term.
  normalise : Term  TC Term

  -- Compute the weak head normal form of a term.
  reduce : Term  TC Term

  -- Get the current context. Returns the context in reverse order, so that
  -- it is indexable by deBruijn index.
  getContext : TC (List (Arg Type))

  -- Extend the current context with a variable of the given type.
  extendContext :  {a} {A : Set a}  Arg Type  TC A  TC A

  -- Set the current context. Takes a context telescope with the outer-most
  -- entry first, in contrast to 'getContext'.
  inContext :  {a} {A : Set a}  List (Arg Type)  TC A  TC A

  -- Quote a value, returning the corresponding Term.
  quoteTC :  {a} {A : Set a}  A  TC Term

  -- Unquote a Term, returning the corresponding value.
  unquoteTC :  {a} {A : Set a}  Term  TC A

  -- Create a fresh name.
  freshName : String  TC Name

  -- Declare a new function of the given type. The function must be defined
  -- later using 'defineFun'. Takes an Arg Name to allow declaring instances
  -- and irrelevant functions. The Visibility of the Arg must not be hidden.
  declareDef : Arg Name  Type  TC ⊤

  -- Define a declared function. The function may have been declared using
  -- 'declareDef' or with an explicit type signature in the program.
  defineFun : Name  List Clause  TC ⊤

  -- Get the type of a defined name. Replaces 'primNameType'.
  getType : Name  TC Type

  -- Get the definition of a defined name. Replaces 'primNameDefinition'.
  getDefinition : Name  TC Definition

  -- Check if a name refers to a macro
  isMacro : Name  TC Bool

  -- Change the behaviour of inferType, checkType, quoteTC, getContext
  -- to normalise (or not) their results. The default behaviour is no
  -- normalisation.
  withNormalisation :  {a} {A : Set a}  Bool  TC A  TC A

{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMUNIFY              unify              #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMTYPEERROR          typeError          #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMBLOCKONMETA        blockOnMeta        #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMCATCHERROR         catchTC            #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMINFERTYPE          inferType          #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMCHECKTYPE          checkType          #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMNORMALISE          normalise          #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMREDUCE             reduce             #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMGETCONTEXT         getContext         #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMEXTENDCONTEXT      extendContext      #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMINCONTEXT          inContext          #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMQUOTETERM          quoteTC            #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMUNQUOTETERM        unquoteTC          #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMFRESHNAME          freshName          #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMDECLAREDEF         declareDef         #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMDEFINEFUN          defineFun          #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMGETTYPE            getType            #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMGETDEFINITION      getDefinition      #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMCOMMIT             commitTC           #-}
{-# BUILTIN AGDATCMISMACRO            isMacro            #-}


There are three ways to run a metaprogram (TC computation). To run a metaprogram in a term position you use a macro. To run metaprograms to create top-level definitions you can use the unquoteDecl and unquoteDef primitives (see Unquoting Declarations).


Macros are functions of type t₁ t₂ .. Term TC that are defined in a macro block. The last argument is supplied by the type checker and will be the representation of a metavariable that should be instantiated with the result of the macro.

Macro application is guided by the type of the macro, where Term and Name arguments are quoted before passed to the macro. Arguments of any other type are preserved as-is.

For example, the macro application f u v w where f : Term Name Bool Term TC desugars into:

unquote (f (quoteTerm u) (quote v) w)

where quoteTerm u takes a u of arbitrary type and returns its representation in the Term data type, and unquote m runs a computation in the TC monad. Specifically, when checking unquote m : A for some type A the type checker proceeds as follows:

  • Check m : Term TC .
  • Create a fresh metavariable hole : A.
  • Let qhole : Term be the quoted representation of hole.
  • Execute m qhole.
  • Return (the now hopefully instantiated) hole.

Reflected macro calls are constructed using the def constructor, so given a macro g : Term TC the term def (quote g) [] unquotes to a macro call to g.


The quoteTerm and unquote primitives are available in the language, but it is recommended to avoid using them in favour of macros.


  • Macros cannot be recursive. This can be worked around by defining the recursive function outside the macro block and have the macro call the recursive function.

Silly example:

    plus-to-times : Term  Term  TC ⊤
    plus-to-times (def (quote _+_) (a ∷ b ∷ [])) hole = unify hole (def (quote _*_) (a ∷ b ∷ []))
    plus-to-times v hole = unify hole v

thm : (a b : Nat)  plus-to-times (a + b) ≡ a * b
thm a b = refl

Macros lets you write tactics that can be applied without any syntactic overhead. For instance, suppose you have a solver:

magic : Type  Term

that takes a reflected goal and outputs a proof (when successful). You can then define the following macro:

  by-magic : Term  TC ⊤
  by-magic hole =
    bindTC (inferType hole) λ goal 
    unify hole (magic goal)

This lets you apply the magic tactic as a normal function:

thm : ¬ P ≡ NP
thm = by-magic

Unquoting Declarations

While macros let you write metaprograms to create terms, it is also useful to be able to create top-level definitions. You can do this from a macro using the declareDef and defineFun primitives, but there is no way to bring such definitions into scope. For this purpose there are two top-level primitives unquoteDecl and unquoteDef that runs a TC computation in a declaration position. They both have the same form:

unquoteDecl x₁ .. xₙ = m
unquoteDef  x₁ .. xₙ = m

except that the list of names can be empty for unquoteDecl, but not for unquoteDef. In both cases m should have type TC . The main difference between the two is that unquoteDecl requires m to both declare (with declareDef) and define (with defineFun) the xᵢ whereas unquoteDef expects the xᵢ to be already declared. In other words, unquoteDecl brings the xᵢ into scope, but unquoteDef requires them to already be in scope.

In m the xᵢ stand for the names of the functions being defined (i.e. xᵢ : Name) rather than the actual functions.

One advantage of unquoteDef over unquoteDecl is that unquoteDef is allowed in mutual blocks, allowing mutually recursion between generated definitions and hand-written definitions.