This webpage is about Lean 3, which is effectively obsolete; the community has migrated to Lean 4.

Jump to the corresponding page on the main Lean 4 website.

Tutorial: tactic writing in Lean #

This is a tutorial for getting started writing your own tactics in Lean. It is intended for an audience that does not necessarily have experience working with monads in a functional programming langauge (e.g. most mathematicians).

Other useful resources while learning to write tactics include:

Monadology #

Tactics are programs that act on the proof state. But Lean is a functional programming language. It means all you can do is define and evaluate functions. Each function takes input with a predefined type, and gives output with a predefined type. It seems to prevent having a global state (like the current assumptions and goals), and having output type depending on the input value (for instance a tactic can succeed or fail), or outputting messages. These issues are resolved by three layers of tricks (the following brief descriptions will hopefully become clearer later):

The first two points are collectively known as monadic programming (of course there is a more precise definition, but we will try to ignore it).

The type of a function that can inspect the proof state, modify it, and potentially return something of type α (or fail) is called tactic α. In particular tactic unit is only about manipulating proof state, without trying to return anything (technically it will return something of type unit, which is the type having exactly one term, denoted by ()). Such functions are either called by other tactics---those are typically in the tactic namespace---or called interactively by users inside tactic blocks---those must be in the tactic.interactive namespace (this is not quite necessary for very simple tactics, but weird things will happen in general when ignoring this rule). A shortcut which is sometimes convenient is: one can copy definitions with name my_tac1, my_tac2, my_tac3, into the tactic.interactive namespace using run_cmd add_interactive [`my_tac1,`my_tac2, `my_tac3]. These functions will be used to generate Lean proofs, but we will not prove anything about these functions themselves, nor will the constants my_tac1, my_tac2, etc. appear in the proofs that they generate. By prefacing them with the keyword meta, we tell Lean that they are for "evaluation purposes only," which disables some of the checks that non-meta declarations must pass. This is enough knowledge to write a first tactic.

meta def my_first_tactic : tactic unit := tactic.trace "Hello, World."

example : true :=

In the example, my_first_tactic is underlined in green (in VS Code) and moving the cursor on that line will display our message in the Lean messages buffer.

Next we need to learn how to chain several actions. Deep down, this is all about composing functions, but the monadic notations hide this and emulate imperative programming. We need to use the and_then combinator. The first way is to use the infix notation >>, as in:

meta def my_second_tactic : tactic unit :=
tactic.trace "Hello," >> tactic.trace "World."

which now prints our message in two pieces. Alternatively, one can use the do syntax, which has other goodies. This introduces a comma-separated list of instructions to perform in sequence.

meta def my_second_tactic' : tactic unit :=
  tactic.trace "Hello,",
  tactic.trace "World."

Besides displaying messages, the next thing tactics can do is to fail, potentially with some explanation.

meta def my_failing_tactic  : tactic unit := tactic.failed

meta def my_failing_tactic' : tactic unit := "This tactic failed, we apologize for the inconvenience."

When chaining instructions, the first failure interrupts the process. However the orelse combinator, denoted by an infix <|> allows to try its right-hand side if its left-hand side failed. The following will successfully deliver its message.

meta def my_orelse_tactic : tactic unit :=
my_failing_tactic <|> my_first_tactic

The next composite thing to do is to use some function that, after reading or altering the proof state, actually tries to return something. For instance the built-in (tries to) return the current goal. This goal has type expr (more on that type later). The type of is thus tactic expr. Say we want to trace the current goal. A naive attempt would be:

meta def broken_trace_goal : tactic unit :=
tactic.trace    -- WRONG!

This cannot be correct because could fail (there could be no more goal) and tactic.trace cannot take that failure as an input. We need the bind combinator, with infix notation >>=, sending the output of its left-hand side to its right-hand side in case of success and failing otherwise.

meta def trace_goal : tactic unit := >>= tactic.trace

Alternatively, especially if the output of could be used several times, one can use the do blocks assignments using (the same arrow as in the rewrite syntax). This emulation of imperative variable assignment will of course fail (as the failing tactics above) if the right-hand side of the assignment fails.

meta def trace_goal' : tactic unit :=
 tactic.trace goal

Beware that this kind of assignment is only trying to extract data of type α from something of type tactic α. It cannot be used to store regular stuff. The following doesn't work.

meta def broken_assignment : tactic unit :=
 message  "Hello, World.",  -- WRONG!
 tactic.trace message

However, one can use let in do blocks, as in:

meta def let_example : tactic unit :=
 let message := "Hello, World.",
 tactic.trace message

Next, we want to write tactics returning something, as is doing. The only extra ingredient is the return function. The following function tries to return tt if there is no more goal, ff otherwise. The next one can be used interactively and traces the result (note that using the first one interactively won't have any visible effect since interactive use ignores the returned value).

meta def is_done : tactic bool :=
( >> return ff) <|> return tt

meta def trace_is_done : tactic unit :=
is_done >>= tactic.trace

The last thing we will need about monadic assignment is pattern-matching assignment. The following tactic tries to define expressions l and r as the left and right hand sides of the current goal. It also uses the to_string function which is very convenient in combination with trace in order to debug tactics, and works on any type which is an instance of has_to_string.

meta def trace_goal_is_eq : tactic unit :=
do t,
   match t with
   | `(%%l = %%r) := tactic.trace $ "Goal is equality between " ++ (to_string l) ++ " and " ++ (to_string r)
   | _ := tactic.trace "Goal is not an equality"

Lean also provides a dedicated syntax for pattern matching with a single pattern and a wildcard, where execution only proceeds to the next line of the do block if the pattern matches, and otherwise executes the expression after the |:

meta def trace_goal_is_eq : tactic unit :=
do `(%%l = %%r) | tactic.trace "Goal is not an equality",
   tactic.trace $ "Goal is equality between " ++ (to_string l) ++ " and " ++ (to_string r)

If the | is omitted, then the tactic fails if the pattern does not match. We can catch this failure using the orelse combinator mentioned ealier, but note that by doing so we catch more types of failure than we did above:

meta def trace_goal_is_eq : tactic unit :=
(do  `(%%l = %%r),
     tactic.trace $ "Goal is equality between " ++ (to_string l) ++ " and " ++ (to_string r),
   <|> tactic.trace "Goal is not an equality, or `some_other_tactic` failed"

The parenthesis in the above code don't look very nice. One could use instead curly brackets which allow to delimit a do block, as in:

meta def trace_goal_is_eq : tactic unit :=
do { `(%%l = %%r),
     tactic.trace $ "Goal is equality between " ++ (to_string l) ++ " and " ++ (to_string r) }
   <|> tactic.trace "Goal is not an equality"

A first real world tactic #

We have studied enough monadology to understand our first useful tactic: the assumption tactic, which searches the local context for an assumption which closes the current goal. It uses a couple more builtin tactics, both declared and briefly documented in the core library in init/meta/tactic.lean but actually implemented in C++. First infer_type : expr → tactic expr tries to determine the type of an expression (since it returns a tactic expr, it must be chained with either >>= or , as explained above). Next tactic.unify which, modulo a couple of optional parameters, takes two expressions and succeeds if and only if they are definitionally equal. The first piece of the assumption tactic is a helper function searching an expression sharing the type of some expression e in a list of expressions, returning the first match (or failing if nothing matches).

meta def find_matching_type (e : expr) : list expr  tactic expr
| []         := tactic.failed
| (H :: Hs)  := do t  tactic.infer_type H,
                   (tactic.unify e t >> return H) <|> find_matching_type Hs

Make sure you really understand the control flow in the above code using the previous section. The basic pattern is classical recursive find in a list. Notice the expression e is left of colon, hence it will be passed unchanged to the recursive call find_matching_type Hs. The choice of name H stands for hypothesis, while Hs, following Haskell's naming conventions, stands for several hypotheses. The imperative analogue of what happens for non-empty lists would read something like the following imperative pseudo-code

if unify(e, infer_type(H)) then return H else find_matching_type(e, HS)

We can now use this function for our interactive tactic. We first need to grab the local context using local_context, which returns a list of expressions that we can pass to our find_matching_type. If that function succeeds, its output is passed to the builtin tactic tactic.exact. Here we need to use the fully qualified name because of possible confusion with the interactive version of exact (which takes different parameters, so it's not an exact copy of the non-interactive one). This is good opportunity to point out that the beginning of this tutorial uses fully qualified names everywhere for clarity, but of course the real world workflow is to open the tactic namespace.

meta def my_assumption : tactic unit :=
do { ctx  tactic.local_context,
     find_matching_type t ctx >>= tactic.exact }
<|> "my_assumption tactic failed"

Bonus question: what if we remove the brackets? Will it still type-check? If yes, will the resulting tactic be the same?

Monadic loops #

A crucial tool of imperative programming is loops, so monads must emulate this. We already know from usual Lean that and list.foldr/list.foldl allow to loop on elements of list. But we need version that interacts nicely with the monad world (consuming and returning terms of type tactic stuff). Those versions are prefixed with "m" for monad, as in list.mmap, list.mfoldr etc. Our tactic is then:

meta def list_types : tactic unit :=
  l  tactic.local_context,
  l.mmap (λ h, tactic.infer_type h >>= tactic.trace),
  return ()

The last line is a bit silly: it's there because what we get from the previous line has type list unit, so it cannot be the final piece of our do block. Hence we add return () where () is the only term of type unit. One can also use the tactic skip to achieve the same goal. This special case is so common that we actually have a variant list.mmap' of list.mmap which discards the result of the function applied to elements of the list, and returns () when it's done traversing the list.

Manipulating the local context #

Our next goal is to be able to use and create assumptions in the local context. We will write a tactic that produces a new assumption by adding two known equalities (or failing miserably if this operation doesn't make sense). At first the names of thoses two equalities will be stupidly hardwired in our tactic. So we want a tactic performing the first line in the following proof.

example (a b j k : ) (h₁ : a = b) (h₂ : j = k) :
  a + j = b + k :=
  have := congr (congr_arg has_add.add h₁) h₂,
  exact this

The first new concept we need is that of a name. In order to allow for namespace management, names in Lean are actually defined as an inductive type, in core library meta/name.lean. Manipulating its constructors is not convenient, so we use instead the backtick notation (this is the first of many uses of backticks in tactic writing). Actually we already did that when discussing the add_interactive command at the very beginning. Accessing an item of the local context by its name is done by tactic.get_local. The next new piece we need is tactic.interactive.«have» which will create our new context item. Its weird name works around the fact that have is a keyword, hence not a valid name. It takes two optional arguments that we ignore for now, and a pre-expression which is a proof of our new item. Such a pre-expression is constructed using the double-backtick-parenthesis notation: ``(...). Inside such a construction, previously assigned expressions are accessed using the anti-quotation prefix %%. This syntax is very close to the pattern matching syntax we saw above (but different).

open tactic.interactive («have»)
open tactic (get_local infer_type)

meta def tactic.interactive.add_eq_h₁_h₂ : tactic unit :=
do e1  get_local `h₁,
   e2  get_local `h₂,
   «have» none none ``(_root_.congr (congr_arg has_add.add %%e1) %%e2)

example (a b j k : ) (h₁ : a = b) (h₂ : j = k) :
  a + j = b + k :=
  exact this

A last remark about the above tactic: the names `h₁ and `h₂ are resolved when the tactic is executed. In order to trigger name resolution when the tactic is parsed, one should use double-backtick, as in ``h₁. Of course in the above context, that would trigger an error since nothing named h₁ is in sight at tactic parsing time. But it can be useful in other cases.

Tactic arguments parsing #

Parsing identifiers #

Obviously the previous tactic is useless if the assumption names are hardwired. So we replace it by:

open interactive (parse)
open lean.parser (ident)

meta def tactic.interactive.add_eq (h1 : parse ident) (h2 : parse ident) : tactic unit :=
do e1  get_local h1,
   e2  get_local h2,
   «have» none none ``(_root_.congr (congr_arg has_add.add %%e1) %%e2)

The arguments h1 and h2 tell lean to parse identifiers. There is quite a bit of trickery going one here. The Lean parser sees parse left of colon, so it knows it must do some argument parsing, but then the resulting type is nothing but a name, as demonstrated below.

meta example : (parse ident) = name := rfl

Parsing optional arguments and using tokens #

The next improvement to this tactic offers the opportunity to name the new local assumption (which is currently named this). Such names are traditionally introduced by the token with, followed by the desired identifier. The "followed by" is expressed by the seq_right combinator (there is again a monad lurking here), with notation *>. Parsing a token is introduced by followed by a string which must be taken from a predetermined list (the initial value of this list can be found in Lean source code, in frontends/lean/token_table.cpp, elements are added to this list when literals are used in notation, infix, or precedence). And then the combination is wrapped into optional to make it optional. The term h we get below has then type option name and can be passed as the first argument of «have», which will use it if provided, and otherwise use the name this.

open lean.parser (tk)
meta def tactic.interactive.add_eq' (h1 : parse ident) (h2 : parse ident)
  (h : parse (optional (tk "with" *> ident))) : tactic unit :=
do e1  get_local h1,
   e2  get_local h2,
   «have» h none ``(_root_.congr (congr_arg has_add.add %%e1) %%e2)

example (m a b c j k : ) (Hj : a = b) (Hk : j = k) :
  a + j = b + k :=
  add_eq' Hj Hk with new,
  exact new

Parsing locations and expressions #

Our next tactic multiplies from the left an equality by a given expression (or fails if this operation wouldn't make sense). We want to mechanize the following proof.

example (a b c : ) (hyp : a = b) : c*a = c*b :=
  replace hyp := congr_arg (λ x, c*x) hyp,
  exact hyp

The main new skills here consist in indicating at what location we want to act, using the traditional token at, and passing an expression to the tactic. Locations are defined in the core library meta/interactive_base.lean as an inductive type having two constructors: wildcard which indicates all locations, and loc.ns which takes a list (option name), where none in the option name means the current goal, whereas some n means the thing named n in the local context. In our case we will pattern-match on the parsed location and reject everything except specifying a single name from the local context. The second new piece is how to parse a user-provided expression. The relevant parser is interactive.types.texpr, whose result is converted to an actual expression using tactic.i_to_expr. This is also the opportunity for our first serious use of pattern matching assignment, and for using the second optional argument of «have» which is the expected type (otherwise we would get unapplied multiplication, with an explicit lambda, try it!).

open interactive (loc.ns)
open interactive.types (texpr location)
meta def tactic.interactive.mul_left (q : parse texpr) : parse location  tactic unit
| (loc.ns [some h]) := do
   e  tactic.i_to_expr q,
   H  get_local h,
   `(%%l = %%r)  infer_type H,
   «have» h ``(%%e*%%l = %%e*%%r) ``(congr_arg (λ x, %%e*x) %%H),
   tactic.clear H
| _ := "mul_left takes exactly one location"

example (a b c : ) (hyp : a = b) : c*a = c*b :=
  mul_left c at hyp,
  exact hyp

As a last refinement, let us make a version of this tactic which names the multiplied equality by appending .mul, and optionally removes the original one if the tactic name is followed by !. This is the opportunity to use when which is the monadic version of ite (with else branch doing nothing). See control/combinators.lean in core library for other variations on this idea.

meta def tactic.interactive.mul_left_bis (clear_hyp : parse (optional $ tk "!")) (q : parse texpr) :
parse location  tactic unit
| (loc.ns [some h]) := do
   e  tactic.i_to_expr q,
   H  get_local h,
   `(%%l = %%r)  infer_type H,
   «have» (H.local_pp_name ++ "mul" : name) ``(%%e*%%l = %%e*%%r) ``(congr_arg (λ x, %%e*x) %%H),
   when clear_hyp.is_some (tactic.clear H)
| _ := "mul_left_bis takes exactly one location"

What to read now? #

This is the end of this tutorial (although there are two cheat sheets below). If you want to learn more, you can read the definitions of tactics in either the core library or mathlib, see what you can understand, and ask specific questions on Zulip. For more theory, especially a proper explanation of monads, you can read Programming in Lean, but the actual tactic writing part is not up to date. The official documentation of the tactic framework is the paper A Metaprogramming Framework for Formal Verification.

Mario's backtick cheat sheet #

This section is a direct compilation of messages from Mario on Zulip.

Also worth mentioning are expr pattern matches, which have the same syntax like `(%%a + %%b). These can be used in the pattern position of a match or on the left side of a in do notation, and will destruct an expression and bind the antiquoted variables. For example, if e is an expression then do `(%%a = %%b) ← return e, ... will check that e is an equality, and bind the LHS and RHS to a and b (of type expr), and if it is not an equality the tactic will fail.

(It's worth noting that this sort of pattern matching works at a syntactic level. Sometimes it is more flexible to use unification, instead.)

Mario's monadic symbols cheat sheet #

All functions and notations from the list below apply to more general monads than tactic, so they are listed in a generic form but, for the purposes of this tutorial m is always tactic (or lean.parser). Although everything can be done with the symbols introduced in this tutorials, more esoteric symbols allow to compress code, and understanding them is useful for reading available tactics.