Automatic Initialization of Variables

Dafny is a type-safe language, which primarily means that every use of a variable (local variable, parameter, bound variable, object field, or array element) evaluates to a value of the variable’s type. The type checker and verifier together enforce that each value assigned to a variable is indeed a value of that variable’s type. Since the type of a variable never changes, this ensures type safety, provided a variable is assigned before it is used. But what about any uses before then?

If a variable is used before it has been assigned, Dafny still arranges for the variable to be initialized with some value of the variable’s type.1 To accomplish this, the compiler needs to have the ability to emit an expression that produces a value of a given type. This is possible for many, but not all, types.

This document describes for which types the compiler can produce initializing expressions and the mechanism used for doing so.


Dafny supports the following kinds of types:

  • primitive types (int, real, bool, char, bitvectors of any width, and ORDINAL)
  • newtypes (these are distinct numeric types, whose values of mimic those of the given numeric base type, or possibly a subset thereof)
  • possibly-null reference types (classes, arrays of any dimension, traits)
  • type parameters
  • collection types (sets, multisets, sequences, and maps)
  • datatypes and co-datatypes
  • arrow types (first-class function values of any arity)
  • subset types (a subset type of a base type B has a subset of the values of B; this subset is characterized by a constraint on B)

In addition, there are type synonyms (which are just that–synonyms for other types) and opaque types (which cannot be compiled, so they don’t play a role here).


  • nat is a built-in subset type of int
  • string is a built-in type synonym for seq<char>
  • tuple types are built-in datatypes
  • iterators give rise to class types
  • collection types, datatypes, co-datatypes, arrow types, reference types, and subset types can have type parameters
  • every possibly-null reference type R? has a corresponding non-null type R, predefined as the subset type type R = r: R? | r != null
  • every arrow type AA ~> B (partial, heap-reading functions from the list of type AA to the type B) has a built-in subset type AA --> B (partial functions from AA to B), which in turn has a built-in subset AA -> B (total functions from AA to B)

Compilation of types

The compilation of types involves several notions, defined here.

The target type of a Dafny type T is the target-language type used to represent T. The target type may not be unique to one Dafny type; in other words, several Dafny types may compile to the same target type.

type C# target type
int BigInteger
real BigRational
bool bool
char char
bitvectors byte, ushort, uint, ulong, or BigInteger
ORDINAL BigInteger
integer-based newtype bounded C# integer or BigInteger
real-based newtype BigRational
trait Tr interface Tr
class Cl class Cl
array<T>, array2<T>, … T[], T[,], …
type parameter T T
collection type ISet<T>, IMultiset<T>, ISequence<T>, IMap<T, U>
datatype or co-datatype D interface of class D
TT ~> U System.Func<TT, U>
subset type for a base type B B

The compilation of a type may emit some fields and methods that are used at run time. These are emitted into a companion class. In some cases, the companion class is the same as the target type, in some other case the companion class is a separate class, and in other cases there is no companion class at all.

type companion class
int none
real none
bool none
char none
bitvectors none
newtype T T
trait Tr _Companion_Tr
class Cl Cl
array<T>, array2<T>, … none
type parameter T none
collection type Set<T>, Multiset<T>, Sequence<T>, Map<T, U>
datatype or co-datatype D class D
TT ~> U none
subset type T T

Types can have type parameters. For a target language that supports type parameters, each formal type parameter is compiled into a corresponding formal type parameter in the target language, and each actual type argument is compiled to that type’s target type.

Because target types are not unique, the type arguments passed as required by the target language do not carry all information that is needed about the type at run time. Therefore, the Dafny compiler augments the target language’s type parameters by a system of type descriptors. These are described in a section below.

Type descriptors are passed only for type parameters that bear the Dafny type characteristic (0). Such type parameters are called auto-init type parameters.

For inductive datatypes, the compiler uses one more notion of types, namely the used type parameters. This refers to those type parameters that play a role in the creation of a value of the datatype’s “grounding constructor”, explained below.

Auto-init types

A type is called an auto-init type if it is legal for a program to use a variable of that type before the variable has been initialized.

For example, char is an auto-init type. Therefore, the following is a legal program snippet:

var ch: char;
print ch, "\n";  // this uses ch before ch has been explicitly assigned

A compiler is permitted to assign any value to ch, so long as that value is of type char. In fact, the compiler is free to emit code that chooses a different initial value each time this program snippet is encountered at run time. In other words, the language allows the selection of the values to be nondeterministic.

The purpose of this document is to describe how the common compilers implement the auto-init feature. It will be convenient (and, for this particular compiler, accurate) to speak of each type as having a default value. However, please note that this terminology is specific to an implementation of a compiler–the Dafny language itself does not have a notion of specific a “default value” of any type, not even for auto-init types.

Default-valued expressions

To fabricate default values, the compiler emits a default-valued expression. A default-valued expression is simply an expression that evaluates to a default value for the type.

type default-valued expression
int BigInteger.Zero
real BigRational.ZERO
bool false
char D
bitvectors 0 or BigInteger.Zero
ORDINAL BigInteger.Zero
integer-based newtype without witness clause same as for base type, cast appropriately
real-based newtype without witness clause same as for base type, cast appropriately
newtype NT with witness clause NT.Witness
possibly-null reference types null
non-null array types empty array of the appropriate type
type parameter T td_T.Default()
collection type C<TT> C<TT>.Empty
datatype or co-datatype D<TT> D<TT>.Default(E, ...)
TT ~> U null
TT --> U null
subset type without witness clause same as for base type
subset type S<TT> with witness clause S<TT>.Default()

Other types do not have default-valued expressions.

Here are some additional explanations of the table:

Subset types

In a subset type with a witness clause, like

type S<TT> = x: B | E witness W

the witness is used as the default value. It is returned by the Default() method that is emitted in the companion class of the subset type:

public static B Default() {
  return W;

If the subset type has no type parameters, then the witness is pre-computed and reused:

private static readonly B Witness = W;
public static B Default() {
  return Witness;

Note that a witness is used as the default value only if the type has a witness clause; if the type has no witness clause or if it has a ghost witness clause, then the default expression is that of the base type.


As for subset types, when a newtype has a witness clause, the witness expression is used as the default value of the type. However, since a newtype does not have any type parameters, the value is always pre-computed into a (public) Witness field, and that field is used as the default-valued valued expression of the type. That is, no Default() method is generated.

public static readonly B Witness = W;


Each datatype and co-datatype has a grounding constructor. For a datatype, the grounding constructor is selected when the resolver ascertains that the datatype is nonempty. For a codatatype, the selection of the grounding constructor lacks sophistication–it is just the first of the given constructors.

If the datatype is not an auto-init type, then there’s nothing more to say about its default value. If it is an auto-init type, then the following explanations apply.

The default value of a (co-)datatype is this grounding constructor, called with values for its parameters:

DT<TT>.create_GroundingCtor(E, ...)

This value is produced by the Default(...) method emitted by the compiler into the type’s companion class:

public static DT<TT> Default(T e, ...) {
  return create_GroundingCtor(E, ...);

The parameters to this Default method are the default values for each of the type parameters used by the grounding constructor.

If the (co-)datatype has no type parameters (note: that is, no type parameters at all–the “used parameters” are not involved here), then the default value is pre-computed and reused:

private readonly DT _Default = create_GroundingCtor();
public static DT Default() {
  return _Default;

Type parameters

If a type parameter T is an auto-init type parameter (that is, if it has been declared with the (0) type characteristic), then the context in the target code will contain a parameter or field named td_T. This is the type descriptor associated with T, as described in the next section, and calling Default() on it yields a value of the type that T stands for.

Type descriptors

To obtain default values of certain type parameters, the compiler emits run-time type descriptors (or just type descriptors for short). A type descriptor has the ability to produce a default value for the type that the type parameter represents.

public class TypeDescriptor<T>
  private readonly T initValue;
  public TypeDescriptor(T initValue) {
    this.initValue = initValue;
  public T Default() {
    return initValue;

For example, consider a Dafny program where G is a type parameter that represents an auto-init type. For an uninitialized local variable of type G, the compiler will assign the default value


where td_G is type descriptor for G. (More on where td_G comes from below.)

The following table shows the type descriptors for the various types:

type type descriptor
int Dafny.Helpers.INT
real Dafny.Helpers.REAL
bool Dafny.Helpers.BOOL
char Dafny.Helpers.CHAR
bitvectors Dafny.Helpers.{UINT8, UINT16, UINT32, UINT64, INT}
ORDINAL Dafny.Helpers.INT
newtype NT NT._TypeDescriptor()
possibly-null reference type T Dafny.Helpers.NULL<T>()
type parameter T td_T
collection type C<TT> C<TT>._TypeDescriptor()
datatype or co-datatype D D._TypeDescriptor(typeDescriptors, ...)
arrow type T Dafny.Helpers.NULL<T>()
subset type S D._TypeDescriptor(typeDescriptors, ...)

Primitive types

The type descriptors for primitive types are defined in the Dafny.Helpers class:

public static readonly TypeDescriptor<bool> BOOL = new TypeDescriptor<bool>(false);
public static readonly TypeDescriptor<char> CHAR = new TypeDescriptor<char>('D');
public static readonly TypeDescriptor<BigInteger> INT = new TypeDescriptor<BigInteger>(BigInteger.Zero);
public static readonly TypeDescriptor<BigRational> REAL = new TypeDescriptor<BigRational>(BigRational.ZERO);

public static readonly TypeDescriptor<byte> UINT8 = new TypeDescriptor<byte>(0);
public static readonly TypeDescriptor<ushort> UINT16 = new TypeDescriptor<ushort>(0);
public static readonly TypeDescriptor<uint> UINT32 = new TypeDescriptor<uint>(0);
public static readonly TypeDescriptor<ulong> UINT64 = new TypeDescriptor<ulong>(0);


The type descriptor for a newtype NT is given by the static _TypeDescriptor method that the compiler emits into the companion class for NT.

private static readonly Dafny.TypeDescriptor<B> _TYPE = new Dafny.TypeDescriptor<B>(Dve);
public static Dafny.TypeDescriptor<B> _TypeDescriptor() {
  return _TYPE;

where B is the target type of NT, and Dve is the default-valued expression for NT (Witness or some form of 0 or 0.0).

Reference types

The type descriptor for possibly-null reference types is given by the following method in Dafny.Helpers:

public static TypeDescriptor<T> NULL<T>() where T : class {
  return new TypeDescriptor<T>(null);

Collection types

Type descriptors for collection types are provided by the _TypeDescriptor() method in the type’s companion class. In each case, the quantity returned is a value computed once and for all into a static field.

For each collection class (for example, set<T>), the companion class (Set<T> for set<T>) contains the following field and method:

private static readonly TypeDescriptor<B> _TYPE = new Dafny.TypeDescriptor<B>(Empty);
public static TypeDescriptor<B> _TypeDescriptor() {
  return _TYPE;

where B denotes the target type of the collection type (ISet<T> for set<T>).

Datatypes and co-datatypes

For any (co-)datatype D<TT>, the companion class for D<TT> declares:

public static Dafny.TypeDescriptor<D<TT>> _TypeDescriptor(Dafny.TypeDescriptor<T> _td_T, ...) {
  return new Dafny.TypeDescriptor<D<TT>>(Default(_td_T, ...));

where the list of type parameters denoted by T, ... are the auto-init type parameters from TT.

Subset types

The companion class of a subset type S<TT> contains a method _TypeDescriptor that returns a type descriptor for S<TT>.

public static Dafny.TypeDescriptor<B> _TypeDescriptor(TypeDescriptor<T> td_T, ...) {
  return new Dafny.TypeDescriptor<B>(Dve);

where the list of type parameters denoted by T, ... consists of the auto-init type parameters from TT, B is the target type of S<TT>, and Dve is the default-valued expression for S<TT>.

If S has no type parameters, then the value returned by _TypeDescriptor is pre-computed and reused:

private static readonly Dafny.TypeDescriptor<B> _TYPE = new Dafny.TypeDescriptor<B>(Dve);
public static Dafny.TypeDescriptor<B> _TypeDescriptor() {
  return _TYPE;

Type parameters

Finally, type parameters. These are the most involved. For each formal auto-init type parameter T, there is an associated type descriptor named td_T (of type Dafny.TypeDescriptor<T>). What exactly td_T is depends on both the parent declaration of T and the context of use.

Type parameters of a method or function

If T is a type parameter of a method or function, then td_T is simply an additional parameter to the method or function.

For example, a method method M<T(0)>(x: int) is compiled into

void M<T>(Dafny.TypeDescriptor<T> td_T, BigInteger x)

Type parameters of a class

If T is a type parameter of a class, then td_T is a field of the target type. Its value is given by a parameter to the target-type constructor.

For example, for

class Cl<T(0)> {
  constructor Init(x: int) { ... }

the target type will be

class Cl<T> {
  private Dafny.TypeDescriptor<T> td_T;
  public Cl(Dafny.TypeDescriptor<T> td_T) {
    this.td_T = td_T;
  public void Init(x: BigInteger) { ... }

Type parameters of a trait

To obtain type descriptors in function and method implementations that are given in a trait, the function or method definition compiled into the companion class takes additional parameters that represent type descriptors for the type parameters of the trait.

Type parameter of a class or trait used in a static method or function

In C#, the type parameters of a class are available in static methods. However, any type descriptors of the class are stored in instance fields, since the target types are not unique. The instance fields are not available in static methods, so the static methods need to take the type descriptors as parameters.

For example, the class

class Class<A(0)> {
  static method M(x: int)

is compiled into

class Class<A> {
  Dafny.TypeDescriptor<A> td_A;
  static method M(Dafny.TypeDescriptor<A> td_A, BigInteger x)

Type parameter of a newtype or (co-)datatype

If T is a type parameter of a (co-)datatype, then the target code for any function or method takes additional parameters that represent type descriptors for the type parameters of the enclosing type.

Type parameters and type descriptors for each type

In the following table, the rows show instance and static members (const/function/method) of the types that support members. The type is shown with a type parameter A(0) (except newtype, which doesn’t take any type parameters). Each member is also shown with a type parameter B(0) (except const, which doesn’t take any type parameters).

For some target languages, the target type for traits does not allow implementations. In those cases, the target type has a signature for the member and the implementation is relegated to the companion class. This is reflected in the table by having two rows for instance members of traits.

For each row, the “TP” column shows which of the Dafny type parameters contribute to the type parameters in the target language, and the “TD” column shows which of the Dafny type parameters contribute to the type descriptors in the target code.

If A is missing from a “TP” column, it means that either the type parameter is available from the enclosing type or the target language doesn’t support type parameters. If A is missing from a “TD” column, it means that the type descriptor is available via the receiver this.

                                | C#        | Java      | JavaScript | Go        | TYPE                                | TP  | TD  | TP  | TD  | TP  | TD   | TP  | TD  | ------------------------------------|-----|-----|-----|-----|-----|------|-----|-----| `newtype`   instance member `<B(0)>`          | B   | B   | B   | B   |     | B    |     | B   |   static member `<B(0)>`            | B   | B   | B   | B   |     | B    |     | B   | `datatype<A(0)>`   instance member `<B(0)>`          | B   | A,B | B   | A,B |     | A,B  |     | A,B |   static member `<B(0)>`            | B   | A,B | A,B | A,B |     | A,B  |     | A,B | `trait<A(0)>`   instance member `<B(0)>`          | B   | B   | B   | B   |     | B    |     | B   |   instance member `<B(0)>` rhs/body | B   | A,B | A,B | A,B |     | A,B  |     | A,B |   static member `<B(0)>`            | B   | A,B | A,B | A,B |     | A,B  |     | A,B | `class<A(0)>`   instance member `<B(0)>`          | B   | B   | B   | B   |     | B    |     | B   |   static member `<B(0)>`            | B   | A,B | A,B | A,B |     | A,B  |     | A,B |

*) type descriptors for functions don’t actually seem necessary (but if functions have them, then const’s need them, too)

If the type parameters A and B does not have the (0) characteristic, then it is dropped from the TD column.

This table is implemented in the TypeArgDescriptorUse method in the compiler.

  1. The command-line option /definiteAssignment:3 tells Dafny to instead generate an error if a variable is not assigned by the program.