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0.9.4 • Public • Published

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Variant types (a.k.a. Discriminated Unions) in TypeScript.

Variant is a set of tools for describing and working with flexible domain models. I want to express type hierarchies that I can dispatch on at runtime that still have compile time information that typescript can use to automatically narrow the types at compile. I don't want to have to cast, write my own user defined type guards, or repeat a string literal without having autocomplete and type safety to guide me. I want nominal types to express that this object with the same structure of another are actually different things.

Enter this library.

npm i -S @paarth/variant

This is useful for protocol message processing, action creators, domain driven design, and general type fuckery. A redux-specific example is available here.


Let's use variant to describe a domain — Animals.

import variant, {variantList, VariantOf, fields, TypeNames} from '@paarth/variant';
const Animal = variantList([
    variant('dog', fields<{name: string, favoriteBall?: string}>()),
    variant('cat', fields<{name: string, daysSinceDamage: number}>()),
    variant('snake', (name: string, patternName?: string) => ({
        pattern: patternName ?? 'striped',
type Animal<T extends TypeNames<typeof Animal> = undefined> = VariantOf<typeof Animal, T>;

compare this to raw discriminated unions:

// vanilla typescript
const DOG_TYPE = 'dog';
const CAT_TYPE = 'cat';
const SNAKE_TYPE = 'snake';
function dog(name: string, favoriteBall?: string) {
    return {
        type: DOG_TYPE as typeof DOG_TYPE,
const cat = (name: string, daysSinceDamage: number) => ({
    type: CAT_TYPE as typeof CAT_TYPE,
const snake = (name: string, patternName?: string) => ({
    type: SNAKE_TYPE as typeof SNAKE_TYPE,
    pattern: patternName ?? 'striped',
type Animal = 
    | ReturnType<typeof dog>
    | ReturnType<typeof cat>
    | ReturnType<typeof snake>;

Both methods result in the following union type:

The union type 'Animal'

and using the created variant Animal looks something like...

import {Animal} from '...';
const snek = Animal.snake('steve');
const describeSnake = (snake: Animal<'snake'>) => {...}
const describeAnimal = (animal: Animal) => {...}


We can now process the union using match, an alternative to the switch statement. See test examples.

import {match} from '@paarth/variant';
const describeAnimal = (animal: Animal) => match(animal, {
    cat: ({name}) => `${name} is sleeping on a sunlit window sill.`,
    dog: ({name, favoriteBall}) => [
        `${name} is on the rug`,
        favoriteBall ? `nuzzling a ${favoriteBall} ball.` : '.' 
    ].join(' '),
    snake: s => `Hi ${s.name}, your ${s.pattern} skin looks nice today.`,

match is...

  • exhaustive by default. If you only need to handle some cases, use partialMatch.
  • pure TypeScript. This will work on any valid discriminated union, whether or not it was made with variant.
  • well typed. match's return type is the union of the return types of all the potential handler functions. partialMatch does the same but adds undefined to the union.
  • familiar. It's meant to imitate the OCaml / Reason ML match statement.
  • flexible. By default match switches on the type property which can be overridden using the function's optional third paramater.


If you don't need to perform any actions or use any of the union's data, use lookup.

import {lookup} from '@paarth/variant';
const cuteName = lookup(animal, {
    cat: 'kitty',
    dog: 'pupper',
    snake: 'snek',

The above notes on match also apply to lookup

Variant Cheat Sheet

  • Import: import {Animal} from '...';
  • Create snake: Animal.snake('steve');
  • Snake Type: Animal<'snake'>
  • Union Type: Animal

Let's say you use Redux

Compare to the official redux example.

// actions.ts 
import variant, {variantList, VariantOf, TypeNames, fields, payload, strEnum} from '@paarth/variant';
let nextTodoId = 0;
export const Action = variantList([
    variant('addTodo', (text: string) => ({
        id: nextTodoId++,
    variant('toggleTodo', fields<{id: number}>()),
    variant('setVisibilityFilter', payload<VisibilityFilters>()), 
export type Action<T extends TypeNames<typeof Action> = undefined> = VariantOf<typeof Action, T>;
export const VisibilityFilters = strEnum([
export type VisibilityFilters = keyof typeof VisibilityFilters;

Compare the following reducer to the official redux example reducer.

// reducers/todos.ts
import {match} from '@paarth/variant';
const todos = (state = [] as Todo[], action: Action) => {
    return match(action, {
        addTodo: ({id, text}) => [
                completed: false,
        toggleTodo: ({id}) => state.map(todo => todo.id === id ? {...todo, completed: !todo.completed} : todo),
        setVisibilityFilter: () => state,



Calling variant with a given type name returns a tag constructor (a.k.a. action creator) for that type.

import variant from '@paarth/variant';
const toggleTodo = variant('TOGGLE_TODO');
const action = toggleTodo(); 
// typeof action: { type: 'TOGGLE_TODO' }

But if we're toggling a todo we probably need to identify which one. To start doing something interesting we essentially provide variant with what the constructor function should take in and do. We do this like any old function, variant wraps our function and takes care of the housekeeping of merging in the { type: 'TOGGLE_TODO }' property to whatever we return.

import variant from '@paarth/variant';
const toggleTodo = variant('TOGGLE_TODO', (id: number) => ({id}));
const action = toggleTodo(4); 
// typeof action: { type: 'TOGGLE_TODO', id: number }
console.log(action); // { type: 'TOGGLE_TODO', id: 4 }

Once we add a few fields our parameters will start to lose meaning. Passing in an object is more or less how javascript handles named parameters. To easily describe such constructors, use the fields<T>() helper function.

import variant, {fields} from '@paarth/variant';
const toggleTodo = variant('TOGGLE_TODO', fields<{id: number}>());
const action = toggleTodo({id: 4}); 
// typeof action: { type: 'TOGGLE_TODO', id: number }
console.log(action); // { type: 'TOGGLE_TODO', id: 4 }

When only one property is required or FSA compliance is desired, the payload<T>() helper function is available.

import variant, {payload} from '@paarth/variant';
const toggleTodo = variant('TOGGLE_TODO', payload<number>());
const action = toggleTodo(4); 
// typeof action: { type: 'TOGGLE_TODO', payload: number }
console.log(action); // { type: 'TOGGLE_TODO', payload: 4 }

When deciding on payload vs. fields consider whether the name of the tag is so self descriptive its obvious what the intended payload would be.

See more test examples.


Getting to the "Algebra" of algebraic data types, variants can be mixed and matched in a number of ways. If you have a functional programming background, variant() is a factory function to generate tag constructors of polymorphic variants. If you don't have a functional programming background, ignore that sentence. variant() describes one shape your data may take, but we want to understand the options.

To make that as easy as possible, try variantList([ ... ]).

export const MediaFile = variantList([
    variant('image', fields<{src: string}>(),
    variant('video', fields<{src: string, duration: number}>()),

If you'd prefer not to use that, no problem. Use an object.

export const MediaFile = {
    image: variant('image', fields<{src: string}>(),
    videovariant('video', fields<{src: string, duration: number}>()),

Either way, follow up with this type

export type MediaFile<T extends TypeNames<typeof MediaFile> = undefined> = VariantOf<typeof MediaFile, T>;

The line does two main things.

  1. It takes place of this tedious mess:

    export type Action = 
        | Action.addTodo
        | Action.toggleTodo
        | Action.setVisibilityFilter

    and will automatically update.

  2. It provides a way to access subtypes easily. MediaFile<'image'> refers to { type: 'image', src: string }.


Here is a VS Code snippet to make following this pattern very easy.

        "prefix": ["variant-module", "vm"],
        "body": [
            "export const $1 = variantList([",
            "    $2",
            "export type $1<T extends TypeNames<typeof $1> = undefined> = VariantOf<typeof $1, T>;",
        "description": "Initialize a module for variants"

Casting and Narrowing

Let's say you have an animal: Animal and you're sure it's a snake or you only care about it if it's a snake. Here are a couple of shortcuts to help with that.

If you're sure it's a snake, use cast.

const snake = cast(animal, 'snake'); // typeof snake === Animal<'snake'>;

The second property will only allow valid keys of animal.

Yes this is equivalent to const snake = animal as Animal<'snake'> but is cleaner in a useSelector call. Imagine state.view is a variant of menu states like Game, Settings, About, MainMenu.

// settingsPage.tsx
const graphicsSettings = useSelector((state: RootState) => cast(state.view, 'Settings').graphics);

If you're not sure it's a snake, try to narrow it.

const snake = narrow(animal, 'snake'); // typeof snake === (Animal<'snake'> | undefined);

Like before, the second property can only be a valid key of Animal. If animal is in fact a snake you get it back. If not, you get undefined. This works very well with the optional chaining operator in TypeScript. Especially when you get a deeper object in the tree.

Yes this is equivalent to const snake = partialMatch(animal, {snake: s => s}); but it's way more readable. It's also clearer in a useSelector call.

// settingsPage.tsx
const graphicsSettings = useSelector((state: RootState) => 
    narrow(state.view, 'Settings')?.graphics ?? DEFAULT_GRAPHICS_SETTINGS);



Object literals and custom keys

By default lookup and match expect to dispatch on the type property. To override this behavior, pass the key the function should care about as a third optional parameter. Using shorthand property names in an object literal, you get this pretty clean syntax.

declare var filter: VisibilityFilters; // 'SHOW_ALL' | 'SHOW_COMPLETED' | 'SHOW_ACTIVE'
const filterLabel = lookup({filter}, {
    SHOW_ALL: 'Show All',
    SHOW_COMPLETED: 'Show Completed',
    SHOW_ACTIVE: 'Show Active',
}, 'filter');

Partial match and lookup

If you only need to act on some possibilities and not others, use the partial* versions of each of these functions.

import {partialLookup} from '@paarth/variant';
declare var action: Action;
const description = partialLookup(action, {
    addTodo: 'Add a new todo item.',
}) ?? 'Who the hell knows.';

partialLookup and partialMatch behave like their emotionally fulfilled counterparts except they do not require all properties (autocomplete still works) and may return undefined. This dovetails nicely with TypeScript 3.7's Nullish Coalescing [??] operator to provide a natural way of providing a default value and removing undefined from the potential results of a partialLookup or partialMatch.

Or maybe take advantage of the fact that partial returns a nullish value to conditionally render a component

// setup
import {MediaFile} from '../earlier';
// component
export const Preview: React.FC<{media: MediaFile}>({media}) => {
    return (
                <li>src: {media.src}</li>
                {partialMatch(media, {
                    video: ({duration}=> <li>duration: {duration}</li>

Using an existing lookup table

This mapping can be created ahead of time.

import {lookup, Lookup} from '@paarth/variant';
declare var action: Action;
const actionDescriptions: Lookup<Actions> = {
    addTodo: 'Add a new todo item.',
    toggleTodo: 'Toggle completion status.',
    setVisibilityFilter: 'Filter visible todos.',
const description = lookup(action, actionDescriptions);

The equivalent type for match and partialMatch is Handler<T>.

Partial versions have a very similar story.

import {partialLookup, Lookup} from '@paarth/variant';
declare var action: Action;
const actionDescriptions: Partial<Lookup<Actions>> = {
    addTodo: 'Add a new todo item.',
const description = partialLookup(action, actionDescriptions) ?? 'Who the hell knows.';


Typescript has a structural type system. This is useful in many different ways but there are some cases where it falls short. Sometimes you will have two objects that have the same structure but don't mean or do the same thing. Nominal typing instead uses explicit type relationships to evaluate assignability. Sometimes that's real darn useful. Enter type UserId = Nominal<number, 'userId'>. Sometimes teammates would conflate a user's ID with the session used to reference the user in the active users collection. Making these different types resolved this issue.

Nominal typing in action;

Under the hood this claims a symbol exists on the first type parameter (it does not. This is purely at compile time).

Nominals are purely compile time tagged types. Variants are full blown run time switchable objects. They work together really well. Using variants with nominally typed identity fields is pretty swag. Being able to distinguish a Guid from a name at a type level feels great.

How does it work?

This needs to be fleshed out. For now, here's a quick rundown

  • You create an instance of a variant by calling one of its tag constructors (the Actions.addTodo() function is the tag constructor (redux folks, think action creators))
  • the variant function is a factory function to generate tag constructors.
    • It takes in a type string and a function that handles the logic of creating an object based on inputs.
    • The object gets the type property merged into it, the compiler gets updated type info.
    • So variant('STR', (...args: Params) => ReturnVal); gives you a function with the signature (...args: Params) => ReturnVal & {type: 'STR'}.
  • Now these constructors need to be grouped together to be meaningful in context.
    • Well, an object works. And it totally does, see the Q&A at the bottom. But if you don't have a meaningful reason to distinguish the name of the action creator from the type value of the object it generates then it feels slightly tedious.
    • Enter variantList, which just takes an array and turns it into an object by extracting the type from each variant and using it as the property name.
  • The VariantsOf<T> type extracts out the action creator return types (so the type Actions['addTodo'] describes the resulting object's interface, not the function that created it)
  • The OneOf<T> type is essentually Values<T>. Given an object it will generate the union of the types of the values of said object.

Q & A

How can I work with variants across multiple files?

Variants can be easily manipulated. You destructure one like any other object.

const {addTodo, completeTodo} = Actions;

Here's an example of creating multiple "subsets" of a variant by merging select values together.

// Assume a variant called 'Attributes' up above that acts as the master list.
const FileAttributes = variantList([
type FileAttributes = VariantsOf<typeof MovieAttributes>;
const MovieAttributes = variantList([
type MovieAttributes = VariantsOf<typeof MovieAttributes>;

I find this to be very helpful in organizing large quantities of subtypes.

It will also help manage more modular reducers. I can write a reducer like this and I will satisfy exhaustiveness checking as soon as I handle all the possibilities in the subtype alone.

I could just as easily construct the merged object

export const Attributes = {
export type Attributes = VariantsOf<typeof Attributes>

Do I have to use the type property?

No. Use whatever you like. The library is built with type as a default for usability but every type and function that matters has a parameter that allows you to override the type parameter it looks at. You can even create your own version of the variant function that uses a different property name by calling variantFactory('name') where name is whatever the discriminating property is.

How can I make sure I haven't forgotten a case?

A simple way would be to use match. However TypeScript's own switch function is certainly up to the task. To do so add the following line to your switch statement.

import {exhaust} from '@paarth/variant'; 
// ...
    defaultreturn exhaust(action);
// ...

What if I want my variants to have different type values than variable names?

No problem. Don't use the variantList helper and just make an object:

export const Actions = {
    addTodo: variant('ADD_TODO ', (text: string) => ({
        id: nextTodoId++,
    toggleTodo: variant('TOGGLE_TODO', fields<{id: number}>()),
    setVisibilityFilter: variant('SET_VISIBILITY_FILTER', payload<VisibilityFilters>()), 

What if I want them at the top level?

Also not a problem.

export const addTodo = variant('ADD_TODO ', (text: string) => ({
    id: nextTodoId++,
export const toggleTodo = variant('TOGGLE_TODO', fields<{id: number}>());
export const setVisibilityFilter = variant('SET_VISIBILITY_FILTER', payload<VisibilityFilters>());

Can I match on a strEnum?

Yes, use matchLiteral instead of match.

const things = strEnum([
type things = keyof typeof things;
const handleThing = (thing: things) => matchLiteral(thing, {
    a: _ => 1,
    b: b => b,
    c: _ => '3',


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