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Union Types

Sometimes it’s useful to create a type which is one of a set of other types. For example, you might want to write a function which accepts a set of primitive value types. For this Flow supports union types.

// @flow
function toStringPrimitives(value: number | boolean | string) {
  return String(value);
}

toStringPrimitives(1);       // Works!
toStringPrimitives(true);    // Works!
toStringPrimitives('three'); // Works!

// $ExpectError
toStringPrimitives({ prop: 'val' }); // Error!
// $ExpectError
toStringPrimitives([1, 2, 3, 4, 5]); // Error!

Union type syntax

Union types are any number of types which are joined by a vertical bar |.

Type1 | Type2 | ... | TypeN

You may also add a leading vertical bar which is useful when breaking union types onto multiple lines.

type Foo =
  | Type1
  | Type2
  | ...
  | TypeN

Each of the members of a union type can be any type, even another union type.

type Numbers = 1 | 2;
type Colors = 'red' | 'blue'

type Fish = Numbers | Colors;

Union types requires one in, but all out

When calling our function that accepts a union type we must pass in one of those types. But inside of our function we are required to handle all of the possible types*.

Let’s rewrite our function to handle each type individually.

// @flow
// $ExpectError
function toStringPrimitives(value: number | boolean | string): string { // Error!
  if (typeof value === 'number') {
    return String(value);
  } else if (typeof value === 'boolean') {
    return String(value);
  }
}

You’ll notice that if we do not handle each possible type of our value, Flow will give us an error.

Unions & Refinements

When you have a value which is a union type it’s often useful to break it apart and handle each individual type separately. With union types in Flow you can “refine” the value down to a single type.

For example, if we have a value with a union type that is a number, a boolean, or a string, we can treat the number case separately by using JavaScript’s typeof operator.

// @flow
function toStringPrimitives(value: number | boolean | string) {
  if (typeof value === 'number') {
    return value.toLocaleString([], { maximumSignificantDigits: 3 }); // Works!
  }
  // ...
}

By checking the typeof our value and testing to see if it is a number, Flow knows that inside of that block it is only a number. We can then write code which treats our value as a number inside of that block.

Disjoint Unions

There’s a special type of union in Flow known as a “disjoint union” which can be used in refinements. These disjoint unions are made up of any number of object types which are each tagged by a single property.

For example, imagine we have a function for handling a response from a server after we’ve sent it a request. When the request is successful, we’ll get back an object with a success property which is true and a value that we’ve updated.

{ success: true, value: false };

When the request fails, we’ll get back an object with success set to false and an error property describing the error.

{ success: false, error: 'Bad request' };

We can try to express both of these objects in a single object type. However, we’ll quickly run into issues where we know a property exists based on the success property but Flow does not.

// @flow
type Response = {
  success: boolean,
  value?: boolean,
  error?: string
};

function handleResponse(response: Response) {
  if (response.success) {
    // $ExpectError
    var value: boolean = response.value; // Error!
  } else {
    // $ExpectError
    var error: string = response.error; // Error!
  }
}

Trying to combine these two separate types into a single one will only cause us trouble.

Instead, if we create a union type of both object types, Flow will be able to know which object we’re using based on the success property.

// @flow
type Success = { success: true, value: boolean };
type Failed  = { success: false, error: string };

type Response = Success | Failed;

function handleResponse(response: Response) {
  if (response.success) {
    var value: boolean = response.value; // Works!
  } else {
    var error: string = response.error; // Works!
  }
}

Disjoint unions with exact types

Disjoint unions require you to use a single property to distinguish each object type. You cannot distinguish two different objects by different properties.

// @flow
type Success = { success: true, value: boolean };
type Failed  = { error: true, message: string };

function handleResponse(response:  Success | Failed) {
  if (response.success) {
    // $ExpectError
    var value: boolean = response.value; // Error!
  }
}

This is because in Flow it is okay to pass an object value with more properties than the object type expects (because of width subtyping).

// @flow
type Success = { success: true, value: boolean };
type Failed  = { error: true, message: string };

function handleResponse(response:  Success | Failed) {
  // ...
}

handleResponse({
  success: true,
  error: true,
  value: true,
  message: 'hi'
});

Unless the objects somehow conflict with one another there is no way to distinguish them.

However, to get around this you could use exact object types.

// @flow
type Success = {| success: true, value: boolean |};
type Failed  = {| error: true, message: string |};

type Response = Success | Failed;

function handleResponse(response: Response) {
  if (response.success) {
    var value: boolean = response.value;
  } else {
    var message: string = response.message;
  }
}

With exact object types, we cannot have additional properties, so the objects conflict with one another and we are able to distinguish which is which.

© 2013–present Facebook Inc.
Licensed under the BSD License.
https://flow.org/en/docs/types/unions