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Ltac 101

We give an overview of my findings about the Ltac language, more precisely how it can be used to automate the construction of proof terms. If you never wrote a tactic in Coq and are curious about the subject, it might be a good starting point.
This write-up (originally published on October 16, 2017) is the first part of a series on Ltac. The next part explains how to mix Gallina and Ltac.
  1. Tactics Aliases
  2. Printing Messages
  3. It Is Just Pattern Matching, Really
  4. Conclusion

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Tactics Aliases

The first thing you will probably want to do with Ltac is define aliases for recurring (sequences of) tactics.
To take a concrete example, the very first tactic I wrote was for a project called SpecCert where many lemmas are basically about proving a given property P is a state invariant of a given transition system. As a consequence, they have the very same “shape”: s   l   s , P ( s ) s l   s P ( s ) \forall s\ l\ s', P(s) \wedge s \overset{l\ }{\mapsto} s' \rightarrow P(s') , that is, if P is satisfied for s, and there exists a transition from s to s', then P is satisfied for s'.
Both states and labels are encoded in record, and the first thing I was doing at the time with them was destructing them. Similarly, the predicate P is an aggregation of sub-predicates (using \wedge ). In practice, most of my proofs started with something like intros [x1 [y1 z1]] [a b] [x2 [y2 z2]] [HP1 [HP2 [HP3 HP4]]] [R1|R2]. Nothing copy/past cannot solve at first, of course, but as soon as the definitions change, you have to change every single intros and it is quite boring, to say the least.
The solution is simple: define a new tactic to use in place of your “raw” intros:

Ltac my_intros_1 :=
  intros [x1 [y1 z1]] [a b] [x2 [y2 z2]] [HP1 [HP2 [HP3 HP4]]] [R1|R2].

As a more concrete example, we consider the following goal:

Goal (forall (P Q : Prop), P /\ Q -> P).

A typical way to move the premises of this statement from the goal to the context is by means of intro, and it is possible to destruct the term p /\ q with a pattern.

  intros P Q [p q].

which leaves the following goal to prove:
  P, Q : Prop
  p : P
  q : Q
Rather than having to remember the exact syntax of the intro-pattern, Coq users can write a specialized tactic.

Ltac and_intro := intros [p q].

and_intro is just another tactic, and therefore is straightforward to use.

  intros P Q.

This leaves the goal to prove in the exact same state as in our previous attempt, which is great because it was exactly the point. However, there is an issue with the and_intro command. To demonstrate it, let us consider a slightly different goal.

Goal (forall (P Q : Prop), P /\ Q -> Q /\ P -> P).

The statement is not very interesting from a logical standpoint, but bear with me while I try to prove it.

  intros P Q.

Again, the goal is as we expect it to be:
  P, Q : Prop
  p : P
  q : Q
  P /\ Q -> P
We still have a premise of the form P /\ Q in the current goal… but at the same time, we also have hypotheses named p and q (the named used by and_intro ) in the context. If we try to use and_intro again, Coq legitimely complains.
p is already used.

To tackle this apparent issue, Ltac provides a mechanic to fetch “fresh” (unused in the current context) names.

Ltac and_intro :=
  let p := fresh "p" in
  let q := fresh "q" in
  intros [p q].

This time, using and_intro several time works fine. In our previous example, the resulting goal is the following:
  P, Q : Prop
  p : P
  q, p0 : Q
  q0 : P
Finally, tactics can take a set of arguments. They can be of various forms, but the most common to my experience is hypothesis name. For instance, we can write a tactic call destruct_and to… well, destruct an hypothesis of type P /\ Q.

Ltac destruct_and H :=
  let p := fresh "p" in
  let q := fresh "q" in
  destruct H as [Hl Hr].

With that, you can already write some very useful tactic aliases. It can save you quite some time when refactoring your definitions, but Ltac is capable of much more.

Printing Messages

One thing that can be useful while writing/debugging a tactic is the ability to print a message. You have to strategies available in Ltac as far as I know: idtac and fail, where idtac does not stop the proof script on an error whereas fail does.

It Is Just Pattern Matching, Really

If you need to remember one thing from this blogpost, it is probably this: Ltac pattern matching features are amazing. That is, you will try to find in your goal and hypotheses relevant terms and sub terms you can work with.
You can pattern match a value as you would do in Gallina, but in Ltac, the pattern match is also capable of more. The first case scenario is when you have a hypothesis name and you want to check its type:

Ltac and_or_destruct H :=
  let Hl := fresh "Hl" in
  let Hr := fresh "Hr" in
  match type of H with
  | _ /\ _
    => destruct H as [Hl Hr]
  | _ \/ _
    => destruct H as [Hl|Hr]

For the following incomplete proof script:

Goal (forall P Q, P /\ Q -> Q \/ P -> True).
  intros P Q H1 H2.
  and_or_destruct H1.
  and_or_destruct H2.

We get two sub goals:
2 subgoals, subgoal 1 (ID 20)

  P, Q : Prop
  Hl : P
  Hr, Hl0 : Q

subgoal 2 (ID 21) is:


We are not limited to constructors with the type of keyword, We can also pattern match using our own definitions. For instance:

Parameter (my_predicate: nat -> Prop).

Ltac and_my_predicate_simpl H :=
  match type of H with
  | my_predicate _ /\ _
    => destruct H as [Hmy_pred _]
  | _ /\ my_predicate _
    => destruct H as [_ Hmy_pred]

Last but not least, it is possible to introspect the current goal of your proof development:

Ltac rewrite_something :=
  match goal with
  | H: ?x = _ |- context[?x]
    => rewrite H

So once again, as an example, the following proof script:

Goal (forall (x :nat) (equ : x = 2), x + 2 = 4).
  intros x equ.

This leaves the following goal to prove:
1 subgoal, subgoal 1 (ID 6)

  x : nat
  Heq : x = 2
  2 + 2 = 4
The rewrite_something tactic will search an equality relation to use to modify your goal. How does it work?
Finally, there is one last thing you really need to know before writing a tactic: the difference between match and lazymatch. Fortunately, it is pretty simple. One the one hand, with match, if one pattern matches, but the branch body fails, Coq will backtrack and try the next branch. On the other hand, lazymatch will stop on error.
So, for instance, the two following tactics will print two different messages:

Ltac match_failure :=
  match goal with
  | [ |- _ ]
    => fail "fail in first branch"
  | _
    => fail "fail in second branch"

Ltac match_failure' :=
  lazymatch goal with
  | [ |- _ ]
    => fail "fail in first branch"
  | _
    => fail "fail in second branch"

We can try that quite easily by starting a dumb goal (eg. Goal (True).) and call our tactic. For match_failure, we get:
Ltac call to "match_failure" failed.
Error: Tactic failure: fail in second branch.
On the other hand, for lazymatch_failure, we get:
Ltac call to "match_failure'" failed.
Error: Tactic failure: fail in first branch.


I were able to tackle my automation needs with these Ltac features. As always with Coq, there is more to learn. For instance, I saw that there is a third kind of pattern match (multimatch) I know nothing about.