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Cogent is a restricted, pure, functional language. For example, Cogent is unable to express I/O, memory management, loops or recursions. For this reason, we only write the core functionality in Cogent, which adds up two natural numbers, and check if overflow has happened. To carry the result of the check, we need a result type:

type R a b = < Success a | Error b >

It has similar meaning to a sum type in Haskell (or in any functional language):

data R a b = Success a | Error b

It says that, the result can be either a Success or Error, and in each case you also return the result associated with these tags, namely a and b respectively. Note that R a b is polymorphic on a and b. They can be instantiated to any concrete types.

The difference to the Haskell version is that, the type keyword only introduces a type synonym, which is to say, wherever an R a b is needed, it can be alternatively spelt as < Success a | Error b >, which of course is more verbose in many cases.

Next we define a function add, which has the following type signature:

add : (U32, U32) -> R U32 ()

U32 is an unsigned 32-bit integer; we use it to model natural numbers here. Cogent also has built-in U8, U16 and U64 for other sizes of unsigned integers. A Cogent function only takes one argument. When we want to pass in two U32s, we make them into a pair (or a tuple, more generally).

The full definition of the add function is given below (also includes the previously given type signature):

add : (U32, U32) -> R U32 ()
add (x, y) = let sum = x + y
              in sum < x || sum < y
                 | True -> Error ()
                 | False -> Success sum

Cogent is a layout sensitive language, like Python or Haskell. In this function, it binds the value of x + y to binder sum. In the body of the let-in expression, a pattern match is done on the condition sum < x || sum < y (if sum is less than x or it’s less than y). If this condition is True, then we return an Error (). () is “unit”, the single value of type () (also reads “unit”). If the condition is False, which means that overflow didn’t happen, then we return Success sum, which carries the summation.

That’s pretty much all that we can do in Cogent. We can save the above program in a file called Adder.cogent. For more information about the Cogent language, its syntax and semantics, you can read Cogent Surface Syntax, the Cogent language manual, and a more technical Cogent language reference.

Next we will have to write the C code, which does the things that Cogent cannot do. Cogent code will be compiled to C code, and is always invoked as a subroutine, by a C program. The C programs we write for Cogent are not plain C; they are called antiquoted C (c.f. Antiquoted C).

$esc:(#include <stdio.h>)
$esc:(#include <stdlib.h>)
#include "generated.c"

int main(void){
  $ty:(U32) first_num = 19;
  $ty:(U32) second_num = 2;

  $ty:((U32, U32)) args;
  args.p1 = first_num;
  args.p2 = second_num;

  $ty:(R U32 ()) ret = $exp:add(args);
  if(ret.tag == TAG_ENUM_Success){
    $ty:(U32) sum = ret.Success;
    printf("Sum is %u\n", sum);
    return 0;
  } else {
    printf("Error: Overflow detected.\n");
    return 1;

An antiquoted C file is very similar to a regular C file. The only difference is that you can write antiquotes in the C code. An antiquote is comprised of an antiquote name (e.g. $ty, $exp, $esc, $spec), a colon, and a Cogent snippet enclosed by a pair of parentheses. The purpose of having antiquotes is that you can refer to Cogent types, expressions, etc. without knowing what they get compiled to. In particular, with the current implementation of the Cogent compiler, it’s very difficult to know what C names will be generated. See ticket #322 on GitHub.

Let’s first look at the main function. In line 6, the antiquote $ty:(U32) means that we want to use a U32 (a primitive type in Cogent) equivalent in C. On line 9, it’s similar that we want a pair of two U32s. Note the two pairs of parentheses—the inner one is for the tuple, and the outer one is the antiquotation syntax. Both of them are necessary. The $exp:add antiquote on line 13 is for Cogent expressions, in this case a function name. Strictly speaking, this antiquote is not necessary, as we know that the C name of the Cogent add function is add. However for polymorphic functions, the names of the generated C functions will be slightly different than the Cogent function name, in which case the antiquote is necessary. Another minor syntactic flexibility that can be seen is that, if the antiquoted string is a single identifier starting with a lowercase character, the enclosing parentheses can be omitted.

For more details about antiquoted C in Cogent, see Antiquoted C.

Finally on line 1 of the antiquoted C program, the $esc tells the Cogent compiler not to preprocess the #include. To understand the reason behind it, we need to briefly talk about how antiquoted C is compiled by the Cogent compiler: The compiler tries to parse the antiquoted C files; however, because the syntax of C (or antiquoted C) is context-sensitive, it needs to know what types have already been declared in the program. This requires the antiquoted C files to be preprocessed by cpp, inlining the included files. The C parser that the Cogent compiler uses does not support full GNU extensions, which means if in your included files, unsupported syntax is used (which is very likely to be the case if you include Linux kernel headers, or glibc for example), then the parser will fail. To work around this limitation, the files that contains unsupported features need to be included, but enclosed by a $esc antiquote, so that they won’t be expanded before parsing. A file that includes all the type names declared in these excluded files will be passed to the compiler via a flag --ext-types. We will go through the compiler flags shortly.

On the contrary, Cogent-generated C code can be parsed and should be included by cpp. That’s the code on line 3. The name generated.c is specified by another command-line argument to the compiler, which will be covered later. The Cogent compiler compiles Cogent source code to C; it will generate a .h header file and a .c file. Note that it should be the .c file that’s included, instead of the header file as normal.

We name this antiquoted C file (ac for “antiquoted C”).

At this point we have all the source code that we need. As you should already know, Cogent is a code and proof co-generating compiler. As verification is more involved, we first only focus on the C code generation part.

cogent -g Adder.cogent -o generated \
  --infer-c-funcs="" \
  --cpp-args="\$CPPIN -o \$CPPOUT -P $CFLAGS" \
  --ext-types=types.cfg \

The Cogent compiler comes with hundreds of flags, here we only mention the most important ones. To see the help message, you can run cogent -h . ranges from 0 to 4. is optional, default to 1. The higher the help level, the more options and flags the help message is displayed. In general, the flags that only appear in higher help levels are less important, less stable, or changing the compiler behaviours less significantly.

The compiler has to be called with at least one command. A command indicates what the compiler does, e.g. pretty-prints the core syntax tree, generates C code, generates the Isabelle/HOL embedding of the desugered core language, etc. The compiler can do many things at once. In the command shown above, the -g is the command—it generates C code. What follows is the Cogent source file, Adder.cogent in this example.

All the rest are Cogent flags. A flag controls or fine-tunes how the compiler behaves. Arbitrary number of flags can be given.

-o generated designates the output file name (only the base name is needed), and that’s why we #included "generated.c" earlier in the file.

--infer-c-funcs passes all the .ac files. More than one .ac files can be given, separated by spaces.

The --cpp-args line is the command-line arguments passed to the C preprocessor, by default (GNU) cpp. In the argument line passed to the preprocessor, $CPPIN and $CPPOUT are placeholders that will be replaced by the Cogent compiler with the actual names of the files, as specified by Cogent compiler flags such as -o. Note that the $ is escaped in the Shell command as the dollar sign is part of the placeholders’ names. -P inhibits generation of linemarkers by the preprocessor, which should always be used as the next stage of the compilation doesn’t support linemarkers. $CFLAGS is defined as:


It just contains other standard flags that gcc and cpp demands. Normally -I for search paths, and -std for specific C standards. We use GNU C99. $COGENT_STDLIB points to the directory containing the standard Cogent libraries. The source of the standard library is located in, but it will be installed (i.e. copied) to a build directory depending on how you installed your Cogent compiler. See more information in Cogent Installation Guide. In this example, even no types or functions from the standard library is used, the generated program still needs the definition for the primitive types, which are defined in cogent-defns.h in the $COGENT_STDLIB folder.

--ext-types passes in a file named types.cfg containing a list of externally declared C types. We have explained earlier why a list of types are needed in order to parse C file correctly. In this case there’s no type that are unknown to so the file is empty. Alternatively we can omit this flag and the empty file all together. The file name and its extension is arbitrarily chosen here.

--entry-funcs informs the Cogent compiler which Cogent functions are needed by the .ac files. The Cogent compiler only generates functions designated in the entrypoints.cfg file and their dependencies. Again the name of the file is not of any significance and can be anything. In this example, we have add in the file. The file should be formatted to have one function name per line.

Running this command, you should get a C file called main_pp_inferred.c. The Cogent compiler will first run the C preprocessor and write to a file called It then starts from there, compiling the antiquotes substituting them with appropriate C code snippets, and writing to the final main_pp_inferred.c. To debug antiquotes, it might be worth looking at the file as that’s the one that the Cogent compiler sees and on which it reports line numbers.

At this point, you have a C file (main_pp_inferred.c) which should be compiled by gcc. Although the C code should generally work with other compilers as well (e.g. Clang or CompCert), we only officially support recent versions of GCC.

You can find the complete code for this example in our repository.

Tags: language   functional   native   transpiler  

Last modified 13 January 2024