Traits: Defining Shared Behavior

A trait tells the Rust compiler about functionality a particular type has and can share with other types. We can use traits to define shared behavior in an abstract way. We can use trait bounds to specify that a generic can be any type that has certain behavior.

Note: Traits are similar to a feature often called interfaces in other languages, although with some differences.

Defining a Trait

A type’s behavior consists of the methods we can call on that type. Different types share the same behavior if we can call the same methods on all of those types. Trait definitions are a way to group method signatures together to define a set of behaviors necessary to accomplish some purpose.

For example, let’s say we have multiple structs that hold various kinds and amounts of text: a NewsArticle struct that holds a news story filed in a particular location and a Tweet that can have at most 280 characters along with metadata that indicates whether it was a new tweet, a retweet, or a reply to another tweet.

We want to make a media aggregator library that can display summaries of data that might be stored in a NewsArticle or Tweet instance. To do this, we need a summary from each type, and we need to request that summary by calling a summarize method on an instance. Listing 10-12 shows the definition of a Summary trait that expresses this behavior.

Filename: src/lib.rs


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
pub trait Summary {
    fn summarize(&self) -> String;
}
#}

Listing 10-12: A Summary trait that consists of the behavior provided by a summarize method

Here, we declare a trait using the trait keyword and then the trait’s name, which is Summary in this case. Inside the curly brackets, we declare the method signatures that describe the behaviors of the types that implement this trait, which in this case is fn summarize(&self) -> String.

After the method signature, instead of providing an implementation within curly brackets, we use a semicolon. Each type implementing this trait must provide its own custom behavior for the body of the method. The compiler will enforce that any type that has the Summary trait will have the method summarize defined with this signature exactly.

A trait can have multiple methods in its body: the method signatures are listed one per line and each line ends in a semicolon.

Implementing a Trait on a Type

Now that we’ve defined the desired behavior using the Summary trait, we can implement it on the types in our media aggregator. Listing 10-13 shows an implementation of the Summary trait on the NewsArticle struct that uses the headline, the author, and the location to create the return value of summarize. For the Tweet struct, we define summarize as the username followed by the entire text of the tweet, assuming that tweet content is already limited to 280 characters.

Filename: src/lib.rs


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
# pub trait Summary {
#     fn summarize(&self) -> String;
# }
#
pub struct NewsArticle {
    pub headline: String,
    pub location: String,
    pub author: String,
    pub content: String,
}

impl Summary for NewsArticle {
    fn summarize(&self) -> String {
        format!("{}, by {} ({})", self.headline, self.author, self.location)
    }
}

pub struct Tweet {
    pub username: String,
    pub content: String,
    pub reply: bool,
    pub retweet: bool,
}

impl Summary for Tweet {
    fn summarize(&self) -> String {
        format!("{}: {}", self.username, self.content)
    }
}
#}

Listing 10-13: Implementing the Summary trait on the NewsArticle and Tweet types

Implementing a trait on a type is similar to implementing regular methods. The difference is that after impl, we put the trait name that we want to implement, then use the for keyword, and then specify the name of the type we want to implement the trait for. Within the impl block, we put the method signatures that the trait definition has defined. Instead of adding a semicolon after each signature, we use curly brackets and fill in the method body with the specific behavior that we want the methods of the trait to have for the particular type.

After implementing the trait, we can call the methods on instances of NewsArticle and Tweet in the same way we call regular methods, like this:

let tweet = Tweet {
    username: String::from("horse_ebooks"),
    content: String::from("of course, as you probably already know, people"),
    reply: false,
    retweet: false,
};

println!("1 new tweet: {}", tweet.summarize());

This code prints 1 new tweet: horse_ebooks: of course, as you probably already know, people.

Note that because we defined the Summary trait and the NewsArticle and Tweet types in the same lib.rs in Listing 10-13, they’re all in the same scope. Let’s say this lib.rs is for a crate we’ve called aggregator and someone else wants to use our crate’s functionality to implement the Summary trait on a struct defined within their library’s scope. They would need to import the trait into their scope first. They would do so by specifying use aggregator::Summary;, which then would enable them to implement Summary for their type. The Summary trait would also need to be a public trait for another crate to implement it, which it is because we put the pub keyword before trait in Listing 10-12.

One restriction to note with trait implementations is that we can implement a trait on a type only if either the trait or the type is local to our crate. For example, we can implement standard library traits like Display on a custom type like Tweet as part of our aggregator crate functionality, because the type Tweet is local to our aggregator crate. We can also implement Summary on Vec<T> in our aggregator crate, because the trait Summary is local to our aggregator crate.

But we can’t implement external traits on external types. For example, we can’t implement the Display trait on Vec<T> within our aggregator crate, because Display and Vec<T> are defined in the standard library and aren’t local to our aggregator crate. This restriction is part of a property of programs called coherence, and more specifically the orphan rule, so named because the parent type is not present. This rule ensures that other people’s code can’t break your code and vice versa. Without the rule, two crates could implement the same trait for the same type, and Rust wouldn’t know which implementation to use.

Default Implementations

Sometimes it’s useful to have default behavior for some or all of the methods in a trait instead of requiring implementations for all methods on every type. Then, as we implement the trait on a particular type, we can keep or override each method’s default behavior.

Listing 10-14 shows how to specify a default string for the summarize method of the Summary trait instead of only defining the method signature, as we did in Listing 10-12.

Filename: src/lib.rs


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
pub trait Summary {
    fn summarize(&self) -> String {
        String::from("(Read more...)")
    }
}
#}

Listing 10-14: Definition of a Summary trait with a default implementation of the summarize method

To use a default implementation to summarize instances of NewsArticle instead of defining a custom implementation, we specify an empty impl block with impl Summary for NewsArticle {}.

Even though we’re no longer defining the summarize method on NewsArticle directly, we’ve provided a default implementation and specified that NewsArticle implements the Summary trait. As a result, we can still call the summarize method on an instance of NewsArticle, like this:

let article = NewsArticle {
    headline: String::from("Penguins win the Stanley Cup Championship!"),
    location: String::from("Pittsburgh, PA, USA"),
    author: String::from("Iceburgh"),
    content: String::from("The Pittsburgh Penguins once again are the best
    hockey team in the NHL."),
};

println!("New article available! {}", article.summarize());

This code prints New article available! (Read more...).

Creating a default implementation for summarize doesn’t require us to change anything about the implementation of Summary on Tweet in Listing 10-13. The reason is that the syntax for overriding a default implementation is the same as the syntax for implementing a trait method that doesn’t have a default implementation.

Default implementations can call other methods in the same trait, even if those other methods don’t have a default implementation. In this way, a trait can provide a lot of useful functionality and only require implementors to specify a small part of it. For example, we could define the Summary trait to have a summarize_author method whose implementation is required, and then define a summarize method that has a default implementation that calls the summarize_author method:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
pub trait Summary {
    fn summarize_author(&self) -> String;

    fn summarize(&self) -> String {
        format!("(Read more from {}...)", self.summarize_author())
    }
}
#}

To use this version of Summary, we only need to define summarize_author when we implement the trait on a type:

impl Summary for Tweet {
    fn summarize_author(&self) -> String {
        format!("@{}", self.username)
    }
}

After we define summarize_author, we can call summarize on instances of the Tweet struct, and the default implementation of summarize will call the definition of summarize_author that we’ve provided. Because we’ve implemented summarize_author, the Summary trait has given us the behavior of the summarize method without requiring us to write any more code.

let tweet = Tweet {
    username: String::from("horse_ebooks"),
    content: String::from("of course, as you probably already know, people"),
    reply: false,
    retweet: false,
};

println!("1 new tweet: {}", tweet.summarize());

This code prints 1 new tweet: (Read more from @horse_ebooks...).

Note that it isn’t possible to call the default implementation from an overriding implementation of that same method.

Traits as arguments

Now that you know how to define traits and implement those traits on types, we can explore how to use traits to accept arguments of many different types.

For example, in Listing 10-13, we implemented the Summary trait on the types NewsArticle and Tweet. We can define a function notify that calls the summarize method on its parameter item, which is of some type that implements the Summary trait. To do this, we can use the 'impl Trait' syntax, like this:

pub fn notify(item: impl Summary) {
    println!("Breaking news! {}", item.summarize());
}

In the body of notify, we can call any methods on item that come from the Summary trait, like summarize.

Trait Bounds

The impl Trait syntax works for short examples, but is syntax sugar for a longer form. This is called a 'trait bound', and it looks like this:

pub fn notify<T: Summary>(item: T) {
    println!("Breaking news! {}", item.summarize());
}

This is equivalent to the example above, but is a bit more verbose. We place trait bounds with the declaration of the generic type parameter, after a colon and inside angle brackets. Because of the trait bound on T, we can call notify and pass in any instance of NewsArticle or Tweet. Code that calls the function with any other type, like a String or an i32, won’t compile, because those types don’t implement Summary.

When should you use this form over impl Trait? While impl Trait is nice for shorter examples, trait bounds are nice for more complex ones. For example, say we wanted to take two things that implement Summary:

pub fn notify(item1: impl Summary, item2: impl Summary) {
pub fn notify<T: Summary>(item1: T, item2: T) {

The version with the bound is a bit easier. In general, you should use whatever form makes your code the most understandable.

Multiple trait bounds with +

We can specify multiple trait bounds on a generic type using the + syntax. For example, to use display formatting on the type T in a function as well as the summarize method, we can use T: Summary + Display to say T can be any type that implements Summary and Display. This can grow quite complex!

where clauses for clearer code

However, there are downsides to using too many trait bounds. Each generic has its own trait bounds, so functions with multiple generic type parameters can have lots of trait bound information between a function’s name and its parameter list, making the function signature hard to read. For this reason, Rust has alternate syntax for specifying trait bounds inside a where clause after the function signature. So instead of writing this:

fn some_function<T: Display + Clone, U: Clone + Debug>(t: T, u: U) -> i32 {

we can use a where clause, like this:

fn some_function<T, U>(t: T, u: U) -> i32
    where T: Display + Clone,
          U: Clone + Debug
{

This function’s signature is less cluttered in that the function name, parameter list, and return type are close together, similar to a function without lots of trait bounds.

Returning Traits

We can use the impl Trait syntax in return position as well, to return something that implements a trait:

fn returns_summarizable() -> impl Summary {
    Tweet {
        username: String::from("horse_ebooks"),
        content: String::from("of course, as you probably already know, people"),
        reply: false,
        retweet: false,
    }
}

This signature says, "I'm going to return something that implements the Summary trait, but I'm not going to tell you the exact type." In our case, we're returning a Tweet, but the caller doesn't know that.

Why is this useful? In chapter 13, we're going to learn about two features that rely heavily on traits: closures, and iterators. These features create types that only the compiler knows, or types that are very, very long. impl Trait lets you simply say "this returns an Iterator" without needing to write out a really long type.

This only works if you have a single type that you're returning, however. For example, this would not work:

fn returns_summarizable(switch: bool) -> impl Summary {
    if switch {
        NewsArticle {
            headline: String::from("Penguins win the Stanley Cup Championship!"),
            location: String::from("Pittsburgh, PA, USA"),
            author: String::from("Iceburgh"),
            content: String::from("The Pittsburgh Penguins once again are the best
            hockey team in the NHL."),
        }
    } else {
        Tweet {
            username: String::from("horse_ebooks"),
            content: String::from("of course, as you probably already know, people"),
            reply: false,
            retweet: false,
        }
    }
}

Here, we try to return either a NewsArticle or a Tweet. This cannot work, due to restrictions around how impl Trait works. To write this code, you'll have to wait until Chapter 17, "trait objects".

Fixing the largest Function with Trait Bounds

Now that you know how to specify the behavior you want to use using the generic type parameter’s bounds, let’s return to Listing 10-5 to fix the definition of the largest function that uses a generic type parameter! Last time we tried to run that code, we received this error:

error[E0369]: binary operation `>` cannot be applied to type `T`
 --> src/main.rs:5:12
  |
5 |         if item > largest {
  |            ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
  |
  = note: an implementation of `std::cmp::PartialOrd` might be missing for `T`

In the body of largest we wanted to compare two values of type T using the greater than (>) operator. Because that operator is defined as a default method on the standard library trait std::cmp::PartialOrd, we need to specify PartialOrd in the trait bounds for T so the largest function can work on slices of any type that we can compare. We don’t need to bring PartialOrd into scope because it’s in the prelude. Change the signature of largest to look like this:

fn largest<T: PartialOrd>(list: &[T]) -> T {

This time when we compile the code, we get a different set of errors:

error[E0508]: cannot move out of type `[T]`, a non-copy slice
 --> src/main.rs:2:23
  |
2 |     let mut largest = list[0];
  |                       ^^^^^^^
  |                       |
  |                       cannot move out of here
  |                       help: consider using a reference instead: `&list[0]`

error[E0507]: cannot move out of borrowed content
 --> src/main.rs:4:9
  |
4 |     for &item in list.iter() {
  |         ^----
  |         ||
  |         |hint: to prevent move, use `ref item` or `ref mut item`
  |         cannot move out of borrowed content

The key line in this error is cannot move out of type [T], a non-copy slice. With our non-generic versions of the largest function, we were only trying to find the largest i32 or char. As discussed in the “Stack-Only Data: Copy” section in Chapter 4, types like i32 and char that have a known size can be stored on the stack, so they implement the Copy trait. But when we made the largest function generic, it became possible for the list parameter to have types in it that don’t implement the Copy trait. Consequently, we wouldn’t be able to move the value out of list[0] and into the largest variable, resulting in this error.

To call this code with only those types that implement the Copy trait, we can add Copy to the trait bounds of T! Listing 10-15 shows the complete code of a generic largest function that will compile as long as the types of the values in the slice that we pass into the function implement the PartialOrd and Copy traits, like i32 and char do.

Filename: src/main.rs

fn largest<T: PartialOrd + Copy>(list: &[T]) -> T {
    let mut largest = list[0];

    for &item in list.iter() {
        if item > largest {
            largest = item;
        }
    }

    largest
}

fn main() {
    let number_list = vec![34, 50, 25, 100, 65];

    let result = largest(&number_list);
    println!("The largest number is {}", result);

    let char_list = vec!['y', 'm', 'a', 'q'];

    let result = largest(&char_list);
    println!("The largest char is {}", result);
}

Listing 10-15: A working definition of the largest function that works on any generic type that implements the PartialOrd and Copy traits

If we don’t want to restrict the largest function to the types that implement the Copy trait, we could specify that T has the trait bound Clone instead of Copy. Then we could clone each value in the slice when we want the largest function to have ownership. Using the clone function means we’re potentially making more heap allocations in the case of types that own heap data like String, and heap allocations can be slow if we’re working with large amounts of data.

Another way we could implement largest is for the function to return a reference to a T value in the slice. If we change the return type to &T instead of T, thereby changing the body of the function to return a reference, we wouldn’t need the Clone or Copy trait bounds and we could avoid heap allocations. Try implementing these alternate solutions on your own!

Using Trait Bounds to Conditionally Implement Methods

By using a trait bound with an impl block that uses generic type parameters, we can implement methods conditionally for types that implement the specified traits. For example, the type Pair<T> in Listing 10-16 always implements the new function. But Pair<T> only implements the cmp_display method if its inner type T implements the PartialOrd trait that enables comparison and the Display trait that enables printing.


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
use std::fmt::Display;

struct Pair<T> {
    x: T,
    y: T,
}

impl<T> Pair<T> {
    fn new(x: T, y: T) -> Self {
        Self {
            x,
            y,
        }
    }
}

impl<T: Display + PartialOrd> Pair<T> {
    fn cmp_display(&self) {
        if self.x >= self.y {
            println!("The largest member is x = {}", self.x);
        } else {
            println!("The largest member is y = {}", self.y);
        }
    }
}
#}

Listing 10-16: Conditionally implement methods on a generic type depending on trait bounds

We can also conditionally implement a trait for any type that implements another trait. Implementations of a trait on any type that satisfies the trait bounds are called blanket implementations and are extensively used in the Rust standard library. For example, the standard library implements the ToString trait on any type that implements the Display trait. The impl block in the standard library looks similar to this code:

impl<T: Display> ToString for T {
    // --snip--
}

Because the standard library has this blanket implementation, we can call the to_string method defined by the ToString trait on any type that implements the Display trait. For example, we can turn integers into their corresponding String values like this because integers implement Display:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let s = 3.to_string();
#}

Blanket implementations appear in the documentation for the trait in the “Implementors” section.

Traits and trait bounds let us write code that uses generic type parameters to reduce duplication but also specify to the compiler that we want the generic type to have particular behavior. The compiler can then use the trait bound information to check that all the concrete types used with our code provide the correct behavior. In dynamically typed languages, we would get an error at runtime if we called a method on a type that the type didn’t implement. But Rust moves these errors to compile time so we’re forced to fix the problems before our code is even able to run. Additionally, we don’t have to write code that checks for behavior at runtime because we’ve already checked at compile time. Doing so improves performance without having to give up the flexibility of generics.

Another kind of generic that we’ve already been using is called lifetimes. Rather than ensuring that a type has the behavior we want, lifetimes ensure that references are valid as long as we need them to be. Let’s look at how lifetimes do that.