This is a story about type signatures, Higher Ranked Trait Bounds (HRTB), and the most confusing diagnostics bug I've seen in the Rust compiler. Along the way we'll learn how pulldown-cmark has been trying to fix the same API for 3 different releases, and discover that some bugs only appear at the compile time of downstream crates.

If you don't know what some of the words mean, there is an appendix. Unfortunately, this article needs too much background knowledge to fit all of it in a blog post.


Our story starts with a simple change to rustdoc: It wants to hide the [] around intra-doc links in search results. (For context, search results have links stripped since otherwise the relative links would be broken, which means rustdoc needs to do some preprocessing of the markdown.) That would turn screenshots like this:


into this:


Rustdoc does this in several different places, so naturally this should be pulled out into a single function that can be reused. This is a callback to pulldown's markdown Parser.

// Omitted: in real life, this would only mark intra-doc links as valid, not all broken links.
fn summary_broken_link_callback<'a>(link: BrokenLink<'a>) -> Option<(CowStr<'a>, CowStr<'a>)> {
    Some(("#".into(), link.reference.to_owned().into()))

Except that doesn't work:

error[E0621]: explicit lifetime required in the type of `md`
    --> src/librustdoc/html/
1050 | fn markdown_summary_with_limit(md: &str, length_limit: usize) -> (String, bool) {
     |                                    ---- help: add explicit lifetime `'static` to the type of `md`: `&'static str`
1065 |         Parser::new_with_broken_link_callback(md, summary_opts(), Some(&mut summary_broken_link_callback))
     |         ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ lifetime `'static` required

error: higher-ranked subtype error
    --> src/librustdoc/html/
1065 |         Parser::new_with_broken_link_callback(md, summary_opts(), Some(&mut summary_broken_link_callback))
     |                                                                        ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

error[E0716]: temporary value dropped while borrowed
    --> src/librustdoc/html/
1065 |         Parser::new_with_broken_link_callback(md, summary_opts(), Some(&mut summary_broken_link_callback))
     |         --------------------------------------------------------------------^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^--
     |         |                                                                   |                            |
     |         |                                                                   |                            temporary value is freed at the end of this statement
     |         |                                                                   creates a temporary which is freed while still in use
     |         argument requires that borrow lasts for `'static`

Lifetime annotations: action at a distance

What on earth is going on here? We have a simple function that takes a link and returns it, right? What does that have to do with "higher-ranked subtypes" and 'static? To find out, we have to look at the definition of new_with_broken_link_callback().

pub fn new_with_broken_link_callback(
    text: &'a str,
    options: Options,
    broken_link_callback: Option<&'a mut dyn FnMut(BrokenLink<'_>) -> Option<(CowStr<'a>, CowStr<'a>)>>
) -> Parser<'a> { /* ... */ }

Wow! There's a lot going on here, especially in broken_link_callback. Let's take that type apart a little:

  • Option means the callback is optional; if you pass in None it will just do nothing.
  • &'a mut is a mutable reference.
  • FnMut(BrokenLink<'_>) -> Option<(CowStr<'a>, CowStr<'a>)> is a trait for 'functions taking BrokenLink and returning a tuple of CowStr'.
  • Because FnMut is a trait and not a type, dyn turns it into a type (i.e. this is runtime polymorphism).

But there's something funny here - the same lifetime 'a is used for both the reference to the function, and the types it outputs. That's what made our function break: since summary_broken_link_callback is a function, any reference to it has a 'static lifetime. Fortunately, Rust will implicitly reborrow the reference if it lives too long. Unfortunately, we don't know how long it should live. That's why the error is mentioning 'static; since it can't figure out the right lifetime, it falls back to the longest possible. By looking at the definition of Parser, we can see why that gives an error about md:

pub struct Parser<'a> {
    md: &'a str,
    broken_link_callback: BrokenLinkCallback<'a>,
    // ... some fields omitted

pub type BrokenLinkCallback<'a> =
    Option<&'a mut dyn FnMut(BrokenLink) -> Option<(CowStr<'a>, CowStr<'a>)>>;

So there's many lifetimes that have been tied together here:

  1. The lifetime of the input, md
  2. The lifetime of the borrow, &mut broken_link_callback
  3. The lifetime of the function outputs, which are unnamed here (pulldown calls them url and title).

And that explains all the errors:

  1. md is a temporary, but &mut broken_link_callback is 'static
  2. &mut broken_link_callback can't find an appropriate lifetime for the borrow, so it gives up altogether with "higher-ranked subtype error"
  3. The arguments are temporaries, so the outputs are temporaries too (because we declared broken_link_callback as fn summary_broken_link_callback<'a>(link: BrokenLink<'a>) -> Option<(CowStr<'a>, CowStr<'a>)>), but &mut broken_link_callback is 'static

How do you solve a problem like a lifetime?

Notice that the bug here is not in broken_link_callback - it's in the API itself, which is tying the lifetimes together unnecessarily. If you write broken_link_callback on its own, it will compile and run just fine, it's only the way that it interacts with Parser that breaks things. The fix is not to tie the lifetimes together:

pub struct Parser<'input, 'callback> {
    text: &'input str,
    broken_link_callback: BrokenLinkCallback<'input, 'callback>,

pub type BrokenLinkCallback<'input, 'borrow> =
    Option<&'borrow mut dyn FnMut(BrokenLink<'input>) -> Option<(CowStr<'input>, CowStr<'input>)>>;

Notice that 1. and 3. are still tied together; this is because pulldown has an API that yields events with the lifetime of the input. To use the output of the callback in the Iterator implementation, the outputs have to live as long as the full markdown input, not just the current link.

An interesting note is that broken_link_callback had a similar issue over overspecifying lifetimes: if you change the type signature to

fn summary_broken_link_callback<'a>(
	link: BrokenLink<'_>
) -> Option<(CowStr<'a>, CowStr<'a>)> {
  Some(("#".into(), link.reference.to_owned().into()))

it will suddenly compile. In particular, the lifetime of the input is no longer tied to the lifetime of the output, which works because link.reference is copied, not borrowed.

For more information about this problem, including strange and disconcerting errors that show up if you give lifetimes the wrong annotations, see the issue against pulldown, as well as the PR I made fixing it.

Bonus: Wait, where's my diagnostics bug? I was promised a diagnostics bug!

For some reason, the error in a stand-alone program is different from the one when you compile broken_link_callback as part of rustdoc:

error: implementation of `FnOnce` is not general enough
   --> src/
8   |       for _ in Parser::new_with_broken_link_callback(txt, Options::empty(), Some(&mut callback)) {
    |                                                                                  ^^^^^^^^^^^^^ implementation of `FnOnce` is not general enough
   ::: /home/jyn/.local/lib/rustup/toolchains/stable-x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu/lib/rustlib/src/rust/library/core/src/ops/
219 | / pub trait FnOnce<Args> {
220 | |     /// The returned type after the call operator is used.
221 | |     #[lang = "fn_once_output"]
222 | |     #[stable(feature = "fn_once_output", since = "1.12.0")]
...   |
227 | |     extern "rust-call" fn call_once(self, args: Args) -> Self::Output;
228 | | }
    | |_- trait `FnOnce` defined here
    = note: `for<'a> fn(pulldown_cmark::BrokenLink<'a>) -> Option<(pulldown_cmark::CowStr<'a>, pulldown_cmark::CowStr<'a>)> {callback}` must implement `FnOnce<(pulldown_cmark::BrokenLink<'_>,)>`
    = note: ...but `FnOnce<(pulldown_cmark::BrokenLink<'_>,)>` is actually implemented for the type `for<'a> fn(pulldown_cmark::BrokenLink<'a>) -> Option<(pulldown_cmark::CowStr<'a>, pulldown_cmark::CowStr<'a>)> {callback}`

In particular, the note: makes no sense: it shows the same types above and below! This is a long-lived diagnostics issue with the compiler itself, going back at least until 2017.