Primitives Were A Mistake

Primitives Were A Mistake

Did you know that each time you write field: string or field: number, you’re most probably making a mistake?

Seriously, in modern data modelling, there are so few cases for using the string type that in almost every case you’re dealing with something else than a plain string.

— But hey, — you might ask, — how do I model user names? Or street addresses? Or various statuses? They are strings, duh!

And you may be partially right. What if I tell you instead that deep down all this is a question of semantics? Primitive types, like string, number, or boolean, hold no additional semantics. They are context-free, thus they are overgeneralised. They merely describe how data is stored — not what it means.

First, let’s recall what a string is:

  • it represents a sequence of characters;
  • it can be empty (have zero characters);
  • in Node.js, its size is limited by a V8 limit for a single object. Currently, it is around 2^29 characters — see this V8 commit.

And… that’s it? A string has no additional semantics attached, that’s why it is so versatile and generic.

But data modelling is all about semantics. We model data to distinguish it from other data and to have some guarantees and invariants. Primitive types don’t serve this purpose at all.

Consider this example:

interface CustomerOrder {
  readonly orderId: string;
  readonly customerId: string;
  readonly status: 'created' | 'processing' | 'shipped' | 'delivered' | 'cancelled';
  readonly items: OrderItem[];
  readonly totalAmount: number;
  readonly shippingAddress: ShippingAddress;
  readonly paymentMethod: PaymentMethod;

interface OrderItem {
  readonly productId: string;
  readonly quantity: number;
  readonly price: number;

interface ShippingAddress {
  readonly street: string;
  readonly city: string;
  readonly state: Option<string>;
  readonly country: string;
  readonly postalCode: string;

interface PaymentMethod {
  readonly cardNumber: string;
  readonly cardHolderName: string;
  readonly expiryMonth: number;
  readonly expiryYear: number;
  readonly cvv: string;

I won’t be stopping for long at IDs of various kinds — I’ve described why they have to be modelled as branded/opaque types in Making Illegal States Unrepresentable article. Instead, let’s look at other strings — like those in the ShippingAddress interface — and I’ll explain why each of them is not a string:

  • street is not a string, because street names cannot be empty (contain 0 characters), as well as they cannot be arbitrarily large (like “Lord Of The Rings” large). The longest street name in the world is Laan van de landinrichtingscommissie Duiven-Westervoort in Duiven, Netherlands. It has whopping 44 characters, but still, it is not arbitrarily large.
  • city is not a string either, using the same arguments. The longest city name in the world is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, or just Llanfair, in Wales. It is 58 characters long. Still not a string.
  • country is even more interesting. As of 2023, there are 196 countries in the world, with the longest name belonging to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (52 characters), and the shortest name belonging to Oman with 4 characters. IMO, this is not a case for a string — it is a call for a literal union1.
  • now, postalCode is definitely not a string — it has a special format, usually numeric, but in countries like UK or Canada they use alphanumeric postal codes. Still, it is pretty limited in length — the longest postal codes are in Iran and the USA (10 digits long).

So we can conclude that we need at least to have size-limited stings for data modelling.

Now, when we look at numbers, we will have a similar perspective — some numbers should fall in a range, some should have an algebraic property (like be non-negative, or be rational, or be divisible by another number, etc.).

Unfortunately, the best we can do is to use some data-validation libraries like @effect/schema, io-ts, zod, typebox, or many, many others. I’ll be using @effect/schema:

import { pipe } from '@effect/data/Function';
import * as Schema from '@effect/schema/Schema';

export const StreetName = pipe(Schema.string, Schema.minLength(1), Schema.maxLength(44), Schema.brand('StreetName'));
export type StreetName = Schema.To<typeof StreetName>;

export const CityName = pipe(Schema.string, Schema.minLength(1), Schema.maxLength(58), Schema.brand('CityName'));
export type CityName = Schema.To<typeof CityName>;

export const CountryName = pipe(
    // ...193 more
export type CountryName = Schema.To<typeof CountryName>;

export const PostalCode = pipe(Schema.string, Schema.pattern(/[\w\d]+/), Schema.brand('PostalCode'));
export type PostalCode = Schema.To<typeof PostalCode>;

export const Price = pipe(Schema.number, Schema.nonNegative(), Schema.brand('Price'));
export type Price = Schema.To<typeof Price>;

export const TotalAmount = pipe(Schema.number, Schema.positive(), Schema.brand('TotalAmount'));
export type TotalAmount = Schema.To<typeof TotalAmount>;

And so on. As a rule of thumb, wrap each primitive into its own distinct brand, and if it’s possible — attach some extra validations. Plus you shouldn’t be creating instances of these branded types manually. Instead, use type constructors and/or parsers to make sure all your data is valid at the point where you actually work with it.

There are a few exceptions where I agree to model data as a primitive string:

  • user-generated input — e.g., comments;
  • arbitrary bits of text (placeholders, explanations, descriptions);

Probably, that’s all. All other cases should be distinct enough to be modelled at least using branded types. You don’t want to mix and match different data bits in your code, trust me.

  1. Here I deliberately do not account for possible country renaming that still happens from time to time. In general, my point holds even w.r.t renaming.