A Few of my Favorite Tactics

Sound of Music

Having used Coq for a good while now, I’ve slowly begun to accumulate my own set of hand-written tactics. Writing your own tactics can be frustrating at first; Ltac is dynamic and stateful, the polar opposite of the Gallina we all love. But after some time, you’re sure to start writing tactics that you’re surprised you ever lived without.

In this post, I’ll go through some of my personal favorite tactics I’ve written, with the hope that these examples show how Ltac can be used to make your proofs easier, and perhaps inspire you to write your own tactics. They are listed very roughly in accordance to their complexity and inter-dependencies.

A basic understanding of Ltac is assumed. If you are having trouble following along, I suggest you refer to the following documentation:

Documentation may be dry, but there’s not better way to hone your understanding!

Let’s jump in.

1. find

find is a higher-order tactic which takes a tactic as an argument. It then applies said tactic to the first hypothesis to make progress.

Tactic Notation "find" tactic3(tac) :=
  match goal with
  | H : _ |- _ => progress tac H

This is useful shorthand when searching for a hypothesis, or when one would prefer not to use a hypothesis’s name. For example, one could re-define the assumption tactic as find (fun H => exact H).

There are a myriad of reasons one might want to avoid explicitly using an identifier. It can be easier (as is the case with assumption), but it can also be more maintainable. Identifiers within a proof are fragile, especially if introduced implicitly.

Before moving on, let’s note a technical detail in the above definition. The tac argument is given the nonterminal tactic3. Tactic expressions have 6 precedence levels, with 0 representing maximal precedence, and 5 representing minimal precedence. Precedence is necessary to disambiguate tactic expressions such as a by b; c. Should this be interpreted as a by (b; c), or (a by b); c? This depends on the precedence of the argument b to a. At tactic level 3, which we will use all throughout this post for consistency, it is parsed as (a by b); c.

2. define

By and large, tactics are used to construct opaque terms. With the exception of tactics like set and pose, the definitions of most terms we add to our hypothesis list are completed forgotten; only their type is retained. Most often this is desirable, but occasionally we’d like to actually retain the definition of a term we build tactically.

We introduce a family of such functions called define. The first version behaves much like assert.

Tactic Notation "define" uconstr(c) "as" ident(H) :=
  unshelve evar (H : c).

Tactic Notation "define" uconstr(c) "as" ident(H) "by" tactic3(tac) :=
  define c as H; [solve[tac]|].

Tactic Notation "define" uconstr(c) :=
  let H := fresh in
  define c as H.

Tactic Notation "define" uconstr(c) "by" tactic3(tac) :=
  define c; [solve[tac]|].

Here, evar creates a unification variable of our desired type. Wrapping the tactic in unshelve immediately focuses the newly created unification variable into the first subgoal. Once we clear that goal, the new hypothesis will be available, as in assert, but this time, it will be fully visible, having just been built via unification.

You may notice from the above tactic definitions just how verbose and redundant it is to support the idiomatic optional clauses such as the as and by clauses, since we have to give an instance for each combination of usage. Later in the post, we’ll omit these obvious derivatives when they become to cumbersome.

A common scenario in which we’d like to retain a term’s definition is when we are trying to prove an existential. Therefore, we create a version of define which works specifically on existentials.

Tactic Notation "define" "exists" :=
  unshelve eexists.

Tactic Notation "define" "exists" "by" tactic3(tac) :=
  define exists; [solve[tac]|].

Again, we use the unshelve trick, this time with eexists.

3. forward

Given a functional hypothesis H : forall a: A, B a, or in the nondependent case, H : A -> B, forward H focuses the new subgoal A, which it then uses to specialize H. The name therefore comes from the concept of “forward reasoning”.

Tactic Notation "forward" hyp(H):=
  match type of H with
  | forall i: ?x, _ =>
      let var := fresh i in
      define x as var;
      [|specialize (H var);
        unfold var in H;
        clear var

Tactic Notation "forward" hyp(H) "by" tactic3(tac) :=
  forward H; [solve [tac]|].

To accomplish our task, we use the previous define tactic to build our term, which we then specialize our hypothesis H with. We then remove the intermediate term from our hypotheses by unfolding its definition in the now specialized hypothesis H, and clear it.

Why do we use define here instead of one of a standard tactic? I.e., why do we want the specializing term to be transparent? In the nondependent case H : A -> B, it won’t make a difference. However, for the dependent case H : forall a: A, B a, the particular term a: A is generally significant, and therefore shouldn’t be obscured.

4. (dependent) inv(c)

Inversion in Coq can get downright ugly. The proof state is often absolutely littered with new hypotheses. There are only so many times one can write inversion H; subst before creating a shorthand. We introduce such a shorthand with the tactic inv. Similarly, invc H will perform inv H, then clear H, which I find is desirable more often than not.

(Note: I did not come up with the inv and invc tactics myself. I found them originally in the StructTact library, and modified them to my liking).

Tactic Notation "subst!" :=
  repeat match goal with
  | H : ?x = ?x |- _ => clear H

Tactic Notation "inv" hyp(H) :=
  inversion H;

Tactic Notation "inv" hyp(H) "as" simple_intropattern(pat) :=
  inversion H as pat;

Tactic Notation "invc" hyp(H) :=
  (* Rename H first to free identifier *)
  let _temp := fresh "_temp" in
  rename H into _temp;
  inv _temp;
  try clear _temp.

Tactic Notation "invc" hyp(H) "as" simple_intropattern(pat) :=
  let _temp := fresh in
  rename H into _temp;
  inv _temp as pat;
  try clear _temp.

Beyond the behavior I described, you can see in these definitions some extra features. For instance, we strengthen subst to clear syntactically reflexive equalities, and we rename to-be-cleared hypotheses to free up identifiers.

Note also in the invc variants that we have to wrap our clear with a try. Some inversions will actually clear the hypothesis automatically (most notably inversions on equalities), and we don’t want invc to fail on such hypotheses.

We can continue making improvements on inversion. One very common issue arises when you invoke inversion on highly dependent terms. You will often end up with hypotheses of type existT P p x = existT P p y. Intuitively, we would expect this to imply x = y, but this is in fact not provable without an additional axiom, so regular inversion does not perform this task. If we were to accept the relevant axiom, we could vastly improve inversion for highly dependent terms.

The axiom we need is any one of the many variants of a class of axioms called “UIP” (Uniqueness of Identity Proofs). Here is one such axiom:

Axiom uip_refl : forall A (a: A) (h : a = a), h = eq_refl a.

Hopefully this is quite intuitive. Given our inductive definition of eq, it may even be surprising that we can’t derive this proposition. eq_refl is the only constructor of the equality type, so it stands to reason that any proof of a = a must be convertible to eq_refl a. As this post is not about axioms, I won’t dive into why this proposition is unprovable. Suffice to say, it is perfectly innocuous (unless combined with more exotic axioms, such as univalence) and extremely helpful.

We can use Coq’s variant of the UIP axiom by exporting Coq.Logic.EqDep (their version of the axiom is called eq_rect_eq. It looks quite different from uip_refl, but the two are in fact logically equivalent).

We then introduce a variant of our inversion tactic called dependent inv to leverage the extra power of this axiom:

Require Import Coq.Logic.EqDep.

Ltac destr_sigma_eq :=
  repeat match goal with
  | H: existT _ _ _ = existT _ _ _ |- _ =>
      simple apply inj_pairT2 in H

Tactic Notation "dependent" "inv" hyp(H) :=
  inv H;

Tactic Notation "dependent" "inv" hyp(H) "as" simple_intropattern(pat) :=
  inv H as pat;

Tactic Notation "dependent" "invc" hyp(H) :=
  invc H;

Tactic Notation "dependent" "invc" hyp(H) "as" simple_intropattern(pat) :=
  invc H as pat;

5. gen / to

Sometimes, one’s hypothesis is just too specific, and needs to be weakened. In particular, this issue often arises as we prepare to induct on a hypothesis. The tactic gen x := y to P in H will replace term y in H with the variable x, where x satisfies the predicate P. The definition of x is then discarded. It therefore “generalizes” y up to the predicate.

(* A version of cut where the assumption is the first subgoal *)
Ltac cut_flip p :=
  let H := fresh in
  assert (H: p);
    [|revert H].

Tactic Notation "gen" ident(I) ":=" constr(l) "to" uconstr(P):=
  set (I := l);
  cut_flip (P I);
    [ unfold I; clear I
    | clearbody I

Tactic Notation "gen" ident(I) ":=" constr(l) "to" uconstr(P) "in" hyp(H) :=
  set (I := l) in H;
  cut_flip (P I);
    [ unfold I in H |- *; clear I
    | clearbody I


I define many more variants of gen / to, for example with a by clause, but the implementations are all obvious, following the general idioms followed by the standard tactics.

6. foreach, forsome, and other list-based tactics

It would be nice to have some tactics which operate over lists. Specifically, lists of hypotheses. For instance, a foreach combinator could apply some tactic to every hypothesis in a list (necessarily succeeding on each), and a forsome tactic could do the same, but stop on the first success (and failing if none succeeded).

This immediate issue we run into is that hypotheses will generally have different types, whereas a Gallina list is necessarily homogenous in type. We could certainly overcome this issue with enough force. For instance, we could use a list of type-value pairs (list {x & x}), but this quickly get’s exhausting. We are forced to manually track types, and we must be careful to keep list elements in a canonical form which our Ltac can parse entirely syntactically. Far more convenient is to embrace Ltac’s dynamic typing, and introduce a notion of heterogeneous lists.

Actually, we don’t need to create very many new definitions. Instead, we re-purpose Gallina’s tuples. Recall that the tuple (a, b, ..., y, z) actually de-sugars into the left-nested pairs ((((a, b), ...), y), z). We therefore interpret an arbitrary-length “flat” tuple as a non-empty heterogeneous list, where (t, h) represent the “cons” of h to t.

A non-pair x is therefore interpreted as the single-element list. Of course, a heterogeneous list of pairs is therefore an ambiguous notion which ought to be avoided.

The only thing missing is a notion an empty heterogenous list. We might consider the unit value for this, but as we have enough ambiguity at the moment, we’ll instead introduce a distinguished type and value for this purpose.

Inductive Hnil : Set := hnil.

This creates some ambiguity of its own, as there are now two ways to represent singleton lists. Either as x or (hnil, x).

With our representation decided, we can define some list tactics!

Ltac _foreach ls ftac :=
  lazymatch ls with
  | hnil => idtac
  | (?ls', ?H) =>
      first [ftac H| fail 0 ftac "failed on" H];
      _foreach ls' ftac
  | ?H => first [ftac H| fail 0 ftac "failed on" H]
Tactic Notation "foreach" constr(ls) tactic3(ftac) :=
  _foreach ls ftac.

Ltac _forsome ls ftac :=
  lazymatch ls with
  | hnil => fail 0 ftac "failed on every hypothesis"
  | (?ls', ?H) =>
      ftac H + _forsome ls' ftac
  | ?H => ftac H + fail 0 ftac "failed on every hypothesis"
Tactic Notation "forsome" constr(ls) tactic3(ftac) :=
  _forsome ls ftac.

There are a number of interesting aspects of these definitions. First, why do we define both _foreach and foreach? Well, we’d prefer the tactic notation used in the foreach definition, however tactic notations are un-recursive. Therefore, we must first define the recursive tactic _foreach, and then wrap it in the notation defined by foreach.

Second, notice we use lazymatch. This is because there is ambiguity in our cases. Our third match case matches anything. By using lazymatch, we commit to the first two cases if they match, and we only try the third if the first two fail to unify.

Why stop there, let’s create some more list-based tactics!

Ltac syn_eq H H' :=
  match H with
  | H' => true

Ltac in_list H ls := (forsome ls (syn_eq H)) + fail 0 H "not in list".

in_list simply uses forsome to check if an element occurs in a list (up to syntactic equality, not convertibility).

Ltac _env ls cont :=
  match goal with
  | H : _ |- _ =>
      assert_fails (in_list H ls);
      _env (ls, H) cont
  end + (cont ls).
Tactic Notation "env" tactic3(cont) :=
  _env hnil cont.

env will create a list of all of the hypotheses in our current environment (i.e. proof state). However, tactics can’t easily “return” values, so we are instead forced into a continuation-passing paradigm in order to use the value built by env. The second argument to env is its continuation, which should be a tactic function expecting a list as an argument. For more information on this strategy, see section 14.3, “Functional Programming in Ltac”, in Chlipala’s Certified Programming with Dependent Types.

Ltac _list_minus ls1 ls2 keep cont :=
  lazymatch ls1 with
  | hnil => cont keep
  | (?t, ?h) =>
      tryif in_list h ls2 then
        _list_minus t ls2 keep cont
        _list_minus t ls2 (keep, h) cont
  | ?h =>
      tryif in_list h ls2 then
        cont keep
        cont (keep, h)
Tactic Notation "list_minus" constr(ls1) constr(ls2) tactic3(cont) :=
  _list_minus ls1 ls2 hnil cont.

Now we define list_minus to take the difference of two lists. Again, this is necessarily done in a continuation-passing style.

Putting env and list_minus together, we get env_delta:

Tactic Notation "env_delta" tactic3(tac) tactic3(cont) :=
  env (fun old =>
  env (fun new =>
  list_minus new old cont

Here, we build a list only of the new hypotheses introduced into the environment by tac. We do this by grabbing the environment before and after tac is executed, and then calculating their difference.

7. (max) induct(!)

The standard induction tactic can be surprisingly lacking in a couple of ways. First, it discards information when the arguments to the inductive term are not simple variables.

For instance, consider the proposition R^* 0 x, where R^* is the reflexive-transitive closure of R. We would like to induct over the structure of the proof (a sequence of relation steps). However, if we were to invoke the regular induction tactic, it would replace 0 with an arbitrary variable, thereby losing that information. We can solve this issue by first replacing the 0 with a variable ourselves, and creating a separate assumption equating the variable to the value it substitutes before its definition is erased by induction.

To accomplish this task, we are going to need to introduce a number of helpful intermediate tactics.

Ltac _repeat_count tac cont n :=
  tryif tac then
    _repeat_count tac cont (S n)
    cont n.

Tactic Notation "repeat_count" tactic3(tac) tactic3(cont) :=
  _repeat_count tac cont 0.

Our first helper is a refinement of the standard repeat tactic. Just like repeat, it will apply a tactic 0 or more times, stopping at the first failure. repeat_count expands on this functionality by counting the number of successful applications. We will see soon why this might be useful.

Note that this uses the continuation-passing style discussed in our introduction of the list-based tactics.

Knowing that some tactic has been applied n times, we would perhaps like to perform another tactic n times. This is precisely the role of the do tactic. However, the do tactic only accepts Ltac’s internal notion of integers, which is distinct from the Gallina representation of natural numbers as used by the repeat_count tactic. Therefore, we give an alternative definition of do, called do_g which uses Gallina’s naturals.

Ltac _do_g n tac :=
  match n with
  | S ?n' => tac; _do_g n' tac
  | 0 => idtac
Tactic Notation "do_g" constr(n) tactic3(tac) :=
  _do_g n tac.

Finally, we can define our improved induction tactic, called induct.

Ltac gen_eq_something H :=
  match type of H with
  | context[_ ?x] =>
      assert_fails (is_var x);
      gen ? := x to (eq x) in * by reflexivity

Ltac intro_try_rew :=
  intros [=<-] +
  intros [=->] +
  intros [=] +

Ltac _induct_by H inductStep :=
  repeat_count (progress gen_eq_something H) (fun n =>
    inductStep H;
    do_g n intro_try_rew

Tactic Notation "induct" hyp(H) :=
  _induct_by H ltac:(fun hyp => induction hyp).

Tactic Notation "induct" hyp(H) "as" simple_intropattern(pat) :=
  _induct_by H ltac:(fun hyp => induction hyp as pat).

Tactic Notation "induct" hyp(H) "using" uconstr(c) :=
  _induct_by H ltac:(fun hyp => induction hyp using c).

Tactic Notation "induct" hyp(H) "as" simple_intropattern(pat) "using" uconstr(c) :=
  _induct_by H ltac:(fun hyp => induction hyp as pat using c).

The first definition, gen_eq_something, simply looks for a non-variable argument in the hypothesis H to generalize up to equality. The second tactic, intro_try_rew, does intro, but simultaneously tries fancier introductions which destructs/rewrites the equality. Finally, _induct_by puts everything together. We gen_eq_something our inductive term as much as possible. Note this will add equality assumptions to our goal. Now, we perform the induction given by inductStep, and on each subgoal, we will introduce each of the equalities we added by gen_eq_something.

If you have ever used dependent induction, induct is trying to do the same thing, sometimes called “inversion-induction”, because it can be seen as simultaneously trying to invert and induct on the hypothesis. If dependent induction does the same thing, why did we just re-create the functionality? Well, dependent induction actually uses the heterogenous equality JMeq, and uses the same UIP axiom we mentioned with dependent inv. Therefore, induct is something of a simpler variation of dependent induction.

One annoying problem with our induct tactic (and dependent induction, for that matter) is that we often end up with inductive hypotheses of the form x = x -> y (or forall x, x = y -> z), which are trivial but annoying to simplify. To solve these, I include a tactic variant induct!, which is more eager to clean up the hypothesis state.

Tactic Notation "`" tactic3(tac) := tac.

(* Specialize hypothesis with a unification variable *)
Ltac especialize H :=
  match type of H with
  | forall x : ?T, _ =>
      let x' := fresh x in
      evar (x': T);
      specialize (H x');
      unfold x' in H;
      clear x'

Ltac ecut_eq_aux IH :=
    [ match type of IH with
      | _ = _ -> _ =>
          try forward IH by exact eq_refl
    | especialize IH;
      ecut_eq_aux IH].

Ltac ecut_eq IH :=
  match type of IH with
  | context[_ = _ -> _] => idtac
  ecut_eq_aux IH;
  let t := type of IH in
  assert_fails (`has_evar t).

Ltac _induct_excl_by H inductStep :=
  env_delta (_induct_by H inductStep) (fun ls =>
    foreach ls (fun H => repeat ecut_eq H)

Tactic Notation "induct!" hyp(H) :=
  _induct_excl_by H ltac:(fun hyp => induction hyp).

Tactic Notation "induct!" hyp(H) "as" simple_intropattern(pat) :=
  _induct_excl_by H ltac:(fun hyp => induction hyp as pat).

Tactic Notation "induct!" hyp(H) "using" uconstr(c) :=
  _induct_excl_by H ltac:(fun hyp => induction hyp using c).

Tactic Notation "induct!" hyp(H) "as" simple_intropattern(pat) "using" constr(c) :=
  _induct_excl_by H ltac:(fun hyp => induction hyp as pat using c).

We create a tactic called ecut_eq which will look for equality assumptions in a hypothesis, and attempt to resolve them automatically, potentially specializing the hypothesis with unification variables to do so, as long as no unification variables remain by the end.

The meat of induct! is performed by the _induct_excl_by tactic which uses env_delta and foreach from our list tactics to apply ecut_eq only to the hypotheses introduced during induction.

You may have noticed the odd-looking backtick tactic notation. Clearly this is just an identity combinator, right? What use is it here?

This bactick combinator highlights a very unfortunate corner of Ltac. Contrary to our expectations, the backtick combinator is not referentially transparent. That is, the tactic expression a is not necessarily semantically equivalent to `a.

Specifically, adding the backtick can affect when a tactic expression is executed. In the tactic expression a b, where b is a tactic expression being passed to the higher-order tactic combinator a, it is unfortunately not always clear when b will execute. Almost always, we’d prefer it to only execute at the point it is invoked by a. For whatever reason, this is ensured in the expression a `b, but not in a b. Thus, the bactick can be interpreted as a way to properly delay execution of a tactic expression.

I wish I could explain when adding the backtick is necessary. The truth is, I don’t know. The broader Coq community seems to be resigned to the fact that the execution semantics of Ltac are unclear, and place their hope in some eventual successor such as the mythical “Ltac2” to save us. (Much like Ltac’s execution semantics, it is quite unclear when this will come to pass). Until then, we will have to simply live with this defect and insert a backtick now and again when our tactics are misbehaving.

Finally, we add one more feature to our custom induction. Often, we are tasked with manually reverting variables before inducting in order to maximally generalize our inductive hypothesis. Then, we have to re-intros them. Since there is no harm “over”-generalizing our inductive hypothesis in this way, we can automatically revert and re-intros all of our variables.

Tactic Notation "do_generalized" constr(ls) tactic3(tac) :=
  repeat_count (
    find (fun H =>
      assert_fails (`in_list H ls);
      revert H
  )) (fun n =>
    do_g n intro

Ltac _max_induction_by H inductStep :=
  do_generalized H (inductStep H).

Tactic Notation "max" "induction" hyp(H) :=
  _max_induction_by H ltac:(fun hyp => induction hyp).

Tactic Notation "max" "induction" hyp(H) "as" simple_intropattern(pat) :=
  _max_induction_by H ltac:(fun hyp => induction hyp as pat).


Tactic Notation "max" "induct!" hyp(H) :=
  _induct_excl_by H ltac:(fun hyp => max induction hyp).

Tactic Notation "max" "induct!" hyp(H) "as" simple_intropattern(pat) :=
  _induct_excl_by H ltac:(fun hyp => max induction hyp as pat).


8. tedious/follows

I’ll end with a tactic which has been extremely useful to me, but I’d also consider to be quite experimental. I am quite a fan of the easy tactic, and the related now tactic, which automatically solves some simple goals. However, I got frustrated that it was unable to solve certain goals, such as those which would follow from one or two constructor applications, or by eauto.

I originally envisioned tedious/follows as slightly more powerful versions of easy/now, but I quickly found myself adding more and more functionality until these had become quite ambitious tactics. Still, I have tried to retain one important characteristic: that it be relatively quick to fail. Here they are in their current form:

(* Induction failure occasionally produces odd warnings:
   We silence these warnings with the following setting.
Global Set Warnings "-cannot-remove-as-expected".

Ltac _etedious n :=
  match n with
  | 0 => fail 1 "Ran out of gas"
  | S ?n' => intros; (
      (eauto; easy) +
      (constructor; _etedious n') +
      (econstructor; _etedious n') +
      ((find (fun H => injection H + induction H + destruct H)); _etedious n') +
      (fail 1 "Cannot solve goal")

Ltac _tedious n :=
  match n with
  | 0 => fail 1 "Ran out of gas"
  | S ?n' => intros; (
      (auto; easy) +
      (constructor; _tedious n') +
      (econstructor; _etedious n') +
      ((find (fun H => injection H + induction H + destruct H)); _tedious n') +
      (fail 1 "Cannot solve goal")

(* Slows exponentially with gas. Wouldn't suggest higher than 10. *)
Tactic Notation "tedious" constr(n) :=
    match goal with
    | |- ?g => has_evar g
    _etedious n
    _tedious n.

Tactic Notation "tedious" :=
  tedious 5.

Tactic Notation "follows" tactic3(tac) :=
  tac; tedious.

Tactic Notation "after" tactic3(tac) :=
  tac; try tedious.

Tactic Notation "tedious" "using" constr(lemmas) :=
  follows (foreach lemmas (fun H => epose proof H)).

As you can see, tedious is a sort of brute force heuristic tactic to solve “straightforward” goals. It uses auto; easy (or eauto; easy if we expect there to be unificaiton variables) as its immediate solver. If the goal is not immediately solvable, it will try some step and recurse. Of course, we would have no reason to expect this to terminate by itself, so we start tedious with some “gas”. Each time it recurses, it loses gas, and when it gets to 0, it gives up. This “gas” is therefore the maximum search depth. By default, tedious starts with 5 gas. We note that increasing the gas will slow it down exponentially, since each subgoal tedious encounters will have more gas, meaning it will be more likely to produce more subgoals/hypotheses.

In practice, I have found this tactic to exhibit suprising strength given its usual speed. However, there are certainly some times where the proof state is too complex and tedious will take too long before giving up. Going forward, I’d like to experiment more with ways tedious can inspect the proof state, either the number of subgoals or the number of hypotheses, and reduce its gas accordingly to get more consistent execution times.