A brief journal about learning Coq

Posted on July 5, 2014
Tags: coq programming Categories: think

This article is completely an informal journal about my learning process on Coq. It is just created as my whim prompted. Please don’t academically refer any part of it as studying material to learn Coq.


I first heard of Coq in my admiring mathematician, @txyyss‘s tweets. At the time I saw him talked that he’s glad and immersed in re-proving all the theorems he had learned. He also said, as deepening in Coq, he found a boost on other related academic aspects. Driven by curiosity, I went to know about what a heck Coq is. Then I saw it describe itself as a ’Proof Assistant’. I felt something uneven about it. Looking through all the programming languages I had learned, even those as logically abstract as Prolog, were not capable to do a proof.

At the time I was still in my high school. I just downloaded a Coq environment on my machine in the computer lab. Then I tried to follow the official tutorial guide to explore how to use it to do a proof. The experience was terrible. The official tutorial was completely not-novice-friendly, at least to me. I followed it for a section, doing what the guide instructed me to do, and they all works. I learned 0 has a type of nat, and nat has a type of Type, and that’s all, no more things substantial. The following sections are tough enough so I don’t even know what I was doing. Thus I gived it up.

My curiousity was evoked the second time by the “berserk-faver” @javranw. He express similar opinion and excitement as @txyyss towards Coq. At the time it was the onset of the long summer vacation after high school graduation. I got plenty of free time to learn the extracurricular interesting stuff. So I decided to pick Coq up again.


This time I found a Virginia University course about Coq, published as website: I decide to start here because I saw the syllabus are well arranged and besides, I thought the course material might be easier for a layman to get started. (link to the tutorial)

The study curve of this course seems still steep. In the other words, the course goes complicated soon after it teaches some common-sense-like knowledge that I can hardly catch up with it. Besides, I don’t think the guide is written in obvious and clear language.

I had also checked the well-known Software Foundations. And I discovered it’s actually more clear and friendly to novice like me. So I head on to study following this guide.

The progress was slow. While a few of the exercises, mostly rated 3+ stars, are really challenging. I tried to work on all exercises myself. And I maintained a Github repository to publish my solutions.

I usually study it after midnight. So I could have a quiet and distract-free environment for me to think. I was concentrated while doing the proofs. It feels good. Especially after proving a difficult theorem, I acquired great pleasance from the accomplishment. I can’t describe the the feeling as I first proved the commutation law of multiplication, which took me about 3 hours.

In fact, in each new chapter I learned something new about Coq. Yet, as I turned to the chapter of ‘Logic’, I learned not only about Coq skills but also a mode of critical thinking towards the base, the logic, and the logic of logic. I learned the logic system also need an axiom, which subverted my view to logic before. A logical proposition can either be true or false, and besides, it cannot guarantee to be in one of these two states only. This axiom that establishes the whole logic system can be expressed in many forms. An optional exercise in the guide is to prove they are equivalent. Rated full 5 stars, this question is the most difficult exercise I’ve met. Anyway I still finished 4/5 of it.


I once tweeted (translated into English) link:

I just dreammed in the nap. In the dream there was an arena-like place. The fighters used with logic symbols as weapons. They battled, and exerted various tactics. As a round over, they proved some theorem. #dream #coq #broken_brain

Really. My mind is full of logics in the days I study Coq. I can feel it vividly that my mind start to ask about the logic of everything I see. Logic would spring from my mind on every affairs. That is very interesting experience. Especially after immersed in Coq for a whole night, I see everything and think: can I prove it?

Somewhat I like that feeling :)


In an ideal condition, to prove a theorem, I will first understand the theorem itself, and conceive a way to prove it. Then I’ll translate the idea into tactics in Coq. However, as I got more and more practiced in Coq, I do not always follow this way to prove a theorem. For some simple theorems, I can prove them without understanding them. I know what tactic should be used under specific condition. I would only concern about the hypotheses and the goals. My empirical intuition will guide me to the most likely way to prove them.

I first realized the situation while I was proving a theorem related to override function in the next chapter after override is defined. I then disinclined to review the definition of override again, because it’s a little bit convoluting. Naturally I tried to prove it without reviewing the definition of override. Also naturally I did it successfully. I realized the problem just as I finished the proof. The first impression I raised is that I felt panicky on myself. While as I then carefully checked the definition of override function and the proof process, I found that’s already the optimal way. I will do exactly the same after I understood the definition.

At that time, I had a sense that I was no longer a human, but a proving machine. I knew the tactics, and I knew when to use them. Prooving theorems seemed to be a machinery work. I was somewhat depressed on this kind of loss-of-intelligence.

However, sometimes I thought in the other way. If I could grasp my empirical intuition, turn them into substantial rules, can I make a program that can prove whatever I can prove as a human? The program will never understand a theorem, but they can prove them in a Coq’ly logical way.

Comments on the design

I thought the design is the point I want dissing about Coq mostly. Although powerful, Coq’s design on its syntax is as terrible as its “mother language” OCaml, and even worse.

It might be improper for me, as a totally novice, to comment on Coq’s design. I know I’m yet far from qualified to do that. Nonetheless I still want to talk a little bit about it.

Of course, I know neither syntax nor some mechanism are the most crucial things to a programming language. However, my steps followed the road of Ruby → Scheme → Haskell. Studying those PLs was pleasing, at least they give me a sense of elegance. In contrast, I see Coq as a work from scratch than being well designed.

Type naming

Actually, types in Coq are not as obvious as in other PLs. Unusual types are ubiquitous. I use ‘unusual type’ just because I don’t know how to descibe them. The nature of each type are not just transparent, but also must be defined by me manually. (At least I’m instructed to do so following the guide.)

The case of type names, in the beginning, confused me. Why are the type names nat, bool lower-cased while Set, Type, Prop capitalized? I knew I won’t know the why of every unknowns just as I touched it. So I memorized it in a silly mode: names of the types we need to define by ourself are lower-cased, and the others are capitalized.

This gave me the first intuition about differnet kinds of types. While then I walked through the guide, and gradually realized the difference between these two sort of types.

Here’s correct(?) understanding about it. nat and bool are lower-cased because they are inductive types. In the other words, they are defined in a specific number of cases. Contrarily, we don’t see this feature in Set, Type, nor Prop, which are what we called non-inductive types.

Tactic naming

Well, I shall just pose here the most frequently used tactic names.

simpl, reflexivity, destruct, induction, left, rewrite.

Did you see them? The names range among abbreviations, nouns, verbs, and adjectives. All of them are used as tactic names. While they’re not funtioning in different categories. They’re really alike. The naming gives me an impression that they are picked just from the whims of Coq inventors, so they’re not strict at all. There is no choice that I have to memorize them.

Tactic functioning

It is understandable that tactics function in very different ways. The behavior of them can sometimes be categorized with different fashions. For example, some of them will mark a goal as proved so we can continue to next goal or mark a Qed happily if all goals are proved. I call this feature ‘commit’. This is an informal term invented by me because I don’t know what’s the accurate terminology for that.

It can be thought to categorize the tactics by whether they commit. But it doesn’t apply to all the tactics. Now I have to pose three types:

  • commits: reflexivity, assumption, exact, …
  • does not commit: simpl, rewrite, unfold, symmetry
  • depends on mood: apply, inversion, …

Actually, there is an other case, because some tactics will split the goal into more subgoals. I will put they in an different category.

  • yields subgoals: assert, replace, destruct, induction

In fact, these do not always yield a subgoal. The number of subgoals destruct and induction yield depends on the number of inductive constructors of the type of the expression they are operating on.

The behavior of inversion is ridiculous. One can conclude its usage as to simplify the injective case and disjoint case. Even the Software Foundations guide admits:

The inversion tactic is probably easier to understand by seeing it in action than from general descriptions like the above.

Surely, it’s not difficult to use. I will list the places it usually applys. Of course these are just empirical conclusions.

  1. false (disjoint equality) hypothesis (committing)
  2. foo a = foo ba = b, some like applying f_equal theorem to a goal. (simplifing the hypothesis)
  3. a :: b = x :: ya = x and b = y (spliting injective cases)

In use case 1, it commits. In case 2, it does not commit but simplies a hypothesis. And in case 3, it split the cases. (As I write to here, I found it not so ridiculous as I thought it be before.)

Tactic option syntax

The disparity of tactic options are really confusing me. They’re even more difficult to remember than those tactic names. Voilà:

induction n, m vs intros n m. Comma separated or space separated?

induction n as [| [x y] l]. This syntax is used to name the induction variables in different case. We can think of n here in type of list (X * Y). Notice that the cases ` and[x y] lare sperated with a|symbol, the list head ([x y]) and tail (l) are seperated with a space, and one individual element, of a pair, are embeded in another nested pair of square bracket. Additionally, I don't even know till now how Coq recognize the user defined pair indicated in a specialized syntax[x y]` correctly.

rewrite xxx vs rewrite <- xxx. In fact, the left is an abbreviation of rewrite -> xxx. I was confused on the special using of <-. I thought it is an abuse of the symbol. A better way I can conceive is to split the function of rewrite into some like rewrite[l,r].

destruct eqn:<eqn>. This is yet another ridiculous non-uniform syntax. You can imagine some use of destruct are like destruct <expr> as <cases> eqn:<eqn>. It really happens. And I have to memorized which goes first, the as <cases> or the eqn:<eqn>.

Notation syntax

I couldn’t comprhend the usage of Notation so far. Notation is used to define notations, or say, syntatic sugars. The part that embarrassed me is its way to describe a syntax, which is a string, yes, a plain string. On the anesthetic and semantic aspect, syntatic description in a PL should have the the same syntatic level as the PL itself, rather than a degraded string.

On the other hand, the notation in Coq is so beautiful yet powerful. It even capable to rival with standard macro definition in Scheme. I’ll pose some examples.

Notation "x + y" := (plus x y)
  (at level 50, left associativity).
Notation "( x , y )" := (pair x y).
Notation "x :: l" := (cons x l)
  (at level 60, right associativity).
Notation "[ ]" := nil.
Notation "[ x ; .. ; y ]" :=
  (cons x .. (cons y nil) ..).

I don’t yet know how the definition the in the last case comes in nature. I’m curious about the implementation of the runtime syntatic definition to such a complex case. Contrarily, it’s at least conceivable how haskell infix operators work. Nor talk about the macros in the highly uniform syntax in Lisp.


At last, I want to say:

在在一個定理上辛苦工作了兩個小時後敲 Qed. 的那種爽快的成就感簡直無以言表有沒有!

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