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`void` is not a unit type in TypeScript

TypeScript2 min read

In type theory a unit type is any type that represents exactly one possible value. The unit types in TypeScript include null, undefined, and literal types.

TypeScript also has the type void which is used as the return type for functions that don't have an explicit return value. In JavaScript a function that does not explicitly return implicitly returns undefined; so at first glance it would seem that void is an alias for the undefined type. But it is not!

We can test this by checking assignability:

If they were the same type, undefined and void would be mutually assignable.

According to the Handbook, "[void is] the absence of having any type at all." TypeScript is nicely consistent with the behavior of types as sets. (any is an exception because it does not behave like a well-defined set.) "The absence of any type at all" is not a sensical statement about sets; so that description seems odd to me. But that may be a way of explaining that in some ways void, like any, does not behave as a well-defined set.

undefined is assignable to void which tells us that the type void does include the value undefined. From a type theory perspective the fact that the reverse is not allowed implies that void represents a set of possible values that includes values other than undefined. And we can see that is true in practice. If you have a variable with a function type where the return type is void, any function is assignable to that variable regardless of the actual return type as long as the argument types are compatible.

This behavior is convenient - instead of requiring certain return values the use of void in this case is more like a statement by the caller that it will ignore the return value of the callback. But we can see in this example that although the type of x is void, values assigned to x could strings, numbers, or booleans. In fact x could be assigned any type of value!

This makes it look like it would be most accurate to think of void as an alias for unknown. That would be consistent with the assignability tests from before: undefined is assignable to unknown, but unknown is not assignable to undefined. But now let's look at the ways in which void does not behave like a set.

If void were a set that contains every possible value (and in the foo example we have seen that in practice it is) then we should be able to assign any value to a variable of type void. But it turns out that the only value that TypeScript will permit assigning to a variable of type void is undefined:

It looks like either TypeScript has a special rule that prohibits assignment to void variables, or TypeScript thinks of void as a small set but the void return callback feature lets non-void values "leak" into void variables.

My suggestion for making TypeScript more consistent is to make void a proper alias of undefined. It's possible the reason that it was not set up that way in the first place is that void predates unknown. In any case, that is how I am going to think of void going forward.