Definition File Theory: A Deep Dive

Structuring modules to give the exact API shape you want can be tricky. For example, we might want a module that can be invoked with or without new to produce different types, has a variety of named types exposed in a hierarchy, and has some properties on the module object as well.

By reading this guide, you’ll have the tools to write complex definition files that expose a friendly API surface. This guide focuses on module (or UMD) libraries because the options here are more varied.

Key Concepts

You can fully understand how to make any shape of definition by understanding some key concepts of how TypeScript works.

Types

If you’re reading this guide, you probably already roughly know what a type in TypeScript is. To be more explicit, though, a type is introduced with:

  • A type alias declaration (type sn = number | string;)
  • An interface declaration (interface I { x: number[]; })
  • A class declaration (class C { })
  • An enum declaration (enum E { A, B, C })
  • An import declaration which refers to a type

Each of these declaration forms creates a new type name.

Values

As with types, you probably already understand what a value is. Values are runtime names that we can reference in expressions. For example let x = 5; creates a value called x.

Again, being explicit, the following things create values:

  • let, const, and var declarations
  • A namespace or module declaration which contains a value
  • An enum declaration
  • A class declaration
  • An import declaration which refers to a value
  • A function declaration

Namespaces

Types can exist in namespaces. For example, if we have the declaration let x: A.B.C, we say that the type C comes from the A.B namespace.

This distinction is subtle and important – here, A.B is not necessarily a type or a value.

Simple Combinations: One name, multiple meanings

Given a name A, we might find up to three different meanings for A: a type, a value or a namespace. How the name is interpreted depends on the context in which it is used. For example, in the declaration let m: A.A = A;, A is used first as a namespace, then as a type name, then as a value. These meanings might end up referring to entirely different declarations!

This may seem confusing, but it’s actually very convenient as long as we don’t excessively overload things. Let’s look at some useful aspects of this combining behavior.

Built-in Combinations

Astute readers will notice that, for example, class appeared in both the type and value lists. The declaration class C { } creates two things: a type C which refers to the instance shape of the class, and a value C which refers to the constructor function of the class. Enum declarations behave similarly.

User Combinations

Let’s say we wrote a module file foo.d.ts:

export var SomeVar: { a: SomeType };
export interface SomeType {
  count: number;
}

Then consumed it:

import * as foo from './foo';
let x: foo.SomeType = foo.SomeVar.a;
console.log(x.count);

This works well enough, but we might imagine that SomeType and SomeVar were very closely related such that you’d like them to have the same name. We can use combining to present these two different objects (the value and the type) under the same name Bar:

export var Bar: { a: Bar };
export interface Bar {
  count: number;
}

This presents a very good opportunity for destructuring in the consuming code:

import { Bar } from './foo';
let x: Bar = Bar.a;
console.log(x.count);

Again, we’ve used Bar as both a type and a value here. Note that we didn’t have to declare the Bar value as being of the Bar type – they’re independent.

Advanced Combinations

Some kinds of declarations can be combined across multiple declarations. For example, class C { } and interface C { } can co-exist and both contribute properties to the C types.

This is legal as long as it does not create a conflict. A general rule of thumb is that values always conflict with other values of the same name unless they are declared as namespaces, types will conflict if they are declared with a type alias declaration (type s = string), and namespaces never conflict.

Let’s see how this can be used.

Adding using an interface

We can add additional members to an interface with another interface declaration:

interface Foo {
  x: number;
}
// ... elsewhere ...
interface Foo {
  y: number;
}
let a: Foo = ...;
console.log(a.x + a.y); // OK

This also works with classes:

class Foo {
  x: number;
}
// ... elsewhere ...
interface Foo {
  y: number;
}
let a: Foo = ...;
console.log(a.x + a.y); // OK

Note that we cannot add to type aliases (type s = string;) using an interface.

Adding using a namespace

A namespace declaration can be used to add new types, values, and namespaces in any way which does not create a conflict.

For example, we can add a static member to a class:

class C {
}
// ... elsewhere ...
namespace C {
  export let x: number;
}
let y = C.x; // OK

Note that in this example, we added a value to the static side of C (its constructor function). This is because we added a value, and the container for all values is another value (types are contained by namespaces, and namespaces are contained by other namespaces).

We could also add a namespaced type to a class:

class C {
}
// ... elsewhere ...
namespace C {
  export interface D { }
}
let y: C.D; // OK

In this example, there wasn’t a namespace C until we wrote the namespace declaration for it. The meaning C as a namespace doesn’t conflict with the value or type meanings of C created by the class.

Finally, we could perform many different merges using namespace declarations. This isn’t a particularly realistic example, but shows all sorts of interesting behavior:

namespace X {
  export interface Y { }
  export class Z { }
}

// ... elsewhere ...
namespace X {
  export var Y: number;
  export namespace Z {
    export class C { }
  }
}
type X = string;

In this example, the first block creates the following name meanings:

  • A value X (because the namespace declaration contains a value, Z)
  • A namespace X (because the namespace declaration contains a type, Y)
  • A type Y in the X namespace
  • A type Z in the X namespace (the instance shape of the class)
  • A value Z that is a property of the X value (the constructor function of the class)

The second block creates the following name meanings:

  • A value Y (of type number) that is a property of the X value
  • A namespace Z
  • A value Z that is a property of the X value
  • A type C in the X.Z namespace
  • A value C that is a property of the X.Z value
  • A type X

Using with export = or import

An important rule is that export and import declarations export or import all meanings of their targets.