Presentable signatures and initial semantics

Benedikt Ahrens, André Hirschowitz, Ambroise Lafont, Marco Maggesi

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We present a device for specifying and reasoning about syntax for datatypes, programming languages, and logic calculi. More precisely, we study a notion of "signature" for specifying syntactic constructions.

In the spirit of Initial Semantics, we define the "syntax generated by a signature" to be the initial object -- if it exists -- in a suitable category of models. In our framework, the existence of an associated syntax to a signature is not automatically guaranteed. We identify, via the notion of presentation of a signature, a large class of signatures that do generate a syntax.

Our (presentable) signatures subsume classical algebraic signatures (i.e., signatures for languages with variable binding, such as the pure lambda calculus) and extend them to include several other significant examples of syntactic constructions.

One key feature of our notions of signature, syntax, and presentation is that they are highly compositional, in the sense that complex examples can be obtained by gluing simpler ones. Moreover, through the Initial Semantics approach, our framework provides, beyond the desired algebra of terms, a well-behaved substitution and the induction and recursion principles associated to the syntax.

This paper builds upon ideas from a previous attempt by Hirschowitz-Maggesi, which, in turn, was directly inspired by some earlier work of Ghani-Uustalu-Hamana and Matthes-Uustalu.

The main results presented in the paper are computer-checked within the UniMath system.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17:1–17:28
JournalLogical Methods in Computer Science
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 26 May 2021


  • initial semantics
  • signature
  • syntax
  • monadic substitution
  • computer-checked proof


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