In what ways are dynamically typed languages more productive?


I do not aim to answer the question in the title more raise the question. The question kind of implies that dynamically typed languages are more productive in at least some ways. It does not imply that statically typed languages are less productive in general, or the opposite.

Before going any further, I'm talking about the distinction between static and dynamic typing which is not the same as strong vs weak typing. Static means the type checking is done at compilation before the program is run, whilst dynamic means types are checked whilst the program is running. Not the same as weak vs strong typing and also not the same as explicit vs implicit typing.


My PhD involved the development of a novel static type system. When I begun my PhD I was firmly of the opinion that statically typed languages were better than dynamically typed languages. My basic contention was that all the guarantees you get from static types you get largely for free, so throwing those away is a stupefying act of self harm. I believe that prior to the turn of the century (if not a bit later), this the majority view in programming language research. It is still a position commonly held but I'm unsure whether it may still be a majority view or not.

New data, should force us to seek out new theories which explain all of the available data. In the past 20 years, one thing is obvious. Dynamically typed languages have seen significant growth and success. Some researchers choose to ignore this. Some explain the success as a fluke, that such languages have become popular despite being dynamically typed. This is a recurrence of an argument made by functional programmers/researchers when C++ and then Java became wildly popular.

The prevailing view amongst researchers was that functional languages were inherently better than Java, but Java got a lot of financial support which meant that a lot of support was added to, in particular, the standard library. This meant that programmers were particularly productive using Java, but that that increase in productivity was mis-attributed by the programmers to the language, when it should have been placed firmly in the excellent standard library support. Much of this support is work that open source programmers are not quite so keen on, because frankly, it's a bit boring and unrewarding. I personally find this argument at least lightly compelling.

However, in the first decade of this century, as I said, dynamically typed languages have had at least significant success. Python, PHP, and Ruby are the most obvious examples. None of these were backed financially by any large corporation, at least not prior to their success. I again suspect that much of the productivity gained with the use of such languages can be placed in the library support. But that does not explain where the library support has come from. If dynamically typed languages were so obviously counter-productive, then why did anyone waste their time writing library support code in-and-for them?

Some Wild Hypotheses Appear

I am now going to state some hypotheses to explain this. This does not mean I endorse any of these.

Short term vs Long Term

One possible answer. Dynamically typed languages increase short term productivity at the cost of long term productivity. I don't personally believe this but I do find it plausible. However, I do not know of any evidence for or against this position. I'm not even sure there is much of a logical argument for it.

The kinds of bugs that functional programming languages help prevent are the kind of bug that is hard to demonstrate. It is easy enough to show a bug in an imperative program that would not occur in a functional program because you do not have mutable state. However, such demonstration bugs tend to be a bit contrived, and it is hard to show that such bugs come up in real code frequently. On top of that, to show that functional languages are more productive one would have to show that by restricting mutable state you do not lose more productivity than you gain by avoiding such bugs. If you did manage to show this, you would have a reasonable argument that functional languages are bad for short-term productivity, due to the restrictions on mutable state changes, but compensate in greater long-term productivity.

So, a similar kind of argument could be made for statically typed languages. If you could show that statically typed languages prevent a certain class of bugs and that the long-term productivity gained from that is more than enough to compensate for any short-term loss in productivity brought on by restrictions due to the type-system.

So I will leave my verdict on this hypothesis as, I believe it to be false but it is plausible. Just to note, there is no great evidence that either statically typed languages have greater long-term productivity, or that dynamically typed languages have greater short-term productivity.

Testing Tools

A trend that seems to have tracked (ie. correlates with, either via causation in either direction or by coincidence) the trend in use of (and success of) dynamically typed languages is the trend towards more rigorous testing, or rather the rise in popularity of more rigorous testing. In particular test-driven development style methodologies have gained significant support.

I believe that having a comprehensive test suite, somewhat dilutes the benefits gained from a static type system. Here is a good challenge, try to find a bug that is caught by the type checker, that would not be caught by a test suite with 100% code coverage.

One possibility is an exhaustive pattern match, however, if your test suite is not catching this, it's not a great test suite. Still, exhaustive pattern match tests is something you get more or less for free with a static type checker, whilst a test suite has to work at it.

It is certainly possible to come up with a bug that is caught by static type checking and not by a test suite that has full coverage. Here is an example:

    if (a and b):
        x = 1
        x = "1"
    if b:
        return string(x + 2)
        return x

This is a bug, because b might be true, whilst a is false. Which would mean that x is set to a string, but later treated as an integer, because b is true. A good test suite, will of course catch this bug. But it is still possible to achieve 100% code coverage (at the statement) level, and not catch this bug. Still, you have to try quite hard to arrange this.

Mutation testing, which tests your tests, rather than your implementation code, should catch this simple example (because it will mutate the condition (a and b) to be (a or b) which won't make any difference if your tests never caught the bug initially. This will mean that the mutant will pass all tests, and you should at that point realise your tests are not comprehensive enough.

Dynamically Typed Language Benefits

So you should have a comprehensive test suite for all code whether you are using a statically or dynamically typed language. We may then accept the theory that a comprehensive test suite somewhat dilutes any benefits of using a statically typed language. However, that theory does not give any reasaon why a static type system is detrimental to productivity.

This was always my main contention, that whatever might be the benefits of static typing, you are getting them for free, so why not? I honestly do not know what, if any, benefit there is from having a dynamic type system. I can think of some plausible candidates, but have no evidence that any of these are true:

  1. Freeing the language from a type system, allows the language designers to include some productivity boosting features that are not available in a statically typed language. I find this suggestion a little weak, no one has ever been able to point me to such a language feature.
  2. Knowing there is no safety net of the type system encourages developers to test (and document) more. I find this theory more compelling.
  3. One can try simple modifications without the need to make many fiddly changes, such as, for example, adding an exception to a method signature, often in many places.

I suspect, that if there are significant benefits to using a dynamically typed language, then it is a combination of 2 and 3, or some other reason.

For the third, a rebuttal often mentions automatic refactoring tools. Which may well in theory be something of a good rebuttal, but in practice developers simply don't use such tools often. I'm not sure why not, I myself have never taken to them. So perhaps there is a productivity gain from using a dynamically typed language which would be all but negated if only the developers would use automatic refactoring tools, but they don't. So it shouldn't be a productivity win for dynamically typed languages, but in practice it is (this is all still conjecture).

The second one has some evidence from psychology. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that safety mechanisms often do not increase overall safety but simply allow more risky behaviour. A very famous example is a seat-belt study done in Germany. Wherein mandating the wearing of seat-belts caused drivers to drive faster. This means that you are more likely to have a crash, but less likely to be seriously injured in one. This has similarly been done with anti-lock braking systems, where the brakes being significantly better did not reduce accidents but rather increased risky driving so that the number of accidents remained largely constant.

I mentioned documentation because it's an important one. There are plenty of libraries for statically typed languages for which the only documentation for many of the functions/methods is the type signature. This is often seen as "good enough", or at least good enough to mean that API documentation is not at the top of the todo stack. A dynamically-typed language does not typically have signatures for methods/functions. As a result, they tend to have fewer undocumented libraries, simply because the developer of the library knows that their methods will otherwise not be used. If that is the case, what is the point in the library? So they tend to write something, and once you are writing something it isn't so hard to write something useful.


This is getting too long. So I'll stop there for now. The main points are:

  1. Dynamically typed languages have had a lot of success this century, which remains largely unexplained
  2. I think that with comprehensive testing, the gains from a static type system are diluted significantly
  3. It might be that dynamically typed language encourage more/better testing (or have some other non-obvious advantage)
  4. Otherwise, there is scant evidence for anything a dynamically typed language actually does better
  5. I think an obvious win for statically typed languages would be to make the type checking phase optional.

I am not sure why we do not really see any examples of languages that have optional static type checking. In other words languages in which the user decided when type checking should be done.

As a final point. For dynamically typed languages, it is common to deploy some form of static analyser. Often these static analysers fall short of the kind of guarantees afforded by a static type system, but they have two significant advantages. Firstly, you can run the program without running the static analyser. In particular, you can run your test suite, which may well give you more information about the correctness of your code than a type checker would. Especially in the case that the type checker fails. It tells you about one specific problem in your code, but not how the rest of your code does or does not pass your tests. Secondly you can deploy different static analysers for different problems. For example a statically typed language has to decide whether or not to include exceptions in types. A dynamically typed language can easily offer both. I suppose a statically typed language could offer both as well.


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