My previous blog post proposed the ability to upgrade immutable references to mutable ones in Rust or similar languages. The main benefit of this is avoiding unnecessary code duplication implementing both immutable accessor and mutable accessor functions. It amounts to be a mutability generic programming (see a related Pre-RFC).

I’ve discussed this idea at the Rust internal forum and I realized a new syntax is necessary and references of certain types are not eligible for mutability upgrades. In this post, I’ll discuss those. Also, I’ll sketch the proof of its safety.

Necessary additions to the language and borrow checker

I propose two new language features. One of them requires a new syntax.

First, in order to establish the stronger “accessibility” relationship between references across function boundaries, we need a new language feature that relates the returned values to arguments.

Example (in Rust):

struct Example {
    data1: i32,
    data2: i32,

fn get_ref( input: & Example, key: i32 ) -> &'input i32 {
    if key == 42 {
        & self.data1
    } else {
        & self.data2

fn example1( key: i32 ) {
    let mut v = Example { data1: 1, data2: 2 };
    let r1 = get_ref( &v, key );
    let r2 = &mut r1; // currently now allowed
    *r2 = 3;

It is safe to upgrade r1’s mutability since the reference r1 is accessible from another mutable variable v and there are no other borrows from v live at the time of r2’s initialization.

However, this is not currently possible in Rust. The usual lifetime constraint in Rust is a “lives-as-long-as” relationship between arguments and returned references. That’s not strong enough to prove the returned reference is accessible from the argument.

Thus, we need a new direct accessibility annotation. The &'input i32 in the return type is a new language feature to indicate the returned referenced is “accessible” from input (or a subdata of the argument input).

Second, we need to relax lifetime constraints between references that have the same origin of borrow. In the example1, there is another reason why r1 can’t be mutably borrowed - another immutable borrow from v (the &v) is still live. Because r1 is borrowing from &v (via get_ref), that keeps &v live as long as r1 is live.

What we need here is to allow both &v and r1 die at the time of r2’s declaration. That is safe because both &v and r1 are directly/indirectly borrowing from v. We are eliminating the strict lifetime relationship between &v and r1, by realizing that their relative lifetimes are irrelevant (as long as v is live).


First limitation: Non-deterministic dependency

fn longest(x: &str, y: &str) -> &'??? str {
    if x.len() > y.len() {
    } else {

My current proposal is allowing to specify one argument such as 'x or 'y to indicate the returned reference is accessible from x or y, but my proposal does not allow to specify both.

One can think of a more complex syntax like fn longest(x: &str, y: &str) -> &'{x, y} str. But, that can be added later in the future.

Second limitation: Structs with immutable fields

Some structs may not be eligible for mutability upgrade. For example,

struct Ineligible<'a> {
    data: i32,
    immut_ref: &'a i32,

fn get_ref_ineligible<'a>(x: &'a Ineligible<'a>, key: i32) -> &'x i32 {
    if key == 42 {
    else {

static staticVal: i32 = 0;

fn example2( key: i32 ) {
    let mut v = Ineligible { data: 1, immut_ref: &staticVal };
    let w = get_ref_ineligible( &v, key );
    // not safe to upgrade `w` to a mutable borrow.

get_ref_ineligible might return a reference that can’t be mutable, even if its argument was mutable. Thus, it’s not safe to upgrade the returned reference to a mutable one.

Structs with an immutable field should fail the eligibility check. For example, a tuple with immutable references.

I don’t think this is a loss of functionality, one must write a separate function that guarantees to return a mutable reference, if necessary. See the following example:

fn get_ref_ineligible_mut<'a>(x: &'a Ineligible<'a>, key: i32) -> &'x mut i32 {
    // Returning `x.immut_ref` is no longer an option.

get_ref_ineligible_mut can’t be implemented the same as get_ref_ineligible due to restrictions. They have to be separate implementations. Thus, it won’t be a code duplication.

However, the rule can be too restrictive in some cases. What if those immutable references are pointing to the mutable memory within the data structure?

As a future improvement, an additional syntax could be added to indicate that an immutable field must reference another mutable field within the struct. For example,

struct Eligible2<'a> {
    data: i32,
    immut_ref: &'{mut Self} i32, // can assign `&` here.

A special annotation like '{mut Self} could indicate that immut_ref can must reference a mutable subfield of Eligible2. Therefore, immut_ref can be upgraded to a mutable one, if a mutable self reference is live. But, I’m not sure how important this particular use case would be.

Proof of Safety

Here’s the proof of why mutability upgrade is safe under the conditions described above.

Suppose we have a reference x to an object of type T. Let’s define two sets I(x) and M(x).

I(x): The set of all accessible immutable references from the immutable version of x (&T).

M(x): The set of all accessible mutable references from the mutable version of x (&mut T).


The conditions checked before upgrading an immutable reference y:

1) A mutable reference x (&mut T) is live in the current context, even though it is inaccessible (due to borrowing).

2) y is the only live variable borrowing from x directly or indirectly.

3) y is accessible from x. (Thus, y is in the set I(x).)

4) T has no immutable fields.


5) From (4), I(x) is a subset of M(x). (In other words, I(x) - M(x) is empty.)

6) From (3) and (5), y is in the set M(x).

Conclusion: Since y is the only live borrow from x from (2) and y is in the set M(x) from (6), it is safe to upgrade y to a mutable reference.


  • Smart pointers like Cell, Rc, etc. are eligible for mutability upgrade and shouldn’t cause a safety issue. They prohibit access to their internal references via immutable reference.
  • Box also doesn’t cause a problem, even if it exposes immutable reference via immutable self. Since Box’s internal references are not mutably shared, upgrading its immutable internal reference guarantees exclusive access and thus it’s safe to mutate.

Previous Post
The Properties of Reference
Blog Archive
Archive of all previous blog posts