Polar Syntax

Polar is a declarative logic programming language, specialized for making authorization decisions and tightly integrating with your application’s native language.

This guide is a brief description of the core syntax elements of Polar.

Each Polar file defines a set of rules. When a Polar file is loaded into the authorization engine, all rules are added to the engine’s knowledge base.

The knowledge base may be queried. The behavior of queries is described further here.

Primitive Types

Polar has only a few primitive data types.


Polar parses unquoted integers or floating point numbers as numeric values. For example, all of the following are parsed as numbers:


You can also perform basic arithmetic on numbers with the operators +, -, *, /, mod, and rem.


Polar parses the keywords true and false as boolean values.


Polar supports quoted strings, which can be used to represent any textual data. Polar strings are quoted with double quotes ("). Quotes within strings can be escaped with a single backslash. Two strings are considered equal if they have the same length and each of their corresponding characters are equal.

The string type can be referenced (for use in specializers, or with the matches operator) as String.

Compound Types

To support more complex data, Polar includes the following compound data types.


A list is a sequence of values defined using brackets: [v1, v2, ..., vn]. For example:

["polar", "lang", "oso"]
["oso", ["polar", "lang"]]

Lists may have any length. List membership can be determined using the in operator.


While lists are useful for representing ordered data, dictionaries (sometimes known as hash tables or associative arrays) can express unordered relational data such as mappings: {key1: value1, key2: value2, ..., keyN: valueN}.

For example:

{first_name: "Yogi", last_name: "Bear"}

Class Instances

A similar syntax is used to represent instances of classes. The class name is specified before the dictionary:

Bear{first_name: "Yogi", last_name: "Bear"}

Classes can be registered with the Oso library to integrate with Polar. See Application Types for more information.

An instance literal can only be used with the new operator or as a pattern.


Every statement in a Polar file is part of a rule. Rules allow us to express conditional statements ("if this then that").

A rule in Polar takes the form HEAD if BODY; where HEAD must be a fact and BODY any number of terms. The meaning of a rule is that HEAD is true if each of the BODY terms is true. If there are be multiple rules with the same head, each BODY will be tried in turn, and any or all may succeed. For more on how rules are defined and applied see Polar Background.

The following is an example of a rule:

person("yogi", "bear") if bear("yogi", "bear");

This example says that Yogi is a person if Yogi is a bear. Bears are people, too.


A term is either a data type or a combination of facts using operators.


The example rule above is static. More powerful rules can be formed using variables. In Polar, a variable does not need a separate declaration; it is created the first time it is referenced. Variables can be substituted for values in dictionaries or items in a list or rule call.

The following are all variables:


To make the above rule more useful, we could write:

person(first, last) if bear(first, last);

This rule says that if there is a bear with some name, then that bear is also a person.


If a variable occurs only once, then its value can’t be used for anything. Such variables are called singletons, and Polar will warn you if they occur in a rule. For example, if you try to load the rule…

user(first, last) if person("George", last);

…you’ll see the following message:

Singleton variable first is unused or undefined
001: user(first, last) if person("George", last);

The reason these warnings are important is that, as in this case, they indicate potential logical errors. Here, the error is forgetting to use the first name, and instead using a literal string in the call to person.

There are cases, however, where it isn’t an error to have a singleton variable. For example:

  • As a parameter with a specializer: allow(_actor: Person{first_name: "George"}, …);
  • As a parameter that is explicitly ignored: always_true(_);

In such cases, you can suppress the singleton variable warning by starting your variable’s name with an _ (underscore), e.g., _actor in the first example above.

A variable named just _ (as in the second example above) is called an anonymous variable, and it is always a singleton (but will never generate a warning). Each occurrence is translated into a fresh variable, guaranteed not to match any other variable. You may therefore have as many anonymous variables in a rule as you like, and each will be unique. It’s up to you whether to use an anonymous variable or a singleton with a descriptive name.


Operators are used to combine terms in rule bodies into expressions.


Unification is the basic matching operation in Polar. Two values are said to unify if they are equal or if there is a consistent set of variable bindings that makes them equal. Unification is defined recursively over compound types (e.g., lists and dictionaries): two compound values unify if all of their corresponding elements unify.

Unification may be performed explicitly with the unification operator (=), which is true if its two operands unify; e.g., 1 = 1, "a" = "a", or x = 1 where the variable x is either bound to 1 or unbound.

Unification is also used to determine if queries match rule HEAD s, and if the BODY of rules match other facts in the knowledge base. We will cover unification further in The Search Procedure.


Assigning a value to an unbound variable can be done using the unification operator. However, the assignment operator (:=) may also be used, and will only succeed if the left-hand side operand is an unbound variable. For example, foo := 1. This operator can be used to improve readability and predictability by indicating explicit assignment. Attempting to assign to a non-variable will result in a parse error, while attempting to assign to a bound variable will result in a runtime error.

Conjunction (and)

To say that two terms in a rule’s body must both be true, the and operator can be used. For example, the rule…

oso_user(first, last) if
    user(first, last) and
    employee(company("Oso"), person(first, last));

…will be satisfied if the named person is a user and that person is an employee of Oso.

Disjunction (or)

The or operator will be true if either its left or its right operand is true. Disjunctions can always be replaced by multiple rules with identical heads but different bodies (the operands), but may help simplify writing rules with alternatives.

Negation (not)

The not operator will succeed when its argument fails.

For example, the following rule will succeed when x != 0 (and could be written as such).

non_zero(x) if not x == 0;

not is helpful when negating the results of another rule call. For example,

positive(x) if
    non_zero(x) and
    not negative(x);

negative(x) if x < 0;

Above, positive will succeed if negative(x) returns no results.

To negate multiple expressions, use parentheses to group them:

positive(x) if
    not (x == 0 or negative(x));

Dictionary Key Access

The dot . operator can be used to access the value associated with a key in a dictionary. For example:

dict = { hello: "world" } and
dict.hello = "world"

A string stored in a variable can be used as the key in a dot lookup using the following syntax:

dict = { hello: "world" } and
key = "hello" and
dict.(key) = "world"

Application Field or Method Access

The dot . operator can also be used to access methods or fields on application instances or constants. Arguments can be passed into methods as positional or keyword arguments, depending on the application language. Keyword arguments are only supported in languages that themselves support them (e.g., Python, Ruby).

Accessing a field on an application instance looks like:

person = new Person() and
first_name = person.first_name

Calling an application method from a policy looks like this:

person = new Person() and
person.check_address("12345 Broadway", city: "New York", state: "NY");

Calling a class method on a class that has been registered as a constant could look like:

person = new Person() and
Person.log("created new person")


The comparison operators can be used to compare values (> >= < <= == !=). For example…

age < 10

…will check that the value of the variable age is less than 10. Performing a comparison on application data will use the host language’s native comparison operation. Not all Oso language libraries support this feature.


print() is a built-in operator that prints its arguments to the console. It always succeeds and can therefore be added anywhere in the body of a Polar rule. For example:

hello(x) if print("hello", x) and x = "world";

query> hello("world");
"hello", "world"


By default, Polar runs all of the definitions for a given rule that are applicable to the given set of arguments (i.e., whose specializers are matched). The cut operator overrides this behavior by committing to the enclosing rule definition: the query engine will not run any others. Rule definitions that have already run are not “un-run”, though, or avoided by using cut; it just ensures that no others will run.

Because Polar runs rules in most-to-least-specific order, these “other” rule definitions are always less specific than the current one; i.e., they may have specializers that are superclasses (and therefore less specific) of those in the current rule. This allows cut to override a rule that is specialized on a less specific class. You can think of cut as a sort of dual to super() in other object-oriented languages (e.g., Python): in Polar, the behavior of “methods” (rules) is to implicitly call the next method, but cut overrides that behavior; it says not to call any more methods (rules).

cut can appear anywhere in a rule body, but terms before it must succeed for it to be reached, so it frequently appears at the end of the body: if so-and-so is true, then cut out all other alternatives.

cut should be used sparingly.


The new operator is used to construct a new instance of an application class. (See Application Types for more about how to define and register application classes.) The name of the class to instantiate comes next, followed by a set of initialization arguments that are passed to the class’s constructor:

new Bear("yogi", "bear")

In host languages that support keyword arguments (e.g., Python & Ruby, but not Java), you can pass initialization arguments as keywords with the following syntax:

new Bear(first_name: "yogi", last_name: "bear")

If using a constructor with mixed positional and keyword arguments, positional arguments must come before keyword arguments:

new Bear("yogi", last_name: "bear")

In (List Membership)

The in operator can be used to iterate over elements of built-in and application types. Iterable built-in types are List, String, and Dictionary.

The first operand will be unified with each element. If the second operand is not iterable, the operation will fail. For example…

x in [1, 2, 3] and x = 1

…will bind x to 1, 2, 3, in turn, and check that x = 1 for each. This expression will only succeed for the first item (1). The left-hand side does not need to be a variable. for example…

1 in [1, 2, 3, 1]

…will succeed twice: 1 is in the first and fourth position.

Iterating over a String returns each character (as another string):

hexstring(s) if
  forall(c in s, c in "0123456789abcdef");

Iterating over a dictionary returns a list with two elements, the key (as a string) and the value:

x in {a: 1, b: 2}
[key, _] in {a: 1, b: 2}
[_, value] in {a: 1, b: 2}

The above returns:

x => ["a", 1]
x => ["b", 2]

key => "a"
key => "b"

value => 1
value => 2

For All

The forall operator is often useful in conjunction with the in operator. forall(condition, action) checks that action succeeds for every alternative produced by condition. For example…

forall(x in [1, 2, 3], x = 1)

…would fail because x only unifies with 1 for the first element in the list (the first alternative of the condition). In contrast…

forall(x in [1, 1, 1], x = 1)

…succeeds because the action holds for all values in the list.

forall can also be used with application data to check all elements returned by an application method:

forall(role = user.roles(), role = "admin")

Any bindings made inside a forall (role or x in the example above) cannot be accessed outside the forall operation.

*rest Operator

The rest operator (*) can be used to destructure a list. For example:

x = [1, 2, 3] and
[first, *tail] = x

After evaluating the above, the variable first will have the value 1 and tail will have the value [2, 3].

The rest operator is only valid within a list literal and in front of a variable. It must be the last element of the list literal ([*rest, tail]) is invalid. Any number of elements can come before the rest operator.

The rest operator is only useful when combined with a unification operation that assigns a value to it.

Patterns and Matching

Polar has powerful pattern matching facilities that are useful to control which rules execute & in what order.


Rule heads (the part of the rule before the if keyword) can contain specializers. For example, the rule…

has_first_name(person: Person, name) if person.name = name;

…would only execute if the person argument is of the type Person.

Multiple rules of the same structure can be written with different specializers:

has_first_name(user: User, name) if user.name = name;

Now, the first_name rule can be used with instances of the User or Person type.

For more on this feature, see Application Types.


The expression after the : is called a pattern. The following are valid patterns:

  • any primitive type
  • a dictionary literal
  • an instance literal (without the new operator)
  • a type name (used above)

When a rule is evaluated, the value of the argument is matched against the pattern. For primitive types, a value matches a pattern if it is equal.

For dictionary types, a value matches a pattern if the pattern is a subset of the dictionary. For example:

{x: 1, y: 2} matches {x: 1}
{x: 1, y: 3} matches {y: 3}
{x: 1, y: 3} matches {x: 1, y: 3}

# Does not match because y value are not equal
not {x: 1, y: 3} matches {x: 1, y: 4}

A type name matches if the value has the same type:

new Person() matches Person

The fields are checked in the same manner as dictionaries, and the type is checked in the same manner as the previous example:

new Person(x: 1, y: 2) matches Person{x: 1}

For type matching, subclasses are also considered. So, a class that is a subclass of Person would match Person{x: 1}.

Matches Operator

The above example used the matches operator to describe the behavior of pattern matching. This operator can be used anywhere within a rule body to perform a match. The same operation is used by the engine to test whether a rule argument matches the specializer.

Inline Queries (?=)

Queries can also be added to Polar files and will run when the file is loaded. Inline queries can be useful for testing a policy and confirming it behaves as expected.

To add an inline query to a Polar file, use the ?= operator:

?= allow("foo", "read", "bar")

An inline query is only valid at the beginning of a line.

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