Actual? Formal? What do they mean?

Posted on 2020-10-14 by Wim Meeus
Tagged as: SystemVerilogVerilogVHDL

In this article, we discuss the terms actual and formal. These terms show up in the Language Reference Manual of VHDL and (System)Verilog, and they also show up in some of the error messages in Sigasi Studio. Actuals and formals are short for actual and formal arguments of functions, procedures, entities, modules…

A formal is an argument in the definition of a function, procedure, entity, module etc. In other words, a formal is a port, a generic or a parameter.

package func is
    function my_function(
        arg1 : natural;         -- `arg1` and `arg2` are formals
        arg2 : natural
    ) return natural;

end package func;

entity enti is
        aa : integer := 2;      -- `aa` and `bb` are formals
        bb : natural := 1
        clk :  in std_logic;    -- `clk`, `rst` and `foo` are formals
        rst :  in std_logic;
        foo : out std_logic
end entity enti;

An actual is the value which is assigned to a formal e.g. in a function or procedure call, or in a module or entity instantiation. An actual can be an identifier (signal, variable…), an expression, or a special keyword like open in VHDL.

architecture RTL of insta is
    signal val1, val2 : natural;
    constant c1       : natural := 5;
    constant c2       : natural := 7;

begin                                                   -- `arg1` and `arg2` are formals
    val1 <= my_function(       c1,           c2 - c1);  -- `c1` and `(c2 - c1)` are actuals 
    val2 <= my_function(arg1 => 1, arg2 => val1 + c1);  -- `1` and `(val1 + c1)` are actuals

    enti_inst : entity work.enti
        generic map(
            aa => val2,                                 -- `aa` and `bb` are formals
            bb => val1 - 3                              -- `val2` and `(val1 - 3)` are actuals
        port map(
            clk => clock,                               -- `clk`, `rst` and `foo` are formals
            rst => reset,                               -- `clock`, `reset` and `open` are actuals
            foo => open
end architecture RTL;

In Sigasi Studio, the terms formal and actual are used in a number of warning and error messages. Here are some examples, in which a module demo with 4 ports (formals) is instantiated a few times. Each instantiation demonstrates one particular error involving formals and/or actuals.

module demo(
	input clk,
	input rst,
	input int data,
	output int rslt

module top (
    input clk,
    input rst,
    input int topdata,
    output int rslt1, rslt2, rslt3, rslt4

demo demo_instance1 (  // Too many actual ports: there are 5 actuals for 4 formals
    topdata,           // Unintended duplication?

demo demo_instance2 (
    .data(topdata+2),   // Duplicate formal port `data` used in the instantiation statement

demo demo_instance3 (   // Missing actual for formal port `rslt`
    .data(topdata)      // Where is the value for `rslt`?

demo demo_instance4 (
    .foo(rslt3),        // Formal port `foo` not found in the instantiated unit

If you encounter any of these messages, you now know what they actually tell you.

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