Chapter 8. Efficient file processing, regular expressions, and file name matching

Table of Contents

Efficient file processing
Binary I/O and qualified imports
Text I/O
File name matching
Regular expressions in Haskell
The many types of result
More about regular expressions
Mixing and matching string types
Other things you should know
Translating a glob pattern into a regular expression
An important aside: writing lazy functions
Making use of our pattern matcher
Handling errors through API design
Putting our code to work

Efficient file processing

This simple microbenchmark reads a text file full of numbers, and prints their sum.

-- file: ch08/SumFile.hs
main = do
    contents <- getContents
    print (sumFile contents)
  where sumFile = sum . map read . words

Although the String type is the default used for reading and writing files, it is not efficient, so a simple program like this will perform badly.

A String is represented as a list of Char values; each element of a list is allocated individually, and has some book-keeping overhead. These factors affect the memory consumption and performance of a program that must read or write text or binary data. On simple benchmarks like this, even programs written in interpreted languages such as Python can outperform Haskell code that uses String by an order of magnitude.

The bytestring library provides a fast, cheap alternative to the String type. Code written with bytestring can often match or exceed the performance and memory footprint of C, while maintaining Haskell's expressivity and conciseness.

The library supplies two modules. Each defines functions that are nearly drop-in replacements for their String counterparts.

  • The Data.ByteString module defines a strict type named ByteString. This represents a string of binary or text data in a single array.

  • The Data.ByteString.Lazy module provides a lazy type, also named ByteString. This represents a string of data as a list of chunks, arrays of up to 64KB in size.

Each ByteString type performs better under particular circumstances. For streaming a large quantity (hundreds of megabytes to terabytes) of data, the lazy ByteString type is usually best. Its chunk size is tuned to be friendly to a modern CPU's L1 cache, and a garbage collector can quickly discard chunks of streamed data that are no longer being used.

The strict ByteString type performs best for applications that are less concerned with memory footprint, or that need to access data randomly.

Binary I/O and qualified imports

Let's develop a small function to illustrate some of the ByteString API. We will determine if a file is an ELF object file: this is the format used for executables on almost all modern Unix-like systems.

This is a simple matter of looking at the first four bytes in the file, and seeing if they match a specific sequence of bytes. A byte sequence that identifies a file's type is often known as a magic number.

-- file: ch08/ElfMagic.hs
import qualified Data.ByteString.Lazy as L

hasElfMagic :: L.ByteString -> Bool
hasElfMagic content = L.take 4 content == elfMagic
    where elfMagic = L.pack [0x7f, 0x45, 0x4c, 0x46]

We import the ByteString modules using Haskell's qualified import syntax, the import qualified that we see above. This lets us refer to a module with a name of our choosing.

For instance, when we want to refer to the lazy ByteString module's take function, we must write L.take, since we imported the module under the name L. If we are not explicit about which version of e.g. take we want, the compiler will report an error.

We will always use qualified import syntax with the ByteString modules, because they provide many functions that have the same names as Prelude functions.


Qualified imports make it easy to switch between ByteString types. All you should need to do is modify an import declaration at the top of your source file; the rest of your code will probably not need any changes. You can thus handily benchmark the two types, to see which is best suited to your application's needs

Whether or not we use qualified imports, we can always use the entire name of a module to identify something unambiguously. For instance, both Data.ByteString.Lazy.length and L.length identify the same function, as do Prelude.sum and sum.

The lazy and strict ByteString modules are intended for binary I/O. The Haskell data type for representing bytes is Word8; if we need to refer to it by name, we import it from the Data.Word module.

The L.pack function takes a list of Word8 values, and packs them into a lazy ByteString. (The L.unpack function performs the reverse conversion.) Our hasElfMagic function simply compares the first four bytes of a ByteString against a magic number.

We are writing in classic Haskell style, where our hasElfMagic function does not perform I/O. Here is the function that uses it on a file.

-- file: ch08/ElfMagic.hs
isElfFile :: FilePath -> IO Bool
isElfFile path = do
  content <- L.readFile path
  return (hasElfMagic content)

The L.readFile function is the lazy ByteString equivalent of readFile. It operates lazily, reading the file as data is demanded. It is also efficient, reading chunks of up to 64KB at once. The lazy ByteString is a good choice for our task: since we only need to read at most the first four bytes of the file, we can safely use this function on a file of any size.

Text I/O

For convenience, the bytestring library provides two other modules with limited text I/O capabilities, Data.ByteString.Char8 and Data.ByteString.Lazy.Char8. These expose individual string elements as Char instead of Word8.


The functions in these modules only work with byte-sized Char values, so they are only suitable for use with ASCII and some European character sets. Values above 255 are truncated.

The character-oriented bytestring modules provide useful functions for text processing. Here is a file that contains monthly stock prices for a well-known Internet company from mid-2008.

ghci> putStr =<< readFile "prices.csv"
Date,Open,High,Low,Close,Volume,Adj Close

How can we find the highest closing price from a series of entries like this? Closing prices are in the fourth comma-separated column. This function obtains a closing price from one line of data.

-- file: ch08/HighestClose.hs
import qualified Data.ByteString.Lazy.Char8 as L

closing = readPrice . (!!4) . L.split ','

Since this function is written in point-free style, we read from right to left. The L.split function splits a lazy ByteString into a list of them, every time it finds a matching character. The (!!) operator retrieves the kth element of a list. Our readPrice function turns a string representing a fractional price into a whole number.

-- file: ch08/HighestClose.hs
readPrice :: L.ByteString -> Maybe Int
readPrice str =
    case L.readInt str of
      Nothing             -> Nothing
      Just (dollars,rest) ->
        case L.readInt (L.tail rest) of
          Nothing           -> Nothing
          Just (cents,more) ->
            Just (dollars * 100 + cents)

We use the L.readInt function, which parses an integer. It returns both the integer and the remainder of the string once a run of digits is consumed. Our definition is slightly complicated by L.readInt returning Nothing if parsing fails.

Our function for finding the highest closing price is straightforward.

-- file: ch08/HighestClose.hs
highestClose = maximum . (Nothing:) . map closing . L.lines

highestCloseFrom path = do
    contents <- L.readFile path
    print (highestClose contents)

We use one trick to work around the fact that we cannot supply an empty list to the maximum function.

ghci> maximum [3,6,2,9]
ghci> maximum []
*** Exception: Prelude.maximum: empty list

Since we do not want our code to throw an exception if we have no stock data, the (Nothing:) expression ensures that the list of Maybe Int values that we supply to maximum will never be empty.

ghci> maximum [Nothing, Just 1]
Just 1
ghci> maximum [Nothing]

Does our function work?

ghci> :load HighestClose
[1 of 1] Compiling Main             ( HighestClose.hs, interpreted )
Ok, modules loaded: Main.
ghci> highestCloseFrom "prices.csv"
Loading package array- ... linking ... done.
Loading package bytestring- ... linking ... done.
Just 2741

Since we have separated our I/O from our logic, we can test the no-data case without having to create an empty file.

ghci> highestClose L.empty

File name matching

Many systems-oriented programming languages provide library routines that let us match a file name against a pattern, or that will give a list of files that match the pattern. In other languages, this function is often named fnmatch.) Although Haskell's standard library generally has good systems programming facilities, it doesn't provide these kinds of pattern matching functions. We'll take this as an opportunity to develop our own.

The kinds of patterns we'll be dealing with are commonly referred to as glob patterns (the term we'll use), wild card patterns, or shell-style patterns. They have just a few simple rules. You probably already know them, but we'll quickly recap here.

  • Matching a string against a pattern starts at the beginning of the string, and finishes at the end.

  • Most literal characters match themselves. For example, the text foo in a pattern will match foo, and only foo, in an input string.

  • The * (asterisk) character means “match anything”; it will match any text, including the empty string. For instance, the pattern foo* will match any string that begins with foo, such as foo itself, foobar, or foo.c. The pattern quux*.c will match any string that begins with quux and ends in .c, such as quuxbaz.c.

  • The ? (question mark) character matches any single character. The pattern pic??.jpg will match names like picaa.jpg or pic01.jpg.

  • A [ (open square bracket) character begins a character class, which is ended by a ]. Its meaning is “match any character in this class”. A character class can be negated by following the opening [ with a !, so that it means “match any character not in this class”.

    As a shorthand, a character followed by a - (dash), followed by another character, denotes a range: “match any character within this set”.

    Character classes have an added subtlety; they can't be empty. The first character after the opening [ or [! is part of the class, so we can write a class containing the ] character as []aeiou]. The pattern pic[0-9].[pP][nN][gG] will match a name consisting of the string pic, followed by a single digit, followed by any capitalization of the strig .png.

While Haskell doesn't provide a way to match glob patterns among its standard libraries, it provides a good regular expression matching library. Glob patterns are nothing more than cut-down regular expressions with slightly different syntax. It's easy to convert glob patterns into regular expressions, but to do so, we must first understand how to use regular expressions in Haskell.

Regular expressions in Haskell

In this section, we will be assume that you are already familiar with regular expressions by way of some other language, such as Python, Perl, or Java[26].

For brevity, we will abbreviate “regular expression” as regexp from here on.

Rather than introduce regexps as something new, we will focus on what's different about regexp handling in Haskell, compared to other languages. Haskell's regular expression matching libraries are a lot more expressive than those of other languages, so there's plenty to talk about.

To begin our exploration of the regexp libraries, the only module we'll need to work with is Text.Regex.Posix. As usual, the most convenient way to explore this module is by interacting with it via ghci.

ghci> :module +Text.Regex.Posix

The only function that we're likely to need for normal use is the regexp matching function, an infix operator named (=~) (borrowed from Perl). The first hurdle to overcome is that Haskell's regexp libraries make heavy use of polymorphism. As a result, the type signature of the (=~) operator is difficult to understand, so we will not explain it here.

The =~ operator uses typeclasses for both of its arguments, and also for its return type. The first argument (on the left of the =~) is the text to match; the second (on the right) is the regular expression to match against. We can pass either a String or a ByteString as either argument.

The many types of result

The =~ operator is polymorphic in its return type, so the Haskell compiler needs some way to know what type of result we would like. In real code, it may be able to infer the right type, due to the way we subsequently use the result. But such cues are often lacking when we're exploring with ghci. If we omit a specific type for the result, we'll get an error from the interpreter, as it does not have enough information to successfuly infer the result type.

When ghci can't infer the target type, we tell it what we'd like the type to be. If we want a result of type Bool, we'll get a pass/fail answer.

ghci> "my left foot" =~ "foo" :: Bool
Loading package array- ... linking ... done.
Loading package containers- ... linking ... done.
Loading package bytestring- ... linking ... done.
Loading package mtl- ... linking ... done.
Loading package regex-base-0.93.1 ... linking ... done.
Loading package regex-posix-0.93.1 ... linking ... done.
ghci> "your right hand" =~ "bar" :: Bool
ghci> "your right hand" =~ "(hand|foot)" :: Bool

In the bowels of the regexp libraries, there's a typeclass named RegexContext that describes how a target type should behave; the base library defines many instances of this typeclass for us. The Bool type is an instance of this typeclass, so we get back a usable result. Another such instance is Int, which gives us a count of the number of times the regexp matches.

ghci> "a star called henry" =~ "planet" :: Int
ghci> "honorificabilitudinitatibus" =~ "[aeiou]" :: Int

If we ask for a String result, we'll get the first substring that matches, or an empty string if nothing matches.

ghci> "I, B. Ionsonii, uurit a lift'd batch" =~ "(uu|ii)" :: String
ghci> "hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi" =~ "Shakespeare" :: String

Another valid type of result is [String], which returns a list of all matching strings.

ghci> "I, B. Ionsonii, uurit a lift'd batch" =~ "(uu|ii)" :: [String]

    No instance for (RegexContext Regex [Char] [String])
      arising from a use of `=~' at <interactive>:1:0-50
    Possible fix:
      add an instance declaration for
      (RegexContext Regex [Char] [String])
    In the expression:
            "I, B. Ionsonii, uurit a lift'd batch" =~ "(uu|ii)" :: [String]
    In the definition of `it':
        it = "I, B. Ionsonii, uurit a lift'd batch" =~ "(uu|ii)" ::
ghci> "hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi" =~ "Shakespeare" :: [String]

    No instance for (RegexContext Regex [Char] [String])
      arising from a use of `=~' at <interactive>:1:0-54
    Possible fix:
      add an instance declaration for
      (RegexContext Regex [Char] [String])
    In the expression:
            "hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi" =~ "Shakespeare" :: [String]
    In the definition of `it':
        it = "hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi" =~ "Shakespeare" ::
[Note]Watch out for String results

If you want a result that's a plain String, beware. Since (=~) returns an empty string to signify “no match”, this poses an obvious difficulty if the empty string could also be a valid match for the regexp. If such a case arises, you should use a different return type instead, such as [String].

That's about it for “simple” result types, but we're not by any means finished. Before we continue, let's use a single pattern for our remaining examples. We can define this pattern as a variable in ghci, to save a little typing.

ghci> let pat = "(foo[a-z]*bar|quux)"

We can obtain quite a lot of information about the context in which a match occurs. If we ask for a (String, String, String) tuple, we'll get back the text before the first match, the text of that match, and the text that follows it.

ghci> "before foodiebar after" =~ pat :: (String,String,String)
("before ","foodiebar"," after")

If the match fails, the entire text is returned as the “before” element of the tuple, with the other two elements left empty.

ghci> "no match here" =~ pat :: (String,String,String)
("no match here","","")

Asking for a four-element tuple gives us a fourth element that's a list of all groups in the pattern that matched.

ghci> "before foodiebar after" =~ pat :: (String,String,String,[String])
("before ","foodiebar"," after",["foodiebar"])

We can get numeric information about matches, too. A pair of Ints gives us the starting offset of the first match, and its length. If we ask for a list of these pairs, we'll get this information for all matches.

ghci> "before foodiebar after" =~ pat :: (Int,Int)
ghci> "i foobarbar a quux" =~ pat :: [(Int,Int)]

    No instance for (RegexContext Regex [Char] [(Int, Int)])
      arising from a use of `=~' at <interactive>:1:0-26
    Possible fix:
      add an instance declaration for
      (RegexContext Regex [Char] [(Int, Int)])
    In the expression: "i foobarbar a quux" =~ pat :: [(Int, Int)]
    In the definition of `it':
        it = "i foobarbar a quux" =~ pat :: [(Int, Int)]

A failed match is represented by the value -1 as the first element of the tuple (the match offset) if we've asked for a single tuple, or an empty list if we've asked for a list of tuples.

ghci> "eleemosynary" =~ pat :: (Int,Int)
ghci> "mondegreen" =~ pat :: [(Int,Int)]

    No instance for (RegexContext Regex [Char] [(Int, Int)])
      arising from a use of `=~' at <interactive>:1:0-18
    Possible fix:
      add an instance declaration for
      (RegexContext Regex [Char] [(Int, Int)])
    In the expression: "mondegreen" =~ pat :: [(Int, Int)]
    In the definition of `it': it = "mondegreen" =~ pat :: [(Int, Int)]

This is not a comprehensive list of built-in instances of the RegexContext typeclass. For a complete list, see the documentation for the Text.Regex.Base.Context module.

This ability to make a function polymorphic in its result type is an unusual feature for a statically typed language.

More about regular expressions

Mixing and matching string types

As we noted earlier, the =~ operator uses typeclasses for its argument types and its return type. We can use either String or strict ByteString values for both the regular expression and the text to match against.

ghci> :module +Data.ByteString.Char8
ghci> :type pack "foo"
pack "foo" :: ByteString

We can then try using different combinations of String and ByteString.

ghci> pack "foo" =~ "bar" :: Bool
ghci> "foo" =~ pack "bar" :: Int
ghci> pack "foo" =~ pack "o" :: [(Int, Int)]

    No instance for (RegexContext Regex ByteString [(Int, Int)])
      arising from a use of `=~' at <interactive>:1:0-21
    Possible fix:
      add an instance declaration for
      (RegexContext Regex ByteString [(Int, Int)])
    In the expression: pack "foo" =~ pack "o" :: [(Int, Int)]
    In the definition of `it':
        it = pack "foo" =~ pack "o" :: [(Int, Int)]

However, we need to be aware that if we want a string value in the result of a match, the text we're matching against must be the same type of string. Let's see what this means in practice.

ghci> pack "good food" =~ ".ood" :: [ByteString]

    No instance for (RegexContext Regex ByteString [ByteString])
      arising from a use of `=~' at <interactive>:1:0-25
    Possible fix:
      add an instance declaration for
      (RegexContext Regex ByteString [ByteString])
    In the expression: pack "good food" =~ ".ood" :: [ByteString]
    In the definition of `it':
        it = pack "good food" =~ ".ood" :: [ByteString]

In the above example, we've used the pack to turn a String into a ByteString. The type checker accepts this because ByteString appears in the result type. But if we try getting a String out, that won't work.

ghci> "good food" =~ ".ood" :: [ByteString]

    No instance for (RegexContext Regex [Char] [ByteString])
      arising from a use of `=~' at <interactive>:1:0-20
    Possible fix:
      add an instance declaration for
      (RegexContext Regex [Char] [ByteString])
    In the expression: "good food" =~ ".ood" :: [ByteString]
    In the definition of `it':
        it = "good food" =~ ".ood" :: [ByteString]

We can easily fix this problem by making the string types of the left hand side and the result match once again.

ghci> "good food" =~ ".ood" :: [String]

    No instance for (RegexContext Regex [Char] [String])
      arising from a use of `=~' at <interactive>:1:0-20
    Possible fix:
      add an instance declaration for
      (RegexContext Regex [Char] [String])
    In the expression: "good food" =~ ".ood" :: [String]
    In the definition of `it': it = "good food" =~ ".ood" :: [String]

This restriction does not apply to the type of the regexp we're matching against. It can be either a String or ByteString, unconstrained by the other types in use.

Other things you should know

When you look through Haskell library documentation, you'll see several regexp-related modules. The modules under Text.Regex.Base define the common API adhered to by all of the other regexp modules. It's possible to have multiple implementations of the regexp API installed at one time. At the time of writing, GHC is bundled with one implementation, Text.Regex.Posix. As its name suggests, this package provides POSIX regexp semantics.

[Note]Perl and POSIX regular expressions

If you're coming to Haskell from a language like Perl, Python, or Java, and you've used regular expressions in one of those languages, you should be aware that the POSIX regexps handled by the Text.Regex.Posix module are different in some significant ways from Perl-style regexps. Here are a few of the more notable differences.

Perl regexp engines perform left-biased matching when matching alternatives, whereas POSIX engines choose the greediest match. What this means is that given a regexp of (foo|fo*) and a text string of foooooo, a Perl-style engine will give a match of foo (the leftmost match), while a POSIX engine will match the entire string (the greediest match).

POSIX regexps have less uniform syntax than Perl-style regexps. They also lack a number of capabilities provided by Perl-style regexps, such as zero-width assertions and control over greedy matching.

Other Haskell regexp packages are available for download from Hackage. Some provide better performance than the current POSIX engine (e.g. regex-tdfa); others provide the Perl-style matching that most programmers are now familiar with (e.g. regex-pcre). All follow the standard API that we have covered in this section.

Translating a glob pattern into a regular expression

Now that we've seen the myriad of ways to match text against regular expressions, let's turn our attention back to glob patterns. We want to write a function that will take a glob pattern and return its representation as a regular expression. Both glob patterns and regexps are text strings, so the type that our function ought to have seems clear.

-- file: ch08/GlobRegex.hs
module GlobRegex
    , matchesGlob
    ) where

import Text.Regex.Posix ((=~))

globToRegex :: String -> String

The regular expression that we generate must be anchored, so that it starts matching from the beginning of a string and finishes at the end.

-- file: ch08/GlobRegex.hs
globToRegex cs = '^' : globToRegex' cs ++ "$"

Recall that the String is just a synonym for [Char], a list of Chars. The : operator puts a value (the ^ character in this case) onto the front of a list, where the list is the value returned by the yet-to-be-seen globToRegex' function.

[Note]Using a value before defining it

Haskell does not require that a value or function be declared or defined in a source file before it's used. It's perfectly normal for a definition to come after the first place it's used. The Haskell compiler doesn't care about ordering at this level. This grants us the flexibility to structure our code in the manner that makes most logical sense to us, rather than follow an order that makes the compiler writer's life easiest.

Haskell module writers often use this flexibility to put “more important” code earlier in a source file, relegating “plumbing” to later. This is exactly how we are presenting the globToRegex function and its helpers here.

With the regular expression rooted, the globToRegex' function will do the bulk of the translation work. We'll use the convenience of Haskell's pattern matching to enumerate each of the cases we'll need to cover.

-- file: ch08/GlobRegex.hs
globToRegex' :: String -> String
globToRegex' "" = ""

globToRegex' ('*':cs) = ".*" ++ globToRegex' cs

globToRegex' ('?':cs) = '.' : globToRegex' cs

globToRegex' ('[':'!':c:cs) = "[^" ++ c : charClass cs
globToRegex' ('[':c:cs)     = '['  :  c : charClass cs
globToRegex' ('[':_)        = error "unterminated character class"

globToRegex' (c:cs) = escape c ++ globToRegex' cs

Our first clause stipulates that if we hit the end of our glob pattern (by which time we'll be looking at the empty string), we return $, the regular expression symbol for “match end-of-line”. Following this is a series of clauses that switch our pattern from glob syntax to regexp syntax. The last clause passes every other character through, possibly escaping it first.

The escape function ensures that the regexp engine will not interpret certain characters as pieces of regular expression syntax.

-- file: ch08/GlobRegex.hs
escape :: Char -> String
escape c | c `elem` regexChars = '\\' : [c]
         | otherwise = [c]
    where regexChars = "\\+()^$.{}]|"

The charClass helper function only checks that a character class is correctly terminated. It passes its input through unmodified until it hits a ], when it hands control back to globToRegex'.

-- file: ch08/GlobRegex.hs
charClass :: String -> String
charClass (']':cs) = ']' : globToRegex' cs
charClass (c:cs)   = c : charClass cs
charClass []       = error "unterminated character class"

Now that we've finished defining globToRegex and its helpers, let's load it into ghci and try it out.

ghci> :load GlobRegex.hs
[1 of 1] Compiling GlobRegex        ( GlobRegex.hs, interpreted )
Ok, modules loaded: GlobRegex.
ghci> :module +Text.Regex.Posix
ghci> globToRegex "f??.c"
Loading package array- ... linking ... done.
Loading package containers- ... linking ... done.
Loading package bytestring- ... linking ... done.
Loading package mtl- ... linking ... done.
Loading package regex-base-0.93.1 ... linking ... done.
Loading package regex-posix-0.93.1 ... linking ... done.

Sure enough, that looks like a reasonable regexp. Can we use it to match against a string?

ghci> "foo.c" =~ globToRegex "f??.c" :: Bool
ghci> "test.c" =~ globToRegex "t[ea]s*" :: Bool
ghci> "taste.txt" =~ globToRegex "t[ea]s*" :: Bool

It works! Now let's play around a little with ghci. We can create a temporary definition for fnmatch and try it out.

ghci> let fnmatch pat name  =  name =~ globToRegex pat :: Bool
ghci> :type fnmatch
fnmatch :: (RegexLike Regex source1) => String -> source1 -> Bool
ghci> fnmatch "d*" "myname"

The name fnmatch doesn't really have the “Haskell nature”, though. By far the most common Haskell style is for functions to have descriptive, “camel cased” names. Camel casing concatenates words, capitalising all but possibly the first word. For instance, the words “file name matches” would become the name fileNameMatches. The name “camel case” comes from the “humps” introduced by the capital letters. In our library, we'll give this function the name matchesGlob.

-- file: ch08/GlobRegex.hs
matchesGlob :: FilePath -> String -> Bool
name `matchesGlob` pat = name =~ globToRegex pat

You may have noticed that most of the names that we have used for variables so far have been short. As a rule of thumb, descriptive variable names are more useful in longer function definitions, as they aid readability. For a two-line function, a long variable name has less value.



Use ghci to explore what happens if you pass a malformed pattern, such as [, to globToRegex. Write a small function that calls globToRegex, and pass it a malformed pattern. What happens?


While filesystems on Unix are usually sensitive to case (e.g. “G” vs. “g”) in file names, Windows filesystems are not. Add a parameter to the globToRegex and matchesGlob functions that allows control over case sensitive matching.

An important aside: writing lazy functions

In an imperative language, the globToRegex' function is one that we'd usually express as a loop. For example, Python's standard fnmatch module includes a function named translate that does exactly the same job as our globToRegex function. It's written as a loop.

If you've been exposed to functional programming through a language such as Scheme or ML, you've probably had drilled into your head the notion that “the way to emulate a loop is via tail recursion”.

Looking at the globToRegex' function, we can see that it is not tail recursive. To see why, examine its final clause again (several of its other clauses are structured similarly).

-- file: ch08/GlobRegex.hs
globToRegex' (c:cs) = escape c ++ globToRegex' cs

It applies itself recursively, and the result of the recursive application is used as a parameter to the (++) function. Since the recursive application isn't the last thing the function does, globToRegex' is not tail recursive.

Why is our definition of this function not tail recursive? The answer lies with Haskell's non-strict evaluation strategy. Before we start talking about that, let's quickly talk about why, in a traditional language, we'd try to avoid this kind of recursive definition. Here is a simpler definition, of the (++) operator. It is recursivem, but not tail recursive.

-- file: ch08/append.hs
(++) :: [a] -> [a] -> [a]

(x:xs) ++ ys = x : (xs ++ ys)
[]     ++ ys = ys

In a strict language, if we evaluate "foo" ++ "bar", the entire list is constructed, then returned. Non-strict evaluation defers much of the work until it is needed.

If we demand an element of the expression "foo" ++ "bar", the first pattern of the function's definition matches, and we return the expression x : (xs ++ ys). Because the (:) constructor is non-strict, the evaluation of xs ++ ys can be deferred: we generate more elements of the result at whatever rate they are demanded. When we generate more of the result, we will no longer be using x, so the garbage collector can reclaim it. Since we generate elements of the result on demand, and do not hold onto parts that we are done with, the compiler can evaluate our code in constant space.

Making use of our pattern matcher

It's all very well to have a function that can match glob patterns, but we'd like to be able to put this to practical use. On Unix-like systems, the glob function returns the names of all files and directories that match a given glob pattern. Let's build a similar function in Haskell. Following the Haskell norm of descriptive naming, we'll call our function namesMatching.

-- file: ch08/Glob.hs
module Glob (namesMatching) where

We specify that namesMatching is the only name that users of our Glob module will be able to see.

This function will obviously have to manipulate filesystem paths a lot, splicing and joining them as it goes. We'll need to use a few previously unfamiliar modules along the way.

The System.Directory module provides standard functions for working with directories and their contents.

-- file: ch08/Glob.hs
import System.Directory (doesDirectoryExist, doesFileExist,
                         getCurrentDirectory, getDirectoryContents)

The System.FilePath module abstracts the details of an operating system's path name conventions. The (</>) function joins two path components.

ghci> :m +System.FilePath
ghci> "foo" </> "bar"
Loading package filepath- ... linking ... done.

The name of the dropTrailingPathSeparator function is perfectly descriptive.

ghci> dropTrailingPathSeparator "foo/"

The splitFileName function splits a path at the last slash.

ghci> splitFileName "foo/bar/Quux.hs"
ghci> splitFileName "zippity"

Using System.FilePath together with the System.Directory module, we can write a portable namesMatching function that will run on both Unix-like and Windows systems.

-- file: ch08/Glob.hs
import System.FilePath (dropTrailingPathSeparator, splitFileName, (</>))

In this module, we'll be emulating a “for” loop; getting our first taste of exception handling in Haskell; and of course using the matchesGlob function we just wrote.

-- file: ch08/Glob.hs
import Control.Exception (handle)
import Control.Monad (forM)
import GlobRegex (matchesGlob)

Since directories and files live in the “real world” of activities that have effects, our globbing function will have to have IO in its result type.

If the string we're passed contains no pattern characters, we simply check that the given name exists in the filesystem. (Notice that we use Haskell's function guard syntax here to write a nice tidy definition. An “if” would do, but isn't as aesthetically pleasing.)

-- file: ch08/Glob.hs
isPattern :: String -> Bool
isPattern = any (`elem` "[*?")

namesMatching pat
  | not (isPattern pat) = do
    exists <- doesNameExist pat
    return (if exists then [pat] else [])

The name doesNameExist refers to a function that we will define shortly.

What if the string is a glob pattern? Our function definition continues.

-- file: ch08/Glob.hs
  | otherwise = do
    case splitFileName pat of
      ("", baseName) -> do
          curDir <- getCurrentDirectory
          listMatches curDir baseName
      (dirName, baseName) -> do
          dirs <- if isPattern dirName
                  then namesMatching (dropTrailingPathSeparator dirName)
                  else return [dirName]
          let listDir = if isPattern baseName
                        then listMatches
                        else listPlain
          pathNames <- forM dirs $ \dir -> do
                           baseNames <- listDir dir baseName
                           return (map (dir </>) baseNames)
          return (concat pathNames)

We use splitFileName to split the string into a pair of “everything but the final name” and “the final name”. If the first element is empty, we're looking for a pattern in the current directory. Otherwise, we must check the directory name and see if it contains patterns. If it does not, we create a singleton list of the directory name. If it contains a pattern, we list all of the matching directories.

[Note]Things to watch out for

The System.FilePath module can be a little tricky. Above is a case in point; the splitFileName function leaves a trailing slash on the end of the directory name that it returns.

ghci> :module +System.FilePath
ghci> splitFileName "foo/bar"
Loading package filepath- ... linking ... done.

If we didn't remember (or know enough) to remove that slash, we'd recurse endlessly in namesMatching, because of the following behaviour of splitFileName.

ghci> splitFileName "foo/"

You can guess what happened to us that led us to add this note!

Finally, we collect all matches in every directory, giving us a list of lists, and concatenate them into a single list of names.

The unfamiliar forM function above acts a little like a “for” loop: it maps its second argument (an action) over its first (a list), and returns the list of results.

We have a few loose ends to clean up. The first is the definition of the doesNameExist function, used above. The System.Directory module doesn't let us check to see if a name exists in the filesystem. It forces us to decide whether we want to check for a file or a directory. This API is ungainly, so we roll the two checks into a single function. In the name of performance, we make the check for a file first, since files are far more common than directories.

-- file: ch08/Glob.hs
doesNameExist :: FilePath -> IO Bool

doesNameExist name = do
    fileExists <- doesFileExist name
    if fileExists
      then return True
      else doesDirectoryExist name

We have two other functions to define, each of which returns a list of names in a directory. The listMatches function returns a list of all files matching the given glob pattern in a directory.

-- file: ch08/Glob.hs
listMatches :: FilePath -> String -> IO [String]
listMatches dirName pat = do
    dirName' <- if null dirName
                then getCurrentDirectory
                else return dirName
    handle (const (return [])) $ do
        names <- getDirectoryContents dirName'
        let names' = if isHidden pat
                     then filter isHidden names
                     else filter (not . isHidden) names
        return (filter (`matchesGlob` pat) names')

isHidden ('.':_) = True
isHidden _       = False

The listPlain function returns either an empty or singleton list, depending on whether the single name it's passed exists.

-- file: ch08/Glob.hs
listPlain :: FilePath -> String -> IO [String]
listPlain dirName baseName = do
    exists <- if null baseName
              then doesDirectoryExist dirName
              else doesNameExist (dirName </> baseName)
    return (if exists then [baseName] else [])

If we look closely at the definition of listMatches above, we'll see a call to a function named handle. Earlier on, we imported this from the Control.Exception module; as that import implies, this gives us our first taste of exception handling in Haskell. Let's drop into ghci and see what we can find out.

ghci> :module +Control.Exception
ghci> :type handle
handle :: (Exception -> IO a) -> IO a -> IO a

This is telling us that handle takes two arguments. The first is a function that is passed an exception value, and can have side effects (see the IO type in its return value); this is the handler to run if an exception is thrown. The second argument is the code that might throw an exception.

As for the exception handler, the type of the handle constrains it to return the same type of value as the body of code that threw the exception. So its choices are to either throw an exception or, as in our case, return a list of Strings.

The const function takes two arguments; it always returns its first argument, no matter what its second argument is.

ghci> :type const
const :: a -> b -> a
ghci> :type return []
return [] :: (Monad m) => m [a]
ghci> :type handle (const (return []))
handle (const (return [])) :: IO [a] -> IO [a]

We use const to write an exception handler that ignores the exception it is passed. Instead, it causes our code to return an empty list if we catch an exception.

We won't have anything more to say about exception handling here. There's plenty more to cover, though, so we'll be returning to the subject of exceptions in chapter Chapter 19, Error handling.



Although we've gone to some lengths to write a portable namesMatching function, the function uses our case sensitive globToRegex function. Find a way to modify namesMatching to be case sensitive on Unix, and case insensitive on Windows, without modifying its type signature.

Hint: consider reading the documentation for System.FilePath to look for a variable that tells us whether we're running on a Unix-like system, or on Windows.


If you're on a Unix-like system, look through the documentation for the System.Posix.Files module, and see if you can find a replacement for the doesNameExist function.


The * wild card only matches names within a single directory. Many shells have an extended wild card syntax, **, that matches names recursively in all directories. For example, **.c would mean “match a name ending in .c in this directory or any subdirectory at any depth”. Implement matching on ** wildcards.

Handling errors through API design

It's not necessarily a disaster if our globToRegex is passed a malformed pattern. Perhaps a user mistyped a pattern, in which case we'd like to be able to report a meaningful error message.

Calling the error function when this kind of problem occurs can be a drastic response (exploring its consequences was the focus of exercise Q: 1). The error throws an exception. Pure Haskell code cannot deal with exceptions, so control is going to rocket out of our pure code into the nearest caller that lives in IO and has an appropriate exception handler installed. If no such handler is installed, the Haskell runtime will default to terminating our program (or print a nasty error message, in ghci).

So calling error is a little like pulling the handle of a fighter plane's ejection seat. We're bailing out of a catastrophic situation that we can't deal with gracefully, and there's likely to be a lot of flaming wreckage strewn about by the time we hit the ground.

We've established that error is for disasters, but we're still using it in globToRegex. In that case, malformed input should be rejected, but not turned into a big deal. What would be a better way to handle this?

Haskell's type system and libraries to the rescue! We can encode the possibility of failure in the type signature of globToRegex, using the predefined Either type.

-- file: ch08/GlobRegexEither.hs
type GlobError = String

globToRegex :: String -> Either GlobError String

A value returned by globToRegex will now be either Left "an error message" or Right "a valid regexp". This return type forces our callers to deal with the possibility of error. (You'll find that this use of the Either type occurs frequently in Haskell code.)



Write a version of globToRegex that uses the type signature above.


Modify the type signature of namesMatching so that it encodes the possibility of a bad pattern, and make it use your rewritten globToRegex function.


You may find the amount of work involved to be surprisingly large. Don't worry; we will introduce more concise and sophisticated ways of dealing with errors in later chapters.

Putting our code to work

The namesMatching function isn't very exciting by itself, but it's a useful building block. Combine it with a few more functions, and we can start to do interesting things.

Here's one such example. Let's define a renameWith function that, instead of simply renaming a file, applies a function to the file's name, and renames the file to whatever that function returns.

-- file: ch08/Useful.hs
import System.FilePath (replaceExtension)
import System.Directory (doesFileExist, renameDirectory, renameFile)
import Glob (namesMatching)

renameWith :: (FilePath -> FilePath)
           -> FilePath
           -> IO FilePath

renameWith f path = do
    let path' = f path
    rename path path'
    return path'

Once again, we work around the ungainly file/directory split in System.Directory with a helper function.

-- file: ch08/Useful.hs
rename :: FilePath -> FilePath -> IO ()

rename old new = do
    isFile <- doesFileExist old
    let f = if isFile then renameFile else renameDirectory
    f old new

The System.FilePath module provides many useful functions for manipulating file names. These functions mesh nicely with our renameWith and namesMatching functions, so that we can quickly use them to create functions with complex behaviour. As an example, this terse function changes the file name suffixing convention for C++ source files.

-- file: ch08/Useful.hs
cc2cpp =
  mapM (renameWith (flip replaceExtension ".cpp")) =<< namesMatching "*.cc"

The cc2cpp function uses a few functions we'll be seeing over and over. The flip function takes another function as argument, and swaps the order of its arguments (inspect the type of replaceExtension in ghci to see why). The =<< function feeds the result of the action on its right side to the action on its left.



Glob patterns are simple enough to interpret that it's easy to write a matcher directly in Haskell, rather than going through the regexp machinery. Give it a try.

[26] If you are not acquainted with regular expressions, we recommend Jeffrey Friedl's book Mastering Regular Expressions.

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Copyright 2007, 2008 Bryan O'Sullivan, Don Stewart, and John Goerzen. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License. Icons by Paul Davey aka Mattahan.