Chapter 3. Defining Types, Streamlining Functions

Table of Contents

Defining a new data type
Naming types and values
Type synonyms
Algebraic data types
Tuples, algebraic data types, and when to use each
Analogues to algebraic data types in other languages
The structure
The enumeration
The discriminated union
Pattern matching
Construction and deconstruction
Further adventures
Variable naming in patterns
The wild card pattern
Exhaustive patterns and wild cards
Record syntax
Parameterised types
Recursive types
Reporting errors
A more controlled approach
Introducing local variables
The where clause
Local functions, global variables
The offside rule and white space in an expression
A note about tabs versus spaces
The offside rule is not mandatory
The case expression
Common beginner mistakes with patterns
Incorrectly matching against a variable
Incorrectly trying to compare for equality
Conditional evaluation with guards

Defining a new data type

Although lists and tuples are useful, we'll often want to construct new data types of our own. This allows us to add structure to the values in our programs. Instead of using an anonymous tuple, we can give a collection of related values a name and a distinct type. Defining our own types also improves the type safety of our code: Haskell will not allow us to accidentally mix values of two types that are structurally similar but have different names.

For motivation, we'll consider a few kinds of data that a small online bookstore might need to manage. We won't make any attempt at complete or realistic data definitions, but at least we're tying them to the real world.

We define a new data type using the data keyword.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
data BookInfo = Book Int String [String]
                deriving (Show)

The BookInfo after the data keyword is the name of our new type. We call BookInfo a type constructor. Once we have defined a type, we will use its type constructor to refer to it. As we've already mentioned, a type name, and hence a type constructor, must start with a capital letter.

The Book that follows is the name of the value constructor (sometimes called a data constructor). We use this to create a value of the BookInfo type. A value constructor's name must also start with a capital letter.

After Book, the Int, String, and [String] that follow are the components of the type. A component serves the same purpose in Haskell as a field in a structure or class would in another language: it's a “slot” where we keep a value. (We'll often refer to components as fields.)

In this example, the Int represents a book's identifier (e.g. in a stock database), String its title, and [String] the names of its authors.

To make the link to a concept we've already seen, the BookInfo type contains the same components as a 3-tuple of type (Int, String, [String]), but it has a distinct type. We can't accidentally (or deliberately) use one in a context where the other is expected. For instance, a bookstore is also likely to carry magazines.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
data MagazineInfo = Magazine Int String [String]
                    deriving (Show)

Even though this MagazineInfo type has the same structure as our BookInfo type, Haskell treats the types as distinct because their type and value constructors have different names.

[Note]Deriving what?

We'll explain the full meaning of deriving (Show) later, in the section called “Show”. For now, it's enough to know that we need to tack this onto a type declaration so that ghci will automatically know how to print a value of this type.

We can create a new value of type BookInfo by treating Book as a function, and applying it with arguments of types Int, String, and [String].

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
myInfo = Book 9780135072455 "Algebra of Programming"
         ["Richard Bird", "Oege de Moor"]

Once we have defined a type, we can experiment with it in ghci. We begin by using the :load command to load our source file.

ghci> :load BookStore
[1 of 1] Compiling Main             ( BookStore.hs, interpreted )
Ok, modules loaded: Main.

Remember the myInfo variable we defined in our source file? Here it is.

ghci> myInfo
Book 9780135072455 "Algebra of Programming" ["Richard Bird","Oege de Moor"]
ghci> :type myInfo
myInfo :: BookInfo

We can construct new values interactively in ghci, too.

ghci> Book 0 "The Book of Imaginary Beings" ["Jorge Luis Borges"]
Book 0 "The Book of Imaginary Beings" ["Jorge Luis Borges"]

The ghci command :type lets us see what the type of an expression is.

ghci> :type Book 1 "Cosmicomics" ["Italo Calvino"]
Book 1 "Cosmicomics" ["Italo Calvino"] :: BookInfo

Remember that if we want to define a new variable inside ghci, the syntax is slightly different from that of a Haskell source file: we need to put a let in front.

ghci> let cities = Book 173 "Use of Weapons" ["Iain M. Banks"]

To find out more about a type, we can use some of ghci's browsing capabilities. The :info command gets ghci to tell us everything it knows about a name.

ghci> :info BookInfo
data BookInfo = Book Int String [String]
  	-- Defined at BookStore.hs:4:5-12
instance Show BookInfo -- Defined at BookStore.hs:4:5-12

We can also find out why we use Book to construct a new value of type BookStore.

ghci> :type Book
Book :: Int -> String -> [String] -> BookInfo

We can treat a value constructor as just another function, one that happens to create and return a new value of the type we desire.

Naming types and values

When we introduced the type BookStore, we deliberately chose to give the type constructor BookStore a different name from the value constructor Book, purely to make it obvious which was which.

However, in Haskell, the names of types and values are independent of each other. We only use a type constructor (i.e. the type's name) in a type declaration or a type signature. We only use a value constructor in actual code. Because these uses are distinct, there is no ambiguity if we give a type constructor and a value constructor the same name. If we are writing a type signature, we must be referring to a type constructor. If we are writing an expression, we must be using the value constructor.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
-- We will introduce the CustomerID type shortly.

data BookReview = BookReview BookInfo CustomerID String

This definition says that the type named BookReview has a value constructor that is also named BookReview.

Not only is it legal for a value constructor to have the same name as its type constructor, it's normal: you'll see this all the time in regular Haskell code.

Type synonyms

We can introduce a synonym for an existing type at any time, to give a type a more descriptive name. For example, the String in our BookReview type doesn't tell us what the string is for, but we can clarify this.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
type CustomerID = Int
type ReviewBody = String

data BetterReview = BetterReview BookInfo CustomerID ReviewBody

The type keyword introduces a type synonym. The new name is on the left of the =, with the existing name on the right. The two names identify the same type, so type synonyms are purely for making code more readable.

We can also use a type synonym to create a shorter name for a verbose type.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
type BookRecord = (BookInfo, BookReview)

This states that we can use BookRecord as a synonym for the tuple (BookInfo, BookReview). A type synonym only creates a new name that refers to an existing type[7]. We still use the same value constructors to create a value of the type.

Algebraic data types

The familiar Bool is the simplest common example of a category of type called an algebraic data type. An algebraic data type can have more than one value constructor.

-- file: ch03/Bool.hs
data Bool = False | True

The Bool type has two value constructors, True and False. Each value constructor is separated in the definition by a | character, which we can read as “or”: we can construct a Bool that has the value True, or the value False. When a type has more than one value constructor, they are usually referred to as alternatives or cases. We can use any one of the alternatives to create a value of that type.

[Note]A note about naming

Although the phrase “algebraic data type” is long, we're being careful to avoid using the acronym “ADT”. That acronym is already widely understood to stand for “abstract data type”. Since Haskell supports both algebraic and abstract data types, we'll be explicit and avoid the acronym entirely.

Each of an algebraic data type's value constructors can take zero or more arguments. As an example, here's one way we might represent billing information.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
type CardHolder = String
type CardNumber = String
type Address = [String]

data BillingInfo = CreditCard CardNumber CardHolder Address
                 | CashOnDelivery
                 | Invoice CustomerID
                   deriving (Show)

Here, we're saying that we support three ways to bill our customers. If they want to pay by credit card, they must supply a card number, the holder's name, and the holder's billing address as arguments to the CreditCard value constructor. Alternatively, they can pay the person who delivers their shipment. Since we don't need to store any extra information about this, we specify no arguments for the CashOnDelivery constructor. Finally, we can send an invoice to the specified customer, in which case we need their CustomerID as an argument to the Invoice constructor.

When we use a value constructor to create a value of type BillingInfo, we must supply the arguments that it requires.

ghci> :type CreditCard
CreditCard :: CardNumber -> CardHolder -> Address -> BillingInfo
ghci> CreditCard "2901650221064486" "Thomas Gradgrind" ["Dickens", "England"]
CreditCard "2901650221064486" "Thomas Gradgrind" ["Dickens","England"]
ghci> :type it
it :: BillingInfo
ghci> Invoice

    No instance for (Show (CustomerID -> BillingInfo))
      arising from a use of `print' at <interactive>:1:0-6
    Possible fix:
      add an instance declaration for (Show (CustomerID -> BillingInfo))
    In the expression: print it
    In a 'do' expression: print it
ghci> :type it
it :: BillingInfo

The No instance error message arose because we did not supply an argument to the Invoice constructor. As a result, we were trying to print the Invoice constructor itself. That constructor requires an argument and returns a value, so it is a function. We cannot print functions in Haskell, which is ultimately why the interpreter complained.

Tuples, algebraic data types, and when to use each

There is some overlap between tuples and user-defined algebraic data types. If we wanted to, we could represent our BookInfo type from earlier as an (Int, String, [String]) tuple.

ghci> Book 2 "The Wealth of Networks" ["Yochai Benkler"]
Book 2 "The Wealth of Networks" ["Yochai Benkler"]
ghci> (2, "The Wealth of Networks", ["Yochai Benkler"])
(2,"The Wealth of Networks",["Yochai Benkler"])

Algebraic data types allow us to distinguish between otherwise identical pieces of information. Two tuples with elements of the same type are structurally identical, so they have the same type.

-- file: ch03/Distinction.hs
a = ("Porpoise", "Grey")
b = ("Table", "Oak")

Since they have different names, two algebraic data types have distinct types, even if they are otherwise structurally equivalent.

-- file: ch03/Distinction.hs
data Cetacean = Cetacean String String
data Furniture = Furniture String String

c = Cetacean "Porpoise" "Grey"
d = Furniture "Table" "Oak"

This lets us bring the type system to bear in writing programs with fewer bugs. With the tuples we defined above, we could conveivably pass a description of a whale to a function expecting a chair, and the type system could not help us. With the algebraic data types, there is no such possibility of confusion.

Here is a more subtle example. Consider the following representations of a two-dimensional vector.

-- file: ch03/AlgebraicVector.hs
-- x and y coordinates or lengths.
data Cartesian2D = Cartesian2D Double Double
                   deriving (Eq, Show)

-- Angle and distance (magnitude).
data Polar2D = Polar2D Double Double
               deriving (Eq, Show)

The Cartesian and polar forms use the same types for their two elements. However, the meanings of the elements are different. Because Cartesian2D and Polar2D are distinct types, the type system will not let us accidentally use a Cartesian2D value where a Polar2D is expected, or vice versa.

ghci> Cartesian2D (sqrt 2) (sqrt 2) == Polar2D (pi / 4) 2

    Couldn't match expected type `Cartesian2D'
           against inferred type `Polar2D'
    In the second argument of `(==)', namely `Polar2D (pi / 4) 2'
    In the expression:
          Cartesian2D (sqrt 2) (sqrt 2) == Polar2D (pi / 4) 2
    In the definition of `it':
        it = Cartesian2D (sqrt 2) (sqrt 2) == Polar2D (pi / 4) 2

The (==) operator requires its arguments to have the same type.

[Tip]Comparing for equality

Notice that in the deriving clause for our vector types, we added another word, Eq. This causes the Haskell implementation to generate code that lets us compare the values for equality.

If we used tuples to represent these values, we could quickly land ourselves in hot water by mixing the two representations inappropriately.

ghci> (1, 2) == (1, 2)

The type system can't rescue us here: as far as it's concerned, we're comparing two (Double, Double) pairs, which is a perfectly valid thing to do. Indeed, we cannot tell by inspection which of these values is supposed to be polar or Cartesian, but (1,2) has a different meaning in each representation.

There is no hard and fast rule for deciding when it's better to use a tuple or a distinct data type, but here's a rule of thumb to follow. If you're using compound values widely in your code (as almost all non-trivial programs do), adding data declarations will benefit you in both type safety and readability. For smaller, localised uses, a tuple is usually fine.

Analogues to algebraic data types in other languages

Algebraic data types provide a single powerful way to describe data types. Other languages often need several different features to achieve the same degree of expressiveness. Here are some analogues from C and C++, which might make it clearer what we can do with algebraic data types, and how they relate to concepts that might be more familiar.

The structure

With just one constructor, an algebraic data type is similar to a tuple: it groups related values together into a compound value. It corresponds to a struct in C or C++, and its components correspond to the fields of a struct. Here's a C equivalent of the BookInfo type that we defined earlier.

struct book_info {
    int id;
    char *name;
    char **authors;

The main difference between the two is that the fields in the Haskell type are anonymous and positional.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
data BookInfo = Book Int String [String]
                deriving (Show)

By positional, we mean that the section number is in the first field of the Haskell type, and the title is in the second. We refer to them by location, not by name.

In the section called “Pattern matching”, we'll see how to access the fields of a BookStore value. In the section called “Record syntax”, we'll introduce an alternate syntax for defining data types that looks a little more C-like.

The enumeration

Algebraic data types also serve where we'd use an enum in C or C++, to represent a range of symbolic values. Such algebraic data types are sometimes referred to as enumeration types. Here's an example from C.

enum roygbiv {

And here's a Haskell equivalent.

-- file: ch03/Roygbiv.hs

data Roygbiv = Red
             | Orange
             | Yellow
             | Green
             | Blue
             | Indigo
             | Violet
               deriving (Eq, Show)

We can try these out in ghci.

ghci> :type Yellow
Yellow :: Roygbiv
ghci> :type Red
Red :: Roygbiv
ghci> Red == Yellow
ghci> Green == Green

In C, the elements of an enum are integers. We can use an integer in a context where an enum is expected, and vice versa: a C compiler will automatically convert values between the two types. This can be a source of nasty bugs. In Haskell, this kind of problem does not occur. For example, we cannot use a Roygbiv value where an Int is expected.

ghci> take 3 "foobar"
ghci> take Red "foobar"

    Couldn't match expected type `Int' against inferred type `Roygbiv'
    In the first argument of `take', namely `Red'
    In the expression: take Red "foobar"
    In the definition of `it': it = take Red "foobar"

The discriminated union

If an algebraic data type has multiple alternatives, we can think of it as similar to a union in C or C++. A big difference between the two is that a union doesn't tell us which alternative is actually present; we have to explicitly and manually track which alternative we're using, usually in another field of an enclosing struct. This means that unions can be sources of nasty bugs, where our notion of which alternative we should be using is incorrect.

enum shape_type {

struct circle {
    struct vector centre;
    float radius;

struct poly {
    size_t num_vertices;
    struct vector *vertices;

struct shape 
    enum shape_type type;
    union {
	struct circle circle;
	struct poly poly;
    } shape;

In the example above, the union can contain valid data for either a struct circle or a struct poly. We have to use the enum shape_type by hand to indicate which kind of value is currently stored in the union.

The Haskell version of this code is both dramatically shorter and safer than the C equivalent.

-- file: ch03/ShapeUnion.hs
type Vector = (Double, Double)

data Shape = Circle Vector Double
           | Poly [Vector]

If we create a Shape value using the Circle constructor, the fact that we created a Circle is stored. When we later use a Circle, we can't accidentally treat it as a Square. We will see why in the section called “Pattern matching”

[Tip]A few notes

From reading the preceding sections, it should now be clear that all of the data types that we define with the data keyword are algebraic data types. Some may have just one alternative, while others have several, but they're all using the same machinery.

Pattern matching

Now that we've seen how to construct values with algebraic data types, let's discuss how we work with these values. If we have a value of some type, there are two things we would like to be able to do.

  • If the type has more than one value constructor, we need to be able to tell which value constructor was used to create the value.

  • If the value constructor has data components, we need to be able to extract those values.

Haskell has a simple, but tremendously useful, pattern matching facility that lets us do both of these things.

A pattern lets us look inside a value and bind variables to the data it contains. Here's an example of pattern matching in action on a Bool value: we're going to reproduce the not function.

-- file: ch03/add.hs
myNot True  = False
myNot False = True

It might seem that we have two functions named myNot here, but Haskell lets us define a function as a series of equations: these two clauses are defining the behavior of the same function for different patterns of input. On each line, the patterns are the items following the function name, up until the = sign.

To understand how pattern matching works, let's step through an example, say myNot False.

When we apply myNot, the Haskell runtime checks the value we supply against the value constructor in the first pattern. This does not match, so it tries against the second pattern. That match succeeds, so it uses the right hand side of that equation as the result of the function application.

Here is a slightly more extended example. This function adds together the elements of a list.

-- file: ch03/add.hs
sumList (x:xs) = x + sumList xs
sumList []     = 0

Let us step through the evaluation of sumList [1,2]. The list notation [1,2] is shorthand for the expression (1:(2:[])). We begin by trying to match the pattern in the first equation of the definition of sumList. In the (x:xs) pattern, the “:” is the familiar list constructor, (:). We are now using it to match against a value, not to construct one. The value (1:(2:[])) was constructed with (:), so the constructor in the value matches the constructor in the pattern. We say that the pattern matches, or that the match succeeds.

The variables x and xs are now “bound to” the constructor's arguments, so x is given the value 1, and xs the value 2:[].

The expression we are now evaluating is 1 + sumList (2:[]). We must now recursively apply sumList to the value 2:[]. Once again, this was constructed using (:), so the match succeeds. In our recursive application of sumList, x is now bound to 2, and xs to [].

We are now evaluating 1 + (2 + sumList []). In this recursive application of sumList, the value we are matching against is []. The value's constructor does not match the constructor in the first pattern, so we skip this equation. Instead, we “fall through” to the next pattern, which matches. The right hand side of this equation is thus chosen as the result of this application.

The result of sumList [1,2] is thus 1 + (2 + (0)), or 3.

[Note]Ordering is important

As we have already mentioned, a Haskell implementation checks patterns for matches in the order in which we specify them in our equations. Matching proceeds from top to bottom, and stops at the first success. Equations below a successful match have no effect.

As a final note, there already exists a standard function, sum, that performs this sum-of-a-list for us. Our sumList is purely for illustration.

Construction and deconstruction

Let's step back and take a look at the relationship between constructing a value and pattern matching on it.

We apply a value constructor to build a value. The expression Book 9 "Close Calls" ["John Long"] applies the Book constructor to the values 9, "Close Calls", and ["John Long"] to produce a new value of type BookInfo.

When we pattern match against the Book constructor, we reverse the construction process. First of all, we check to see if the value was created using that constructor. If it was, we inspect it to obtain the individual values that we originally supplied to the constructor when we created the value.

Let's consider what happens if we match the pattern (Book id name authors) against our example expression.

  • The match will succeed, because the constructor in the value matches the one in our pattern.

  • The variable id will be bound to 9.

  • The variable name will be bound to "Close Calls".

  • The variable authors will be bound to ["John Long"].

Because pattern matching acts as the inverse of construction, it's sometimes referred to as deconstruction.

[Note]Deconstruction doesn't destroy anything

If you're steeped in object oriented programming jargon, don't confuse deconstruction with destruction! Matching a pattern has no effect on the value we're examining: it just lets us “look inside” it.

Further adventures

The syntax for pattern matching on a tuple is similar to the syntax for constructing a tuple. Here's a function that returns the last element of a 3-tuple.

-- file: ch03/Tuple.hs
third (a, b, c) = c

There's no limit on how “deep” within a value a pattern can look. This definition looks both inside a tuple and inside a list within that tuple.

-- file: ch03/Tuple.hs
complicated (True, a, x:xs, 5) = (a, xs)

We can try this out interactively.

ghci> :load Tuple.hs
[1 of 1] Compiling Main             ( Tuple.hs, interpreted )
Ok, modules loaded: Main.
ghci> complicated (True, 1, [1,2,3], 5)

Wherever a literal value is present in a pattern (True and 5 in the tuple pattern above), that value must match exactly for the pattern match to succeed. If every pattern within a series of equations fails to match, we get a runtime error.

ghci> complicated (False, 1, [1,2,3], 5)
*** Exception: Tuple.hs:10:0-39: Non-exhaustive patterns in function complicated

For an explanation of this error message, skip forward a little, to the section called “Exhaustive patterns and wild cards”.

We can pattern match on an algebraic data type using its value constructors. Recall the BookInfo type we defined earlier: we can extract the values from a BookInfo as follows.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
bookID      (Book id title authors) = id
bookTitle   (Book id title authors) = title
bookAuthors (Book id title authors) = authors

Let's see it in action.

ghci> bookID (Book 3 "Probability Theory" ["E.T.H. Jaynes"])
ghci> bookTitle (Book 3 "Probability Theory" ["E.T.H. Jaynes"])
"Probability Theory"
ghci> bookAuthors (Book 3 "Probability Theory" ["E.T.H. Jaynes"])
["E.T.H. Jaynes"]

The compiler can infer the types of the accessor functions based on the constructor we're using in our pattern.

ghci> :type bookID
bookID :: BookInfo -> Int
ghci> :type bookTitle
bookTitle :: BookInfo -> String
ghci> :type bookAuthors
bookAuthors :: BookInfo -> [String]

If we use a literal value in a pattern, the corresponding part of the value we're matching against must contain an identical value. For instance, the pattern (3:xs) first of all checks that a value is a non-empty list, by matching against the (:) constructor. It also ensures that the head of the list has the exact value 3. If both of these conditions hold, the tail of the list will be bound to the variable xs.

Variable naming in patterns

As you read functions that match on lists, you'll frequently find that the names of the variables inside a pattern resemble (x:xs) or (d:ds). This is a popular naming convention. The idea is that the name xs has an “s” on the end of its name as if it's the “plural” of x, because x contains the head of the list, and xs the remaining elements.

The wild card pattern

We can indicate that we don't care what is present in part of a pattern. The notation for this is the underscore character “_”, which we call a wild card. We use it as follows.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
nicerID      (Book id _     _      ) = id
nicerTitle   (Book _  title _      ) = title
nicerAuthors (Book _  _     authors) = authors

Here, we have tidier versions of the accessor functions we introduced earlier. Now, there's no question about which element we're using in each function.

In a pattern, a wild card acts similarly to a variable, but it doesn't bind a new variable. As the examples above indicate, we can use more than one wild card in a single pattern.

Another advantage of wild cards is that a Haskell compiler can warn us if we introduce a variable name in a pattern, but do not use it in a function's body. Defining a variable, but forgetting to use it, can often indicate the presence of a bug, so this is a helpful feature. If we use a wild card instead of a variable that we do not intend to use, the compiler won't complain.

Exhaustive patterns and wild cards

When writing a series of patterns, it's important to cover all of a type's constructors. For example, if we're inspecting a list, we should have one equation that matches the non-empty constructor (:), and one that matches the empty-list constructor [].

Let's see what happens if we fail to cover all the cases. Here, we deliberately omit a check for the [] constructor.

-- file: ch03/BadPattern.hs
badExample (x:xs) = x + badExample xs

If we apply this to a value that it cannot match, we'll get an error at runtime: our software has a bug!

ghci> badExample []
*** Exception: BadPattern.hs:4:0-36: Non-exhaustive patterns in function badExample

In this example, no equation in the function's definition matches the value [].

[Tip]Warning about incomplete patterns

GHC provides a helpful compilation option, -fwarn-incomplete-patterns, that will cause it to print a warning during compilation if a sequence of patterns don't match all of a type's value constructors.

If we need to provide a default behavior in cases where we don't care about specific constructors, we can use a wild card pattern.

-- file: ch03/BadPattern.hs
goodExample (x:xs) = x + goodExample xs
goodExample _      = 0

The wild card above will match the [] constructor, so applying this function does not lead to a crash.

ghci> goodExample []
ghci> goodExample [1,2]

Record syntax

Writing accessor functions for each of a data type's components can be repetitive and tedious.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
nicerID      (Book id _     _      ) = id
nicerTitle   (Book _  title _      ) = title
nicerAuthors (Book _  _     authors) = authors

We call this kind of code boilerplate: necessary, but bulky and irksome. Haskell programmers don't like boilerplate. Fortunately, the language addresses this particular boilerplate problem: we can define a data type, and accessors for each of its components, simultaneously. (The positions of the commas here is a matter of preference. If you like, put them at the end of a line instead of the beginning.)

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
data Customer = Customer {
      customerID      :: CustomerID
    , customerName    :: String
    , customerAddress :: Address
    } deriving (Show)

This is almost exactly identical in meaning to the following, more familiar form.

-- file: ch03/AltCustomer.hs
data Customer = Customer Int String [String]
                deriving (Show)

customerID :: Customer -> Int
customerID (Customer id _ _) = id

customerName :: Customer -> String
customerName (Customer _ name _) = name

customerAddress :: Customer -> [String]
customerAddress (Customer _ _ address) = address

For each of the fields that we name in our type definition, Haskell creates an accessor function of that name.

ghci> :type customerID
customerID :: Customer -> CustomerID

We can still use the usual application syntax to create a value of this type.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
customer1 = Customer 271828 "J.R. Hacker"
            ["255 Syntax Ct",
             "Milpitas, CA 95134",

Record syntax adds a more verbose notation for creating a value. This can sometimes make code more readable.

-- file: ch03/BookStore.hs
customer2 = Customer {
              customerID = 271828
            , customerAddress = ["1048576 Disk Drive",
                                 "Milpitas, CA 95134",
            , customerName = "Jane Q. Citizen"

If we use this form, we can vary the order in which we list fields. Here, we have moved the name and address fields from their positions in the declaration of the type.

When we define a type using record syntax, it also changes the way the type's values are printed.

ghci> customer1
Customer {customerID = 271828, customerName = "J.R. Hacker", customerAddress = ["255 Syntax Ct","Milpitas, CA 95134","USA"]}

For comparison, let's look at a BookInfo value; we defined this type without record syntax.

ghci> cities
Book 173 "Use of Weapons" ["Iain M. Banks"]

The accessor functions that we get “for free” when we use record syntax really are normal Haskell functions.

ghci> :type customerName
customerName :: Customer -> String
ghci> customerName customer1
"J.R. Hacker"

The standard System.Time module makes good use of record syntax. Here's a type defined in that module:

data CalendarTime = CalendarTime {
  ctYear                      :: Int,
  ctMonth                     :: Month,
  ctDay, ctHour, ctMin, ctSec :: Int,
  ctPicosec                   :: Integer,
  ctWDay                      :: Day,
  ctYDay                      :: Int,
  ctTZName                    :: String,
  ctTZ                        :: Int,
  ctIsDST                     :: Bool

In the absence of record syntax, it would be painful to extract specific fields from a type like this. The notation makes it easier to work with large structures.

Parameterised types

We've repeatedly mentioned that the list type is polymorphic: the elements of a list can be of any type. We can also add polymorphism to our own types. To do this, we introduce type variables into a type declaration. The Prelude defines a type named Maybe: we can use this to represent a value that could be either present or missing, e.g. a field in a database row that could be null.

-- file: ch03/Nullable.hs
data Maybe a = Just a
             | Nothing

Here, the variable a is not a regular variable: it's a type variable. It indicates that the Maybe type takes another type as its parameter. This lets us use Maybe on values of any type.

-- file: ch03/Nullable.hs
someBool = Just True

someString = Just "something"

As usual, we can experiment with this type in ghci.

ghci> Just 1.5
Just 1.5
ghci> Nothing
ghci> :type Just "invisible bike"
Just "invisible bike" :: Maybe [Char]

Maybe is a polymorphic, or generic, type. We give the Maybe type constructor a parameter to create a specific type, such as Maybe Int or Maybe [Bool]. As we might expect, these types are distinct.

We can nest uses of parameterised types inside each other, but when we do, we may need to use parentheses to tell the Haskell compiler how to parse our expression.

-- file: ch03/Nullable.hs
wrapped = Just (Just "wrapped")

To once again extend an analogy to more familiar languages, parameterised types bear some resemblance to templates in C++, and to generics in Java. Just be aware that this is a shallow analogy. Templates and generics were added to their respective languages long after the languages were initially defined, and have an awkward feel. Haskell's parameterised types are simpler and easier to use, as the language was designed with them from the beginning.

Recursive types

The familiar list type is recursive: it's defined in terms of itself. To understand this, let's create our own list-like type. We'll use Cons in place of the (:) constructor, and Nil in place of [].

-- file: ch03/ListADT.hs
data List a = Cons a (List a)
            | Nil
              deriving (Show)

Because List a appears on both the left and the right of the = sign, the type's definition refers to itself. If we want to use the Cons constructor to create a new value, we must supply one value of type a, and another of type List a. Let's see where this leads us in practice.

The simplest value of type List a that we can create is Nil. Save the type definition in a file, then load it into ghci.

ghci> Nil

Because Nil has a List type, we can use it as a parameter to Cons.

ghci> Cons 0 Nil
Cons 0 Nil

And because Cons 0 Nil has the type List a, we can use this as a parameter to Cons.

ghci> Cons 1 it
Cons 1 (Cons 0 Nil)
ghci> Cons 2 it
Cons 2 (Cons 1 (Cons 0 Nil))
ghci> Cons 3 it
Cons 3 (Cons 2 (Cons 1 (Cons 0 Nil)))

We could continue in this fashion indefinitely, creating ever longer Cons chains, each with a single Nil at the end.

[Tip]Is List an acceptable list?

We can easily prove to ourselves that our List a type has the same shape as the built-in list type [a]. To do this, we write a function that takes any value of type [a], and produces a value of type List a.

-- file: ch03/ListADT.hs
fromList (x:xs) = Cons x (fromList xs)
fromList []     = Nil

By inspection, this clearly substitutes a Cons for every (:), and a Nil for each []. This covers both of the built-in list type's constructors. The two types are isomorphic; they have the same shape.

ghci> fromList "durian"
Cons 'd' (Cons 'u' (Cons 'r' (Cons 'i' (Cons 'a' (Cons 'n' Nil)))))
ghci> fromList [Just True, Nothing, Just False]
Cons (Just True) (Cons Nothing (Cons (Just False) Nil))

For a third example of what a recursive type is, here is a definition of a binary tree type.

-- file: ch03/Tree.hs
data Tree a = Node a (Tree a) (Tree a)
            | Empty
              deriving (Show)

A binary tree is either a node with two children, which are themselves binary trees, or an empty value.

This time, let's search for insight by comparing our definition with one from a more familiar language. Here's a similar class definition in Java.

class Tree<A>
    A value;
    Tree<A> left;
    Tree<A> right;

    public Tree(A v, Tree<A> l, Tree<A> r)
	value = v;
	left = l;
	right = r;

The one significant difference is that Java lets us use the special value null anywhere to indicate “nothing”, so we can use null to indicate that a node is missing a left or right child. Here's a small function that constructs a tree with two leaves (a leaf, by convention, has no children).

class Example 
    static Tree<String> simpleTree()
	return new Tree<String>(
	    new Tree<String>("left leaf", null, null),
	    new Tree<String>("right leaf", null, null));

In Haskell, we don't have an equivalent of null. We could use the Maybe type to provide a similar effect, but that bloats the pattern matching. Instead, we've decided to use a no-argument Empty constructor. Where the Java example provides null to the Tree constructor, we supply Empty in Haskell.

-- file: ch03/Tree.hs
simpleTree = Node "parent" (Node "left child" Empty Empty)
                           (Node "right child" Empty Empty)



Write the converse of fromList for the List type: a function that takes a List a and generates a [a].


Define a tree type that has only one constructor, like our Java example. Instead of the Empty constructor, use the Maybe type to refer to a node's children.

Reporting errors

Haskell provides a standard function, error :: String -> a, that we can call when something has gone terribly wrong in our code. We give it a string parameter, which is the error message to display. Its type signature looks peculiar: how can it produce a value of any type a given only a string?

It has a result type of a so that we can call it anywhere and it will always have the right type. However, it does not return a value like a normal function: instead, it immediately aborts evaluation, and prints the error message we give it.

The mySecond function returns the second element of its input list, but fails if its input list isn't long enough.

-- file: ch03/MySecond.hs
mySecond :: [a] -> a

mySecond xs = if null (tail xs)
              then error "list too short"
              else head (tail xs)

As usual, we can see how this works in practice in ghci.

ghci> mySecond "xi"
ghci> mySecond [2]
*** Exception: list too short
ghci> head (mySecond [[9]])
*** Exception: list too short

Notice the third case above, where we try to use the result of the call to mySecond as the argument to another function. Evaluation still terminates and drops us back to the ghci prompt. This is the major weakness of using error: it doesn't let our caller distinguish between a recoverable error and a problem so severe that it really should terminate our program.

As we have already seen, a pattern matching failure causes a similar unrecoverable error.

ghci> mySecond []
*** Exception: Prelude.tail: empty list

A more controlled approach

We can use the Maybe type to represent the possibility of an error.

If we want to indicate that an operation has failed, we can use the Nothing constructor. Otherwise, we wrap our value with the Just constructor.

Let's see how our mySecond function changes if we return a Maybe value instead of calling error.

-- file: ch03/MySecond.hs
safeSecond :: [a] -> Maybe a

safeSecond [] = Nothing
safeSecond xs = if null (tail xs)
                then Nothing
                else Just (head (tail xs))

If the list we're passed is too short, we return Nothing to our caller. This lets them decide what to do, where a call to error would force a crash.

ghci> safeSecond []
ghci> safeSecond [1]
ghci> safeSecond [1,2]
Just 2
ghci> safeSecond [1,2,3]
Just 2

To return to an earlier topic, we can further improve the readability of this function with pattern matching.

-- file: ch03/MySecond.hs
tidySecond :: [a] -> Maybe a

tidySecond (_:x:_) = Just x
tidySecond _       = Nothing

The first pattern only matches if the list is at least two elements long (it contains two list constructors), and it binds the variable x to the list's second element. The second pattern is matched if the first fails.

Introducing local variables

Within the body of a function, we can introduce new local variables whenever we need them, using a let expression. Here is a simple function that determines whether we should lend some money to a customer. We meet a money reserve of at least 100, we return our new balance after subtracting the amount we have loaned.

-- file: ch03/Lending.hs
lend amount balance = let reserve    = 100
                          newBalance = balance - amount
                      in if balance < reserve
                         then Nothing
                         else Just newBalance

The keywords to look out for here are let, which starts a block of variable declarations, and in, which ends it. Each line introduces a new variable. The name is on the left of the =, and the expression to which it is bound is on the right.

[Note]Special notes

Let us re-emphasise our wording: a name in a let block is bound to an expression, not to a value. Because Haskell is a lazy language, the expression associated with a name won't actually be evaluated until it's needed. In the above example, we will not compute the value of newBalance if we do not meet our reserve.

When we define a variable in a let block, we refer to it as a let-bound variable. This simply means what it says: we have bound the variable in a let block.

Also, our use of white space here is important. We'll talk in more detail about the layout rules in the section called “The offside rule and white space in an expression”.

We can use the names of a variable in a let block both within the block of declarations and in the expression that follows the in keyword.

In general, we'll refer to the places within our code where we can use a name as the name's scope. If we can use a name, it's in scope, otherwise it's out of scope. If a name is visible throughout a source file, we say it's at the top level.


We can “nest” multiple let blocks inside each other in an expression.

-- file: ch03/NestedLets.hs
foo = let a = 1
      in let b = 2
         in a + b

It's perfectly legal, but not exactly wise, to repeat a variable name in a nested let expression.

-- file: ch03/NestedLets.hs
bar = let x = 1
      in ((let x = "foo" in x), x)

Here, the inner x is hiding, or shadowing, the outer x. It has the same name, but a different type and value.

ghci> bar

We can also shadow a function's parameters, leading to even stranger results. What is the type of this function?

-- file: ch03/NestedLets.hs
quux a = let a = "foo"
         in a ++ "eek!"

Because the function's argument a is never used in the body of the function, due to being shadowed by the let-bound a, the argument can have any type at all.

ghci> :type quux
quux :: t -> [Char]
[Tip]Compiler warnings are your friends

Shadowing can obviously lead to confusion and nasty bugs, so GHC has a helpful -fwarn-name-shadowing option. When enabled, GHC will print a warning message any time we shadow a name.

The where clause

We can use another mechanism to introduce local variables: the where clause. The definitions in a where clause apply to the code that precedes it. Here's a similar function to lend, using where instead of let.

-- file: ch03/Lending.hs
lend2 amount balance = if amount < reserve * 0.5
                       then Just newBalance
                       else Nothing
    where reserve    = 100
          newBalance = balance - amount

While a where clause may initially seem weird, it offers a wonderful aid to readability. It lets us direct our reader's focus to the important details of an expression, with the supporting definitions following afterwards. After a while, you may find yourself missing where clauses in languages that lack them.

As with let expressions, white space is significant in where clauses. We will talk more about the layout rules shortly, in the section called “The offside rule and white space in an expression”.

Local functions, global variables

You'll have noticed that Haskell's syntax for defining a variable looks very similar to its syntax for defining a function. This symmetry is preserved in let and where blocks: we can define local functions just as easily as local variables.

-- file: ch03/LocalFunction.hs
pluralise :: String -> [Int] -> [String]
pluralise word counts = map plural counts
    where plural 0 = "no " ++ word ++ "s"
          plural 1 = "one " ++ word
          plural n = show n ++ " " ++ word ++ "s"

We have defined a local function, plural, that consists of several equations. Local functions can freely use variables from the scopes that enclose them: here, we use word from the definition of the outer function pluralise. In the definition of pluralise, the map function (which we'll be revisiting in the next chapter) applies the local function plural to every element of the counts list.

We can also define variables, as well as functions, at the top level of a source file.

-- file: ch03/GlobalVariable.hs
itemName = "Weighted Companion Cube"

The offside rule and white space in an expression

In our definitions of lend and lend2, the left margin of our text wandered around quite a bit. This was not an accident: in Haskell, white space has meaning.

Haskell uses indentation as a cue to parse sections of code. This use of layout to convey structure is sometimes called the offside rule. At the beginning of a source file, the first top level declaration or definition can start in any column, and the Haskell compiler or interpreter remembers that indentation level. Every subsequent top level declaration must have the same indentation.

Here's an illustration of the top level indentation rule. Our first file, GoodIndent.hs, is well behaved.

-- file: ch03/GoodIndent.hs
-- This is the leftmost column.

  -- It's fine for top-level declarations to start in any column...
  firstGoodIndentation = 1

  -- ...provided all subsequent declarations do, too!
  secondGoodIndentation = 2

Our second, BadIndent.hs, doesn't play by the rules.

-- file: ch03/BadIndent.hs
-- This is the leftmost column.

    -- Our first declaration is in column 4.
    firstBadIndentation = 1

  -- Our second is left of the first, which is illegal!
  secondBadIndentation = 2

Here's what happens when we try to load the two files into ghci.

ghci> :load GoodIndent.hs
[1 of 1] Compiling Main             ( GoodIndent.hs, interpreted )
Ok, modules loaded: Main.
ghci> :load BadIndent.hs
[1 of 1] Compiling Main             ( BadIndent.hs, interpreted )

BadIndent.hs:8:2: parse error on input `secondBadIndentation'
Failed, modules loaded: none.

An empty following line is treated as a continuation of the current item, as is a following line indented further to the right.

The rules for let expressions and where clauses are similar. After a let or where keyword, the Haskell compiler or interpreter remembers the indentation of the next token it sees. If the line that follows is empty, or its indentation is further to the right, it is considered to continue the previous line. If the indentation is the same as the start of the preceding item, this is treated as beginning a new item in the same block.

-- file: ch03/Indentation.hs
foo = let firstDefinition = blah blah
          -- a comment-only line is treated as empty
                              continuation blah

          -- we reduce the indentation, so this is a new definition
          secondDefinition = yada yada

                             continuation yada
      in whatever

Here are nested uses of let and where.

-- file: ch03/letwhere.hs
bar = let b = 2
          c = True
      in let a = b
         in (a, c)

The name a is only visible within the inner let expression. It's not visible in the outer let. If we try to use the name a there, we'll get a compilation error. The indentation gives both us and the compiler a visual cue as to what is currently in scope.

-- file: ch03/letwhere.hs
foo = x
    where x = y
              where y = 2

Similarly, the scope of the first where clause is the definition of foo, but the scope of the second is just the first where clause.

The indentation we use for the let and where clauses makes our intentions easy to figure out.

A note about tabs versus spaces

If you use a Haskell-aware text editor (e.g. Emacs), it is probably already configured to use space characters for all white space when you edit Haskell source files. If your editor is not Haskell-aware, you should configure it to only use space characters.

The reason for this is portability. In an editor that uses a fixed-width font, tab stops are by convention placed at different intervals on Unix-like systems (every eight characters) than on Windows (every four characters). This means that no matter what your personal beliefs are about where tabs belong, you can't rely on someone else's editor honouring your preferences. Any indentation that uses tabs is going to look broken under someone's configuration. In fact, this could lead to compilation problems, as the Haskell language standard requires implementations to use the Unix tab width convention. Using space characters avoids this problem entirely.

The offside rule is not mandatory

We can use explicit structuring instead of layout to indicate what we mean. To do so, we start a block of equations with an opening curly brace; separate each item with a semicolon; and finish the block with a closing curly brace. The following two uses of let have the same meanings.

-- file: ch03/Braces.hs
bar = let a = 1
          b = 2
          c = 3
      in a + b + c

foo = let { a = 1;  b = 2;
        c = 3 }
      in a + b + c

When we use explicit structuring, the normal layout rules don't apply, which is why we can get away with unusual indentation in the second let expression.

We can use explicit structuring anywhere that we'd normally use layout. It's valid for where clauses, and even top-level declarations. Just remember that although the facility exists, explicit structuring is hardly ever actually used in Haskell programs.

The case expression

Function definitions are not the only place where we can use pattern matching. The case construct lets us match patterns within an expression. Here's what it looks like. This function (defined for us in Data.Maybe) unwraps a Maybe value, using a default if the value is Nothing.

-- file: ch03/Guard.hs
fromMaybe defval wrapped =
    case wrapped of
      Nothing     -> defval
      Just value  -> value

The case keyword is followed by an arbitrary expression: the pattern match is performed against the result of this expression. The of keyword signifies the end of the expression and the beginning of the block of patterns and expressions.

Each item in the block consists of a pattern, followed by an arrow ->, followed by an expression to evaluate if that pattern matches. These expressions must all have the same type. The result of the case expression is the result of the expression associated with the first pattern to match. Matches are attempted from top to bottom.

To express “here's the expression to evaluate if none of the other patterns match”, we just use the wild card pattern _ as the last in our list of patterns. If a pattern match fails, we will get the same kind of runtime error as we saw earlier.

Common beginner mistakes with patterns

There are a few ways in which new Haskell programmers can misunderstand or misuse patterns. Here are some attempts at pattern matching gone awry. Depending on what you expect one of these examples to do, it might contain a surprise.

Incorrectly matching against a variable

-- file: ch03/BogusPattern.hs
data Fruit = Apple | Orange

apple = "apple"

orange = "orange"        

whichFruit :: String -> Fruit

whichFruit f = case f of
                 apple  -> Apple
                 orange -> Orange

A naive glance suggests that this code is trying to check the value f to see whether it matches the value apple or orange.

It is easier to spot the mistake if we rewrite the code in an equational style.

-- file: ch03/BogusPattern.hs
equational apple = Apple
equational orange = Orange

Now can you see the problem? Here, it is more obvious apple does not refer to the top level value named apple: it is a local pattern variable.

[Note]Irrefutable patterns

We refer to a pattern that always succeeds as irrefutable. Plain variable names and the wild card _ are examples of irrefutable patterns.

Here's a corrected version of this function.

-- file: ch03/BogusPattern.hs
betterFruit f = case f of
                  "apple"  -> Apple
                  "orange" -> Orange

We fixed the problem by matching against the literal values "apple" and "orange".

Incorrectly trying to compare for equality

What if we want to compare the values stored in two nodes of type Tree, and return one of them if they're equal? Here's an attempt.

-- file: ch03/BadTree.hs
bad_nodesAreSame (Node a _ _) (Node a _ _) = Just a
bad_nodesAreSame _            _            = Nothing

A name can only appear once in a set of pattern bindings. We cannot place a variable in multiple positions to express the notion “this value and that should be identical”. Instead, we'll solve this problem using guards, another invaluable Haskell feature.

Conditional evaluation with guards

Pattern matching limites us to performing fixed tests of a value's shape. Although this is useful, we will often want to make a more expressive check before evaluating a function's body. Haskell provides a feature, guards, that give us this ability. We'll introduce the idea with a modification of the function we wrote to compare two nodes of a tree.

-- file: ch03/BadTree.hs
nodesAreSame (Node a _ _) (Node b _ _)
    | a == b     = Just a
nodesAreSame _ _ = Nothing

In this example, we use pattern matching to ensure that we are looking at values of the right shape, and a guard to compare pieces of them.

A pattern can be followed by zero or more guards, each an expression of type Bool. A guard is introduced by a | symbol. This is followed by the guard expression, then an = symbol (or -> if we're in a case expression), then the body to use if the guard expression evaluates to True. If a pattern matches, each guard associated with that pattern is evaluated, in the order in which they are written. If a guard succeeds, the body affiliated with it is used as the result of the function. If no guard succeeds, pattern matching moves on to the next pattern.

When a guard expression is evaluated, all of the variables mentioned in the pattern with which it is associated are bound and can be used.

Here is a reworked version of our lend function that uses guards.

-- file: ch03/Lending.hs
lend3 amount balance
     | amount <= 0            = Nothing
     | amount > reserve * 0.5 = Nothing
     | otherwise              = Just newBalance
    where reserve    = 100
          newBalance = balance - amount

The special-looking guard expression otherwise is simply a variable bound to the value True, to aid readability.

We can use guards anywhere that we can use patterns. Writing a function as a series of equations using pattern matching and guards can make it much clearer. Remember the myDrop function we defined in the section called “Conditional evaluation”?

-- file: ch02/myDrop.hs
myDrop n xs = if n <= 0 || null xs
              then xs
              else myDrop (n - 1) (tail xs)

Here is a reformulation that uses patterns and guards.

-- file: ch02/myDrop.hs
niceDrop n xs | n <= 0 = xs
niceDrop _ []          = []
niceDrop n (_:xs)      = niceDrop (n - 1) xs

This change in style lets us enumerate up front the cases in which we expect a function to behave differently. If we bury the decisions inside a function as if expressions, the code becomes harder to read.



Write a function that computes the number of elements in a list. To test it, ensure that it gives the same answers as the standard length function.


Add a type signature for your function to your source file. To test it, load the source file into ghci again.


Write a function that computes the mean of a list, i.e. the sum of all elements in the list divided by its length. (You may need to use the fromIntegral function to convert the length of the list from an integer into a floating point number.)


Turn a list into a palindrome, i.e. it should read the same both backwards and forwards. For example, given the list [1,2,3], your function should return [1,2,3,3,2,1].


Write a function that determines whether its input list is a palindrome.


Create a function that sorts a list of lists based on the length of each sublist. (You may want to look at the sortBy function from the Data.List module.)


Define a function that joins a list of lists together using a separator value.

-- file: ch03/Intersperse.hs
intersperse :: a -> [[a]] -> [a]

The separator should appear between elements of the list, but should not follow the last element. Your function should behave as follows.

ghci> :load Intersperse
[1 of 1] Compiling Main             ( Intersperse.hs, interpreted )
Ok, modules loaded: Main.
ghci> intersperse ',' []
ghci> intersperse ',' ["foo"]
ghci> intersperse ',' ["foo","bar","baz","quux"]


Using the binary tree type that we defined earlier in this chapter, write a function that will determine the height of the tree. The height is the largest number of hops from the root to an Empty. For example, the tree Empty has height zero; Node "x" Empty Empty has height one; Node "x" Empty (Node "y" Empty Empty) has height two; and so on.


Consider three two-dimensional points a, b, and c. If we look at the angle formed by the line segment from a to b and the line segment from b to c, it either turns left, turns right, or forms a straight line. Define a Direction data type that lets you represent these possibilities.


Write a function that calculates the turn made by three 2D points and returns a Direction.


Define a function that takes a list of 2D points and computes the direction of each successive triple. Given a list of points [a,b,c,d,e], it should begin by computing the turn made by [a,b,c], then the turn made by [b,c,d], then [c,d,e]. Your function should return a list of Direction.


Using the code from the preceding three exercises, implement Graham's scan algorithm for the convex hull of a set of 2D points. You can find good description of what a convex hull. is, and how the Graham scan algorithm should work, on Wikipedia.

[7] If you are familiar with C or C++, it is analogous to a typedef.

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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.