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Haskell Guide: Types, Lambda Functions and Type Classes

An introduction to types, lambda functions and type classes in Haskell, the increasingly popular functional programming language.
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© University of Glasgow

Function types

    • Ordinary data types are for primitive data (like \(Int\) and \(Char\)) and basic data structures (like \([Int]\) and \([Char]\)).
    • Algebraic data types are types that combine other types either as records (‘products’), e.g.
       data Pair = Pair Int Double
      or as variants (‘sums’), e.g.
       data Bool = False | True
    • Functions have types containing an arrow, e.g. \(Int \rightarrow String\).
    • We now look at function types in more detail.

Lambda expressions

    • Lambda expressions (named after the greek letter \(\lambda\)) play a very important role in functional programming in general and Haskell in particular.

Named and anonymous expressions

    • You can give a name \(sum\) to an expression \(2+2\):
 sum = 2+2
    • But you can also write anonymous expressions — expressions that just
      appear, but are not given names.
 (-b) + sqrt (b^2 - 4*a*c)
    • Without anonymous expressions, writing this would almost be like
      assembly language:
 e1 = (-b)e2 = b^2e3 = 4*ae4 = e3*ce5 = e2-e4e6 = sqrt e5e7 = e1+e6

Some background

    • Sometimes in a mathematics or physics book, there are statements
      like “the function \(x^2\) is continuous\(\ldots\)”
    • This is ok when the context makes it clear what \(x\) is.
    • But it can lead to problems. What does \(x*y\) mean?
        • Is it a constant, because both \(x\) and \(y\) have fixed values?
        • Is it a function of \(x\), with a fixed value of \(y\)?
        • Is it a function of \(y\), with a fixed value of \(x\)?
        • Is it a function of both \(x\) and \(y\)?
    • In mathematical logic (and computer programming) we need to be
      precise about this!
    • A lambda expression \(\backslash x \rightarrow e\) contains
        • An explicit statement that the formal parameter is \(x\), and
        • the expression \(e\) that defines the value of the function.

Anonymous functions

    • A function can be defined and given a name using an equation:
 f :: Int -> Intf x = x+1
    • Since functions are “first class”, they are ubiquitous, and it’s
      often useful to denote a function anonymously.
    • This is done using lambda expressions.
 \x -> x+1
Pronounced “lambda x arrow x+1”.
There may be any number of arguments:
 \x y z -> 2*x + y*z

Using a lambda expression

Functions are first class: you can use a lambda expression wherever a
function is needed. Thus
 f = \x -> x+1
is equivalent to
 f x = x+1
But lambda expressions are most useful when they appear inside larger
 map (\x -> 2*x + 1) xs

Monomorphic and polymorphic functions


Monomorphic functions

Monomorphic means “having one form”.
 f :: Int -> Charf i = "abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz" !! ix :: Intx = 3f :: Char->Stringf x = x:" There is a kind of character in thy life"

Polymorphic functions

Polymorphic means “having many forms”.
 fst :: (a,b) -> afst (x,y) = xsnd :: (a,b) -> bsnd (x,y) = yfst :: (a,b) -> afst (a,b) = asnd :: (a,b) -> bsnd (a,b) = b


    • Most programming languages allow functions to have any number of
    • But this turns out to be unnecessary: we can restrict all functions
      to have just one argument, without losing any expressiveness.
    • This process is called Currying, in honor of Haskell Curry.
        • The technique makes essential use of higher order functions.
        • It has many advantages, both practical and theoretical.

A function with two arguments

You can write a definition like this, which appears to have two
 f :: Int -> Int -> Intf x y = 2*x + y
But it actually means the following:
 f :: Int -> (Int -> Int)f 5 :: Int -> Int
The function takes its arguments one at a time:
 f 3 4 = (f 3) 4g :: Int -> Intg = f 3g 10 -- > (f 3) 10 -- > 2*3 + 10

Grouping: arrow to the right, application left

    • The arrow operator takes two types \(a \rightarrow b\), and gives the
      type of a function with argument type \(a\) and result type \(b\)
    • An application \(e_1\; e_2\) applies a function \(e_1\) to an argument
    • Note that for both types and applications, a function has only one
    • To make the notation work smoothly, arrows group to the right, and
      application groups to the left.
 f :: a -> b -> c -> df :: a -> (b -> (c -> d))f x y z = ((f x) y) z

Type classes and ad-hoc polymorphism


The type of \((+)\)

Note that \(fst\) has the following type, and there is no restriction on
what types \(a\) and \(b\) could be.
 fst :: (a,b) -> a
What is the type of \((+)\)? Could it be\(\ldots\)
 (+) :: Int -> Int -> Int(+) :: Integer -> Integer -> Integer(+) :: Ratio Integer -> Ratio Integer -> Ratio Integer(+) :: Double -> Double -> Double(+) :: a -> a -> a -- Wrong! has to be a number

Type classes

Answer: \((+)\) has type \(a \rightarrow a \rightarrow a\) for any type \(a\)
that is a member of the type class \(Num\).
 (+) :: Num a => a -> a -> a
  • The class \(Num\) is a set of types for which \((+)\) is defined
  • It includes \(Int\), \(Integer\), \(Double\), and many more.
  • But \(Num\) does not contain types like \(Bool\), \([Char]\), \(Int\rightarrow Double\), and many more.

Two kinds of polymorphism

  • Parametric polymorphism.
    • A polymorphic type that can be instantiated to any type.
    • Represented by a type variable. It is conventional to use \(a\), \(b\), \(c\), \(\ldots\)
    • Example: \(length :: [a] \rightarrow Int\) can take the length of a list whose elements could have any type.
  • Ad hoc polymorphism.
    • A polymorphic type that can be instantiated to any type chosen from a set, called a “type class
    • Represented by a type variable that is constrained using the \(\Rightarrow\) notation.
    • Example: \((+) :: Num\, a \Rightarrow a \rightarrow a \rightarrow a\) says that \((+)\) can add values of any type \(a\), provided that \(a\) is an element of the type class \(Num\).

Type inference

  • Type checking takes a type declaration and some code, and determines whether the code actually has the type declared.
  • Type inference is the analysis of code in order to infer its type.
  • Type inference works by
    • Using a set of type inference rules that generate typings based on the program text
    • Combining all the information obtained from the rules to produce the types.

Type inference rules

The type system contains a number of type inference rules, with the form
\[\frac {\hbox{assumption — what you’re given}} {\hbox{consequence — what you can infer}}\]


  • Statements about types are written in the form similar to \(\Gamma \vdash e :: \alpha\)
  • This means "if you are given a set \(\Gamma\) of types, then it is proven that \(e\) has type \(\alpha\).

Type of constant

\[\frac {\hbox{$c$ is a constant with a fixed type $T$}} {\Gamma \vdash c :: T}\]
If we know the type \(T\) of a constant \(c\) (for example, we know that \(‘a’ :: Char\)), then this is expressed by saying that there is a given theorem that \(c :: T\). Furthermore, this holds given any context \(\Gamma\).

Type of application

\[\frac {\Gamma \vdash e_1 :: (\alpha \rightarrow \beta) \qquad \Gamma \vdash e_2 :: \alpha } {\Gamma \vdash (e_1 \ e_2) :: \beta}\]
If \(e_1\) is a function with type \(\alpha \rightarrow \beta\), then the application of \(e_1\) to an argument of type \(\alpha\) gives a result of type \(\beta\).

Type of lambda expression

\[\frac {\Gamma, x :: \alpha \quad \vdash \quad e :: \beta} {\Gamma \vdash (\lambda x \rightarrow e) :: (\alpha \rightarrow \beta)}\]
We have a context \(\Gamma\). Suppose that if we’re also given that \(x :: \alpha\), then it can be proven that an expression \(e :: \beta\). Then we can infer that the function \(\lambda x \rightarrow e\) has type \(\alpha \rightarrow \beta\).
© University of Glasgow
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