Recursion patterns, polymorphism, and the Prelude

CIS 194 Week 3
28 January 2013

While completing HW 2, you probably spent a lot of time writing explicitly recursive functions. At this point, you might think that’s what Haskell programmers spend most of their time doing. In fact, experienced Haskell programmers hardly ever write recursive functions!

How is this possible? The key is to notice that although recursive functions can theoretically do pretty much anything, in practice there are certain common patterns that come up over and over again. By abstracting out these patterns into library functions, programmers can leave the low-level details of actually doing recursion to these functions, and think about problems at a higher level—that’s the goal of wholemeal programming.

Recursion patterns

Recall our simple definition of lists of Int values:

data IntList = Empty | Cons Int IntList
  deriving Show

What sorts of things might we want to do with an IntList? Here are a few common possibilities:


Let’s think about the first one (“perform some operation on every element of the list”). For example, we could add one to every element in a list:

Or we could ensure that every element in a list is nonnegative by taking the absolute value:

absAll :: IntList -> IntList
absAll Empty       = Empty
absAll (Cons x xs) = Cons (abs x) (absAll xs)

Or we could square every element:

squareAll :: IntList -> IntList
squareAll Empty       = Empty
squareAll (Cons x xs) = Cons (x*x) (squareAll xs)

At this point, big flashing red lights and warning bells should be going off in your head. These three functions look way too similar. There ought to be some way to abstract out the commonality so we don’t have to repeat ourselves!

There is indeed a way—can you figure it out? Which parts are the same in all three examples and which parts change?

The thing that changes, of course, is the operation we want to perform on each element of the list. We can specify this operation as a function of type Int -> Int. Here is where we begin to see how incredibly useful it is to be able to pass functions as inputs to other functions!

We can now use mapIntList to implement addOneToAll, absAll, and squareAll:

exampleList = Cons (-1) (Cons 2 (Cons (-6) Empty))

addOne x = x + 1
square x = x * x
mapIntList addOne exampleList
mapIntList abs    exampleList
mapIntList square exampleList


Another common pattern is when we want to keep only some elements of a list, and throw others away, based on a test. For example, we might want to keep only the positive numbers:

Or only the even ones:

keepOnlyEven :: IntList -> IntList
keepOnlyEven Empty = Empty
keepOnlyEven (Cons x xs)
  | even x    = Cons x (keepOnlyEven xs)
  | otherwise = keepOnlyEven xs

How can we generalize this pattern? What stays the same, and what do we need to abstract out?


The final pattern we mentioned was to “summarize” the elements of the list; this is also variously known as a “fold” or “reduce” operation. We’ll come back to this next week. In the meantime, you might want to think about how to abstract out this pattern!


We’ve now written some nice, general functions for mapping and filtering over lists of Ints. But we’re not done generalizing! What if we wanted to filter lists of Integers? or Bools? Or lists of lists of trees of stacks of Strings? We’d have to make a new data type and a new function for each of these cases. Even worse, the code would be exactly the same; the only thing that would be different is the type signatures. Can’t Haskell help us out here?

Of course it can! Haskell supports polymorphism for both data types and functions. The word “polymorphic” comes from Greek (πολύμορφος) and means “having many forms”: something which is polymorphic works for multiple types.

Polymorphic data types

First, let’s see how to declare a polymorphic data type.

data List t = E | C t (List t)

(We can’t reuse Empty and Cons since we already used those for the constructors of IntList, so we’ll use E and C instead.) Whereas before we had data IntList = ..., we now have data List t = ... The t is a type variable which can stand for any type. (Type variables must start with a lowercase letter, whereas types must start with uppercase.) data List t = ... means that the List type is parameterized by a type, in much the same way that a function can be parameterized by some input.

Given a type t, a (List t) consists of either the constructor E, or the constructor C along with a value of type t and another (List t). Here are some examples:

lst1 :: List Int
lst1 = C 3 (C 5 (C 2 E))

lst2 :: List Char
lst2 = C 'x' (C 'y' (C 'z' E))

lst3 :: List Bool
lst3 = C True (C False E)

Polymorphic functions

Now, let’s generalize filterIntList to work over our new polymorphic Lists. We can just take code of filterIntList and replace Empty by E and Cons by C:

filterList _ E = E
filterList p (C x xs)
  | p x       = C x (filterList p xs)
  | otherwise = filterList p xs

Now, what is the type of filterList? Let’s see what type ghci infers for it:

*Main> :t filterList
filterList :: (t -> Bool) -> List t -> List t    

We can read this as: “for any type t, filterList takes a function from t to Bool, and a list of t’s, and returns a list of t’s.”

What about generalizing mapIntList? What type should we give to a function mapList that applies a function to every element in a List t?

Our first idea might be to give it the type

mapList :: (t -> t) -> List t -> List t

This works, but it means that when applying mapList, we always get a list with the same type of elements as the list we started with. This is overly restrictive: we’d like to be able to do things like mapList show in order to convert, say, a list of Ints into a list of Strings. Here, then, is the most general possible type for mapList, along with an implementation:

mapList :: (a -> b) -> List a -> List b
mapList _ E        = E
mapList f (C x xs) = C (f x) (mapList f xs)

One important thing to remember about polymorphic functions is that the caller gets to pick the types. When you write a polymorphic function, it must work for every possible input type. This—together with the fact that Haskell has no way to directly make make decisions based on what type something is—has some interesting implications which we’ll explore later.

The Prelude

The Prelude is a module with a bunch of standard definitions that gets implicitly imported into every Haskell program. It’s worth spending some time skimming through its documentation to familiarize oneself with the tools that are available.

Of course, polymorphic lists are defined in the Prelude, along with many useful polymorphic functions for working with them. For example, filter and map are the counterparts to our filterList and mapList. In fact, the Data.List module contains many more list functions still.

Another useful polymorphic type to know is Maybe, defined as

data Maybe a = Nothing | Just a

A value of type Maybe a either contains a value of type a (wrapped in the Just constructor), or it is Nothing (representing some sort of failure or error). The Data.Maybe module has functions for working with Maybe values.

Total and partial functions

Consider this polymorphic type:

[a] -> a

What functions could have such a type? The type says that given a list of things of type a, the function must produce some value of type a. For example, the Prelude function head has this type.

…But what happens if head is given an empty list as input? Let’s look at the source code for head

It crashes! There’s nothing else it possibly could do, since it must work for all types. There’s no way to make up an element of an arbitrary type out of thin air.

head is what is known as a partial function: there are certain inputs for which head will crash. Functions which have certain inputs that will make them recurse infinitely are also called partial. Functions which are well-defined on all possible inputs are known as total functions.

It is good Haskell practice to avoid partial functions as much as possible. Actually, avoiding partial functions is good practice in any programming language—but in most of them it’s ridiculously annoying. Haskell tends to make it quite easy and sensible.

head is a mistake! It should not be in the Prelude. Other partial Prelude functions you should almost never use include tail, init, last, and (!!). From this point on, using one of these functions on a homework assignment will lose style points!

What to do instead?

Replacing partial functions

Often partial functions like head, tail, and so on can be replaced by pattern-matching. Consider the following two definitions:

doStuff1 :: [Int] -> Int
doStuff1 []  = 0
doStuff1 [_] = 0
doStuff1 xs  = head xs + (head (tail xs)) 
doStuff2 :: [Int] -> Int
doStuff2 []        = 0
doStuff2 [_]       = 0
doStuff2 (x1:x2:_) = x1 + x2

These functions compute exactly the same result, and they are both total. But only the second one is obviously total, and it is much easier to read anyway.

Writing partial functions

What if you find yourself writing a partial functions? There are two approaches to take. The first is to change the output type of the function to indicate the possible failure. Recall the definition of Maybe:

data Maybe a = Nothing | Just a

Now, suppose we were writing head. We could rewrite it safely like this:

safeHead :: [a] -> Maybe a
safeHead []    = Nothing
safeHead (x:_) = Just x

Indeed, there is exactly such a function defined in the safe package.

Why is this a good idea?

  1. safeHead will never crash.
  2. The type of safeHead makes it obvious that it may fail for some inputs.
  3. The type system ensures that users of safeHead must appropriately check the return value of safeHead to see whether they got a value or Nothing.

In some sense, safeHead is still “partial”; but we have reflected the partiality in the type system, so it is now safe. The goal is to have the types tell us as much as possible about the behavior of functions.

OK, but what if we know that we will only use head in situations where we are guaranteed to have a non-empty list? In such a situation, it is really annoying to get back a Maybe a, since we have to expend effort dealing with a case which we “know” cannot actually happen.

The answer is that if some condition is really guaranteed, then the types ought to reflect the guarantee! Then the compiler can enforce your guarantees for you. For example:

data NonEmptyList a = NEL a [a]

nelToList :: NonEmptyList a -> [a]
nelToList (NEL x xs) = x:xs

listToNel :: [a] -> Maybe (NonEmptyList a)
listToNel []     = Nothing
listToNel (x:xs) = Just $ NEL x xs

headNEL :: NonEmptyList a -> a
headNEL (NEL a _) = a

tailNEL :: NonEmptyList a -> [a]
tailNEL (NEL _ as) = as

You might think doing such things is only for chumps who are not coding super-geniuses like you. Of course, you would never make a mistake like passing an empty list to a function which expects only non-empty ones. Right? Well, there’s definitely a chump involved, but it’s not who you think.

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