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Haskell Basics

Let us now survey a few of the core concepts that will be used throughout the text. This will be a very fast and informal discussion. If you are familiar with all of these concepts then it is very likely you will be able to read the entirety of this tutorial and focus on the subject domain and not the supporting code. The domain material itself should largely be accessible to an ambitious high school student or undergraduate; and requires nothing more than a general knowledge of functional programming.


Functions are the primary building block of all of Haskell logic.

add :: Integer -> Integer -> Integer
add x y =  x + y
add (x,y) = x + y

In Haskell all functions are pure, the only thing a function may do is return a value.

All functions in Haskell are curried, for example a function of three arguments takes up to three arguments and for anything less than three it yields a partially applied function which when given additional arguments yields a another function or the resulting value if saturated.

g :: Int -> Int -> Int -> Int
g x y z = x + y + z

h :: Int -> Int
h = g 2 3 

Haskell supports higher-order functions, functions which take functions and yield other functions.

compose f g = \x -> f (g x)
iterate :: (a -> a) -> a -> [a]
iterate f x = x : (iterate f (f x))


Constructors for datatypes come in two flavors, sum types and product types.

A sum type consists of multiple options of type constructors under the same type. The two cases can be used at all locations the type is specified, and are discriminated using pattern matching.

data Sum = A Int | B Bool

A product type combines multiple typed fields into the same type.

data Prod = Prod Int Bool

Records are a special product type that in addition to generating code for the constructors also generates special set of functions known as selectors which extract the values of a specific field from the record.

data Prod = Prod 
  { a :: Int
  , b :: Bool

-- a :: Prod -> Int
-- b :: Prod -> Bool

Sums and products can be combined to produce combinations thereof.

data T1 
  = A Int Int
  | B Bool Bool

The fields of a datatype may be a parameterized in which case the type depends on the specific types the fields are instantiated with.

data Maybe a = Nothing | Just a


A list is an homogeneously inductively defined sum type of linked cells parameterized over the type of its values.

data List a = Nil | Cons a (List a)
a = [1,2,3]
a = Cons 1 (Cons 2 (Cons 3 Nil))

List have special value-level syntax:

(:) = Cons
[]  = Nil
(1 : (2 : (3 : []))) = [1,2,3]

A tuple is a heterogeneous product type parameterized over the types of its two values.

Tuples also have special value-level syntax.

data Pair a b = Pair a b
a = (1,2)
a = Pair 1 2
(,) = Pair

Tuples are allowed (with compiler support) up to 15 fields in GHC.

Pattern matching

Pattern matching allows us to discriminate on the constructor(s) of a datatype, mapping separate cases to separate code paths.

data Either a b = Left a | Right b

maybe :: b -> (a -> b) -> Maybe a -> b
maybe n f Nothing  = n
maybe n f (Just a) = f a

Toplevel pattern matches can always be written identically as case statements.

maybe :: b -> (a -> b) -> Maybe a -> b
maybe n f x = case x of
  Nothing -> n
  Just a  -> f a

Wildcards can be placed for patterns where the resulting value is not used.

const :: a -> b -> a
const x _ = x

List and tuples have special pattern syntax.

length :: [a] -> Int
length []     = 0
length (x:xs) = 1 + (length xs)
fst :: (a, b) -> a
fst (a,b) = a

Patterns may be guarded by predicates ( functions which yield a boolean ) which guard against entering the branch of pattern matching unless the predicate holds.

filter :: (a -> Bool) -> [a] -> [a]
filter pred []     = []
filter pred (x:xs)
  | pred x         = x : filter pred xs
  | otherwise      =     filter pred xs


In Haskell all iteration over data structures is performed by recursion. Entering a function in Haskell does not create a new stack frame, the logic of the function is simply entered with the arguments on the stack and yields result to the register. The resulting logic is compiled identically to while loops in other languages, via a jmp instruction instead of a call.

factorial 0 = 1
factorial n = n * factorial (n - 1)

Functions can be defined to recurse mutually on each other.

even 0 = True
even n = odd (n-1)

odd 0 = False
odd n = even (n-1)


A Haskell program can be thought as being equivalent to a large directed graph. Each edge represents a use of a value, and each node is a source of a value. A node can be:

  • A thunk, the application of a function to values that has not be evaluated yet.
  • A thunk that is currently being evaluated, which may induce the evaluation of other thunks in the process.
  • A value in weak head normal form, a builtin type or constructor that has been evaluated. For constructors it is evaluated at least to the outermost constructor.

The runtime has the task of determining which thunks are to be evaluated by the order in which they are connected to the main function node, this is the essence of all evaluation in Haskell and is called graph reduction.

For example, the following self-referential functions are allowed in Haskell and generate infinite lists of values which are only evaluated up to the depth that it is needed.

ones = 1 : ones
numsFrom n = n : numsFrom (n+1)
squares = map (^2) (numsfrom 0)
take 5 squares

This also admits diverging terms, called bottoms which have no normal form. What is unique about Haskell is that these values can be threaded around and don't diverge unless actually used.

bot = bot

So for instance the following expression does not diverge since the second argument is not used in the body of const.

const 42 bot

Higher Kinded Types

The "type of types" in Haskell is the language of kinds. Kinds are either a arrow (* -> *) or a star (*).

The kind of an Int is * while the kind of Maybe is * -> *. Haskell supports higher kinded types which are types which themselves take types to other types. A type constructor in Haskell always has a kind which terminates in a *.

-- T1 :: (* -> *) -> * -> *
data T1 f a = T1 (f a)

The three special types (,), (->), [] have special type-level syntactic sugar:

(,) Int Int   =  (Int, Int)
(->) Int Int  =  Int -> Int
[] Int        =  [Int]


A typeclass is a collection of functions which conform to a given interface. An implementation of the interface is called an instance. Typeclasses are effectively syntactic sugar for records of functions and nested records ( called dictionaries ) of functions parameterized over the instance type. These dictionaries are implicitly threaded throughout the program whenever an overloaded identifier is used. When a typeclass is used over a concrete type the implementation is simply spliced in at the call site. When a typeclass is used over an polymorphic type an implicit dictionary parameter is added to the function so that the implementation of the necessary functionality is passed with the polymorphic value.

Typeclass are "open" and additional instances can always be added, but the defining feature of a typeclass is that the instance search always converges to a single type to make the process of resolving overloaded identifiers globally unambiguous.

For instance the Functor typeclass allows us to "map" a function generically over any type of kind (* -> *) applying it on its internal structure.

class Functor f where
  fmap :: (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

instance Functor [] where
  fmap f []     = []
  fmap f (x:xs) = f x : fmap f xs

instance Functor ((,) a) where
  fmap f (a,b) = (a, f b)


In Haskell infix operators are simply functions, and quite often they are used in place of alphanumerical names when the functions involved combine in common ways and are subject to algebraic laws.

infixl 6 +
infixl 6 -
infixl 7 /
infixl 7 *

infixr 5 ++
infixr 9 .

Operators can be written in section form:

(x+) =  \y -> x+y
(+y) =  \x -> x+y
(+)  =  \x y -> x+y

Any binary function can be written in infix form by surrounding the name in backticks.

(+1) `fmap` [1,2,3] -- [2,3,4]


A monad is a typeclass with two functions bind and return.

class Monad m where
  bind   :: m a -> (a -> m b) -> m b
  return :: a -> m a

The bind function is usually written as an infix operator.

infixl 1 >>=

class Monad m where
  (>>=)  :: m a -> (a -> m b) -> m b
  return :: a -> m a

This defines the structure, but the monad itself also requires three laws that all monad instances must satisfy.

Law 1

return a >>= f ≡ f a

Law 2

m >>= return ≡ m

Law 3

(m >>= f) >>= g ≡ m >>= (\x -> f x >>= g)

Haskell has a level of syntactic sugar for monads known as do-notation. In this form binds are written sequentially in block form which extract the variable from the binder.

do { a <- f ; m } ≡ f >>= \a -> do { m }
do { f ; m } ≡ f >> do { m }
do { m } ≡ m

So for example the following are equivalent.

  a <- f
  b <- g
  c <- h
  return (a, b, c)
f >>= \a ->
  g >>= \b ->
    h >>= \c ->
      return (a, b, c)


Applicatives allow sequencing parts of some contextual computation, but not binding variables therein. Applicatives are strictly less expressive than monads.

class Functor f => Applicative f where
  pure  :: a -> f a
  (<*>) :: f (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

(<$>) :: Functor f => (a -> b) -> f a -> f b
(<$>) = fmap

Together with several laws this defines applicatives.

pure id <*> v = v
pure f <*> pure x = pure (f x)
u <*> pure y = pure ($ y) <*> u
u <*> (v <*> w) = pure (.) <*> u <*> v <*> w

For example:

example1 :: Maybe Integer
example1 = (+) <$> m1 <*> m2
    m1 = Just 3
    m2 = Nothing

Applicative also has functions *> and <* that sequence applicative actions while discarding the value of one of the arguments. The operator *> discards the left while <* discards the right. For example in a monadic parser combinator library the *> would parse with first parser argument but return the second.


Instances for typeclasses like Read, Show, Eq and Ord can be derived automatically by the Haskell compiler.

data PlatonicSolid 
  = Tetrahedron
  | Cube
  | Octahedron
  | Dodecahedron
  | Icosahedron
  deriving (Show, Eq, Ord, Read)
example = show Icosahedron
example = read "Tetrahedron"
example = Cube == Octahedron
example = sort [Cube, Dodecahedron]


A value of type IO a is a computation which, when performed, does some I/O before returning a value of type a. The notable feature of Haskell is that IO is still pure, a value of type IO a is simply a value which stands for a computation which when performed would perform IO and there is no way to peek into its contents without running it.

For instance the following function does not print the numbers 1 to 5 to the screen, it instead builds a list of IO computations.

fmap print [1..5] :: [IO ()]

Which we can manipulate just as an ordinary list of values, for instance.

reverse (fmap print [1..5]) :: [IO ()]

Using sequence_ we can then build a composite computation of each of the IO actions in the list sequenced in time the same order as the list, the resulting IO computation can be evaluated in main or the GHCi repl which effectively is embedded inside of IO.

>> sequence_ (fmap print [1..5]) :: IO ()

>> sequence_ (reverse (fmap print [1..5])) :: IO ()

The IO monad is a special monad wired into the runtime, it is a degenerate case and most monads in Haskell have nothing to do with effects in this sense.

putStrLn :: String -> IO ()
print    :: Show a => a -> IO ()

The type of main is always IO ().

main :: IO ()
main = do
  putStrLn "Enter a number greater than 3: "
  x <- readLn 
  print (x > 3)

The essence of monadic IO in Haskell is that effects are reified as first class values in the language and reflected in the type system. This is one of foundational ideas of Haskell, although not unique to Haskell.

Monad Transformers

Monads can be combined together to form composite monads. Each of the composite monads consists of layers of different monad functionality. For example we can combine a an error reporting monad with a state monad to encapsulate a certain set of computations that need both functionality. The use of monad transformers, while not always neccessary, is nevertheless often one of the primary ways to structure modern Haskell programs.

class MonadTrans t where
  lift :: Monad m => m a -> t m a

Using the transformers library:

The implementation of monad transformers is comprised of two different complementary libraries, transformers and mtl. Transformers provides the base monad transformer layers and mtl uses a language extension called functional dependencies to allow implicitly lifting between several layers of a monad transformer stack without explicit lifts.

Using transformers we simply import the Trans variants of each of the layers we want to compose and then wrap them in a newtype.

{-# LANGUAGE GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving #-}

import Control.Monad.Trans
import Control.Monad.Trans.State
import Control.Monad.Trans.Writer

newtype Stack a = Stack { unStack :: StateT Int (WriterT [Int] IO) a }
  deriving (Monad)

foo :: Stack ()
foo = Stack $ do
  put 1                  -- State layer
  lift $ tell [2]        -- Writer layer
  lift $ lift $ print 3  -- IO Layer
  return ()

evalStack :: Stack a -> IO [Int]
evalStack m = execWriterT (evalStateT (unStack m) 0)

Using mtl and GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving we can produce the same stack but with a simpler forward facing interface to the transformer stack. Under the hood mtl is using an extension called FunctionalDependencies to automatically infer which layer of a transformer stack a function belongs to and can automatically lift into it.

{-# LANGUAGE GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving #-}

import Control.Monad.Trans
import Control.Monad.State
import Control.Monad.Writer

newtype Stack a = Stack { unStack :: StateT Int (WriterT [Int] IO) a }
  deriving (Monad, MonadState Int, MonadWriter [Int], MonadIO)

foo :: Stack ()
foo = do
  put 1             -- State layer
  tell [2]          -- Writer layer
  liftIO $ print 3  -- IO Layer
  return ()

evalStack :: Stack a -> IO [Int]
evalStack m = execWriterT (evalStateT (unStack m) 0)


The state monad allows functions within a stateful monadic context to access and modify shared state.

put    :: s -> State s ()          -- set the state value
get    :: State s s                -- get the state
gets   :: (s -> a) -> State s a    -- apply a function over the state, and return the result
modify :: (s -> s) -> State s ()   -- set the state, using a modifier function

Evaluation functions often follow a naming convention with ( run, eval, exec ):

execState :: State s a -> s -> s         -- yield the state
evalState :: State s a -> s -> a         -- yield the return value
runState  :: State s a -> s -> (a, s)    -- yield the state and return value

For example:

import Control.Monad.State

test :: State Int Int
test = do
  put 3
  modify (+1)

main :: IO ()
main = print $ execState test 0


The Reader monad allows a fixed value to be passed around inside the monadic context.

ask   :: Reader r r                            -- get the value
local :: (r -> r) -> Reader r a -> Reader r a  -- run a monadic action, with the value modified by a function

For example:

import Control.Monad.Reader

data MyContext = MyContext
  { foo :: String
  , bar :: Int
  } deriving (Show)

computation :: Reader MyContext (Maybe String)
computation = do
  n <- asks bar
  x <- asks foo
  if n > 0
    then return (Just x)
    else return Nothing

ex1 :: Maybe String
ex1 = runReader computation $ MyContext "hello" 1

ex2 :: Maybe String
ex2 = runReader computation $ MyContext "haskell" 0


The writer monad lets us emit a lazy stream of values from within a monadic context. The primary function tell adds a value to the writer context.

tell :: (Monoid w) => w -> Writer w ()

The monad is either devalued with the collected values or without.

execWriter :: (Monoid w) => Writer w a -> w
runWriter  :: (Monoid w) => Writer w a -> (a, w)
import Control.Monad.Writer

type MyWriter = Writer [Int] String

example :: MyWriter
example = do
  tell [1..5]
  tell [5..10]
  return "foo"

output :: (String, [Int])
output = runWriter example


The Exception monad allows logic to fail at any point during computation with a user-defined exception. The exception type is the first parameter of the monad type.

throwError :: e -> Except e a
runExcept  :: Except e a -> Either e a

For example:

import Control.Monad.Except

type Err = String

safeDiv :: Int -> Int -> Except Err Int
safeDiv a 0 = throwError "Divide by zero"
safeDiv a b = return (a `div` b)

example :: Either Err Int
example = runExcept $ do
  x <- safeDiv 2 3
  y <- safeDiv 2 0
  return (x + y)

Kleisli Arrows

An additional combinator for monads composes two different monadic actions in sequence. It is the monadic equivalent of the regular function composition operator (.).

(>=>) :: Monad m => (a -> m b) -> (b -> m c) -> a -> m c

The monad laws can be expressed equivalently in terms of Kleisli composition.

(f >=> g) >=> h ≡ f >=> (g >=> h)
return >=> f ≡ f
f >=> return ≡  f


To set up an existing project with a sandbox invoke:

$ cabal sandbox init

This will create the .cabal-sandbox directory which is the local path GHC will use when building the project to look for dependencies.

To install the dependencies from Hackage invoke:

$ cabal install --only-dependencies

Finally configure the library for building:

$ cabal configure

Now we can launch a GHCi shell scoped with the modules from the project in scope:

$ cabal repl


If any of these concepts are unfamiliar, there are some external resources that will try to explain them. Probably the most thorough is the Standard course lecture notes.

There are some books as well, your mileage may vary with these. Much of the material they cover is dated or sometimes typically only covers basic functional programming and not "programming in the large".