Type classes

This class brings equality to the world.

Type classes

In last week’s homework, you have developed a working implementation of Sokoban. The resulting code might look like this example solution.

While implementing it, some of you might have wished to be able to use the equality operator ((==)) on your own data types, such as Coord or Tile. But you could not and had to work around it using case expressions, helper functions or functions like eqCoord.

But you may have already observed that (==) can be used not just types: Integer, Double, Bool (although you should not use it with Double!). And I claimed that Bool is not special. So there must be a way of using (==) with, say, Coord.

Maybe the error message that we see if we try to use it, can shed some light on this:

No instance for (Eq Coord) arising from a use of ‘==’

It seems that we need some kind of instance. Before we talk about instances, though, we have to talk about classes.

I’ll use the Haskell interpreter to do a bit exploration. I would have used the online docs, but a bug in the tool that generates the documentation unfortunately gets in the way right now. You will learn about the Haskell interpreter eventually as well.

I can ask for the type of (==):

Prelude> :t (==)
(==) :: Eq a => a -> a -> Bool

On the right of the => arrow, we have the function type that we know: The operator takes two arguments of some type, and returns a boolean. On the left of the => arrow, we have a type class constraint. This says that (==) can only be used on types that are members of this type class.

The Eq type class

We can find out more about this Eq, using the interpreter:

Prelude> :info Eq
class Eq a where
  (==) :: a -> a -> Bool
  (/=) :: a -> a -> Bool
	-- Defined in ‘GHC.Classes’
instance Eq Integer
  -- Defined in ‘integer-gmp-’
instance (Eq a, Eq b) => Eq (Either a b)
  -- Defined in ‘Data.Either’
instance Eq a => Eq [a] -- Defined in ‘GHC.Classes’
instance Eq Word -- Defined in ‘GHC.Classes’

We have to scroll up to get to the interesting bits:

The Eq Coord instanace

Now that we know what method the class as, we can write our own instance for Coord:

instance Eq Coord where
  C x1 y1 == C x2 y2 = x1 == x2 && y1 == y2
  c1 /= c2 = not (c1 == c2)

So after the instance keyword, we name the type class that we want to instantiate and the type for which we want to define an instance. Then, after where and indented, we give function definitions for the methods. We can use multiple patterns, guards, and all that as usual. We do not give a type signature, becuase the type of these methods is already determined by the class definition and the instance head.

Now our code compiles again.

Default implementations

Note that I was lazy and did not really implement (/=); I just refered to the implementation of (==). Obvoiusly, that is fair game for every instance of Eq that one might want to implement.

Therefore, the Eq class already comes with a default implementation of (/=) in terms of (==) and we can simply skip the definition in our code.

How do we know that we can leave out (/=)? We can try (the compiler will warn us about missing instances), or we can check out the documentation or the source (which are a bit harder to find for Eq because it is so basic).

By making a function a method of the class with an default implementation, the authors of an instance have the option of implementing it (for example if a more efficient implementation is possible), but they do not have to.

The Eq Tile instance

So great: We can now use == on Coords. We also want it on Tiles. That is easy to write:

instance Eq Tile where
  Wall == Wall = True
  Ground == Ground = True
  Storage == Storage = True
  Box == Box = True
  Blank == Blank = True
  _ == _ = False

Now that works, but I am sure you can immediatelly tell me why this is not satisfying: That is a lot of code to write, it is repetetive, and if we add another constructor to Tile, the code will be wrong.

Luckily, at least for some of the basic type classes, the compiler can write the instance for us.We just have to instruct it to:

data Tile = Wall | Ground | Storage | Box | Blank deriving Eq

(If are are playing around with this locally, then pass -ddump-deriv to the compiler to see that it actually creates the same code that we wrote above.)

Equality is not for everyone

So great, we get to use (==) on all our types! All our types? Unfortunately not. Last week we defined the type Interaction. Some fields of this data type are functions, and equality on functios is, in general, undecidable. If we tried to use deriving Eq on Interaction, we would get the error message

No instance for (Eq (world -> Picture))

Benefits of type classes

So great, we get to use (==) on almost all our types! This is also called overloading, and is a nice feature of type classes, but not the only and probably not the most important one. The important features are:

Overloading of names

As just discussed.


When you see (==) and (/=), you immediately assume that a /= b is True if and only if a == b is False. By convention, every instance of (==) fulfills this law, and the derived instances do as well. For other type classes, the laws are more intering and we will discuss them in depth later.

Note that such laws are not checked by the compiler (it cannot do that, in general), and nothing is stopping you from implementing a bogus instance. But if you do, do not complain if things break in weird ways.

Generic algorithms

Have a look at the definition of moveFromTo:

moveFromTo :: Coord -> Coord -> Coord -> Coord
moveFromTo c1 c2 c | c1 == c   = c2
                   | otherwise = c

There is nothing Coord-specific going on any more! And indeed, if we remove the type signature, and let the compiler propose one to us, we get the suggestion to write

moveFromTo :: Eq a => a -> a -> a -> a
moveFromTo c1 c2 c | c1 == c   = c2
                   | otherwise = c

This means that moveFromTo is a very generally usable function. We only write it once and can use it with many different types.

Now, this function is not very impressive, but can implement very complex functionality in a generic and reusable way this way, especially when the type class in question comes with laws (see above).

Instance resolution

When using overloaded functions, the compiler has to find the relevant instance for the type you are using it. With polymorphic types, this instance might require another one (as we will see shortly). With some trickery and/or some language extensions supported by GHC this instance resolution process can be a powerful machinery that not only relieves you from writing some tedious code, but can actually solve some puzzling problems for you. In a way, it is a small logic programming language embedded in the type system.

I will demonstrate this in a moment, but let’s continue with the general remarks first.


Haskell guarantees that for a particular type and a particular type class, there is at most one instance. If we would try to define instance Eq Coord again, the compiler will bark at us.

This means that the meaning of an overloaded function depends only on the concret type it is used with, but not in what context it is used. This is used by the library implementation of search trees, which uses the Ord instance of the type of keys to build the tree, and this would go horribly wrong if you build the tree with one particular ordering, and then search in it using a completely different ordering.

Use case: Undo stacks

Let us demonstrate how we can make use of instance resolution, by implementing generic undo functionality. When testing your homework, you surely moved your box onto the wall and wished you did not have to start over again. So let us implement this, in generic way, as a Interaction-modifying function:

data WithUndo a = WithUndo a (List a)

withUndo :: Interaction a -> Interaction (WithUndo a)
withUndo (Interaction state0 step handle draw)
  = Interaction state0' step' handle' draw'
    state0' = WithUndo state0 Empty

    step' t (WithUndo s stack) = WithUndo (step t s) stack

    handle' (KeyPress key) (WithUndo s stack) | key == "U"
      = case stack of Entry s' stack' -> WithUndo s' stack'
                      Empty           -> WithUndo s Empty
    handle' e              (WithUndo s stack)
       = WithUndo (handle e s) (Entry s stack)

    draw' (WithUndo s _) = draw s

This code (open on CodeWorld) looks good, but if we we use it (by adding withUndo in main), it does not seem to work. What went wrong?

The problem is that we push the state to the stack on every event. That includes mouse moves, that includes button releases. What we really would like to do is push a change only on to the stack if the event actually had an effect!

So we need to check thatin the handle' function, before we push a new state onto the stack:

    handle' (KeyPress key) (WithUndo s stack) | key == "U"
      = case stack of Entry s' stack' -> WithUndo s' stack'
                      Empty           -> WithUndo s Empty
    handle' e              (WithUndo s stack)
       | s' == s = WithUndo s stack
       | otherwise = WithUndo (handle e s) (Entry s stack)
      where s' = handle e s

This does not work yet, the compiler complains:

No instance for (Eq a) arising from a use of ‘==’

which makes sense: In order to compare the state of the interaction we are wrapping, the state needs to be comparable! So we have to extend the type signature:

withUndo :: Eq a => Interaction a -> Interaction (WithUndo a)

But the compiler is still not satisfied:

No instance for (Eq State) arising from a use of ‘withUndo’

We have not yet defined an Eq instance for State! But we know how to do that quickly: Using deriving Eq. This will, as one might expect, also ask for Eq instances for Direction and List, which we give the same way.

Yay, that works (open on CodeWorld):

Now what if we swap the use of withUndo and withStartScreen? We get an error message saying

No instance for (Eq (SSState State))

So we should give an Eq instance for SSState. We could use deriving, but lets do it by hand to learn something.

We have introduced withStartScreen, and hence SSState, to be polymorphic and work with any possible wrapped state. So likewise, we do not want to write an instance just for SSState State, but rather SSState s for any type s. So lets write that:

instance Eq (SSState s) where
  StartScreen == StartScreen = True
  Running s == Running s' = s == s'
  _ == _ = False

This does not work yet, we get an error message:

No instance for (Eq s) arising from a use of ‘==’

This makes sense: If the underlying state type does not support equality, then the extended type cannot do it either. But where do we add the constraint that this Eq instance does only work if s itself is a member of the Eq typeclass? We add this to the instance head:

instance Eq s => Eq (SSState s) where
  StartScreen == StartScreen = True
  Running s == Running s' = s == s'
  _ == _ = False

This works, and now pressing U gets us back to the start screen.

What is happening here? As we compose functions that transform Interactions, the type of the state of these interactions grows. And then, when there is a function like withUndo that has an Eq constraint, the compiler uses the existing instances of Eq to break this complex type down again, and this way constructs, on the spot, a way to equate values of this complex type.

Naturally, this example has been very small, but I hope it gave you an impression at what might be possible.

Question: Are there other designs that do not require an explicit equality check to implement undo? Which one would you prefer?

Type classes vs. object-oriented classes

Many of you might have experience with object-oriented programming languages like Java. You are in danger! Do not fall in the trap of confusing type classes (in Haskell) with classes (in Java)! They are not very similar, and you do not use them to solve the same problems.

If anything, type classes correspond to interfaces in Java: Both contain methods without implementation and their type signatures, and instances provide the implementation.

Classes and objects as in Java do not have a direct correspondence in Haskell, and that is ok, because problems are approached differently. But the Interaction type that we defined last week is, in some sense, an approximation of a class. The concrete Interactions that we defined are instances of this class, and functions like withStartScreen relate to inheritance (or maybe ot the decorator pattern).

Other type classes you should know about

Besides Eq, you should know about these type classes: