A Concise Guide to Haskell
Copyright ©1997, 2000, 2010 by David Matuszek

This is an updated version of my earlier A Concise Introduction to Gofer/Haskell.

Haskell is a pure functional language; no state information is kept. In other words, the state of a computation can be fully described by the state of the stack.

Haskell is a particularly enjoyable language in which to program, as the language does so much to make it easy for the programmer. A lot of structural syntax, such as parentheses and semicolons, simply aren't needed. Powerful operators allow for concise, yet still readable, programs. Although the language is strongly typed, the programmer hardly ever needs to specify types--Haskell figures out types for itself. Functions are first-class objects, and infinite data structures are supported. Haskell is more human-oriented and less computer-oriented than most programming languages and, as a result, is less efficient; as yet it has little practical application.

Haskell has an underlying uniform representation. But for convenience, it has been extended with syntactic sugar to provide familiar-looking representations for arithmetic, strings, lists, and the like.


The two most popular versions of Haskell are GHC, the Glasgow Haskell Compiler, at http://hackage.haskell.org/platform/, and Hugs, at http://www.haskell.org/hugs/. Both are available on all popular operating systems. GHC is more actively supported, and is the author's preferred implementation.

Basic operation

Haskell is an interactive language: you type an expression at the Haskell prompt, and Haskell prints the result of evaluating that expression. Thus, if you type 2+2 at the Haskell prompt, Haskell will respond with 4. The usual precedence rules apply, and parentheses may be used. For example, 2+3*4+5 means the same as 2+(3*4)+5. Technically, the operands of a binary operator must be of the same type (for example, both integer or both floating point), but Haskell 98 is usually pretty good at assigning types, so you only occasionally have to make an explicit conversion.

Function definitions must be loaded from a file; they cannot be defined from the Haskell prompt. There is no "main program"--any function may be called.

In addition to evaluating expressions, the Haskell interpreter recognizes certain commands, all of which begin with a colon. Here are some of the more important ones:



:? Display a list of the available commands
:l filename Load in definitions from the specified file
:r Reload definitions from the previously specified file
:m + module ... module Import the named modules
:t expression Give the type of the expression as well as its value
:q Quit

To call a function, write the name of the function followed by its arguments. No additional punctuation is used. For example,

f x y
mod 103 10

Case is significant. Variable names and function names begin with a lowercase letter and may contain letters, digits, underscores, and apostrophes. Type names begin with a capital letter.

Binary infix operators (such as + and >) may be converted to prefix form by enclosing them in parentheses. Thus,

(+) 2 2 is the same as 2 + 2

Binary prefix operators (such as mod) can be written in infix form by enclosing them in backquotes. Thus,

mod 100 3 is the same as 100 `mod` 3


There are two kinds of comment in Haskell:

-- Anything after a double hyphen, up to the end of the line.

{- Comments may be enclosed in braces with hyphens. {- These comments can be nested -} . -}


Simple types

There are several simple types; here are some of the more common ones.

Primitive type Representative values
Int -5, 0, 5
Integer 30414093201713378043612608166064768844377641568960512000000000000
Float 3.14159
Double 3.141592653589793
Char 'a', '\n', '\\', '\'', '\97', '\o77', '\xFF', '\DEL'
Bool True, False

Type descriptions

In the tables in the following sections, the notation Char -> Int means a function that takes a character argument and produces an integer result. A lowercase letter (usually a) is a type variable; it indicates any type. When it occurs more than once in a type description, for example a -> a, all occurrences indicate the same type. The notation (Num a) => a -> a indicates that the type of a is restricted to be a numeric type.

The notation Int -> Int -> Int means a function that takes two integer arguments and produces an integer result. (The last type in the chain is always the result. The reason for this notation for types will be explained later.)

In the REPL, the type of a function can be found by entering :type func. Infix operators must be enclosed in parentheses to make them into prefix functions, for example, :type (+).

Functions on integers

Function Type Comment
^ (Num a, Integral b) => a -> b -> a Raise to the power
+  -  * (Num a) => a -> a -> a Infix add, subtract, multiply
/ (Fractional a) => a -> a -> a Divide
even  odd (Integral a) => a -> Bool Prefix tests for parity
div  quot  mod (Integral a) => a -> a -> a div rounds down (same as /); quot rounds toward zero; modulo
gcd  lcm (Integral a) => a -> a -> a Greatest common divisor, least common multiple
negate (Num a) => a -> a Negate
signum (Num a) => a -> a -1, 0, or 1, according to whether the argument is negative, zero, or positive

Functions on floating point numbers

Function Type Comment
+  -  *  /  ^ As above (Integer table) Infix add, subtract, multiply, divide, exponentiate
sin  cos  tan  log  exp  sqrt  log  log10 (Floating a) => a -> a Usual math functions
pi (Floating a) => a 3.141592653589793
round   truncate (RealFrac a, Integral b) => a -> b Conversion to integer

Functions on characters

Some functions require import Data.Char.

Function Type Comment
ord Char -> Int Convert to integer ASCII value
chr Int -> Char Convert from ASCII value
isPrint  isSpace Char -> Bool Test for printable or nonprintable character
isAscii  isControl Char -> Bool Test for ASCII (?), control character
isUpper  isLower Char -> Bool Test for capital or lowercase letter
isAlpha  isDigit Char -> Bool Test for letter, test for decimal digit
isAlphaNum Char -> Bool Test for letter or digit

Functions on Booleans

Function Type Comment
&&  || Bool -> Bool -> Bool Infix and, infix or
not Bool -> Bool Prefix not


A typeclass describes certain operations that a type can perform. A type may belong to multiple typeclasses. Some typeclasses are:

Typeclass Operations Comment
(Eq a) => a -> a -> Bool ==  /= Equality and inequality; arguments must have same type
(Ord a) => a -> a -> Bool <  <=  >=  > For ordered values; arguments must have same type
(Num t) => t Numeric operations Describes numbers; not a subclass of Ord
Integral Operations on integers  
Floating Operations on floating-point numbers  
(Enum a) => a -> a succ pred Can be used in defining ranges
(Bounded a) => a minBound maxBound Provides type-specific constants
(Read a) => String -> a read Must specify desired type, e.g.: read "5" :: Float
(Show a) => a -> String show Convert almost anything to a string

Lists and Strings

Haskell also contains lists, tuples, and functions.

Lists are written using brackets and commas, e.g. [1,2,4,8]. All the elements of a list must be of the same type; the type of a list is denoted [T], where T is the type of the elements. The list [a], where a is a variable, denotes a list whose elements are all of type a.

The empty list is denoted by []. Lists can be appended (concatenated) with the ++ operator.

A string is a list of characters, that is, it has type [Char]. For convenience, a string may be written with double quotes, e.g. "Haskell" is the same thing as ['H','a','s','k','e','l','l']. Because strings are lists, they may be concatenated with the ++ operator.

Functions on lists (and therefore strings):
Note: Some functions require import Data.List.




: a -> [a] -> [a] (infix) Add an element to the front of the list
++ [a] -> [a] -> [a] (infix) Append two lists
!! [a] -> Int -> a (infix) Return element Int of the list, counting from zero
head [a] -> a Return the first element of the list
tail [a] -> [a] Return the list with the first element removed
last [a] -> a Return the last element in the list
init [a] -> [a] Return the list with the last element removed
reverse [a] -> [a] Return the list with the elements in reverse order
take Int -> [a] -> [a] Return the first Int elements of the list
drop Int -> [a] -> [a] Return the list with the first Int elements removed
nub [a] -> [a] Return the list with all duplicate elements removed
elem  notElem [a] -> a -> Bool Test for membership in the list
length [a] -> Int The number of elements in the list
concat [[a]] -> [a] Given a list of lists, concatenate all the lists into one list

There are various shortcuts to writing lists. Haskell uses a technique called lazy evaluation: no value is ever computed until it is needed. Lazy evaluation allows Haskell to support infinite lists (and other infinite data structures). Arithmetic over infinite lists is supported, but some operations must be avoided, for example, it is a bad idea to ask for the last element of an infinite list.

Here are some list notations, with brief explanations and examples:




[a..b] The list of all values from a to b, inclusive [1..5] == [1,2,3,4,5]
[2.. -2] == []
[a..] The list of all values equal to or larger than a [1..] == all positive integers
[a, b..c] The list of values starting from a and stepping by (b-a), up to and possibly including c [1,3..10] == [1,3,5,7,9]
[2,1.. -2] == [2,1,0,-1,-2]
[a, b..] The list of values starting from a and stepping by (b-a) [1, 3..] == all odd positive integers
[expression_involving_x | x <- list] The set of all values of the expression involving x, where x is drawn from the list (this is called a list comprehension) [x*x | x <- [1..]] == the list of squares of positive integers
[expression_involving_x_and_y | x <- list, y <- list] The set of all values of the expression involving x and y, where x is drawn from one list and y from the other (y varies faster) [[x,y] | x <- ['a'..'b'], y <- ['x'..'z']] ==
["ax", "ay", "az", "bx", "by", "bz"]
[expression_involving_x | x <- list, condition_on_x] The set of all values of the expression involving x, where x is drawn from the list and meets the condition [x*x | x <- [1..10], even x] ==
[4, 16, 36, 64, 100]
[expression_involving_x_and_y | x <- list, condition_on_x, y <- list, condition_on_y] The set of all values of the expression involving x and y, where x is drawn from one list and meets one condition, while y is drawn from the other list and meets the other condition [x+y | x <- [1..5], even x, y <- [1..5], odd y] == [3, 5, 7, 5, 7, 9]

As an example of the use of lazy evaluation, the infinite list [x*x | x <- [1..]] is the list of squares of positive integers.


Tuples are written using parentheses and commas, e.g. ("John",24,True). The elements of a tuple may be of different types. Two tuples have the same type if they have the same number of elements and those elements have the same types in the same order.

There are very few operations defined on tuples. If a tuple has exactly two elements, the functions fst and snd return the first and second elements, respectively. In general, you access the elements of a tuple by pattern matching, as explained below.


In Haskell, a function is a "first-class object," able to be used the same way other types are used (e.g. passed as arguments to functions).

Functions are defined using the = operator. For example,

averageOf2 x y = (x + y) / 2

This is actually syntactic sugar for the following:

averageOf2 = \x y -> (x + y) / 2

The expression on the right of the equals sign indicates an (anonymous) function of two arguments, x and y, with the body of the function following the arrow; this function is "assigned to" the variable on the left of the equals sign. (The backslash in this expression is pronounced "lambda.") Anonymous functions are used frequently in Haskell, usually surrounded by parentheses.

Haskell supports function "slices." For example, given the above definition, the expression (averageOf2 25) denotes the function that returns the average of 25 and its (single) argument. As a further example, you could define a Boolean function negative as

negative = (< 0)

(The parentheses are necessary.) Other examples of function slices are (2 *), (2 /), (/ 2), and (1 -). However, (- 1) does not work, because '-' is considered to be the unary minus; use (subtract 1) instead.

Due to slicing, all Haskell functions could be thought of as having a single argument; for example, a function with type a -> b -> c -> d may be considered to be a function that takes a value of type a as an argument and returns as result a new function of type b -> c -> d, which in turn takes a value of type b as an argument and returns a new function of type c -> d, which takes a value of type c as an argument and returns a result of type d. Thus, the implicit parenthesization is:  a -> b -> c -> d == a -> (b -> (c -> d))

Here are some functions that take functions as arguments:

Function Type Comment and example
map (a->b) -> [a] -> [b] Applies the function to all elements of the list:
map chr [104, 101, 108, 108, 111] == hello
filter (a->Bool) -> [a] -> [a] Returns the list of elements for which the function returns True:
filter odd [1..5] == [1, 3, 5]
iterate (a -> a) -> a -> [a] returns the list [x, f x, f f x, f f f x, ...]:
take 5 (iterate (2*) 1) == [1, 2, 4, 8, 16]
foldl (a -> b -> a) -> a -> [b] -> a foldl f i x starts with the value i and accumulates the value obtained by repeatedly applying f to the current value and the next element in the list:
foldl (-) 100 [1..3] computes the value (((100-1)-2)-3)
Cannot be used on infinite lists!
foldl1 (a -> a -> a) -> [a] -> a Same as foldl f (head x) (tail x)
foldr (a -> b -> b) -> b -> [a] -> b foldr is like foldl, but works from the right end of the list.
foldr1 (a -> a -> a) -> [a] -> a Same as foldr1 f (last x) (init x)
flip (a -> b -> c) -> b -> a -> c Return a function whose first two arguments are reversed:
flip elem "aeiou" 'y'is the same as elem 'y' "aeiou"
(.) (b -> c) -> (a -> b) -> a -> c Compose two functions into a single function:
(f . g) x is the same as f (g x)
span (a -> Bool) -> [a] -> ([a],[a]) Break the list into a tuple of two lists: all those at the front of the list that satisfy the test, and the rest of the list:
span odd [3,1,4,1,6] == ([3, 1],[4, 1, 6])
break (a -> Bool) -> [a] -> ([a],[a]) Break the list into a tuple of two lists: all those at the front of the list that fail the test, and the rest of the list:
break even [3,1,4,1,6] == ([3, 1],[4, 1, 6])
takeWhile (a -> Bool) -> [a] -> [a] Takes as many elements from the front of the list as satisfy the predicate.
dropWhile (a -> Bool) -> [a] -> [a] Removes as many elements from the front of the list as satisfy the predicate.
zipWith (a -> b -> c) -> [a] -> [b] -> [c] Takes a function of two parameters, and applies the function to corresponding elements of two lists:
zipWith (\x y -> 100 * x + y) [1, 2, 3, 4] [5, 6, 7] == [105,206,307]
$ (a -> b) -> a -> b Function application, but with lowest precedece. f g h x means ((f g) h) x, but f $ g $ h x means f(g(h x)).

List comprehensions are equivalent to combinations of map and filter functions. Sometimes list comprehensions are more readable; sometimes the explicit combination of map and filter functions is more readable.

Pattern matching

Parameter transmission is by pattern matching; thus, a function definition may consist of two or more equations with differing formal parameters. For example, the factorial function may be defined as:

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

Equations will be tried in order; the pattern 0 in the first equation for fact will match only a call with a zero argument, while the pattern n in the second equation will match anything.

Here are the allowable patterns:

Type of pattern



A variable x Will match anything
A constant 5  'a'  [] Will match only that value
Wildcard _ "Don't care"--will match anything, but the matched value can't be used
Tuples (x, y) Matches a pair--the component values can be referred to as x and y
Fixed-length lists [x]  [x,_,y]  [] With the bracket notation, you can only match lists of the given length
Variable-length lists (h:t) Matches a nonempty list whose head is h and whose tail is t
As-patterns p@(x,y,z)  p@(h:t) When the pattern after the @ matches something, the variable p matches the whole thing; e.g. if p@(h:t) matches [1,2,3], then h matches 1, t matches [2,3], and p matches [1,2,3]
(n+k) patterns (m+1) Matches any value equal to or greater than k (k must be an integer); m is k less than the value matched

Pattern matching allows you to write your own functions to extract the fields of tuples. For example, if you have tuples of the form ("Mary", 'f', 38), you might write extraction functions as follows:

name (x, _, _) = x
gender (_, x, _) = x
age (_, _, x) = x

Styles of writing functions

A function consisting of multiple equations may have guards on each equation, as for example:

fact n
    | n == 0    = 1
    | otherwise = n * fact (n - 1)

This is the same as

fact n = case n of
            0 -> 1
            n -> n * fact (n - 1)

Another way to write the factorial function is:

fact n = if n==0 then 1
                 else n * fact (n - 1)

You can introduce new local variables or functions with an expression of the form

let declarations in expression

for example:

fact n
    | n==0      = 1
    | otherwise = let m = n - 1 in n * fact m

Another way to introduce local variables or functions is with

function_definition where declarations

as for example in:

fact n
    | n==0      = 1
    | otherwise = n * fact m
    where m = n - 1

Whereas let is an expression and may be used wherever an expression may be used, where is part of the syntax of a function declaration, and can only be used in this way. The scope of variables declared by let is the single case in which it occurs; the scope of where is the entire equation.

Haskell is a strongly-typed language, but you seldom need to tell Haskell what type your variables and functions are, because Haskell can almost always figure it out. It is a good idea to specify the types of functions, however, both for documentation, and so that Haskell can inform you if a function doesn't have the type you intended. The operator :: means "has type," and can be used as follows:

fact :: Int -> Int


Indentation is sometimes important in Haskell.

An equation starts on a new line. Successive lines must be indented; when Haskell finds a line beginning in the same (or earlier) column as the start of the last equation, it takes this as the start of the next equation. Suggested indentation: start every equation in column 1, and indent all remaining lines of the equation. See the various definitions of fact above for examples.

The first declaration following let or where defines the starting column for that group of declarations; all additional declarations must begin in the same column.

latinize :: [Char] -> [Char]
latinize word = (snd pair) ++ (fst pair) ++ "ay"
    where vowel = flip elem "aeiou"
          consonant x = isLower x && not (vowel x)
          pair = span consonant word

The first printing character following the word of in a case statement defines the starting column for that group of cases; all additional cases must begin in the same column. One of the definitions of fact given above illustrates this layout.

Not discussed

Haskell is a rich language, and a number of important topics have not been discussed in this paper. Among these are irrefutable patterns, I/O, user-defined data types and type synonyms, polymorphism, type classes, overloading, contexts, and dictionaries.

A final example

The following definition of the quicksort algorithm shows just how nice Haskell can be (at least sometimes).

quicksort :: (Ord a) => [a] -> [a]
quicksort [] = []
quicksort (pivot:xs) =
     quicksort [x | x <- xs, x < pivot] ++
     [pivot] ++
     quicksort [x | x <- xs, x >= pivot]


Learn You a Haskell for Great Good! , http://learnyouahaskell.com/.