# GHC/AdvancedOverlap

## Choosing a type-class instance based on the context

Oleg Kiselyov and Simon Peyton-Jones (Apr 2008)

### Problem definition

Suppose you have this class:

```
class Print a where
print :: a -> IO ()
```

Now suppose you want to say "if type `a`

is in class `Show`

, print one way, otherwise print another way". You'd probably try to write this:

```
instance Show a => Print a where
print x = putStrLn (show x)
instance Print a where
print x = putStrLn "No show method"
```

But that is illegal in Haskell, because the heads of the two instance declarations are identical. Nevertheless, you can code it up using functional dependencies and overlapping instances, and that's what this note describes.

### Solution 1 (using safer overlapping instances)

First define an auxiliary class `Print'`

:

```
class Print' flag a where
print' :: flag -> a -> IO ()
instance (ShowPred a flag, Print' flag a) => Print a where
print = print' (undefined::flag)
```

The main class `Print`

has only one instance, and there is no longer any overlapping. The new class `ShowPred`

has no methods, but its instances precisely mirror those of `Show`

:

```
-- Just two distinct types
-- alternatively use 'True and 'False with -XDataKinds
data HTrue
data HFalse
class ShowPred a flag | a->flag where {}
-- Used only if the other
-- instances don't apply
-- instance TypeCast flag HFalse => ShowPred a flag -- before -XTypeFamilies
instance (flag ~ HFalse) => ShowPred a flag
instance ShowPred Int HTrue -- These instances must be
instance ShowPred Bool HTrue -- the same as Show's
instance ShowPred a flag => ShowPred [a] flag
-- ...etc...
```

These instances do make use of overlapping instances, but they do not rely on the *context* to distinguish which one to pick, just the instance *head*. Notice that `(ShowPred ty flag)`

always succeeds! If `ty`

is a type for which there is a Show instance, flag gets unified to `HTrue`

; otherwise flag gets unified to `HFalse`

.

Now we can write the (non-overlapping) instances for `Print'`

:

```
instance (Show a) => Print' HTrue a where
print' _ x = putStrLn (show x)
instance Print' HFalse a where
print' _ x = putStrLn "No show method"
```

The trick is to re-write a constraint `(C a)`

which succeeds
of fails, into a predicate constraint `(C' a flag)`

, which always
succeeds, but once discharged, unifies flag with either `HTrue`

or
`HFalse`

. The desired invariant is

C a succeeds <--> C' a flag unifies flag with HTrue

Perhaps the most puzzling is the constraint `(TypeCast flag HFalse)`

in the first instance of `ShowPred`

. The `TypeCast`

constraint and its important role are explained in Section 9 and specifically Appendix D of the full HList paper
<http://homepages.cwi.nl/~ralf/HList/paper.pdf>

#### Notes and variations

1. A more `closed world' alternative: write `ShowPred`

as follows

```
class ShowPred a flag | a->flag where {}
instance HMember a Showtypes flag => ShowPred a flag
```

There is only one instance of `ShowPred`

and there is no overlapping
instances. Here, `Showtypes`

are defined as

```
type Showtypes = Int :+: Bool :+: Char :+: ... :+: HNil
```

(Polymorphic types like `[a]`

take more effort, but they too can be handled).
This is the closed list of types, and `HMember`

is a `HList`

membership checker. `HMember`

uses `TypeEq`

-- and the latter is the only place that
requires overlapping instances.

2. There is, of course, no check that the instances of `ShowPred`

match those of `Show`

; you just have to get that right. An alternative, which trades this problem for another, is instead to *replace* by `Show'`

, which has the auxiliary flag:

```
class Show' a flag | a->flag where
show :: a -> String
-- This instance is used only if the others don't apply
instance TypeCast flag HFalse => Show' a flag where
show = error "urk"
-- These instances are the regular ones
instance Show' Int HTrue where
show = showInt
instance Show' Bool HTrue where
show = showBool
...etc...
```

Now we can write the instances for `Print'`

:

```
instance Show' HTrue a => Print' HTrue a where
print' x = putStrLn (show x)
instance Print' HFalse a where
print' x = putStrLn "No show method"
```

The disadvantage here is, of course, that you have to change the `Show`

class.

3. We need a bit of boolean algebra in the more interesting instances
of `ShowPred`

:

```
instance (ShowPred a flag1, ShowPred b flag2, And flag1 flag2 flag)
=> (ShowPred (a,b) flag
class And a b c | a b -> c
instance And HTrue b b
instance And HFalse b HFalse
```

The HList paper shows many examples of such type-level programming.

### Solution 2 (using incoherent instances)

Turn `ShowPred`

into a type family:

```
-- ShowPred is a predicate on types, which says
-- which ones are instances of class Show
type family ShowPred a
type instance ShowPred a = HFalse
type instance ShowPred Int = HTrue
type instance ShowPred Bool = HTrue
type instance ShowPred [a] = ShowPred a
type instance ShowPred (a,b) = And (ShowPred a, ShowPred b)
-- ...etc...
```

There's a problem: overlap is not generally allowed for type families!! (The first `ShowPred`

instance makes all others redundant.) There is a good reason for this, but it's not helpful here.

Without closed families, a solution is still available which mirrors the original program from solution 1. This requires -XIncoherentInstances in addition to the other flags.

```
class Print a where
print :: a -> IO ()
instance (ShowPred a ~ flag, Print' flag a) => Print a where
print = print' (undefined::flag)
class Print' flag a where
print' :: flag -> a -> IO ()
instance Show a => Print' HTrue a where
print' _ x = putStrLn (show x)
instance Print' flag a where
print' _ _ = putStrLn "No show method"
data HTrue
data HFalse
type family ShowPred a
type instance ShowPred Int = HTrue
type instance ShowPred Bool = HTrue
```

Here, the original formulation is closely mirrored but with the former `ShowPred`

class expressed instead as a type family. The programs look very similar, however the type family based one may be easier to come to understand.

For the original, when trying to satisfy the constraint in `instance (ShowPred a flag, Print' flag a) => Print a`

, the tough case is when `ShowPred a flag`

doesn't result with flag as HTrue. The catch-the-rest instance `instance (flag ~ HFalse) => ShowPred a flag`

, requires a further constraint to be satisfied. Needing more information, the other constraint, `Print' flag a`

, will be checked. Since the first constraint didn't resolve with flag = HTrue, `Print' HTrue a`

will not be satisfied. However, `Print' HFalse a`

allows us to unify `(flag ~ HFalse)`

in the `ShowPred a`

constriaint. Consequently the whole constraint is satisfied.

### Solution 3 (using closed type families)

As of GHC 7.8, closed type families are available. For more details, see Type families#Closed family simplification. It is possible to rewrite `ShowPred`

like this:

```
type family ShowPred a where
ShowPred Int = HTrue
ShowPred Bool = HTrue
ShowPred [a] = ShowPred a
ShowPred (a,b) = And (ShowPred a, ShowPred b)
ShowPred a = HFalse
```

There are no incoherent instances anymore.
Any unspecified `ShowPred a`

resolves to `ShowPred a`

making the specific `Print' HTrue a`

instance fail and leaving the catch-the-rest `Print' flag a`

to succeed with `Print' (ShowPred a) a`

.

## Appendix: the sample code

```
{-# LANGUAGE EmptyDataDecls,
MultiParamTypeClasses,
ScopedTypeVariables,
FunctionalDependencies,
OverlappingInstances,
FlexibleInstances,
UndecidableInstances #-}
module Main where
import Prelude hiding (print)
class Print a where
print :: a -> IO ()
{- the following does not work:
instance Show a => Print a where
print x = putStrLn (show x)
instance Print a where
print x = putStrLn "No show method"
error:
Duplicate instance declarations:
instance (Show a) => Print a -- Defined at /tmp/wiki.hs:7:0
instance Print a -- Defined at /tmp/wiki.hs:9:0
-}
class Print' flag a where
print' :: flag -> a -> IO ()
instance (ShowPred a flag, Print' flag a) => Print a where
print = print' (undefined::flag)
-- overlapping instances are used only for ShowPred
class ShowPred a flag | a->flag where {}
-- Used only if the other
-- instances don't apply
instance TypeCast flag HFalse => ShowPred a flag
instance ShowPred Int HTrue -- These instances should be
instance ShowPred Bool HTrue -- the same as Show's
instance ShowPred a flag => ShowPred [a] flag
-- ...etc...
data HTrue -- Just two
data HFalse -- distinct types
instance Show a => Print' HTrue a where
print' _ x = putStrLn (show x)
instance Print' HFalse a where
print' _ x = putStrLn "No show method"
test1 = print [True,False] -- [True,False]
test2 = print id -- No show method
-- see http://okmij.org/ftp/Haskell/typecast.html
class TypeCast a b | a -> b, b->a where typeCast :: a -> b
class TypeCast' t a b | t a -> b, t b -> a where typeCast' :: t->a->b
class TypeCast'' t a b | t a -> b, t b -> a where typeCast'' :: t->a->b
instance TypeCast' () a b => TypeCast a b where typeCast x = typeCast' () x
instance TypeCast'' t a b => TypeCast' t a b where typeCast' = typeCast''
instance TypeCast'' () a a where typeCast'' _ x = x
```