# Do notation considered harmful

The printable version is no longer supported and may have rendering errors. Please update your browser bookmarks and please use the default browser print function instead.

## Criticism

Haskell's do notation is popular and ubiquitous. However we shall not ignore that there are several problems. Here we like to shed some light on aspects you may not have thought about, so far.

### Didactics

The `do` notation hides functional details. This is wanted in order to simplify writing imperative style code fragments. The downsides are that:

• Since `do` notation is used almost everywhere `IO` takes place, newcomers quickly believe that the `do` notation is necessary for doing `IO`,
• Newcomers might think that `IO` is somehow special and non-functional, in contrast to the advertisement for Haskell being purely functional,
• Newcomers might think that the order of statements determines the order of execution.

These misunderstandings let people write clumsy code like

```do putStrLn "text"
```

```putStrLn "text"
```

or

```do text <- getLine
return text
```

```getLine
```

or

```do
writeFile "bar" text
```

```readFile "foo" >>= writeFile "bar"
```

.

The order of statements is also not the criterion for the evaluation order. Also here only the data dependencies count. See for instance

```do x <- Just (3+5)
y <- Just (5*7)
return (x-y)
```

where `3+5` and `5*7` can be evaluated in any order, also in parallel. Or consider

```do x <- Just (3+5)
y <- Nothing
return (x-y)
```

where `3+5` is probably not evaluated at all, because its result is not necessary to find out that the entire `do` describes a `Nothing`.

### Library design

Unfortunately, the `do` notation is so popular that people write more things with monads than necessary. See for instance the Binary package. It contains the `Put` monad, which in principle has nothing to do with a monad. All "put" operations have the monadic result `()`. In fact it is a `Writer` monad using the `Builder` type, and all you need is just the `Builder` monoid. Even more unfortunate, the applicative functors were introduced to Haskell's standard libraries only after monads and arrows, thus many types were instances of the `Monad` and `Arrow` classes, but not instances of `Applicative`. Fortunately, since GHC 7.10 the Functor-Applicative-Monad Proposal is implemented and now `Applicative` is a superclass of `Monad`. There is no special syntax for applicative functors because it is hardly necessary. You just write

```  data Header = Header Char Int Bool

```

or

```  readHeader = Header <\$> get <*> get <*> get
```

Not using monads, along with the `do` notation, can have advantages. Consider a generator of unique identifiers. First you might think of a `State` monad which increments a counter each time an identifier is requested.

```run :: State Int a -> a
run m = evalState m 0

newId :: State Int Int
newId =
do n <- get
modify succ
return n

example :: (Int -> Int -> a) -> a
example f =
run \$
do x <- newId
y <- newId
return (f x y)
```

If you are confident that you will not need the counter state at the end and that you will not combine blocks of code using the counter (where the second block needs the state at the end of the first block), you can enforce a more strict scheme of usage. The following is like a `Reader` monad, where we call `local` on an incremented counter for each generated identifier. Alternatively you can view it as Continuation monad.

```newtype T a = T (Int -> a)

run :: T a -> a
run (T f) = f 0

newId :: (Int -> T a) -> T a
newId f = T \$ \i -> case f i of T g -> g (succ i)

example :: (Int -> Int -> T a) -> a
example f =
run \$
newId \$ \a ->
newId \$ \b ->
f a b
```

This way users cannot accidentally place a `return` somewhere in a `do` block where it has no effect.

### Safety

This page addresses an aspect of Haskell style, which is to some extent a matter of taste. Just pick what you find appropriate for you and ignore the rest.

With `do` notation we have kept alive a dark side of the C programming language: The silent neglect of return values of functions. In an imperative language it is common to return an error code and provide the real work by side effects. In Haskell this cannot happen, because functions have no side effects. If you ignore the result of a Haskell function, the function will not even be evaluated. The situation is different for `IO`: While processing the `IO`, you might still ignore the contained return value.

You can write

```do getLine
putStrLn "text"
```

and thus silently ignore the result of `getLine`. The same applies to

```do System.Cmd.system "echo foo >bar"
```

where you ignore the `ExitCode`. Is this behaviour wanted?

There are possibilities to explicitly ignore return values in safety oriented languages (e.g. `EVAL` in Modula-3). Haskell does not need this, because you can already write

```do _ <- System.Cmd.system "echo foo >bar"
return ()
```

Writing `_ <-` should always make you cautious whether ignoring the result is the right thing to do. The possibility for silently ignoring monadic return values is not entirely the fault of the `do` notation. It would suffice to restrict the type of the `(>>)` combinator to

```(>>) :: m () -> m a -> m a
```

This way, you can omit `_ <-` only if the monadic return value has type `()`.

New developments:

• GHC since version 6.12 emits a warning when you silently ignore a return value
• There is a new function called `void` that makes ignoring of return values explicit: GHC ticket 3292

## Alternatives

### Use less sugar

Using the infix combinators for writing functions simplifies the addition of new combinators. Consider for instance a monad for random distributions. This monad cannot be an instance of `MonadPlus`, because there is no `mzero` (it would be an empty list of events, but their probabilities do not sum up to 1) and `mplus` is not associative because we have to normalize the sum of probabilities to 1. Thus we cannot use standard `guard` for this monad. However we would like to write the following:
```do f <- family
guard (existsBoy f)
return f
```

Given a custom combinator which performs a filtering with subsequent normalization called `(>>=?) :: Distribution a -> (a -> Bool) -> Distribution a` we can rewrite this easily:

```family >>=? existsBoy
```

Note that the `(>>=?)` combinator introduces the risk of returning an invalid distribution (empty list of events), but it seems that we have to live with that problem.

• Alternative combinators
If you are used to writing monadic functions using infix combinators `(>>)` and `(>>=)` you can easily switch to a different set of combinators. This is useful when there is a monadic structure that does not fit into the current `Monad` type constructor class, where the monadic result type cannot be constrained. This is e.g. useful for the Set data type, where the element type must have a total order.

### Use more existing sugar

Another option is to bring `do`-notation closer to the syntax of list-comprehensions.

```do f <- family
guard (existsBoy f)
return f
```

one can write:

```do f | f <- family,
existsBoy f
```

or:

```do { f | f <- family, existsBoy f }
```

This also preserves the use of the extant list-comprehension syntax solely for lists, reducing the temptation (and subsequent confusion for Haskell beginners!) to extend it to all monadic types.

## Useful applications

It shall be mentioned that the `do` sometimes takes the burden away from you of writing boring things. E.g. in

```getRight :: Either a b -> Maybe b
getRight y =
do Right x <- y
return x
```

a `case` on `y` is included, which calls `fail` if `y` is not a `Right` (i.e. `Left`), and thus returns `Nothing` in this case.

Also the `mdo` notation proves useful, since it maintains a set of variables for you in a safe manner. Compare

```mdo x <- f x y z
y <- g x y z
z <- h x y z
return (x+y+z)
```

and

```mfix
(\ ~( ~(x,y,z), _) ->
do x <- f x y z
y <- g x y z
z <- h x y z
return ((x,y,z),x+y+z))
```