GHC/Type families
Contents
Data and type families in GHC
Data and type families are a new addition to GHC's type extensions. They are currently an experimental feature and so their design may still change to some degree. The current implementation covers data families (including newtypes), which can either be on the toplevel or inside class declarations  the latter are also known as associated data types.
NB: Please note that type families (and hence also associated type synonyms) are not fully implemented yet. Any attempt to use them will lead to strange error messages. For the moment, you can only use data
families.
What do I need to use data families?
Indexed type families are implemented in GHC's HEAD (from version 6.7), which you can obtain in binary form from the nightly snapshots or in source form from the source repository. To enable indexed type families in GHC 6.7, you need to supply the compiler option ftypefamilies (or fglasgowexts, which implies it). NB: The option used to be called findexedtypes for a while.
An associated data type example
As an example, consider Ralf Hinze's generalised tries, a form of generic finite maps.
The class declaration
We define a type class whose instances are the types that we can use as keys in our generic maps:
class GMapKey k where
data GMap k :: * > *
empty :: GMap k v
lookup :: k > GMap k v > Maybe v
insert :: k > v > GMap k v > GMap k v
The interesting part is the associated data family declaration of the class. It gives a kind signature (here * > *
) for the associated data type GMap k
 analog to how methods receive a type signature in a class declaration.
What it is important to notice is that the first parameter of the associated type GMap
coincides with the class parameter of GMapKey
. This indicates that also in all instances of the class, the instances of the associated data type need to have their first argument match up with the instance type. In general, the type arguments of an associated type can be a subset of the class parameters (in a multiparameter type class) and they can appear in any order, possibly in an order other than in the class head. The latter can be useful if the associated data type is partially applied in some contexts.
The second important point is that as GMap k
has kind * > *
and k
(implicitly) has kind *
, the type constructor GMap
(without an argument) has kind * > * > *
. Consequently, we see that GMap
is applied to two arguments in the signatures of the methods empty
, lookup
, and insert
.
An Int instance
To use Ints as keys into generic maps, we declare an instance that simply uses Data.Map
, thusly:
instance GMapKey Int where
data GMap Int v = GMapInt (Data.Map.Map Int v)
empty = GMapInt Data.Map.empty
lookup k (GMapInt m) = Data.Map.lookup k m
insert k v (GMapInt m) = GMapInt (Data.Map.insert k v m)
The Int
instance of the associated data type GMap
needs to have both of its parameters, but as only the first one corresponds to a class parameter, the second needs to be a type variable (here v
). As mentioned before any associated type parameter that corresponds to a class parameter must be identical to the class parameter in each instance. The right hand side of the associated data declaration is like that of any other data type.
NB: At the moment, GADT syntax is not allowed for associated data types (or other indexed types). This is not a fundemental limitation, but just a shortcoming of the current implementation, which we expect to lift in the future.
As an exercise, implement an instance for Char
that maps back to the Int
instance using the conversion functions Char.ord
and Char.chr
.
A unit instance
Generic definitions, apart from elementary types, typically cover units, products, and sums. We start here with the unit instance for GMap
:
instance GMapKey () where
data GMap () v = GMapUnit (Maybe v)
empty = GMapUnit Nothing
lookup () (GMapUnit v) = v
insert () v (GMapUnit _) = GMapUnit $ Just v
For unit, the map is just a Maybe
value.
Product and sum instances
Nest, let us define the instances for pairs and sums (i.e., Either
):
instance (GMapKey a, GMapKey b) => GMapKey (a, b) where
data GMap (a, b) v = GMapPair (GMap a (GMap b v))
empty = GMapPair empty
lookup (a, b) (GMapPair gm) = lookup a gm >>= lookup b
insert (a, b) v (GMapPair gm) = GMapPair $ case lookup a gm of
Nothing > insert a (insert b v empty) gm
Just gm2 > insert a (insert b v gm2 ) gm
instance (GMapKey a, GMapKey b) => GMapKey (Either a b) where
data GMap (Either a b) v = GMapEither (GMap a v) (GMap b v)
empty = GMapEither empty empty
lookup (Left a) (GMapEither gm1 _gm2) = lookup a gm1
lookup (Right b) (GMapEither _gm1 gm2 ) = lookup b gm2
insert (Left a) v (GMapEither gm1 gm2) = GMapEither (insert a v gm1) gm2
insert (Right a) v (GMapEither gm1 gm2) = GMapEither gm1 (insert a v gm2)
If you find this code algorithmically surprising, I'd suggest to have a look at Ralf Hinze's paper. The only novelty concerning associated types, in these two instances, is that the instances have a context (GMapKey a, GMapKey b)
. Consequently, the right hand sides of the associated type declarations can use GMap
recursively at the key types a
and b
 not unlike the method definitions use the class methods recursively at the types for which the class is given in the instance context.
Using a generic map
Finally, some code building and quering a generic map:
myGMap :: GMap (Int, Either Char ()) String
myGMap = insert (5, Left 'c') "(5, Left 'c')" $
insert (4, Right ()) "(4, Right ())" $
insert (5, Right ()) "This is the one!" $
insert (5, Right ()) "This is the two!" $
insert (6, Right ()) "(6, Right ())" $
insert (5, Left 'a') "(5, Left 'a')" $
empty
main = putStrLn $ maybe "Couldn't find key!" id $ lookup (5, Right ()) myGMap
Download the code
If you want to play with this example without copying it off the wiki, just download the source code for GMap
from GHC's test suite.
Definition of the type system extension
[NB: The following material will eventually become documentation for type families in the GHC User Manual. Please help to improve it by forwarding suggestions to chak@cse.unsw.edu.au.]
Data families appear in two flavours: (1) they can be defined on the toplevel or (2) they can appear inside type classes (in which case they are known as associated types). The former is the more general variant, as it lacks the requirement for the typeindexes to coincide with the class parameters. However, the later can lead to more clearly structured code and compiler warnings if some type instances were  possibly accidentally  omitted. In the following, we always discuss the general toplevel form first and then cover the additional constraints placed on associated types.
Family declarations
Indexed data families are introduced by a signature, such as
data family GMap k :: * > *
The special family
distinguishes family from standard data declarations. The result kind annotation is optional and, as usual, defaults to *
if omitted. An example is
data family Array e
Named arguments can also be given explicit kind signatures if needed. Just as with GADT declarations named arguments are entirely optional, so that we can declare Array
alternatively with
data family Array :: * > *
Associated family declarations
When a data family is declared as part of a type class, we drop the family
special. The GMap
declaration takes the following form
class GMapKey k where
data GMap k :: * > *
...
In contrast to toplevel declarations, named arguments must be used for all type parameters that are to be used as typeindexes. Moreover, the argument names must be class parameters. Each class parameter may only be used at most once per associated type, but some may be omitted and they may be in an order other than in the class head. Hence, the following contrieved example is admissible:
class C a b c where
data T c a :: *
If kind signatures are required for argument variables, they need to be given in the class head.
Instance declarations
Instance declarations of data and newtype families are very similar to standard data and newtype declarations. The only two differences are that the keyword data
or newtype
is followed by instance
and that some or all of the type arguments can be nonvariable types. For example, the Either
instance for GMap
is
data instance GMap (Either a b) v = GMapEither (GMap a v) (GMap b v)
In this example, the declaration has only one variant. In general, it can be be any number.
Data and newtype instance declarations are only legit when an appropriate family declaration is in scope  just like class instances require the class declaration to be visible. Moreover, each instance declaration has to conform to the kind determined by its family declaration. This implies that the number of parameters of an instance declaration matches the arity determined by the kind of the family. Although, all data families are declared with the data
keyword, instances can be either data
or newtype
s, or a mix of both.
Even if type families are defined as toplevel declarations, functions that perform different computations for different family instances still need to be defined as methods of type classes. In particular, the following is not possible:
data family T a
data instance T Int = A
data instance T Char = B
nonsence :: T a > Int
nonsence A = 1  WRONG: These two equations together...
nonsence B = 2  ...will produce a type error.
Given the functionality provided by GADTs (Generalised Algebraic Data Types), it might seem as if a definition, such as the above, should be feasible. However, type families are  in contrast to GADTs  are open; i.e., new instances can always be added, possibly in other modules. Supporting pattern matching across different data instances would require a form of extensible case construct.
Associated type instances
When an associated family instance is declared within a type class instance, we drop the instance
keyword in the family instance. So, the Either
instance for GMap
becomes:
instance (GMapKey a, GMapKey b) => GMapKey (Either a b) where
data GMap (Either a b) v = GMapEither (GMap a v) (GMap b v
...
The most important point about associated family instances is that the type indexes corresponding to class parameters must be identical to the type given in the instance head; here this is first argument of GMap
, namely Either a b
, which coincides with the only class parameter. Any parameters to the family constructor that do not correspond to class parameters, need to be variables in every instance; here this is the variable v
.
Instances for an associated family can only appear as part of instances declarations of the class in which the family was declared  just as with the equations of the methods of a class. Also in correspondence to how methods are handled, declarations of associated types can be omitted in class instances. If an associated family instance is omitted, the corresponding instance type is not inhabited; i.e., only diverging expressions, such as undefined
, can assume the type.
Class instances of type instances
Type class instances of instances of data families can be defined as usual, and in particular data instance declarations can have deriving
clauses. For example, we can write
data GMap () v = GMapUnit (Maybe v)
deriving Show
which implcitly defines an instance of the form
instance Show v => Show (GMap () v) where ...
Note that class instances are always for particular instances of a data family and never for an entire family as a whole. This for essentially the same reasons that we cannot define a toplevel function that performs pattern matching on the data constructors of different instances of a single type family. It would require a form of extensible case construct.
Overlap
The instance declarations of a data family used in a single program may not overlap at all, independent of whether they are associated or not. In contrast to type class instances, this is not only a matter of consistency, but one of type safety.
Import and export
The association of data constructors with type families is more dynamic than that is the case with standard data and newtype declarations. In the standard case, the notation T(..)
in an import or export list denotes the type constructor and all the data constructors introduced in its declaration. However, a family declaration never introduces any data constructors; instead, data constructors are introduced by family instances. As a result, which data constructors are associated with a type family depends on the currently visible instance declarations for that family. Consequently, an import or export item of the form T(..)
denotes the family constructor and all currently visible data constructors  in the case of an export item, these may be either imported or defined in the current module. The treatment of import and export items that explicitly list data constructors, such as GMap(GMapEither)
, is analogous.
Associated families
As expected, an import or export item of the form C(..)
denotes all of the class' methods and associated types. However, when associated types are explicitly listed as subitems of a class, we need some new syntax, as uppercase identifiers as subitems are usually data constructors, not type constructors. To clarify that we denote types here, each associated type name needs to be prefixed by the keyword type
. So for example, when explicitly listing the components of the GMapKey
class, we write GMapKey(type GMap, empty, lookup, insert)
.
Examples
Assuming our running GMapKey
class example, let us look at some export lists and their meaning:

module GMap (GMapKey) where...
: Exports just the class name. 
module GMap (GMapKey(..)) where...
: Exports the class, the associated typeGMap
and the member functionsempty
,lookup
, andinsert
. None of the data constructors is exported. 
module GMap (GMapKey(..), GMap(..)) where...
: As before, but also exports all the data constructorsGMapInt
,GMapChar
,GMapUnit
,GMapPair
, andGMapUnit
. 
module GMap (GMapKey(empty, lookup, insert), GMap(..)) where...
: As before. 
module GMap (GMapKey, empty, lookup, insert, GMap(..)) where...
: As before.
Finally, you can write GMapKey(type GMap)
to denote both the class GMapKey
as well as its associated type GMap
. However, you cannot write GMapKey(type GMap(..))
— i.e., subcomponent specifications cannot be nested. To specify GMap
's data constructors, you have to list it separately.
Instances
Family instances are implicitly exported, just like class instances. However, this applies only to the heads of instances, not to the data constructors an instance defines.
A associated type synonym example
Associated data types are a better alternative for the rather complicated functional dependencies.
The Class Declaration
Here's an example from the original Functional Dependencies paper:
class Collects e ce  ce > e where
empty :: ce
insert :: e > ce > ce
member :: e > ce > Bool
With associated type synonyms we can write this as:
class Collects ce where
type Elem ce
empty :: ce
insert :: Elem ce > ce > ce
member :: Elem ce > ce > Bool
That's right, we have dropped from a multiparamter type class
to a single parameter type class. The parameter e
has become an associated type Elem ce
.
An Instance
Here's an instance, with functional dependencies:
instance Eq e => Collects e [e] where
empty = []
insert e l = (e:l)
member e [] = False
member e (x:xs)  e == x = True
 otherwise = member e xs
With associated type synonyms, this becomes:
instance Eq e => Collects [e] where
type Elem [e] = e
empty = []
insert e l = (e:l)
member e [] = False
member e (x:xs)  e == x = True
 otherwise = member e xs
Open Issues
None.