Haskell – Algebraic Data Types

kuniga.me > NP-Incompleteness > Haskell – Algebraic Data Types

Haskell – Algebraic Data Types

25 Sep 2011

Haskell uses an elegant syntax to represent a type of data structure, analogous to many other structures present in languages ​​such as C and C++. These structures are called algebraic data types.

This is the second post about my studies in Haskell. The first can be found here.

This post makes analogies with some basic C++ features but prior knowledge is not required.


Consider the following C++ struct representing a book through its code, title and authors:

#include <string>
#include <vector>
struct {
    int isbn;
    std::string title;
    std::vector < std::string > authors;

In haskell we can write:

data BookInfo = Book Int String [String]
                deriving (Show)

To define this structure, start with the keyword data and give a name to this new type, in this case BookInfo, called the type constructor.

In addition, we define a constructor of this type, which in the example is named Book, called a value constructor or data constructor, but could have the same name as the type. Both the constructor name and the type name must be capitalized.

The deriving (Show) line is being used in this and other examples in this post so that an instance of this structure can be printed to the terminal. We can instantiate the structure BookInfo as follows:

myBook = Book 9780135072455 "Algebra of Programming"
         ["Richard Bird", "Oege de Moor"]

Note that the input parameters must be in the same order as they are defined in the structure. Also note that the “members” of this structure are implicit, being represented only by their type.

To improve readability a bit, it is possible to use type synonyms, through the keyword type (similar to the typedef C++).

type ISBN = Int
type Title = String
type Author = String

data BookInfo = Book ISBN Title [Author]
                deriving (Show)


Another C++ structure that can be represented succinctly in Haskell is the enumation structure. Consider an enum representing RGB colors:

enum Color { Red, Green, Blue };

An algebraic data type admits more than one constructor, as long as they have different names. Also, constructors don’t need to have parameters, which allows you to write the enum abovelike this:

data Color = Red | Green | Blue
             deriving (Show)


Still taking advantage of the fact that we can have several constructors with different parameters, we can also represent a union. Consider the following C++ example of a union representing two geometric shapes – a circle or a polygon:

struct Point {
    double x, y;
struct Circle {
    Point center;
    double radius;
struct Polygon {
    int nvertices;
    Point *vertices;
union Shape {
    Circle circle;
    Polygon polygon;

In Haskell, you can do the following:

type Point = (Double, Double)
type Center = Point
type Radius = Double

data Shape = Circle Center Radius
           | Polygon [ Point ]
             deriving (Show)

Getters and Setters

When working with classes, we occasionally want to protect read/write access to their members using getters and setters, for example:

#include <string>
class Person {
    int id;
    std::string name;


    int get_id(){ return id; }
    void set_id(int _id){ id = _id; };
    std::string get_name(){ return name; }
    void set_name(std::string &_name) { name = _name; }

There is a similar mechanism in Haskell, implemented by the so-called record syntax. In an analogous example to the previous one:

type ID = Int
type Name = String

data Person = Person {
      personID  	:: ID,
      personName	:: Name
} deriving (Show)

This more verbose syntax allows you to instantiate the structure by assigning the parameters to the members explicitly like:

you = Person {personName = "YourName", personID = 2}

The getter member is given by:

personName you

While setter would correspond to:

you {personID 3}

Parameterized Types

Types of algebraic data also represent other functionality present in C ++: templates. Let’s take as an example a class representing a generic pointer to any type:

template <typename T>
struct GenericPointer {
    T* ptr;

By instantiating this class we can define the types we want to represent:

int i = 2;
GenericPointer<int> p1;
p1.ptr = &i;
GenericPointer<double> p2;
p2.ptr = NULL;

Here we have pointers for types int and double, where NULL is a generic value to say that the pointer doesn’t point anywhere.

A (forced) analogy in Haskell would be as follows:

data GenericPointer a = Ptr a |

Although in Haskell we don’t have the value NULL, we can simulate it through a constructor as in the example above. This encapsulation is particularly interesting for providing an exception condition. For example, consider a function that returns the first element of a list:

first_elem (x:xs) = x

What to return if the list is empty? One solution would be to use encapsulation:

first_elem (x:xs) = Ptr x
first_elem _  	= Null

In the example, the character _ works as a wildcard, that is, any parameter matches it. As it was put after the other pattern, it behaves like an else and will only be called when the list has no elements.

Recursive Types

Another application of an algebraic data types is to define recursive types, that is, members of the structure are of the type of that structure. In C and C++ it is possible to do this using pointers. For example, we can implement a linked list of generic elements as follows:

template <typename T>
struct LinkedList {
    LinkedList<T>* next;

In Haskell we have something like:

data LinkedList a = Node a (LinkedList a)
            | Null

To represent a linked list containing 3, 1 and 2, in that order, we use the following syntax:

Node 3 (Node 1 (Node 2 Nil))

A binary tree is also quite simple to represent:

data Tree a = Node a (Tree a) (Tree a)
            | Null
              deriving (Show)


Haskell has a succinct syntax for describing algebraic data types, which in turn are quite versatile, being able to represent both structures and unions, enumerations, classes, etc.

I still know very little about the language, but for now I’m finding it quite interesting.


Source code | Thanks ❤️ | RSS feed RSS Icon | Tags: haskell