Creating User-Defined Types in Haskell

Nov 23 2009 Published by under Haskell

  • (This is an edited repost of one of the posts from the earlier
    version of my Haskell tutorial.)
  • (This file is a literate haskell script. If you save it
    as a file whose name ends in ".lhs", it's actually loadable and
    runnable in GHCI or Hugs.)

Like any other modern programming language, Haskell has excellent support
for building user-defined data types. In fact, even though Haskell is very
much not object-oriented, most Haskell programs end up being centered
around the design and implementation of data structures, using constructions
called classes and instances.

In this post, we're going to start looking at how you implement data types
in Haskell. What I'm going to do is start by showing you how to implement a
simple binary search tree. I'll start with a very simple version, and then
build up from there.

There are a variety of useful primitive types in Haskell - a wide range of
numeric types (arbitrary sized integers, rationals, floats, etc.), characters,
and so on. There are also a lot of basic compound types provided by the
standard library - the usual tuples, arrays, lists, and so on. But when you go
to build your own datatypes, the main thing that you use in Haskell is
something called an algebraic data types. An algebraic data type
consists of a set of variants, each of which is (essentially) a tuple
which has been tagged with a marker that identifies which variant it belongs
to. When you define an algebraic type, Haskell creates a set of
constructor functions for the type, one for each variant.

As usual, talking about things like this in theory is hopelessly vague, so
let's dive in and look at some code. We'll start with a very simple binary
search tree containing integers.

The basics are pretty straightforward. A binary search tree is a data
structure consisting of a collection of nodes. Every node contains a value, a
left child, and a right child. The left and right children each contain
another binary search tree which could contain some values, or which could be

When you're describing a data type and you use the word "or", that's your
clue that you're looking at a variant. The tree type has two cases: trees
containing values, and empty trees. A declaration of that type would look

>data SimpleIntBST = SIBNode Integer SimpleIntBST SimpleIntBST
>                  | SIBEmpty

What this says is: we're defining a data type named
SimpleIntBST. There are two kinds of SimpleIntBST
values. The first kind is an SIBNode, which contains an integer
value, a left child, and a right child. The other kind is an
SIBEmpty, which contains no values. In a language
like C++ or Java, you'd have each node contain pointers to children
nodes, and an empty child would be represented by a null pointer. But
in Haskell, there are no pointers - and more importantly, null doesn't
have a well-defined type. In Haskell, when you've got something
like a null, you need to explicity define the null case using
a variant, like SIBEmpty.

In the declaration, SIBNode and SIBEmpty are the
names of the constructor functions that are used to create values. To
create an SIBNode, you call it like a normal function with
parameters of the correct type: for example, to create an SIBNode
containing the value "4" with empty left and right children, you'd write:

SIBNode 4 SIBEmpty SIBEmpty

Let's try that in GHCI:

*Main> SIBEmpty
No instance for (Show SimpleIntBST)
arising from use of `print' at <interactive>:1:0-7
Possible fix: add an instance declaration for (Show SimpleIntBST)
In the expression: print it
In a 'do' expression: print it

What's wrong? The interpreter tried to print out the value returned by the
expression. The interpreter outputs values using the print
function. In general in Haskell, when we have a problem like this, we look at
types. What's the type of the print function?

*Main> :type print
print :: (Show a) => a -> IO ()

The parameter to print must be a value of some type that is
an instance of the Show class. But we didn't make our binary tree
an instance of Show. Fortunately, since Show is such
a fundamental interface, Haskell provides a nifty shorthand to make the
compiler generate the code necessary to provide an implementation of
whatever is needed for Show, called a deriving clause. Let's
try again, this time with a deriving clause. We'll call the new version
"IntBST" rather than "SimpleIntBST", because treating this post as a literate
file, we can't re-declare "SimpleIntBST".

>data IntBST = IBNode Integer IntBST IntBST
>                  | IBEmpty deriving (Show)

Now, loading that into GHC, we'll see:

*Main> IBNode 4 IBEmpty IBEmpty
IBNode 4 IBEmpty IBEmpty

Which is exactly what we want: our binary search tree is now printable.

A data structure like this isn't useful without some operations to work
with it. So let's go ahead and do some implementing! We'll start with an
insert operator:

>ibstInsert :: IntBST -> Integer -> IntBST
>ibstInsert (IBNode i left right) v
>        | i > v = IBNode i (ibstInsert left v) right
>        | otherwise = IBNode i left (ibstInsert right v)
>ibstInsert IBEmpty v = (IBNode v IBEmpty IBEmpty)

So let's look at that a bit. It starts off with an explicit type
declaration. That's not strictly necessary: the compiler can infer the type of
the function without any help. But it's a good practice to put it there: it's
a useful bit of documentation for a human reader, and it's useful for
catching problems during compilation - if you made any mistakes writing
the function, the compiler might be able to catch them because the
inferred type won't match the declaration.

After the type declaration, we get to the real definition, which is where
things get interesting. I'm sure you noticed that there was something a bit
strange about the type declaration for IntBST. In most
non-functional languages, you define a new data type as some kind of a
record or structure, which contains a list of named
fields; when you use the structure, you access its fields by derefencing an
instance of the data structure using the name of a field. But in our Haskell
binary search tree, the values belonging to an instance of the data structure
don't have names. Like most functional languages, Haskell uses
pattern matching to access the pieces of a data structure.

A pattern looks like a value expression, except that it may
contain some unbound variables. The pattern can also be followed by a
guard expression which is a boolean expression using variables bound
in the pattern. If the guard is included, it's separated from the patterns by
a | character, which is generally read as "such that". So the
first declaration line of ibstInsert has two patterns:
(IBNode i left right), and v. It's followed by a
guard. So that full declaration line can be read as "ibstInsert of an IntBST
matching '(IBNode i left right)' and a value matching
'v' such that 'i > v' returns
'(IBNode i left right)'.

As a shorthand, if you have a guard expression on an indented line
following a pattern with a guard, the pattern is reused with the second guard.
So the second line starting with a "|" is used if the first guard
fails. As a guard expression, "otherwise" can only be used as the
last guard for a pattern, and it's always true.

So the first case of the declaration of ibstInsert, in full,
does the following:

  1. If the tree parameter is an IBNode, then bind "i" to
    the value element of the node, "left" to the left subtree, and "right"
    to the right subtree; and bind the variable "v" to the second parameter,
    which is the value to be inserted to the tree.
  2. If the value in the tree node is larger than the value being
    inserted, then return a tree that's the same as this, except that
    the value is inserted into the left subtree.
  3. Otherwise, return a tree like this one, except that the new
    value is inserted into the right subtree.

The second case says that if the node is an empty, then return a new
non-empty node with the new value as its value, and with empty left and right

If you look at the code now that you know how to read it, one thing that
should hopefully be rather striking about it is just how much it looks like
the explanatory pseudo-code that you'd find in an algorithms textbook. It's
very straightforward code, written in a very easy to read style. (As a brief
aside, this is an example of one of the things that really attracts me to
Haskell programming. Code in Haskell tends to very naturally decompose into
very small definitions that look and read like explanatory code from a

So let's look at a quick example of using this to build a tree.

> treeone = ibstInsert (ibstInsert (ibstInsert (ibstInsert (ibstInsert IBEmpty 3) 5) 2) 17) 10
> treetwo = (ibstInsert (ibstInsert (ibstInsert (ibstInsert treeone 4) 6) 1) 9)

That gives us two trees, one of which contains a subset of the values in
the other. We can ask ghc to show us the values of them:

*Main> treeone
IBNode 3 (IBNode 2 IBEmpty IBEmpty) (IBNode 5 IBEmpty (IBNode 17 (IBNode 10 IBEmpty IBEmpty) IBEmpty))
*Main*gt; treetwo
IBNode 3 (IBNode 2 (IBNode 1 IBEmpty IBEmpty) IBEmpty) (IBNode 5 (IBNode 4 IBEmpty IBEmpty) (IBNode 17 (IBNode 10 (IBNode 6 IBEmpty (IBNode 9 IBEmpty IBEmpty)) IBEmpty) IBEmpty))

The other thing that we want to be able to do with a binary search tree is
find nodes in it. Since our current BST only contains integers, we'll just
write a function that returns a boolean value indicating whether or not a
particular value is in the tree.

>ibstSearch :: IntBST -> Integer -> Bool
>ibstSearch (IBNode k left right) v
>    | k == v = True
>        | k > v = ibstSearch left v
>        | otherwise = ibstSearch right v
>ibstSearch IBEmpty _ = False

This one should be pretty easy to read without much explanation. To be
pedantic, I'll walk through it quickly. If it's a non-empty node, and the
value in the node equals the value being searched for, return true. If the
value in the node is bigger, then return the result of searching the left
subtree; otherwise, return the result of searching the right subtree. If it's
an empty node, then the value isn't there, so return false.

A binary search tree isn't particularly useful if it can only hold
integers. So as a first step towards making it more real, we'd like to be able
to store not just integers in the tree, but any value for which the necessary
comparisons (> and ==) are defined. There's a
typeclass for that, called "Ord", for Ordered. So now
let's just rewrite IntBST as a generic BST using typeclasses:

> data (Ord a) => GenBST a = GBNode a (GenBST a) (GenBST a) > | GBEmpty
>      deriving (Show)

The variable on the left of the equal in the data type definition
is a type parameter. The type-class constraint preceding the name of the new
datatype means that the type parameter "a" can only be
instantiated by a type that is an instance of the type-class
"Ord". The method implementations will barely change:

> gbstInsert :: (Ord a) => GenBST a -> a -> GenBST a
> gbstInsert (GBNode i left right) v
>         | i > v = GBNode i (gbstInsert left v) right
>         | otherwise = GBNode i left (gbstInsert right v)
> gbstInsert GBEmpty v = (GBNode v GBEmpty GBEmpty)
> gbstSearch :: (Ord a) => GenBST a -> a -> Bool
> gbstSearch (GBNode k left right) v
>        | k == v = True
>        | k > v = gbstSearch left v
>        | otherwise = gbstSearch right v
> gbstSearch GBEmpty _ = False

With that implementation of gbstInsert, we can pretty much
reuse the code to generate a sample instance:

> gtreeone = gbstInsert (gbstInsert
>        (gbstInsert (gbstInsert (gbstInsert GBEmpty 3) 5) 2) 17) 10
> gtreetwo = (gbstInsert (gbstInsert (gbstInsert (gbstInsert gtreeone 4) 6) 1) 9)

Look what ghci says about those:

*Main*gt; gtreetwo
GBNode 3 (GBNode 2 (GBNode 1 GBEmpty GBEmpty) GBEmpty) (GBNode 5 (GBNode 4 GBEmpty GBEmpty) (GBNode 17 (GBNode 10 (GBNode 6 GBEmpty (GBNode 9 GBEmpty GBEmpty)) GBEmpty) GBEmpty))
*Main> :type gtreetwo
gtreetwo :: GenBST Integer
*Main> gbstSearch gtreetwo 17
*Main> gbstSearch gtreetwo 18
*Main> gbstSearch gtreetwo 1
*Main> gbstSearch gtreeone 1

We can use the new generic tree in exactly the same way that we
used the integer specific one. We don't need to declare types of expressions
that use it. The compiler will happily infer the type parameter, and just make
everything work. But now we're not restricted to integers:

*Main> gbstInsert (gbstInsert (gbstInsert GBEmpty "hi") "hello") "Salutations"
GBNode "hi" (GBNode "hello" (GBNode "Salutations" GBEmpty GBEmpty) GBEmpty) GBEmpty
*Main> gbstInsert (gbstInsert (gbstInsert (gbstInsert GBEmpty "hi") "hello") "S
alutations") "Greetings"
GBNode "hi" (GBNode "hello" (GBNode "Salutations" (GBNode "Greetings" GBEmpty GBEmpty) GBEmpty) GBEmpty) GBEmpty

That's some of the basics. Next post, we'll build on the binary search
tree, giving it some more features, and updating the insert routine so that
the tree stays nicely balanced. That will lead us in to some interesting
things about how you code in a language like Haskell, where you can't actually
modify data structures in-place.

No responses yet

  • Mark, can you load and run this in your interpreter? I haven't spent a lot of time on it, but there are at least a few syntax issues I run into when trying to get it to run with GHC 6.8.2 between extraneous spaces and missing blank lines between code and comment.

  • Michael says:

    Dear phlyingpenguin:
    Browsers -- or browser/OS pairs -- frequently disagree on what to offer to the cut-and-paste machinery, some omitting the blank line between a code block and the following text, making a hash of otherwise sound literate blogging. (In this case, Safari was wrong for me, Firefox right; but there is the further problem that here the html is also missing some of the spaces between the opening '>'s of the code lines.) I think this paste will be cut-able:

  • Indeed, I keep forgetting that I've switched between Chrome and Safari which both exhibit the same behavior. Firefox does appear to render the way you intend. I had fixed the copy/paste manually without too much more difficulty later on. Thanks!

  • Pawan says:

    Dear Mark,
    I have a Haskell program to parsing and evaluating an expression. I have the defined the property to perform quickcheck and thus an instance for the Expr which is as follows
    instance Arbitrary Expr where
    arbitrary = sized arbExpr
    arbExpr :: Int -> Gen Expr
    arbExpr s =
    frequency [ (1, do n

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