I’ve been learning lately about type-level programming in haskell and now that I feel that some ideas have clicked it’s time to write down some potential applications. You’re probably not going to need this in particular, but I wanted to show up to what extent the type-system can enforce properties of your program that you wouldn’t even dream of in other languages.

In this post I’ll show you briefly how we can enforce monotonic behaviour in fixed constant lists defined at compile time. As I said, I’ll use some common type-level programming tricks for achieving this goal.

Type-level nats

These are the usual Peano naturals:

data Nat = Z | Succ Nat

zero :: Nat
zero = Z

one :: Nat
one = Succ Z

two :: Nat
two = Succ One

Using the DataKinds language extension we can promote those values to types, and the Nat type to a kind. That would allow us to have types like these:

type Zero = Z
type One = Succ Z
type Two = Succ One

Type-level functions

The same way we can define the usual sum and order for values of type Nat:

sum :: Nat -> Nat -> Nat
sum Z a = a
sum (Succ a) b = Succ (sum a b)

lessThanOrEqualTo :: Nat -> Nat -> Bool
lessThanOrEqualTo Z a = True
lessThanOrEqualTo a Z = False
lessThanOrEqualTo (Succ n) (Succ m) = lessThanOrEqualTo n m

we can make functions that operate on the type level using the TypeFamilies language extension:

type family Sum (a :: Nat) (b :: Nat) :: Nat where
    Sum Z a = a
    Sum (Succ a) b = Succ (Sum a b)

type familiy LessThanOrEqualTo (a :: Nat) (b :: Nat) :: Bool where
  LessThanOrEqualTo Z b = True
  LessThanOrEqualTo a Z = False
  LessThanOrEqualTo (Succ n) (Succ m) = LessThanOrEqualTo n m

Note that in this example Bool is the kind Bool (thanks to DataKinds) and True and False are both types of kind Bool.

With those type families we could have things like:

data Proxy a = Proxy -- Data.Proxy

proof :: Proxy True
proof = (Proxy :: Proxy (LessThan One Two)) -- compiles

fakeProof :: Proxy True
fakeProof = (Proxy :: Proxy (LessThan Two One)) -- compile time error

What’s more, using the TypeOperators language extension we can change the above type families to:

type family (a :: Nat) + (b :: Nat) :: Nat where
    Z + a = a
    Succ a + b = Succ (a +  b)

type familiy (a :: Nat) <= (b :: Nat) :: Bool where
  Z <= b = True
  a <= Z = False
  (Succ n) <= (Succ m) = n <= m

proof :: Proxy True
proof = (Proxy :: Proxy (One <= True))

Turn type-level naturals into values

We want a function that turns any type of kind Nat into an integer. You can’t have a function from a type to a value in haskell but we can model that with the Proxy type-constructor.

class ToInt (a :: Nat) where
    toInt :: Proxy a -> Int

instance ToInt Z where
    toInt _ = 0

instance ToInt a => ToInt (Succ a) where
    toInt (_ :: Proxy (Succ a)) = 1 + toInt (Proxy :: Proxy a)

In order to make this piece of code work we’ll need FlexibleInstances, UndecidableInstances and ScopedTypeVariables. FlexibleInstances is a harmless extension (meaning nothing’s gonna hurt you), ScopedTypeVariables makes GHC understand that the a type variable we use in the Proxy (Succ a) is the same variable we are refering to later with Proxy a. UndecidableInstances could make type checking your code undecidable, but we are safe for now.

Increasing type-family

Taking advantage of the fact that the list type constructor is promoted by DataKinds to a kind constructor we can define the following type family:

type family Increasing (nats :: [Nat]) where
  Increasing '[] = True
  Increasing '[a] = True
  Increasing (a:(b:others)) = (a <= b) && Increasing (b:others)
  Increasing _ = False

That given a type-level list of type-level nats evaluates to the type True if the nats are monotonically increasing.

Get list of increasing integers

In the same vein we obtained an integer for every type-level nat, we now want to get a list of integers for every type-level list of types of kind Nat, but, we’ll only do so for monotonically increasing lists.

class (Increasing nats ~ True) => ToIncreasing (nats :: [Nat]) where
  toIncreasing :: Proxy nats -> [Int]

instance ToIncreasing '[] where
  toIncreasing _ = []

instances (ToInt a, ToIncreasing others, Increasing (a:others) ~ True) => ToIncreasing (a:others) where
    toIncreasing (_ :: Proxy (a:others)) =
        toInt (Proxy :: Proxy a) : toIncreasing (Proxy :: Proxy others)

toIncreasing (Proxy :: Proxy '[Zero, One, Two]) -- [0,1,2]
toIncreasing (Proxy :: Proxy '[Two, Zero, One]) -- compile-time error


  1. Interestingly enough we need more constraints in the last instance definition that would be provably needed. We know that every a is a Nat and that every Nat is a ToInt but we have to have that as a constraint anyway. Moreover, if Increasing (a:others) ~ True then necessarily ToIncreasing others is satisfied, but once again we need it as a constraint.

  2. This approach can be easily extended to other invariants that can be defined inductively on lists. How much more extendable is this technique?

  3. Nobody wants to define lists of numbers like [ThreehundredThirtyTwo, Fifteen] and that’s ok. Type-literals would allow us to provide an ergonomic API.

  4. Some potentially useful type-level combinators arise from this code. There probably are libraries of type-level combinators out there. Have to take a look.

  5. This post talks about some of the things I talk in here too and was quite didactic.