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Overloaded Record Fields

.. proposal-number:: 0002
.. implemented:: 8.2

This is a proposal to introduce a new built-in typeclass, HasField, to allow type-based resolution of field names and polymorphism over record selectors. It also makes some changes to the existing OverloadedLabels extension for consistency. It does not currently introduce a new extension OverloadedRecordFields.

2   Motivation

A serious limitation of the Haskell record system is the inability to overload field names in record types: for example, if the data types

data Person  = Person  { personId :: Int, name :: String }
data Address = Address { personId :: Int, address :: String }

are in scope in the same module, there is no way to determine which type an occurrence of the personId record selector refers to. A common workaround is to use a unique affix for each record type, but this leads to less clear code and obfuscates relationships between fields of different records. Qualified names can be used to distinguish record selectors from different modules, but using one module per record is often impractical. Thus it is desirable to make use of type information to disambiguate record selectors.

Moreover, modern Haskell code often makes use of lenses, which (amongst other things) provide a compositional way to get and set fields in nested record types. However, defining lenses requires either significant boilerplate or the use of Template Haskell, and either the field name or lens must use an affix to avoid ambiguity. This proposal lays the foundation for a compiler mechanism to generate lenses automatically, requiring nothing more than a field definition.

2.1   Recap: DuplicateRecordFields

The DuplicateRecordFields extension, introduced in GHC 8.0.1, makes it possible for the same field to be declared multiple times in a single module. (Without it, Person and Address cannot even be defined simultaneously.) However, its ability to disambiguate record selectors is deliberately limited to information that is immediately apparent during type checking, in the interests of predictable type inference behaviour.

For example, the following are accepted when both occurrences of personId are in scope:

\ p -> personId (p :: Person)         -- explicit type signature on argument
\ p -> (personId :: Person -> Int) p  -- type pushed in to selector

f :: Person -> Int
f = personId                          -- another way to push type in to selector

However, the following are rejected:

\ (p :: Person) -> personId p  -- type of argument not used, even if obvious
personId (Person 1 "Me")       -- again, argument is not an explicit signature

See Trac #11343 for discussion of this aspect of DuplicateRecordFields. We may wish to make changes to the rules for DuplicateRecordFields in the future, but doing so is outside the scope of this proposal.

The point of this proposal is that we would like some way to write polymorphic record projections, such that the ambiguous selector is resolved using constraint-based type inference.

2.2   Recap: OverloadedLabels

The OverloadedLabels extension, also introduced in GHC 8.0.1, provides a way to indicate that an identifier should be resolved using type inference. This extension provides a new syntax (using a # prefix) for "labels", identifiers whose meaning depends on their type as well as their name. A label #foo has type IsLabel "foo" t => t where IsLabel is an ordinary type class (rather like IsString but with an additional type parameter for the text of the label).

This extension has already been used by various anonymous records libraries, such as bookkeeper, rawr, ruin and no doubt others. However, it is not so easy to use with normal Haskell record datatypes, because there is no built-in support for polymorphism over record selectors.

We want to give an instance

instance ... => IsLabel x (r -> a)

to make it possible to interpret a label (e.g. #personId) as a record selector function, determining the record and field types as part of the type inference process. For example, the expression

\ (p :: Person) -> #personId p

will be accepted with inferred type Person -> Int. In addition, the proposed change enables definitions that are polymorphic over record fields.

But what should go in the instance context? In the following section, we introduce a new built-in class HasField for this purpose.

3   Proposed Change

3.1   HasField class

The new module GHC.Records defines the following:

class HasField (x :: k) r a | x r -> a where
  getField :: r -> a

A HasField x r a constraint represents the fact that x is a field of type a belonging to a record type r. The getField method gives the record selector function.

This is a magic built-in typeclass (similar to Coercible or KnownSymbol, for example). It is given special treatment by the constraint solver, although users may also define their own instances, as described below.

3.1.1   Solving HasField constraints

If the constraint solver encounters a constraint HasField x r a where r is a concrete datatype with a field x in scope, it will automatically solve the constraint using the field selector as the dictionary, unifying a with the type of the field if necessary. This happens irrespective of which extensions are enabled, as with other built-in classes with special constraint solving behaviour (e.g. Coercible).

For the personId example above, the end result is rather like having an instance

instance HasField "personId" Person Int where
  getField = personId

except that this instance is not actually generated anywhere, rather the constraint is solved directly by the constraint solver.

A field must be in scope for the corresponding HasField constraint to be solved. This retains the existing representation hiding mechanism, whereby a module may choose not to export a field, preventing client modules from accessing or updating it directly. Thus we cannot actually generate and export HasField instances from defining modules: since there is no mechanism for limiting the scope of instances, doing so would expose representation details that should be hidden.

3.1.2   Limitations on solving HasField constraints

If a record field does not have a selector function because its type would allow an existential variable to escape, the corresponding HasField constraint will not be solved. For example,

{-# LANGUAGE ExistentialQuantification #-}
data Exists t = forall x . MkExists { unExists :: t x }

does not give rise to a selector unExists :: Exists t -> t x and we will not solve HasField "unExists" (Exists t) a automatically.

If a record field has a polymorphic type (and hence the selector function is higher-rank), the corresponding HasField constraint will not be solved, because doing so would violate the functional dependency on HasField and/or require impredicativity. For example,

{-# LANGUAGE RankNTypes #-}
data Higher = MkHigher { unHigher :: forall t . t -> t }

gives rise to a selector unHigher :: Higher -> (forall t . t -> t) but does not lead to solution of the constraint HasField "unHigher" Higher a.

3.1.3   Interaction with GADTs

A record GADT may have a restricted type for a selector function, which may lead to additional unification when solving HasField constraints. For example,

data Gadt t where
  MkGadt :: { unGadt :: Maybe v } -> Gadt [v]

gives rise to a selector unGadt :: Gadt [v] -> Maybe v, so the solver will reduce the constraint HasField "unGadt" (Gadt t) b by unifying t ~ [v] and b ~ Maybe v for some fresh metavariable v, rather as if we had an instance

instance (t ~ [v], b ~ Maybe v) => HasField "unGadt" (Gadt t) b

3.1.4   Interaction with DatatypeContexts

If a record type has an old-fashioned datatype context, the HasField constraint will be reduced to solving the constraints from the context, rather like superclasses. For example,

{-# LANGUAGE DatatypeContexts #-}
data Eq a => Silly a = MkSilly { unSilly :: a }

gives rise to a selector unSilly :: Eq a => Silly a -> a, so the solver will reduce the constraint HasField "unSilly" (Silly a) b to Eq a (and unify a with b), rather as if we had an instance

instance (Eq a, a ~ b) => HasField "unSilly" (Silly a) b

3.2   Changes to OverloadedLabels extension

The IsLabel class defined in GHC.OverloadedLabels is changed from:

class IsLabel (x :: Symbol) t where
  fromLabel :: Proxy# x -> t


class IsLabel (x :: Symbol) t where
  fromLabel :: t

instance HasField x r a => IsLabel x (r -> a) where
  fromLabel = getField

When the OverloadedLabels extension is enabled, a label #foo is translated to fromLabel @"foo" :: IsLabel "foo" t => t, instead of fromLabel (proxy# :: Proxy# "foo").

The Proxy# argument has been removed, since this is redundant in the presence of TypeApplications. In addition, an IsLabel instance has been supplied for (->) that delegates to the HasField class. This will require changes to code using the GHC 8.0.1 version of OverloadedLabels.

The instance for IsLabel x (r -> a) makes its possible to use an overloaded label as a field selector. For example, \ x -> #foo x has type HasField "foo" r a => r -> a.

However, other useful instances for IsLabel are available. In particular, if we had a partner class to HasField that allowed polymorphism over record updates, overloaded labels could be used to create lenses. (In the case of the van Laarhoven representation used by the lens package, this requires a newtype to avoid overlap with the existing IsLabel instance for functions.) Built-in support for such a class may be introduced in the future, or users can use Template Haskell or Generics to define it in the meantime.

3.2.1   Interaction with RebindableSyntax

When RebindableSyntax is enabled in addition to OverloadedLabels, a label #foo is translated to fromLabel @"foo" using whatever fromLabel is in scope (see Trac #12243 for a request for this feature).

This allows alternative interpretations of labels that cannot be expressed using the IsLabel class. For example, labels could be translated directly to van Laarhoven lenses without the need for a newtype wrapper. This allows maximum flexibility for the user to specify how labels get interpreted.

However, all the labels in the module are subject to the same translation, so it may not be very convenient to use two different libraries that rely on this option. This is why OverloadedLabels and the IsLabel class are retained.

3.3   Virtual record fields

Users may define their own instances of HasField, provided they do not conflict with the built-in constraint solving behaviour. This allows "virtual" record fields to be defined for datatypes that do not otherwise have them.

For example, this instance would make the name field of Person accessible using #fullname as well:

instance HasField "fullname" Person String where
  getField = name

More substantially, an anonymous records library could provide HasField instances for its anonymous records, and thus be compatible with the polymorphic record selectors introduced by this proposal. For example, something like this makes it possible to use overloaded labels to access Record values with the appropriate string in the type-level list of fields:

data Record (xs :: [(k, Type)]) where
  Nil  :: Record '[]
  Cons :: Proxy x -> a -> Record xs -> Record ('(x, a) ': xs)

instance HasField x (Record ('(x, a) ': xs)) a where
  getField (Cons _ v _) = v
instance HasField x (Record xs) a => HasField x (Record ('(y, b) ': xs)) a where
  getField (Cons _ _ r) = getField @x r

r :: Record '[ '("personId", Int), '("name", String) ]
r = Cons Proxy 42 (Cons Proxy "R" Nil)

i = #personId r

Since representations such as this can support field labels with kinds other than Symbol, the HasField class is poly-kinded (even though IsLabel and the built-in constraint solving works only at kind Symbol). In particular, this allows users to declare scoped field labels such as in the following example:

data PersonFields = PersonId | Name

s :: Record '[ '(PersonId, Int), '(Name, String) ]
s = Cons Proxy 43 (Cons Proxy "S" Nil)

j = getField @PersonId s

In order to avoid conflicting with the built-in constraint solving, the following user-defined HasField instances are prohibited (in addition to the usual rules, such as the prohibition on type families):

  • HasField _ r _ where r is a variable;
  • HasField _ (T ...) _ if T is a data family (because it might have fields introduced later, using data instance declarations);
  • HasField x (T ...) _ if x is a variable and T has any fields at all (but this instance is permitted if T has no fields);
  • HasField "foo" (T ...) _ if T has a field foo (but this instance is permitted if it does not).

If a field has a higher-rank or existential type, the corresponding HasField constraint will not be solved automatically (as described above), but in the interests of simplicity we do not permit users to define their own instances either.

4   Drawbacks

Existing code using OverloadedLabels from GHC 8.0.1 will need to be adapted to work with the changes proposed here. Removing the Proxy# argument should be straightforward, but the new IsLabel instance may conflict with existing instances elsewhere. If necessary, RebindableSyntax can be used to adapt existing code that relies on giving alternative instances to IsLabel.

Using OverloadedLabels instead of DuplicateRecordFields to disambiguate record selectors may lead to worse compiler performance, as it requires more use of the constraint solver. Moreover, excessive use of polymorphism over record fields may reduce runtime performance if there is not enough specialisation, as with other uses of typeclass polymorphism. Both of these issues are limited to code that uses the new extension.

5   Alternatives

5.1   OverloadedRecordFields extension

The current version of this proposal does not introduce OverloadedRecordFields as a new extension. It could be introduced as the combination of OverloadedLabels and DuplicateRecordFields, even though these extensions are somewhat orthogonal. However, we might want to define it differently as discussed in the next subsection.

5.2   Multiple interpretations of labels

Under a previous revision of this proposal, OverloadedRecordFields was a separate extension to OverloadedLabels, and the translation of a label depended on the extensions that are enabled. The following table shows how the desugaring of overloaded labels would depend on which of OverloadedRecordFields, OverloadedLabels and RebindableSyntax were enabled:

ORF OL RS Desugaring of #foo
Off Off On/Off Invalid syntax
On Off Off GHC.Records.getField @"foo" :: HasField "foo" r a => r -> a (the "HasField interpretation")
On/Off On Off GHC.OverloadedLabels.fromLabel @"foo" :: IsLabel "foo" t => t (the "IsLabel interpretation")
On/Off On/Off On fromLabel @"foo" using in-scope fromLabel

Note that the HasField interpretation is a special case of the IsLabel interpretation, where all occurrences of IsLabel constraints are forced to use the (->)) instance (compare the Forced Class Instantiation proposal).

Where overloaded field selectors are required but general overloaded labels are not, the HasField interpretation is simpler and likely to give better error messages than the IsLabel interpretation, because the user will not be presented with the IsLabel class at all. Some users would like to write polymorphic field selectors without the additional polymorphism provided by IsLabel. Moreover, type inference is less likely to lead to ambiguity errors (see example below).

The downside of this alternative is that the different possible interpretations may be confusing. For this reason, the current proposal is to retain the more general IsLabel interpretation only. We can always introduce OverloadedRecordFields as a separate extension in the future, or users can make use of RebindableSyntax to get the HasField interpretation.

5.2.1   Example of ambiguity under IsLabel interpretation

Consider the following module:

{-# LANGUAGE OverloadedRecordFields, NoMonomorphismRestriction #-}
import Control.Category
import Prelude hiding ((.))
fooBar = #foo . #bar

If the labels are directly interpreted as polymorphic selector functions using HasField, type inference succeeds for fooBar, giving it the inferred type

(HasField "foo" s t, HasField "bar" r s) => r -> t

where the functional dependency on HasField means that s is not an ambiguous type variable.

However, if labels are interpreted using IsLabel, the inferred type of fooBar is

(Category cat, IsLabel "foo" (cat s t), IsLabel "bar" (cat r s)) => cat r t

where s is ambiguous. (Of course, the ambiguity can be resolved by giving fooBar a more specific type signature.)

5.3   Alternatives to a built-in HasField class

It is possible to define a HasField-like class in user code, without requiring built-in constraint solving behaviour. Two approaches have been demonstrated:

It could be argued that the ability to do this in user code means it is not necessary to make it part of the compiler.

However, these approaches must be explicitly enabled for each datatype (either by deriving Generic or by calling a Template Haskell function). They cannot take advantage of the efficient record selector functions that GHC already generates for every record datatype. More seriously, they do not support representation hiding, because they cannot take account of whether or not fields are exported.

5.4   Other minor design alternatives

Rather than dropping the Proxy# argument to fromLabel, we could retain it. This would be backwards compatible with GHC 8.0.1, and would allow fromLabel to be called directly without use of the TypeApplications extension. However, the argument is unnecessary and would cause a (small) performance overhead. Moreover, users are not usually expected to call fromLabel directly, rather they will typically use the overloaded label syntax.

We could use a type family rather than a functional dependency in the definition of HasField. That is, we could define

class HasField (x :: k) r where
  type FieldType x r :: *
  getField :: r -> FieldType x r

with the constraint solver automatically reducing FieldType x r whenever r is a concrete record type with a field x. This is slightly more expressive, as it is possible to talk about the type of a field independently of a particular HasField constraint. However, it is more complex and significant care would be required to check user-defined FieldType instances (as a conflict with the built-in behviour would threaten type soundness, not merely coherence).

6   Unresolved Questions

In the interests of simplicity, this proposal does not include a class to provide polymorphism over record updates (needed to interpret overloaded labels as lenses), nor does it discuss anonymous records. The exact design of such features still needs final specification. They should be compatible with the changes proposed here, however.

Unlike record datatypes, record pattern synonyms do not currently lead to the automatic solution of HasField constraints. In principle this is possible, but it needs careful specification, and is left for future work.