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11. Generic Deriving

Generic programming allows us to avoid writing boilerplate code, by inferring the implementations of functions from the shapes of the types involved. In Haskell and PureScript, this is supported by generic deriving, where the compiler supports deriving certain standard type class instances to facilitate generic programming.

Generic deriving has been available in the PureScript compiler in one form for a while now. @gbaz added the first generics implementation in version 0.7.3, and it was quickly put to use to derive all manner of programs: standard type classes instances like Eq and Ord, serializers and deserializers for formats like JSON and S-expressions, QuickCheck instances, memoization functions, and so on. This has provided massive benefits for developer productivity in PureScript.

The original version of PureScript's generics (in the purescript-generics library) is based on a single untyped representation called GenericSpine. The Generic class attempts to convert to and from this representation:

class Generic a where
  toSpine :: a -> GenericSpine
  fromSpine :: GenericSpine -> Maybe a
  toSignature :: Proxy a -> GenericSignature

Notice here that in the fromSpine function, we have to use Maybe, because there is no guarantee that the representation given to us will be of the correct shape. We can use the toSignature function at runtime to verify that a given GenericSpine is in the correct form.

Typed Generics via Functional Dependencies

But what we'd really like is to be able to associate a type of representations with a given generic type, and convert to and from that representation. This is the approach taken in GHC Haskell's [GHC.Generics] ( library:

class Generic a where
  type Rep a :: * -> *
  from  :: a -> (Rep a) x
  to    :: (Rep a) x -> a

This implementation uses an associated type called Rep a to track the representation of the data.

Well, in PureScript we don't have associated types (PR anyone...?), but we have the next best thing - functional dependencies!

As we saw yesterday, functional dependencies can be used to represent certain type-level functions. The new purescript-generics-rep library takes this approach, capturing the representation type using a functional dependency, like this:

class Generic a rep | a -> rep where
  from :: a -> rep
  to :: rep -> a

The representation types are built out of a small collection of standard representation types for things like data constructors, sums and products.

The functional dependency tells us that the representation type rep is determined from the generic type a, and so if the compiler knows a, then it can infer rep.

Deriving Generic instances

As of compiler version 0.10.2, it is possible to derive these Generic instances automatically:

data List a = Nil | Cons { head :: a, tail :: List a }

derive instance genericList :: Generic (List a) _

Notice how we don't specify the representation type when deriving an instance - instead, the compiler will infer it from the data type definition. And this is a good thing, because even in this simple case, the compiler will infer quite a large type:

  (Constructor "Nil" NoArguments) 
  (Constructor "Cons" 
        (Field "head" a) 
        (Field "tail" 
          (List a)

Notice that the compiler can even derive Generic instances and representation type for recursive types and record types.

The compiler uses type-level strings (symbols) to represent things like data constructor names and record field names.

Writing Generic Functions

The purescript-generics-rep library provides default implementations of various standard type classes for any type which is an instance of Generic:

  • Eq
  • Ord
  • Show
  • Semigroup
  • Monoid

How does it do this? Well, as an example, let's take a look at the genericShow function, which is used to derive Show instances. Here is its type:

  :: forall a rep
   . (Generic a rep, GenericShow rep)
  => a
  -> String

We can use this to derive a Show instance for our types (as long as we have already derived a Generic instance) as follows:

instance showList :: Show a => Show (List a) where
  show x = genericShow x

The type of genericShow says that we can get a function of type a -> String as long as the type a is Generic with some representation type rep, and the representation type itself has an instance for the GenericShow class.

See the implementation in full here.

This is the general pattern used when deriving functions using generics-rep: we use the Generic class to infer a representation type, and then defer to some auxiliary type class defined on the representation types themselves.

Note: this is also a nice example of the IsSymbol class, since we often need to turn the type-level strings which represent our data constructors and record fields into actual value-level strings, for example to show them.

Benefits of the Typed Approach

Getting rid of the Maybe in the type of fromSpine is not the only benefit of the typed approach using functional dependencies.

One disadvantage of an untyped approach is that the entire type has to be representable by the single GenericSpine type. For example, we are not able to derive instances for any type which makes use of foreign data types, since those cannot be made instances of Generic. But with the typed approach, we can simply use the instances on the foreign type itself. This allows us to derive instances for many more types.

Also, separating out the representation type means that we don't need to provide instances for every representation type. For example, the derived Semigroup instances provided by purescript-generics-rep only work for types built out of products and records. We simply can't derive those instances if our types include sums types. With a single untyped representation type, we have to try to derive an instance for every representation, whether it is possible or not.


I hope I've shown that generic deriving enables a whole new style of programming in PureScript, where we can write our boilerplate code once and focus on the interesting parts of our application. Hopefully, the new generics-rep implementation will increase the utility of generic programming in PureScript.