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Haskell 2014: Applicative => Monad proposal (AMP)

Haskell calls a couple of historical accidents its own. While some of them, such as the "number classes" hierarchy, can be justified by pragmatism or lack of a strictly better suggestion, there is one thing that stands out as, well, not that: Applicative not being a superclass of Monad.

I will use the abbreviation AMP for the "Applicative => Monad Proposal". Why do I think this is a particularly good time for the AMP? Haskell 2014 just got a committee, that's why. We have a chance of actually going through with this all the way, and the response to someone attempting to tackle this was quite encouraging as well.

If you wish to contact me, I'm dluposchainsky at gmail dot com, or quchen on Freenode.


The rationale behind this proposal's contents is as follows:

  1. Break as little code as possible. For example, do not move return to Applicative and remove pure. Instead, leave return in Monad, and give it pure as default implementation.

  2. Change only things that are closely related to the proposal. For example, using join in a monad definition requires it to be a functor, so it goes hand in hand with the AMP. On the other hand, removing fail has nothing to do with what we're trying to accomplish.

Here's the list of final changes I have in mind:

  • Make Applicative a superclass of Monad.

  • Add Applicative to the Report, define it in the Prelude, and re-export it from Control.Applicative for compatibility.

  • Add join to the Monad typeclass. In addition to the fact that join may be closer to mathematical monads, it's also sometimes more convenient to implement and understand in practice (example: Reader's join f x = f x x vs m >>= f = \r -> m (f r) r).

  • Make Alternative (along with Monad) a superclass of MonadPlus.

The following will first discuss the consequences of these changes; afterwards there's a strategy about how to make this change as painless as possible.

Discussion of the consequences

It's the right thing to do™

Math. You've all heard this one, it's good and compelling so I don't need to spell it out.

Redundant functions

  • pure and return do the same thing.
  • >> and *> are identical.
  • liftM and liftA are fmap. The liftM* are liftA*, <*> is ap.
  • Prelude's sequence requires Monad right now, while Applicative is sufficient to implement it. The more general version of this issue is captured by Data.Traversable, whose main typeclass implements the same functionality twice, namely traverse and mapM, and sequenceA and sequence.
  • The WrappedMonad type from Control.Applicative provides a semi-automatic way to using Functor/Applicative/Alternative functions for Monad/MonadPlus instances as a makeshift patch.

That very much violates the "don't repeat yourself" principle, and even more so it forces the programmer to repeat himself to achieve maximal generality. It may be too late to take all redundancies out, but at least we can prevent new ones from being created.

(Note that it is not proposed to remove any functions for compatibility reasons. Maybe some of them can be phased out in the long run, but that's beyond scope here.)

Using Functor/Applicative functions in monadic code

Whenever there's Monad code, you can use Functor/Applicative functions, without introducing an additional constraint. Keep in mind that "Functor/Applicative functions" does not only include what their typeclasses define but many more, for example void, (<$>), (<**>).

Even if you think you have monadic code, strictly using the least restrictive functions may result in something that requires only Applicative. This is similar to writing a function that needs Int, but it turns out any Integral will do - more polymorphism for free.

Compatibility issues

These are the kinds of issues to be expected:

  1. Monads lacking Functor or Applicative instances. This is easily fixable by either setting fmap = liftM, pure = return and (<*>) = ap, although more efficient implementations may exist, or by moving an already existing definition from Control.Applicative to the appropriate module.

  2. This one is specific to building GHC: importing Control.Monad/Applicative introduces a circular module dependency. In this case, one can rely on handwritten implementations of the desired function, e.g. ap f x = f >>= ....

  3. Libraries using their own (<*>). This one is much tougher, as renaming the operator may require a lot of effort. For building GHC though, this only concerns Hoopl, and a handful of renames.

Beginner friendliness

How often did you say ...

  • "A Monad is always an Applicative but due to historical reasons it's not but you can easily verify it by setting pure = return and (<*>) = ap"
  • "liftM is fmap but not really." - "So when should I use fmap and when liftM?" - sigh

With the new hierarchy, the answer would always be "use the least restrictive one".

How to apply this change

1. Prepare GHC

Using a GHC fork with the full patch applied, find and fix all compilation errors introduced by the change by adding Functor/Applicative instances for all Monads.

According to SPJ, adding an ad-hoc warning of sorts "Monad without Applicative detected" is not a problem, which will be crucial for the next phase. More specifically, issue a warning if:

  • Monad without Applicative
  • MonadPlus without Alternative
  • One of <*>, pure, join is defined in a different context to avoid naming conflicts, as these functions will go into the Prelude

2. Prepare Hackage

The warning just mentioned will hint to all authors that they should fix (or help others fix) the non-complying packages. This will ideally lead to libraries eventually adding Applicative instances, and changing their APIs if they redefine operators like <*>.

After enough time has passed by so libraries adapted to the circumstances, move on to the next phase.

3. Apply the change

Once Hackage is prepared, applying the changes to the Base package is painless. However, this is not primarily a GHC, but a Haskell change. The previous steps were basically preparing the landscape, and when we've (hopefully) found out that it is a good idea to go through with it, it can be proposed to go into the Report. If we make it this far, the AMP should pass quite easily.

Outline of the new code

This is how the new code in Base would look like:

-- (Unchanged)
class  Functor f  where

    -- Minimal complete definition: fmap

    fmap :: (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

    (<$) :: a -> f b -> f a
    (<$) =  fmap . const

-- (Unchanged)
class Functor f => Applicative f where

    -- Minimal complete definition: pure and (<*>)

    pure :: a -> f a

    (<*>) :: f (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

    (*>) :: f a -> f b -> f b
    (*>) x y = const id <$> x <*> y

    (<*) :: f a -> f b -> f a
    (<*) x y = const <$> x <*> y

class Applicative m => Monad m where

    -- Minimal complete definition: (>>=) or join

    (>>=) :: m a -> (a -> m b) -> m b
    m >>= f = join (fmap f m)

    (>>) :: m a -> m b -> m b
    (>>) = (*>)

    join :: m (m a) -> m a
    join m = m >>= id

    return :: a -> m a
    return = pure

    fail :: String -> m a
    fail s = error s

-- (Unchanged)
class Applicative f => Alternative f where

    -- Minimal complete definition: empty and (<|>)

    empty :: f a

    (<|>) :: f a -> f a -> f a

    some :: f a -> f [a]
    some v = some_v
        many_v = some_v <|> pure []
        some_v = (:) <$> v <*> many_v

    many :: f a -> f [a]
    many v = many_v
        many_v = some_v <|> pure []
        some_v = (:) <$> v <*> many_v

class (Alternative m, Monad m) => MonadPlus m where

    -- Minimal complete definition: nothing :-)

    mzero :: m a
    mzero = empty

    mplus :: m a -> m a -> m a
    mplus = (<|>)

Status report

  • 2013-05-??: Added Applicatives to GHC for testing. Result: easy but boring.
  • 2013-05-16: Asked the mailing list about adding instances to GHC
  • 2013-05-22: SPJ confirmed that adding ad-hoc warnings would be possible
  • 2013-05-23: AMP posted to libraries mailing list
  • 2013-06-17: AMP accepted unanimously, last call sent, wiki updated
  • 2013-09-09: AMP warnings patch merged, to be released with GHC 7.8
  • 2014-04-09: GHC 7.8.1 released. AMP is now in the second stage: warnings are issued, Hackage should adapt to cleaning them up.
  • 2014-09-09: AMP merged into GHC master branch: Applicative is now a superclass of Monad in the compiler.
  • 2015-03-27: GHC 7.10.1 released. The AMP is officially implemented. Thanks to all participants in its creation!
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