This chapter will be somewhat different from the surrounding ones. Think of it as an interlude, where the main goal is not to introduce new features, but to present important advice for studying (and using!) Haskell. Here, we will discuss the importance of acquiring a vocabulary of functions and how this book, along with other resources, can help you with that. First, however, we need to make a few quick points about function composition.
Function composition is a really simple concept. It just means applying one function to a value and then applying another function to the result. Consider these two very simple functions:
Example: Simple functions
f x = x + 3 square x = x^2
We can compose them in two different ways, depending on which one we apply first:
Prelude> square (f 1) 16 Prelude> square (f 2) 25 Prelude> f (square 1) 4 Prelude> f (square 2) 7
The parentheses around the inner function are necessary; otherwise, the interpreter would think that you were trying to get the value of
square f, or
f square; and both have no meaning.
The composition of two functions is a function in its own right. If applying f and then square, or vice-versa, to a number were a frequent, meaningful or otherwise important operations in a program, a very natural next step would be defining:
Example: Composed functions
squareOfF x = square (f x) fOfSquare x = f (square x)
There is a second, nifty way of writing composed functions. It uses
(.), the function composition operator, and is as simple as putting a period between the two functions:
Example: Composing functions with
squareOfF x = (square . f) x fOfSquare x = (f . square) x
Note that functions are still applied from right to left, so that
g(f(x)) == (g . f) x and vice-versa.
The need for a vocabulary
Function composition allows us to define complicated functions using simpler ones as building blocks. One of the key qualities of Haskell is how simple it is to write composed functions, no matter if the base functions are written by ourselves or by someone else, and the extent that helps us in writing simple, elegant and expressive code.
In order to use function composition, though, we first need to have functions to compose. While naturally the functions we ourselves write will always be available, every installation of GHC comes with a vast assortment of libraries (that is, packaged code), which provide functions for various common tasks. For that reason, it is vital for effective Haskell programming to develop some familiarity with the essential libraries or, at least, knowing how to find useful functions in them.
We can look at this issue from a different perspective. We have gone through a substantial portion of the Haskell syntax already; and, by the time we are done with the Recursion chapter (which is just around the corner), we could, in principle, write pretty much any list manipulation program we want; and, lists being such an important data structure, that corresponds to a very wide set of useful programs. Doing so with our current set of tools, however, would be terribly inefficient; not only due to the lack of some more advanced language features but, crucially, because we would end up rewriting large parts of the standard libraries. Rather, it is far preferable to have the libraries dealing as much as possible with trivial, or well-known and already solved, problems while we dedicate our brain cells to writing programs that solve the problems we are truly interested in. And, even in the latter case, many features of the libraries can help immensely with developing our own algorithms.
Prelude and the hierarchical libraries
It is time to mention a few basic facts about the standard libraries. First and foremost, there is Prelude, which is the core library loaded by default in every Haskell program. Alongside with the basic types and other essential functionality, it provides a set of ubiquitous and extremely useful functions. We will refer to Prelude and its functions all the time throughout these introductory chapters.
Alongside with Prelude, there are the hierarchical libraries, which provide a much wider range of functionality. Although they are provided by default with GHC, they are not loaded automatically like Prelude. Rather, they are distributed as modules, which must be imported into your program. Later on we will actually explain how that works; but for now all you need to know is that, if we mention that, for instance, the function
permutations is in the module
Data.List, you just have to add a line
import Data.List to the top of your source file, and
permutations, alongside with the rest of
Data.List, will be available.
Example: Importing a module in a source file
import Data.List testPermutations = permutations "Prelude"
For quick GHCi tests, just enter
:m +Data.List at the command line to load that module.
Prelude> :m +Data.List Prelude Data.List> :t permutations permutations :: [a] -> [[a]]
Before continuing, let us see one (slightly histrionic, we admit) example of what familiarity with a few basic functions from Prelude can bring us. Suppose we need a function which takes a string composed of words separated by spaces and returns that string with the order of the words reversed, so that
"Mary had a little lamb" becomes
"lamb little a had Mary". Now, we can solve that problem using exclusively what we have seen so far about Haskell, plus a few insights that can be acquired by studying the Recursion chapter. Here is what it might look like:
Example: There be dragons
monsterRevWords :: String -> String monsterRevWords input = rejoinUnreversed (divideReversed input) where divideReversed s = go1  s where go1 divided  = divided go1  (c:cs) | testSpace c = go1  cs | otherwise = go1 [] (c:cs) go1 (w:ws) [c] | testSpace c = (w:ws) | otherwise = ((c:w):ws) go1 (w:ws) (c:c':cs) | testSpace c = if testSpace c' then go1 (w:ws) (c':cs) else go1 ([c']:w:ws) cs | otherwise = if testSpace c' then go1 ((c:w):ws) (c':cs) else go1 ((c:w):ws) (c':cs) testSpace c = c == ' ' rejoinUnreversed  =  rejoinUnreversed [w] = reverseList w rejoinUnreversed strings = go2 (' ' : reverseList newFirstWord) (otherWords) where revStrings = reverseList strings newFirstWord = head revStrings otherWords = tail revStrings go2 rejoined (:) = rejoined go2 rejoined (:(w':ws')) = go2 (rejoined) ((' ':w'):ws') go2 rejoined ((c:cs):ws) = go2 (c:rejoined) (cs:ws) reverseList  =  reverseList w = go3  w where go3 rev  = rev go3 rev (c:cs) = go3 (c:rev) cs
There are too many problems with this thing; so let us consider just three of them:
- If we claimed that
monsterRevWordsdoes what is expected, you could either take our word for it, test it exhaustively on all sorts of possible inputs or attempt to understand it and get an awful headache (please don't).
- Furthermore, if we write a function this ugly and have to fix a bug or slightly modify it later on, we are set for an awful time.
- Finally, there is at least one easy to spot potential problem: if you have another glance at the definition, about halfway down there is a
testSpacehelper function which checks if a character is a space or not. The test, however, only includes the common space character (that is,
' '), and not other whitespace characters (tabs, newlines, etc.).
If, however, we are armed merely with knowledge of the following Prelude functions:
words, which reliably breaks down a string in whitespace delimited words, returning a list of strings;
reverse, which reverses a list (incidentally, that is exactly what the
reverseListabove does); and
unwords, which does the opposite of
then function composition means our problem is instantly solved.
revWords done the Haskell way
revWords :: String -> String revWords input = (unwords . reverse . words) input
Short, simple, readable and, since Prelude is reliable, bug-free. The point here is: any time some program you are writing begins to look like
monsterRevWords, look around and reach for your toolbox - the libraries.
After the stern warnings above, you might have predicted we will continue with the book by diving deep into the standard libraries. That is not the route we will follow, however - at least not in the first part of the book. The main reason for that is the Beginner's Track is meant to cover most of the Haskell language functionality in a readable and reasonably compact account, and a linear, systematic study of the libraries would in all likelihood have us sacrificing either one attribute or the other.
In any case, even if we will not stop with the programme to investigate them, the libraries will remain close at hand as we advance in the course (that also means there is no need for you to pause in your way through the book just to study the libraries on your own!). In this final section, we will give some advice on how you can use this book to learn them and which other resources are available.
With this book
- For starters, once we enter Elementary Haskell, you will notice several of the exercises - mainly, among those about list processing - involve writing equivalent definitions for Prelude functions. For each of these exercises you do, one more function will be added to your repertoire.
- Furthermore, every now and then we will introduce a "new" library function; maybe within an example, or just with a mention in passing. Whenever we do so, take a minute to test the function and do some experiments. The idea is to extend that curiosity about types we mentioned in Type basics to the functions themselves.
- While the first few chapters are quite tightly-knit, later parts of the book are more independent from each other. That is specially true of the third track, Practical Haskell. There, among other things you can find chapters on the Hierarchical libraries; and most of their content can be understood soon after having completed Elementary Haskell.
- As we reach the later parts of the Beginner's track, and specially when we get to monads, the concepts we will discuss will naturally lead to exploration of important parts of the hierarchical libraries.
- First and foremost, there is the documentation. While it is probably too dry to be really useful right now, soon enough it will prove invaluable. You can read not only the Prelude specification on-line but also the GHC hierarchical libraries documentation, with nice navigation and source code just one click away.
- A fun way of searching through the documentation is provided by the Hoogle, a Haskell search engine which covers the libraries included in GHC. (There is also Hayoo!; it includes a wide range of libraries which are not installed by default).
- Finally, we will when appropriate give pointers to other useful learning resources, specially when we move towards intermediate and advanced topics.
(.)is modelled after the mathematical operator , which works in the same way:
- Such ease is not only due to the bits of syntax we mentioned above, but mainly due to features we will explain and discuss in depth later in the book, such as higher-order functions.
- One simple example is provided by functions like
filterand the folds, which we will cover in the chapters on list processing just ahead. Another would be the various monad libraries, which will be studied in depth later on.
- The example here is inspired by the Simple Unix tools demo in the HaskellWiki.
- Co-author's note: "Later on? I wrote that half an hour ago and I'm not totally sure about how it works already..."
- A reliable way of checking whether a character is whitespace is with the
isSpacefunction, which is in the module
- In case you are wondering, there are lots of other functions, either in Prelude or in
Data.Listwhich, in one way or another, would help to make
monsterRevWordssomewhat saner - just to name a few:
intersperse. There is no need for them in this case, though, since nothing compares to the one-liner above.