Chapter 1 - First Steps

In this chapter, we introduce the foundation of all functional languages and their related concepts, we talk about types and their relationship with functional languages, and end with a discussion on the different ways that one can write basic functional programs.

1. The λ-calculus

One might be thinking “Calculus? I thought this was about programming?” It might come as a surprise to some, but mathematics and computer programming have quite a long history and continue to find themselves intertwined as time goes on. One can easily find themselves lost in the history and theory, but that’s not the purpose of this book. For our purposes (and at least for the duration of this chapter), the λ-calculus is simply the foundation of functional languages.

a. Three’s Company – Foundation

The λ-calculus can be thought of as a simple programming language made up of three components: variables, functions, and function application. In many functional languages, the λ-calculus is used at the fundamental level (e.g. function representation and function application), but some use it for many other interesting things, which is a testament to how flexible and powerful the calculus truly is.

How about a few examples?

-- these are variables x = 5 y = 6 -- this is a function foo1 = \x -> x -- this is also a function foo2 f x y = f x -- function application app = foo1 x partial = foo2 foo1


One can think of variables as names associated with a certain value. In functional languages, one is free to assign values (i.e., Integers, Booleans, Functions, etc.) to variables. It is, however, impossible to re-assign new values to variables once the code has been executed. In PureScript, variable names (function names are variables too!) must be prefixed with a lower-case letter.

A key feature in functional languages is the appearance of functions as first-class values. This means that one can do with functions as one can do with normal values. In the example above, we have associated the name foo1 with the value (\x -> x), a nameless function or an anonymous function. First-class functions are also allowed to be passed to other functions as arguments. Functions with functions as arguments are called higher-order functions, an example of which is foo2 with its argument f. As we see later on in this chapter, first-class functions enable a considerable amount of flexibility in writing our code.

Finally, functions are applied using juxtaposition, or simply placing the function beside its arguments. An interesting part of function application in many functional languages is that we can use partial function application. In the example above, partial applies foo2 to foo1 and returns a function! This happens because foo2 is parameterized over three arguments, but partial only applies it to one, resulting in a function parameterized over the remaining two arguments of foo2.

Try writing (partial y x) in the REPL above.

b. The Fine Print – β and η

Another thing to note about functions is that they have what is known as a local namespace. This means that names defined within functions (i.e, the names of their parameters) are different from those defined outside of the function. In the examples above, we have defined x and y to hold the value 5 and 6, respectively. We then later pass x to foo1, which makes reference to a certain other x. It might come as a surprise that (partial y x) evaluates to 6 and not 5! The reason for this is that the x and y defined outside of foo1 and foo2 are said to be defined globally, while the x and y in the definition of foo1 and foo2 are defined locally and are thus different from one another.

It might help to see how (partial y x) comes up with its answer. In the λ-calculus, this is done through what is known as a β-reduction. The name reduction seems a bit off-putting, since each step in a β-reduction is essentially an expansion of expressions into their respective values. This is where a language like PureScript becomes rather helpful, since the act of reducing is simply taking an expression from the left hand side of an = sign to the value on the right. Aside from this, with every function application, a function’s namespace grows, where the names of its parameters are associated with the values passed in their place. We represent this namespace growth as the expression contained within curly braces, {}, placed beside the given function being applied. Once all of a function’s parameters have been applied, all occurances of names inside of its body (i.e., the expression after the ->) are replaced with the respective values mapped inside of its namespace. This continues until there is no other possible reduction. In a later chapter, we show how to simulate this step-by-step calculation inside of PureScript itself!

Let’s see a β-reduction in action:

partial y x
=(a)= foo2 foo1 y x
=(a)= (\f x y -> f x) foo1 y x
=(a)= (\f x y -> f x) (\x -> x) 6 5
=(b)= ((\f x y -> f x){}) (\x -> x) 6 5
=(c)= ((\x y -> f x){f : (\x -> x)}) 6 5
=(c)= ((\y -> f x){f : (\x -> x), x : 6}) 5
=(c)= ((f x){f : (\x -> x), x : 6, y : 5})
=(d)= (\x -> x) 6
=(b)= ((\x -> x){}) 6
=(c)= (x{x : 6})
=(d)= 6

We also annotate each line with one of the corresponding reduction rules:

a. Expression to Value
b. Start of Function Application 
c. Namespace Expansion
d. Namespace Reference

An added benefit of understanding β-reduction is that every reduction can be thought of as an equivalence. That is, (partial y x) is β-equivalent to (foo2 foo1 y x) and so on, even all the way down to the final value, 6. This is only true because of a feature of purely functional languages called referential transparency. This means that a function, given an input (i.e., a context), will always return the same output, giving the programmer of a functional language the ability to reason about the equality of program expressions without even having to execute the code itself. Doing so is called equational reasoning, an example of which is included in this chapter’s exercises!

Aside from β, the λ-calculus features another way of reducing expressions. This secondary form of reduction is called η-reduction. Let’s see an example where η-reduction comes in handy.

Let’s define a function that applies that takes two functions, f and g, then applies them both to an a. The $ is another way to apply functions.

compApp f g a = f $ g a

With η-reduction, we’re able to simplify the definition of compApp. In PureScript, functions can be composed using the <<< or >>> operators. These signify left and right function composition.

f <<< g == \x -> f (g x)
f >>> g == \x -> g (f x)

After η-reduction, compApp is defined as follows:

compApp f g = f <<< g


This works out since the value f <<< g returns a function that takes one argument and allows us to remove the variable a from both sides of the = sign. This is because of the η-reduction rule in the λ-calculus:

(\x -> f x) == f 

2. Types in Programming Languages

Many programming languages, functional or otherwise, feature entities that are known as types. The more familiar types, such as Int, Boolean and String, are found in virtually every programming language and contain (or, in math speak, are inhabited) by values like 42, true and "apple", respectively. In some functional languages, however, types play a more intimate and dynamic role, giving them certain benefits and abilities over others. In this section, we introduce the basics about types in functional languages and as well as a few key concepts about them that every functional programmer should be aware of.

a. Everyone gets a Type! – Inhabitance

In a statically typed language, one has values, and one has types. The two are related in a rather simple way: every value has a type. For the purposes of this chapter, we need not go any further than this statement.

Alas, the benefit of having this constraint is that everything one chooses to write inside of a typed programming language must have a corresponding type, and, indeed, that type must be the correct one. If, for example, a programmer mistakenly causes an expression to be typed incorrectly, the program does not execute, and the programmer receives a type error from the language’s type checker. One might have seen a few of these while trying to solve the exercises in the introduction of this book.

But never fear! Type errors are here to help–the type system is actually here to help the programmer specify the behaviors of programs. One not need look any further than JavaScript to see how helpful type errors are (see undefined errors).

Let’s see a few examples! Note: these are wrong on purpose and are thus uneditable.

wrong :: Int -> Boolean -> Int
wrong i b = b

meaningOfLife :: Int
meaningOfLife = wrong false 42

When one is presented with type errors, there usually isn’t one set way to fix everything. In our simple example above, we can actually do one of several fixes to relieve ourselves of the type error. In general, one can safely use the information provided by the type error to fix type errors, proactively fixing individual errors until one’s program successfully executes, which is precisely what we do below.

The first type error is triggered by the definition of wrong, which should be a function that takes an Int and a Boolean and returns an Int. wrong, however, actually returns a Boolean. Intuitively, it would make sense to return the Int passed to the function, i, instead of returning b, the Boolean. Next, we have another type error inside of meaningOfLife. Upon closer inspection, it appears that we have simply misused wrong and mixed up the order of its arguments!

b. Just What I Needed – User Defined Types

It would be a bit silly to say all these great and wonderful things about the power of types in functional languages if one cannot define their own types. Fortunately, in many functional languages, we are free to do so and still reap the benefits of the powerful type system and type checker for our own user-defined types.

Defining our own types require that we adhere to a simple set of rules. To make this immediately clear, we’ll define the type of Point:

data Point = Point Number Number

A Point is a type with one term-constructor (also called Point), which is a function that takes two Numbers, representing the x and y values of a given point on an x-y axis. Here, unlike variables, the names of types and type constructors must start with an upper-case letter. As a liberty to the programmer, PureScript allows term-constructors to use the same name as the type that they are defined for when the given type is designed with only one constructor (this practice is called constructor punning). In the event that a type requires more than one constructor, each constructor requires a unique name to properly differentiate it from the other ways of constructing values of the type.

Term-constructors can also be pattern matched, which allows for an elegant way of defining functions. As an example, let’s define the type IntList, the type inhabited by lists of Int, then define a function isEmpty which determines whether or not a given IntList contains any elements.

First, the definition of IntList:

data IntList = Empty | Push Int IntList

Here, unlike Point, IntList is defined by two term-constructors: Empty and Push. These constructors represent the two ways to construct an IntList: an empty one or extending another IntList with another Int. This is a common way of defining linked-list structures. For example, here a few IntLists:

emp :: IntList emp = Empty ls1 :: IntList ls1 = Push 2 emp ls2 :: IntList ls2 = Push 1 ls1

Now, let’s define isEmpty. With the power of pattern matching, writing this function becomes rather intuitive–we simply match over the possible ways of creating an IntList to determine whether or not the given list is empty or not. We don’t need any special conditional expressions at all!

isEmpty :: IntList -> Boolean isEmpty Empty = true isEmpty (Push i is) = false


On top of this, when we declare our function to be parameterized over an IntList, the type checker is actually aware of all the ways of constructing an IntList and provides the programmer aid in defining cases for each of its constructors. Should the programmer forget to provide a case for one of a type’s constructors, the type checker provides an error detailing all the other cases missing. Try removing one of the cases for isEmpty and see what happens when you execute the above code snippet!

Aside: PureScript treats Booleans a bit differently than Haskell. The values true and false should start with a capital letters (just as they do in Haskell) since they are both term-constructors of the Boolean type. In the case of PureScript, however, these two entitites appear lower-cased solely because this is how they appear in JavaScript.

Random Question: What happens when we pattern match over a constructor that doesn’t belong to the type that we are defining our function over? Say, for example, we add the following case to isEmpty:

isEmpty false = false

c. The Lord of the Foos – Polymorphism

One might be thinking, “Gee, all this stuff about types is cool and all, but I’m going to miss be able to define a few functions that work for multiple different inputs!” Indeed, in an untyped functional language, one has the liberty of writing one function that accepts every possible input. Take, for example, Racket, an untyped, impure functional language, where one has the liberty of writing functions such as the ones below:

(define (add1 n) (+ n 1))
(define (sub1 n) (- n 1))

These functions work for every possible input, like the ones that one should want them to work for (i.e., number-like values). The problem with not having types, however, is that these functions work for every possible input! One is not constrained at all to write (add1 "Banana"), which results in a contract violation (which is similar to a type error but fundamentally different):

add1: contract violation
  expected: number?
  given: "Banana"

In this simple example, it’s easy to see where one incorrectly used the function add1, but in more complex situations, for example if one used add1 multiple times in one’s program, it can be rather difficult to determine where/how the actual error occurred.

“I’ll just program correctly then,” one might be thinking.

The truth of the matter is that statically typed functional languages still allow one to define functions similar to add1 and sub1 but in ways that prevent the common pitfalls caused by the lack of types. This is where polymorphism comes in handy, which is synonymous with a type parameterized over another type or a higher-order type.

In the introduction of this book, one might have seen the functions id and const. We include them now below with their respective types:

id :: forall a. a -> a id x = x const :: forall a b. a -> b -> a const x y = x


NOTE: When it comes to polymorphic functions, there is less flexibility and variance in constructing return values. For example, the only way that id and const can return an a is by returning their first argument. This is because, in general, it is impossible to return an element of an arbitrary type.

These functions work for every possible input, and they represent the polymorphic functions of the λ-calculus known as the identity and constant combinators. They, in fact, should work for all possible inputs, which is precisely what their type declarations specify. That is, id takes an a and returns an a, where a can be any type. In the case of const, a and b are also of type any. Here, the variable names are different to specify that const returns a value of the type of its first argument.

Aside from being able to write functions that work over all inputs, we can also write polymorphic functions with a constrained set of any using type-classes. In the introduction of this book, we defined quicksort, which has the type:

forall a. (Ord a) => List a -> List a

This means that quicksort works for any List type, given that the elements of the List are Ord values. This relieves one from having to write quicksort that works for Lists containing non-sortable elements.

Aside from functions, polymorphism can also be used with types. Using polymorphism, we can define a more general List type. This polymorphic definition allows us to have one definition of List that includes all other instances of Lists regardless of the type of their elements. This type comes pre-defined in PureScript and is a type parameterized over all types a:

data List a = Nil
            | Cons a (List a)

We can then define a function similar to isEmpty that works for every possible list, regardless of the type of the elements the given list actually contains.

intList :: List Int intList = (1:2:Nil) boolList :: List Boolean boolList = (true:false:Nil) empty :: forall a. List a -> Boolean empty Nil = true empty (x:xs) = false


NOTE: The : symbol is an infix reader sugar for the Cons constructor.

3. Recursion and its Principles

We end this chapter with an overview of writing in a recursive style. The idea of recursion is not unique to functional languages, as recursion is central and fundamental to all computer programming. As we mentioned in the introduction of this book, there are stark differences in the way that imperative and functional programs are written, which can be seen quite clearly in how a functional language incorporates a certain style of recursion.

a. Over, and Over, and Over, and Over…

To put it simply, a recursive program is a program that performs a certain repeated computation. There are many reasons why one would do this, and one would not really get very far without having to write a recursive program.

Let’s start with a simple program written in Python:

sum = 0
arr = [1,2,3,4,5]
for elem in arr:
  sum += elem
print sum

Here, we have an array, arr, which we calculate the sum of its elements. We achieve this is by iterating over the elements in arr using a for loop, individually adding each element in the array and add them to sum. If we were to translate this program directly into PureScript, we would find that we are missing the ability to iteratively loop over a structure. To do this in a functional language, we would be required to abstract over the stateful computation that happens when sum is updated in each iteration of the for loop. While this is indeed possible, it is by far not the simplest way to do so (we return to this idea in Chapter 4).

In a functional language, we instead have the ability to write a recursive function that performs a step-wise computation. This style of writing follows a certain pattern:

  1. Determine a base case – When should the computation end, and what should it return?
  2. Determine what to do repeatedly until the base case is reached.

In the case of list-like structures, such as an array, we associate (1) and (2) with the cases that the given structure is empty and when it’s not. Thus, we know that writing a function to recur over a similar structure must cover both cases. In this case, we use pattern matching!

Let’s write a function that sums the elements of a list in PureScript. For simplicity and to model the Python program above, we constrain the input of this function to lists of Int:

sum :: List Int -> Int sum Nil = 0 -- base case sum (x:xs) = x + (sum xs) -- repeated computation


Let’s take the time to digest what exactly is going on in this function.

In the first line, we define our function’s base-case. This means that we determine that our recursive computation should end when the given list is empty, in which case we return the value 0. Furthermore, this also follows the logic that the sum of an empty list is 0.

In the second line, we define what our function should do in the event that the given list is not empty. If we inspect the type of x and xs, we find that x is an Int and xs is a List Int. Logically, we would want to sum over the list we have, xs, by passing it to sum (recurring over xs). Doing so provides the rest of the computation and according to the type definiton of sum results in an Int. We would then want to add x to the result of summing the rest of the elements to implement the proper behavior of the function.

For clarity, we can trace each step in the computation by performing a β-reduction. For example, if we call sum on the list (1:2:3:4:5:Nil), we get the following reduction:

sum (1:2:3:4:5:Nil)
== 1 + (sum (2:3:4:5:Nil))
== 1 + (2 + (sum (3:4:5:Nil)))
== 1 + (2 + (3 + (sum (4:5:Nil))))
== 1 + (2 + (3 + (4 + (sum (5:Nil)))))
== 1 + (2 + (3 + (4 + (5 + (sum Nil)))))
== 1 + (2 + (3 + (4 + (5 + 0))))
== 1 + (2 + (3 + (4 + 5)))
== 1 + (2 + (3 + 9))
== 1 + (2 + 12)
== 1 + 14
== 15

15! That’s precisely the answer we were looking for! Mission complete.

But wait! One might have noticed that this reduction is a bit long, especially for the simple act of summing the elements of a list. This verbosity is actually the reason for why many imperative languages avoid using recursion: it’s very memory heavy. The fact that computation seems to accumulate work reflects how a recursive program consumes a significant amount of memory when compared to a program written in an iterative style.

We can, however, alleviate the memory strain by making a small change. Instead of adding individual list elements to the remaining computation, we can use an accumulator and add elements to it instead. This style of writing recursive programs is known as accumulator passing style (APS). We provide the alternative definition of a summing function, sumAcc, written in APS and as well as its resulting reduction trace. We also show how to define internal helper functions, here sumAcc' (read as sumAcc prime), using the where construct.

sumAcc :: List Int -> Int sumAcc xs = sumAcc' 0 xs where sumAcc' acc Nil = acc sumAcc' acc (x:xs) = sumAcc' (acc + x) xs


sumAcc (1:2:3:4:5:Nil)
== sumAcc' 0 (1:2:3:4:5:Nil)
== sumAcc' (0 + 1) (2:3:4:5:Nil)
== sumAcc' (1 + 2) (3:4:5:Nil)
== sumAcc' (3 + 3) (4:5:Nil)
== sumAcc' (6 + 4) (5:Nil)
== sumAcc' (10 + 5) Nil
== 15

b. The Essence of Recursion – Folding

Let’s take the idea of recursion one step further. Earlier, we stated that every recursive program follows a set pattern. To reiterate, we said that these programs must have a base case and define a computation to repeat. We can actually take advantage of this attribute and encapsulate it in a function that abstracts over the recursive pattern, otherwise known as a fold function or a recursion principle.

In real life, when one folds something, like a T-shirt, one is essentially taking something “big” and making it smaller. This is precisely what a fold function is meant to do. That is, take a structure and “fold” it into something else. If one is familiar with JavaScript, one might have used a function called reduce. The reduce function in JavaScript is synonymous to a fold function defined for list-like structures. In reality, however, one can define a fold function for virtually every type.

Let’s continue with lists. Let’s imagine what one might want to do with a list: one might combine its elements in some way, like sum, or one might want to change the values contained in the list and return a new list, like a mapping function. All of this is the essence of what a fold function over a list is meant to do. To make this clearer, let’s think about what the appropriate type for this particular fold function, foldList, should be:

  1. This function should be able return any arbitrary value.
  2. This function should be able to handle any list (i.e., List Int, List Boolean, List (List Int), etc.).
  3. This function should abstract over the pattern of all possible functions over lists.

Now, let’s piece it together. From (1), we know that this function should return an any type. This means we need a polymorphic return value. Let’s call it r. From (2), this function should be able to accept any list. This means we need another polymorphic variable that is parameterized under the List type; let’s call it List a. So far, we have the following:

foldList :: forall a r. ... -> List a -> r

Hoorah. We’re almost done. Our function now accepts any list and returns a value of an arbitrary type.

For (3), we must acknowledge a few things. Firstly, for a function to capture the essence of every function defined over a list, it itself must be recursive. This is because lists are recursively defined. We have already seen how a function defined for lists should look like. In this sense, we can start to imagine how foldList should be implemented. Since we are defining foldList to be able to return an r, an arbitrary value, we naturally need an r to return in the event the given list is empty. Let’s update our type definition to reflect this:

foldList :: forall a r. r -> ... -> List a -> r

Finally, we need to abstract the ability to build up from the final return value from the given elements of the provided list. Let’s take sum as an example once more, and let’s think about how its final return value is built up on. If we recall correctly, we used the + function:

+ :: Int -> Int -> Int

This dictated that the list passed to sum contain only elements of type Int and that we use 0 as our final return value. In the case of foldList, however, we know that we are not just handling Ints anymore. For foldList, the provided List contains elements of type a, and we are returning elements of the type r. Thus, we need a builder function of type a -> r -> r.

Thus, we now have the final type definition of foldList:

foldList :: forall a r. r -> (a -> r -> r) -> List a -> r

Filling out the definition of this function becomes rather straightforward due to its polymorphic nature:

foldList :: forall a r. r -> (a -> r -> r) -> List a -> r foldList base build Nil = base foldList base build (x:xs) = build x (foldList base build xs)

Alternatively, we can also use the same strategy to write sumAcc to alleviate memory strain of foldList by defining another fold function that immediately applies build at each step of the computation:

foldList' :: forall a r. r -> (a -> r -> r) -> List a -> r foldList' acc build Nil = acc foldList' acc build (x:xs) = foldList' (build x acc) build xs

Theses fold functions abstract over the method of recursion used for writing functions like sum. Thus, we can define sumFold as follows:

sumFold :: List Int -> Int sumFold = foldList 0 (\x ans -> x + ans) -- this is a comment: try switching the definition! -- sumFold = foldList' 0 (\x ans -> x + ans)



Since this is the first set of (real) exercises in this book, we take the time to provide some clear instructions on how to interact with them.

Some of the examples below have a small test suite (100 generated tests) attached to them that determines whether the inputted code works as intended. These tests perform a property check on the code defined in the editor and also provide appropriate errors when necessary.

One is also free to use typed-holes. To use typed-holes, one is required to provide a name for the hole prefixed with ?. For example:

anotherConst :: forall a b. a -> b -> a
anotherConst a b = ?help

Executing the above code in an interactable editor will result in the following message:

  Hole 'help' has the inferred type


  You could substitute the hole with one of these values:

    a               :: a0
    Main.undefined  :: forall a. a

  in the following context:

    a :: a0
    b :: b1

  in value declaration anotherConst

Which helps us determine that anotherConst should return its first argument a as specified by its type-declaration. While there are several other uses for typed-holes, we won’t go into detail on them here–just try them out!

i. Equational Reasoning

Consider the following definitions of append and rev.

append :: forall a. List a -> List a -> List a append Nil ys = ys append (x:xs) ys = x:(append xs ys) rev :: forall a. List a -> List a rev Nil = Nil rev (x:xs) = append (rev xs) (singleton x)


This implementation of rev (a function that reverses a list) works quite well for smaller sized lists. However, on larger lists, its performance suffers quite a bit, due to the fact that it also calls another recursively defined function, append.

We can improve its performance using equational reasoning, as described in the first section of this chapter, to remove the dependency of rev on append. We can do this by implementing another function that specializes the appending job that is done in rev. We’ll call this function appendRev and use it to define fastRev.

We’ll start by using this preliminary definition of appendRev:

appendRev :: forall a. List a -> List a -> List a
appendRev xs ys = append (rev xs) ys

Then, using the results of (1) and (2), below, define a new version that no longer uses append.

  1. Using β-reduction, calculate appendRev Nil ys.
  2. In the same way as (1), calculate appendRev (x:xs) ys.

The first β-reduction step has been provided. Each reduced expression is interchangeable with another, so appendRev and fastRev should still perform correctly regardless of which step of the reduction is currently defined. This is a great way to check the correctness of each reduction!

appendRev :: forall a. List a -> List a -> List a appendRev Nil ys = -- (1) append (rev Nil) ys appendRev (x:xs) ys = -- (2) append (rev (x:xs)) ys fastRev :: forall a. List a -> List a fastRev xs = appendRev xs Nil


Voila! The following function, fastRev, should now be significantly faster than rev! Magical.

ii. Recursion Principles

Consider the definition of the simplest foldable data structure: the Natural Number!

data Nat = Zero | Add1 Nat

A natural number is either Zero or the successor of (i.e., 1 value greater than) another natural number. Think peano numbers. With this, we have defined a data structure that includes all positive integers and as well as 0.

Let’s define some basic functions for Natural Numbers:

-- add two natural numbers plus :: Nat -> Nat -> Nat plus Zero y = y plus (Add1 x) y = Add1 (x `plus` y) -- multiply two natural numbers times :: Nat -> Nat -> Nat times Zero _ = Zero times (Add1 x) y = (x `times` y) `plus` y -- factorial fact :: Nat -> Nat fact Zero = Add1 Zero fact (Add1 n) = (Add1 n) `times` (fact n)


Consider the following definition of foldNat:

foldNat :: forall a. a -> (a -> a) -> Nat -> a foldNat base build Zero = base foldNat base build (Add1 n) = foldNat (build base) build n

Hint: You may find it useful to define a few natural numbers to avoid having to write out a long series of Add1s every time you want to test your functions. For example:

two = Add1 (Add1 Zero) five = Add1 (Add1 (Add1 (Add1 (Add1 Zero))))

plusFold :: Nat -> Nat -> Nat plusFold m n = undefined


timesFold :: Nat -> Nat -> Nat timesFold m n = undefined


factFold :: Nat -> Nat factFold n = undefined


NOTE: Due to the recursive nature of factorial and natural numbers, we can only test a limited number of inputs (#FeelsBadMan). We recommend manually testing this function. You should be able to calculate:

factFold five