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Csongor Kiss

I write here once every 2 years

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Haskell, as implemented in GHC, has a very rich language for expressing computations in types. Thanks to the DataKinds extension, any inductively defined data type can be used not only at the term level, but also at the type level. A notable exception are strings, which provide the main theme for today’s blog post.

The String type in Haskell is defined as a list of Chars. However, the type-level equivalent, Symbol, is defined as a primitive in GHC, presumably for efficiency. After all, the type checker passes these types around, and the simpler their structure, the less potential work the constraint solver needs to do.

The problem is this: since Symbol is defined as a primitive, there is no way to pattern match on its structure, and the only way to interact with them are by using the built-in primitive operations, namely appending and (efficient, constant-time) comparison.

In this blog post, I will show how these primitives can be used to recover the ability to do arbitrary introspection of these type-level string literals, thereby enabling a whole range of applications where statically known information can be exploited.

The technique presented here was inspired by Daniel Winograd-Cort’s pull request for the generic-lens library.

All of this is packaged into the symbols library.


I have written about type-level symbol parsing in PureScript to implement a type-safe printf function. (There, I achieved symbol decomposition by patching the compiler, but no such thing is required here.)

Reusing that example, we will be able to write

>>> :t printf @"Wurble %d %d %s"
printf @"Wurble %d %d %s" :: Int -> Int -> String -> String
>>> printf @"Wurble %d %d %s" 10 20 "foo"
"Wurble 10 20 foo"

The implementation of the printf example using the technique described in this blog post can be found on github.


First, let’s have a look at the primitives GHC provides for manipulating type of kind Symbol, namely AppendSymbol and CmpSymbol.

These functions are implemented in the compiler, and exported from the GHC.TypeLits module:

type family AppendSymbol (m :: Symbol) (n :: Symbol) :: Symbol
type family CmpSymbol (m :: Symbol) (n :: Symbol) :: Ordering

Note that there is no Uncons primitive that returns the head (first character) and the tail of the symbol. It turns out that we can implement Uncons using the two primitives above.


The fact that AppendSymbol is a type family suggests a rather straightforward semantics. It appends two symbols together resulting in a third one:

>>> :kind! AppendSymbol "foo" "bar"
= "foobar"

That is to say, it should only go in one way, so to speak.

However, if we have a look at the implementation in GHC, we can see that there’s more going on. There are special rules for the interaction of AppendSymbol constraints with equality constraints. In concrete terms, GHC will solve the following constraint:

(AppendSymbol "foo" b ~ "foobar") => (b ~ "bar")

That is, if we know a prefix of a symbol, we can decompose it to get the matching suffix. Morally, the actual signature of AppendSymbol would be closer to

type family AppendSymbol m n = r | r m -> n, r n -> m

But this can’t be expressed today in GHC (type family dependencies only allow the inputs to be decided solely by the result, and no such combination of inputs and outputs are allowed), so AppendSymbol really is a lot more powerful than what the type system would like to admit!

Even with the ability to decompose symbols, there is a problem, however. This decomposition only works if we know what the prefix is. And in general, we need to know two out of the three symbols involved in the constraint to get the third.

As a result, the following won’t work:

bad :: AppendSymbol prefix suffix ~ "hello world" => Proxy suffix
bad = Proxy
>>> :t bad
bad :: (AppendSymbol prefix suffix ~ "hello world") => Proxy suffix

that is, suffix is unsolved.

We might think that we can just try all possible characters as potential prefixes until one matches, but that would require backtracking in the constraint solver, and GHC’s constraint solver doesn’t backtrack.

That is, trying a prefix that doesn’t match results in an unsolvable constraint:

bad' :: AppendSymbol "a" suffix ~ "hello world" => Proxy suffix
bad' = Proxy
>>> :t bad'
bad' :: (AppendSymbol "a" suffix ~ "hello world") => Proxy suffix

But since we can’t backtrack, there is no way to try a different character once we’ve committed to a particular prefix.

If we knew what the first character was, we could strip it off and get the remaining symbol this way, which would allow us to treat Symbols as a list of characters essentially.


It turns out that we can simply use alphabetical ordering to find out what the first character of a string is. CmpSymbol compares two symbols, and returns one of LT, EQ, or GT as a result.

Observe that for any string longer than one, it’s always true that the string follows its first character alphabetically, and precedes any character after its first one. As an example, consider the string "hello world", whose first character is h, and the letter after h is i. Then we have

"h" < "hello world" < "i"

For strings of length one, they will simply return EQ when compared with their first character (themselves).


We now put the pieces together to implement an uncons function for symbols. First, we need Head, a function that returns the first character of a symbol. Second, we will use Head to interact with AppendSymbol to retrieve the tail of the symbol. Doing this repeatedly will allow us to turn a symbol into a list of characters, which in turn can be consumed by ordinary type families.

So, to find out what the first character of a symbol is, we just need to find the last character in the ASCII table that precedes our symbol. To do this reasonably efficiently, we use binary search. Since indexing into a type-level list takes linear time, we use a balanced binary search tree instead. Recall that symbol comparisons are constant-time, so the whole operation is constant time (as we’re working with a fixed size alphabet), so this optimisation simply improves the constant factor by an order of magnitude.

data Tree a
  = Leaf
  | Node (Tree a) a (Tree a)
  deriving Show

The printable subset of the ASCII character set can be encoded as the following tree:

type Chars
 = 'Node
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '(" ", "!") 'Leaf) '("!", "\"") 'Leaf)
        '("\"", "#")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("#", "$") 'Leaf) '("$", "%") 'Leaf))
      '("%", "&")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("&", "'") 'Leaf) '("'", "(") 'Leaf)
        '("(", ")")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '(")", "*") 'Leaf) '("*", "+") 'Leaf)))
    '("+", ",")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '(",", "-") 'Leaf) '("-", ".") 'Leaf)
        '(".", "/")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("/", "0") 'Leaf) '("0", "1") 'Leaf))
      '("1", "2")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("2", "3") 'Leaf) '("3", "4") 'Leaf)
        '("4", "5")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("5", "6") 'Leaf) '("6", "7") 'Leaf))))
  '("7", "8")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("8", "9") 'Leaf) '("9", ":") 'Leaf)
        '(":", ";")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '(";", "<") 'Leaf) '("<", "=") 'Leaf))
      '("=", ">")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '(">", "?") 'Leaf) '("?", "@") 'Leaf)
        '("@", "A")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("A", "B") 'Leaf) '("B", "C") 'Leaf)))
    '("C", "D")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("D", "E") 'Leaf) '("E", "F") 'Leaf)
        '("F", "G")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("G", "H") 'Leaf) '("H", "I") 'Leaf))
      '("I", "J")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("J", "K") 'Leaf) '("K", "L") 'Leaf)
        '("L", "M")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("M", "N") 'Leaf) '("N", "O") 'Leaf)))))
  '("O", "P")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("P", "Q") 'Leaf) '("Q", "R") 'Leaf)
        '("R", "S")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("S", "T") 'Leaf) '("T", "U") 'Leaf))
      '("U", "V")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("V", "W") 'Leaf) '("W", "X") 'Leaf)
        '("X", "Y")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("Y", "Z") 'Leaf) '("Z", "[") 'Leaf)))
    '("[", "\\")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("\\", "]") 'Leaf) '("]", "^") 'Leaf)
        '("^", "_")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("_", "`") 'Leaf) '("`", "a") 'Leaf))
      '("a", "b")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("b", "c") 'Leaf) '("c", "d") 'Leaf)
        '("d", "e")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("e", "f") 'Leaf) '("f", "g") 'Leaf))))
  '("g", "h")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("h", "i") 'Leaf) '("i", "j") 'Leaf)
        '("j", "k")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("k", "l") 'Leaf) '("l", "m") 'Leaf))
      '("m", "n")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("n", "o") 'Leaf) '("o", "p") 'Leaf)
        '("p", "q")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("q", "r") 'Leaf) '("r", "s") 'Leaf)))
    '("s", "t")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("t", "u") 'Leaf) '("u", "v") 'Leaf)
        '("v", "w")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("w", "x") 'Leaf) '("x", "y") 'Leaf))
      '("y", "z")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("z", "{") 'Leaf) '("{", "|") 'Leaf)
        '("|", "}")
        ('Node ('Node 'Leaf '("}", "~") 'Leaf) '("~", "~") 'Leaf)))))

(I generated this structure with the help of other type families, but found that inlining the result into the source file results in must faster lookups.)

Note that each node contains two consecutive characters: this is so that we can easily decide when to stop: when the first element is less than, and the second element is greater than our input string.

The Lookup type family (and Lookup2, to make up for a lack of local declarations in type families) implements a standard binary search.

type LookupTable = Tree (Symbol, Symbol)

type family Lookup (x :: Symbol) (xs :: LookupTable) :: Symbol where
  Lookup x (Node l '(cl, cr) r)
    = Lookup2 (CmpSymbol cl x) (CmpSymbol cr x) x cl l r

type family Lookup2 ol or x cl l r :: Symbol where
  Lookup2 'EQ _ _ cl _ _     = cl -- character matches
  Lookup2 'LT 'GT _ cl _ r   = cl -- found the right node
  Lookup2 'LT _ _ cl _ 'Leaf = cl -- we're at the rightmost node (~)
  Lookup2 'LT _ x _ _ r      = Lookup x r -- go right
  Lookup2 'GT _ x _ l _      = Lookup x l -- go left

Finally, Head is just a lookup in the binary tree.

type Head sym = Lookup sym Chars
>>> :kind! Head "Wurble"
= "W"


Next, we need to interact the AppendSymbol constraint with Head. We now turn to a type class, Uncons:

class Uncons (sym :: Symbol) (h :: Symbol) (t :: Symbol) where
  uncons :: Proxy '(h, t)

sym is our symbol, h is the head, and t is the tail. It would be nice to have a functional dependency sym -> h t, but unfortunately we can’t make that pass, as recall that the backwards dependencies of AppendSymbol are essentially hidden from the type system.

We write a single instance, which sets up the right constraints:

instance ( h ~ Head sym
	 , AppendSymbol h t ~ sym
	 ) => Uncons sym h t where
  uncons = Proxy

First, we write h ~ Head sym, which unifies h with the first element of the symbol using the binary lookup defined previously. Then, the AppendSymbol h t ~ sym constraint will trigger the solution of t, due to the now known prefix h.

The uncons member is not necessary for things to work out, but it helps illustrate the working of the type class in the REPL:

>>> :t uncons @"foo"
uncons @"foo" :: Proxy '("f", "oo")

Finally, we can write the Listify class to recursively break down a symbol into a list of characters:

class Listify (sym :: Symbol) (result :: [Symbol]) where
  listify :: Proxy result

instance {-# OVERLAPPING #-} nil ~ '[] => Listify "" nil where
  listify = Proxy

instance ( Uncons sym h t
 	 , Listify t result, result' ~ (h ': result)
	 ) => Listify sym result' where
  listify = Proxy
>>> :t listify @"Hello"
listify @"Hello" :: Proxy '["H", "e", "l", "l", "o"]

And with this, we can parse anything we’d like.


Of course all of the above could be done a lot more efficiently with compiler support, and there’s no reason for that not to happen at some point in the future. This post is just a proof of concept that something like this is already possible today, and the presented technique is suitable for some lightweight applications. For anything larger scale, Template Haskell is probably much better suited for the job today.