Towards understanding Haskell’s monomorphism restriction

Haskell has a very mysterious feature – it’s not a bug :) – called the monomorphism restriction. Every Haskell programmer will sooner or later hear about its existence, but most likely will not stumble upon it in practice. The explanations of the restriction that I’ve found so far were either unclear, imprecise or inaccessible to a beginner. Page on Haskell Wiki doesn’t really explain much but instead turns into discussion between people that don’t fully understand the restriction1. Definition of monomorphism restriction in Haskell 2010 report is not accessible to a beginner. It relies on knowledge of Haskell standard (bindings in particular) and some theory behind type inference. The restriction is also mentioned in chapter 6 of Real World Haskell, but the book doesn’t even attempt to explain it. Only recently, while reading “A history of Haskell: Being lazy with class”, I managed to partially understand what monomorphism restriction is about. Here’s an explanation that is suited for beginners. This is however not a complete treatment of the subject – I still see some aspects of monomorphism restriction that are unclear to me.

Let’s begin by explaining what is monomorphism and what is polymorphism. If you come from object-oriented programming community then no doubt you’ve heard about polymorphism. That’s bad, cause this term means a different thing in Haskell, as most other terms do. A term in Haskell is called polymorphic if it can be instantiated to values of different types, depending on the context in which it is used. A good example is genericLength function from the Data.List module. Its type signature is:

genericLength :: Num a => [b] -> a

which means that genericLength returns value of type a that can be any type which is an instance of Num type class. Hence, the return value of genericLength is polymorphic. Here’s an example:

ghci> genericLength [1,2,3] :: Int
ghci> genericLength [1,2,3] :: Double

Monomorphism, as you probably guess, is the opposite of polymorphism. A term is monomorphic when it has a value of concrete type and this type doesn’t depend on term’s context.

The term monomorphism restriction means restricting polymorphic terms to a single type, hence making them monomorphic. Why would anyone like to do that? Consider this example2:

f xs = (len, len)
       where len = genericLength xs

From this code it looks that len will be computed only once. This would be true if the expected return type of f would be (Int,Int) or (Double,Double). However, note that the result of genericLength is polymorphic and hence it would be reasonable for someone to expect return type of f to be (Int,Double). This would however force the value of len to be computed twice (no type casting in Haskell!). Let me to quote from section 6.2 of “A History of Haskell”:

Hughes argued strongly that it was unacceptable to silently duplicate computation in this way. His argument was motivated by a program he had written that ran exponentially slower than he expected. (This was admittedly with a very simple compiler, but we were reluctant to make performance differences as big as this dependent on compiler optimisations.)

Following much debate, the committee adopted the now-notorious monomorphism restriction. Stated briefly, it says that a definition that does not look like a function (i.e. has no arguments on the left-hand side) should be monomorphic in any overloaded type variables. In this example, the rule forces len to be used at the same type at both its occurrences, which solves the performance problem. The programmer can supply an explicit type signature for len if polymorphic behaviour is required.

And so len becomes monomorphic, because it does not look like a function (takes no parameters) and it is reasonable to expect that it has a concrete type that doesn’t change depending on the context.

Let’s play with the f function a little bit. We begin by checking it’s type signature inferred by the compiler:

ghci> :t f
f :: Num t => [b] -> (t, t)

You can notice that both components of the result tuple must be of the same type t that is an instance of Num type class. That’s how it works in practice:

ghci> f [1,2,3] :: (Int,Int)
ghci> f [1,2,3] :: (Double,Double)

Attempt to force a polymorphic return type results in an error:

ghci> f [1,2,3] :: (Int,Double)
 Couldn't match expected type `Double' with actual type `Int'
      Expected type: (Int, Double)
        Actual type: (Int, Int)
 In the return type of a call of `f'
 In the expression: f [1, 2, 3] :: (Int, Double)

The compiler inferred the t to be Int, because the first element of a tuple is declared to be an Int, and expects that the second element will also have type Int. When it realizes that it’s actually a Double it complains. This does not result with an error message that says anything about monomorphism restriction, but if I understand correctly – and I could be wrong with this one – it’s the monomorphism restriction that underlies this behaviour. Let’s supply a type signature for f that explicitly allows elements of the resulting tuple to be of different types:

f :: (Num b, Num c) => [a] -> (b, c)
f xs = (len, len)
       where len = genericLength xs

This definition will not compile producing a horrible error message:

Could not deduce (b ~ c)
from the context (Num b, Num c)
bound by the type signature for
      f :: (Num b, Num c) => [a] -> (b, c)
  at restriction.hs:(4,1)-(5,32)
  `b' is a rigid type variable bound by
      the type signature for f :: (Num b, Num c) => [a] -> (b, c)
      at restriction.hs:4:1
  `c' is a rigid type variable bound by
      the type signature for f :: (Num b, Num c) => [a] -> (b, c)
      at restriction.hs:4:1

The (b ~ c) means that b and c must be of the same type and the rigid type variables means that the programmer supplied a concrete type annotation with the given type variable3. The monomorphism restriction can be disabled using LANGUAGE pragma. Here’s the full code:

{-# LANGUAGE NoMonomorphismRestriction #-}
import Data.List
f :: (Num b, Num c) => [a] -> (b, c)
f xs = (len, len)
       where len = genericLength xs

This allows len to be polymorphic:

ghci> f [1,2,3] :: (Int,Double)

And that’s about it. We forced the len function to be computed twice.

As I said in the beginning, I still don’t understand everything about the restriction. In particular I don’t understand all the nuances that are in the Haskell Report. If you take a look at the Haskell Wiki page mentioned earlier, you’ll see some examples of code where you actually get an error message about the monomorphism restriction:

-- This is allowed
f1 x = show x
-- This is not allowed
f2 = \x -> show x
-- ...but this is allowed
f3 :: (Show a) => a -> String
f3 = \x -> show x
-- This is not allowed
f4 = show
-- ...but this is allowed
f5 :: (Show a) => a -> String
f5 = show

This is of course consistent with the Haskell Report, which says:

Anything defined with function syntax usually generalizes as a function is expected to. (…) However, the same function defined with pattern syntax requires a type signature if f is to be fully overloaded.

It is not yet clear to my whether the avoidance of duplicate computation was the only motivation behind introducing the restriction. I’m definitely not the only one that is confused with the monomorphism restriction and I think that this is somewhat controversial feature:

The monomorphism restriction is manifestly a wart on the language. It seems to bite every new Haskell programmer by giving rise to an unexpected or obscure error message. There has been much discussion of alternatives. (…) But in all this time, no truly satisfactory alternative has evolved. (from “A History of Haskell”)

The consensus within the Haskell community is that it doesn’t arise often; it is tricky to explain; it provides almost no practical benefit; and so it mostly serves to trip people up. (from “Real World Haskell”)

As a general rule, supplying explicit type signature will always allow to avoid the restriction. It may be tricky to supply type signature in some cases, e.g. functions defined locally within the where clause may require lexically scoped type variables (see here).

UPDATE (01/06/2012): Someone people at reddit correctly pointed out that instead of enabling language extension it would be more natural to deal with the restriction by giving type annotation to f (as said in the last paragraph of the post). Here’s the code that works without language extension:

f xs = (len, len)
      len :: (Num a) => a
      len = genericLength xs
  1. Just to make things clear – I don’t claim to fully understand it either. []
  2. You have to import Data.List module for this to compile []
  3. See: Simon Peyton Jones, Dimitrios Vytiniotis, Stephanie Weirich, and Geoffrey Washburn. Simple unification-based type inference for GADTs. In ICFP, pages 50–61, (2006). []

5 Responses to “Towards understanding Haskell’s monomorphism restriction”

  1. Hello, what do you mean that polymorphism defines something different in Haskell? Which idea does it represent in OO languages?

  2. Jan Stolarek says:

    The idea of polymorphism in Haskell and OOP is very similar. There are however differences in the details, e.g. in Haskell you can have polymorphism over return type. A great discussion of both similarities and differences is given in A Gentle Introduction to Haskell.

  3. anonymous says:

    Very good explanation, thank you! I finally understood it. Unlike from other resources I found on the web.

  4. David H says:

    I realize that this is old, but to answer Carlos’s question: the kind of polymorphism in Haskell is called “parametric polymorphism”, which in OO languages is called “generics”.

  5. Francesco says:

    Nicely explained, thank you.

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