Haskell Data Types in 5 Steps

People often speak of a dichotomy between “object oriented” programming and “functional” programming. Haskell falls into the latter category, meaning we do more of our work with functions. We don't use hierarchies of objects to abstract work away. But Haskell is also heavily driven by its type system. So of course we still define our own data types in Haskell! Even better, Haskell has unique mechanisms you won't find in OO languages!

The Data Keyword and Constructors

In general, we define a new data type by using the data keyword, followed by the name of the type we’re defining. The type has to begin with a capital letter to distinguish it from normal expression names.

data Employee = ...

To start defining our type, we must provide a constructor. This is another capitalized word that allows you to create expressions of your new type. The constructor name is then followed by a list of 0 or more other types. These are like the “fields” that a data type carries in a language like Java or C++.

data Employee = Executive String Int Int

employee1 :: Employee
employee1 = Executive "Jane Doe" 38 300000

Sum Types

In a language like Java, you can have multiple constructors for a type. But the type will still encapsulate the same data no matter what constructor you use. In Haskell, you can have many constructors for your data type, separated by a vertical bar |. Each of your constructors then has its own list of data types! So different constructors of the same type can have different underlying data! We refer to a type with multiple constructors as a “sum” type.

data Employee =
 Executive String Int Int |
 VicePresident String String Int |
 Manager String String |
 Engineer String Int

If your type has only one constructor, it is not uncommon to re-use the name of the type as the constructor name:

data Employee = Employee String Int

Record Syntax

You can also define a type using “record syntax”. This allows you to provide field names to each type in the constructor. With these, you access the individual fields with simple functions. Otherwise, you'll need to resort to pattern matching. This is more commonly seen with types that use a single constructor. It is a good practice to prefix your field names with the type name to avoid name conflicts.

data Employee = Employee
 { employeeName :: String
 , employeeAge :: Int

printName :: Employee -> IO ()
printName employee = putStrLn $ employeeName employee

Type Synonyms

As in C++, you can create type synonyms, providing a second name for a type. Sometimes, expressions can mean different things, even though they have the same representation. Type synonyms can help keep these straight. To make a synonym, use the type keyword, the new name you would like to use to refer to your type, and then the original type.

type InterestRate = Float
type BankBalance = Float

applyInterest :: BankBalance -> InterestRate -> BankBalance
applyInterest balance interestRate = balance + (balance * interestRate)

Note though that type synonyms have no impact on how your code compiles! This means it is still quite possible to misuse them! The following type signatures will still compile for this function:

applyInterest :: Float -> Float -> Float
applyInterest :: InterestRate -> BankBalance -> Float


To avoid the confusion that can occur above, you can use the newtype keyword. A newtype is like a cross between data and type. Like type, you’re essentially renaming a type. But you do this by writing a declaration that has exactly one constructor with exactly one type. As with a data declaration, you can use record syntax within newtypes.

newtype BankBalance = BankBalance Float
newtype InterestRate = InterestRate { unInterestRate :: Float }

Once you’ve done this, you will have to use the constructors (or record functions) to wrap and unwrap your code:

applyInterest :: BankBalance -> InterestRate -> BankBalance
applyInterest (BankBalance bal) rate = BankBalance $
 bal + (unInterestRate rate * bal)

Newtype declarations do affect how your code compiles. So the following invalid type signature will NOT compile!

applyInterest :: InterestRate -> BankBalance -> Float
applyInterest (BankBalance bal) (InterestRate rate) = ...


As we learned a couple weeks ago, types are important in Haskell. So it’s not surprising that Haskell has some nifty constructs for building our own types. Constructors and sum types give us the flexibility to choose what kind of data we want to store. We can even change the data stored for different elements of the same type! Type synonyms and newtypes give us two different ways to rename our types. The first is easy and helps avoid confusion. The second requires more code re-writing, but provides more type safety.

If you’ve never written a line of Haskell before, never fear! Take a look at our Getting Started Checklist to get going!