Extending Haskell's Syntax!


When you're starting out with Haskell, compiler extensions seem a little weird. And in a way, they are. It's strange to think that you need to "opt in" to certain compiler features. And as a beginner, it can be overwhelming to think you need to know the meaning of certain odd terms. I still remember how some of the first Haskell code I worked on had at least 10 extensions in every file. And I didn't have a clue what they meant!

But there are good reasons for certain features to be "opt in". They might make the compilation process longer. Or they might make some types of code less performant. But there are many extensions you can use that can make you life easier without worrying. And many extensions are easy to learn, so you can get the hang of the concept.

In this article, we’re going to do a quick run-down of some simple extensions. You’ve probably heard of at least of few of these. But it’s always good to keep learning. None of these are too advanced. For the most part, they allow you to use some more syntactic sugar and write cleaner code. So they’re pretty uncontroversial and you should feel free to use them in any file you want. Learning a few of these will help you get more comfortable so you can tackle harder extensions when you need to.

For some more tools to take your Haskell to the next level, download our Production Checklist! You can also read our Haskell Web Series for some tutorials.

Overloaded Strings

We’ve done one article already on overloaded strings. But here’s another quick summary. There are five different string types in Haskell. By default, Haskell assumes that whenever you use a string literal, you intend for it to be the String type.

-- Defaults as String
aString = "Hello"

-- The following will NOT WORK (by default)
aText :: Text
aText = "Hello"

This is annoying, because String is generally inferior to the other string types. You should be using Text most of the time for performance reasons. If we use the OverloadedStrings extension, then we can use literals for any of these string types!

{-# LANGUAGE OverloadedStrings #-}

-- Now this works!
aText :: Text
aText = "Hello"

aByteString :: ByteString
aByteString = "Hello"

And, in fact, you can use string literals for any type you want! All you have to do is create an instance of the IsString class for it by defining the fromString function.

newtype Name = Name String

instance IsString Name where
  fromString s = Name s

myName :: Name
myName = "James"

This is one of the most common and simplest extensions you can use, so it's a great one to start with!

Lambda Case

Lambda case is another simple extension, but it isn’t quite as common as overloaded strings. It helps clean up a particular syntax wart that comes up from time to time. Consider a function where we take a single argument, and then immediately run a case statement on it:

useParseResult :: Either ParseError Result -> IO ()
useParseResult x = case x of
  Left parseError -> …
  Right goodResult -> ...

You could do a direct pattern match, but sometimes this is impossible if you’re in-lining the function. Notice that we use a one-letter variable name x. We could come up with a better name. But it seems like a waste since we don't use this variable anywhere else in the function definition. If would be nice if we could remove it altogether.

The LambdaCase extension allows this by providing the following syntactic sugar. You can use case as if it were the argument of a lambda expression, and then immediately do the pattern match:

{-# LANGUAGE LambdaCase #-}

useParserResult :: EitherParseError Result -> IO ()
useParserResult = \case ->
  Left parseError -> ...
  Right goodResult -> ...

At the end of the day, it’s a small difference. But it's a nice little trick you can use to save yourself some unneeded variable names.

Bang Patterns

Haskell is lazy by default. But there are certain situations where you need a strict value as an input to your function. This means the value should get evaluated BEFORE the function gets run. This is a little tricky to do with normal Haskell syntax. Consider this function:

bangTest :: Bool -> Int -> Int
bangTest b i = if b then 42 else 2 * i

If the boolean is true, laziness means we never evaluate the int argument. Hence the following works:

>> bangTest True undefined

But if we want that situation to fail, we need to use seq:

bangTest b i = seq i $ if b then 42 else 2 * i

>> bangTest True undefined
***Exception: Prelude.undefined

The BangPatterns extension allows us to use the bang character ! to specify that the function should be strict in an argument. So instead of using seq like above, we can get the same behavior like so:

bangTest :: Bool -> Int -> Int
bangTest b !i = if b then 42 else 2 * i


>> bangTest True undefined
***Exception: Prelude.undefined

Even without this extension, you can use strictness annotations in type definitions. Consider this example:

data Person = Person String

printName :: Bool -> Person -> IO ()
printName b (Person name) = if b
  then putStrLn "Hello"
  else putStrLn name

>> printName True (Person undefined)

But we can also make person strict in its string argument like so:

data Person = Person !String


>> printName True (Person undefined)
*** Exception: Prelude.undefined

And again, this last example works even without the extension!

Type Operators

Haskell is sometimes criticized for an abundance of confusing operators. This next syntax extension does not ease this criticism! But it does provide some neat new possibilities when defining types! Here's an example with the Servant library. It requires both DataKinds and TypeOperators, but we'll focus on the latter.

{-# LANGUAGE DataKinds #-}
{-# LANGUAGE TypeOperators #-}

type PersonAPI =
       "person" :> Capture "personid" Int :> Get '[JSON] Person
  :<|> "person" :> ReqBody '[JSON] Person :> Post '[JSON] Int

As a reminder, we've defined a type up there, not a normal expression! This means the :> and :<|> operators are actually constructors! Let's define an example for ourselves. Suppose we have a simple type that wraps a couple other types in a pair:

data MyPair a b = MyPair a b

collection :: MyPair [Int] [String]

Now suppose we want to join more types together. We can do this by nesting MyPair instances, but the type signatures will get messy:

bigCollection :: MyPair [Int] (MyPair [String] (Map String Int))

But we can define a type operator that allows us to join these together!

infixr 8 +>>
type (t1 +>> t2) = MyPair t1 t2

And now we can get far cleaner signatures!

collection :: [Int] +>> [String]

bigCollection :: [Int] +>> [String] +>> Map String Int

Haskell lets us make complex recursive structures with many different type parameters. Type operators help us keep the signatures concise when we do this!

Tuple Sections

We've got one last trick for you. The TupleSections extension makes tuples easier to work with. Even without an extension can use the comma operator to build tuples like so:

combined :: (Int, String)
combined = (,) 5 "Hello"

combined3 :: (Int, String, Float)
combined3 = (,,) 5 "Hello" 2.3

But suppose we want to apply a function where we hardcode a particular value of a tuple. We'd need a separate definition of this function:

injectHello :: Int -> Float -> (Int, String, Float)
injectHello i f = (i, "Hello", f)

fetchInt :: IO Int

fetchFloat :: IO Float

combined :: IO (Int, String, Float)
combined = injectHello <$> fetchInt <*> fetchFloat

But with TupleSections, we can create a constructor that already has "Hello" built in! We can then apply it as a function with using another definition!

{-# LANGUAGE TupleSections #-}

combined :: IO (Int, String, Float)
combined = (,"Hello",) <$> fetchInt <*> fetchFloat

This is another useful little trick that let's us skip annoying in-between definitions. When you add up all these small things, it can go a long way towards cleaner code!


The ecosystem of Haskell compiler extensions is very large. As a beginner, it can be hard to know where to start. But many extensions are simple. In this article, we went over a couple simple ones and a couple more complicated ones. Once you get familiar with one or two, the concept starts making a lot more sense.

For some more ideas on taking your Haskell to the next level, check out our Production Checklist! It has a list of libraries for cool purposes like writing servers and using databases!