Smart constructors that cannot fail

Published on June 16, 2018

—Arnaud Spiwack

In type theory, a refinement type is a type endowed with a predicate which is assumed to hold for any element of the refined type. That’s a pretty useful thing and is achieved in Haskell typically by using what is called smart constructors.

For example, I could create a new type called GreaterThanFive and only export mkGreaterThanFive and not its “normal” data constructor:

newtype GreaterThanFive = GreaterThanFive Int

mkGreaterThanFive :: Int -> Maybe GreaterThanFive
mkGreaterThanFive n =
  if n > 5
    then Just (GreaterThanFive n)
    else Nothing

unGreaterThanFive :: GreaterThanFive -> Int
unGreaterThanFive (GreaterThanFive n) = n
-- BTW, be careful to do this instead of exposing a record selector, which
-- could be used to change the inner value defeating the purpose of this
-- technique.

Now to create a value of the GreaterThanFive type you have to go through the hoops check. This ensures that if you ever get a value from GreaterThanFive it’ll be indeed greater than 5. What a trick!

An important thing to note right away is that by putting additional constraints on arguments of a function, often times that function itself can be made total (and pure, if we otherwise used MonadThrow or similar to report errors):

-- Division by zero cannot happen here.
myDivide :: Int -> GreaterThanFive -> Int
myDivide n m = n `div` unGreaterThanFive m

Purity and totality are good, so we would like to push the checks to the boundaries of our systems and inside do the neat stuff in the spirit of myDivide.

So far so good. I was wondering the other day though why refinement types are so underrated and underused in Haskell? Well, let’s face it, they are annoying to construct exactly because the check can fail, and so the smart constructors have to live in an environment that gives us the ability to report errors in some way. And that’s not always handy. Even if you can push some checks for some types to the boundaries of your system, you have not done. What about things that are produced deep inside your system? To use the trick there, you again have to drop into the nasty realm of MonadThrow.

That can’t be helped, can it? There are ways.

  • Liquid Haskell, which is great, but not first-class in Haskell (yeah, it could be).
  • The refined library, which is sort of OK now that they have dropped the Functor instance of Refined p x.

Can we do better? Well, let’s try an alternative design now.


The first thing I’d like to propose is to separate primitives for construction of Refined types and actual establishing of properties. Because well, we could establish some properties this morning and then establish some more in the afternoon. We should be able to! This also suggests that if we want to have many different properties we could actually store them in a phantom type that is a list on the type level, so here we go:

-- | @'Refined' ps a@ is a wrapper around @a@ proving that it has properties
-- @ps@. @ps@ is a type-level list containing /properties/, that is, void
-- data types symbolizing various concepts.

newtype Refined (ps :: [*]) a = Refined a

-- | 'refined' creates a refined type with no associated properties. We
-- don't demand anything, and so quite conveniently this is a pure function.

refined :: a -> Refined '[] a
refined = Refined

-- | We can erase information we know by using 'unrefined'.

unrefined :: Refined ps a -> a
unrefined (Refined a) = a

That looks like a solid foundation to me. What’s about properties?

class Prop a p where
  type PropProjection a p :: *
  checkProp :: Proxy p -> a -> Either String (PropProjection a p)

Here, let p be a property, something like this:

data NotEmpty

But this NotEmpty thing is only a name for some concept. I can easily have a non-empty String, Text, ByteString, or a vector. So we really need the other ingredient, the type that has the property, a. There is no functional dependency between them as they don’t determine each other.

You might be thinking now though, “I thought we’re talking about types equipped with predicates, what the heck is PropProjection though”?

Projections and a bit of category theory

Well yeah, but why not imagine properties (also) as some sort of morphisms that connect types? If we consider property p as a morphism, then a will be its domain and PropProjection a p will be its codomain!

Examples should help.

We could have a property telling that a Text value is not empty, then:

type PropProjection Text NotEmpty = NonEmptyText -- e.g. a newtype

We could do the same for linked lists (a can only have the kind * currently):

type PropProjection [Char] NotEmpty = NonEmpty Char

This connects the NonEmpty type (non-empty lists), normally obtainable via the smart constructor nonEmpty to our list. Once we have proven that our list is NotEmpty (that the name of the property, p thing), we’ll be able to get NonEmpty projection purely without possibility of failure.

We could have a property called Length and in that case we could say:

type PropProjection Text Length = Int

We could also have a property IsURI telling if a Text value is a valid URI. In that case we could say (assuming that URI is such a type that can represent only valid URIs, as it should):

type PropProjection Text IsURI = URI

Yes, that’s right. The idea is simple and not new: knowing properties of types enables us to do a lot more purely and totally.

So we know now domain and codomain, but what is morphism itself? Properties are morphisms (IsURI) connecting types (such as Text and URI), and they do that via:

checkProp :: Proxy p -> a -> Either String (PropProjection a p)

And actual category may be viewed as the Kleisli category for the Either String monad, if you’re interested in that stuff.

The upshot is that we can do the following:

  • We can establish properties by “probing” them with checkProp.
  • If we have established a property, we can use it to get to the property projection purely and that can’t fail.

This “getting to” part is often not the main thing. It’s just a nice and very practical thing to be able to do, as we’ll discover shortly. Some properties don’t have very meaningful projections in this setup, such as for example GreaterThan:

data GreaterThan (n :: Nat)

instance (Integral a, KnownNat n) => Prop a (GreaterThan n) where
  type PropProjection a (GreaterThan n) = a -- could be () as well
  checkProp Proxy n =
    if n > fromIntegral (natVal (Proxy :: Proxy n))
      then Right n
      else Left "not your day"

Establishing properties

There are ways to establish properties. We’ll start with relatively uninteresting, “brute-force” methods.

First, we could just assume stuff to be true:

  :: forall q ps a. (Prop a q)
  => Refined ps a
  -> Refined (ps `AddProp` q) a
assumeProp = coerce

With TypeApplications it’s quite a nice thing to write:

myText :: Refined '[NotEmpty] Text
myText = assumeProp @NotEmpty (refined "foo")

Sometimes it’s a handy thing to do too, but needless to say, it’s unsafe and may be a source of bugs.

Next, in various monads such as MonadThrow, MonadFail, and MonadError you could just check:

  :: forall q ps m a. ( Prop a q
                      , KnownSymbol (PropName q)
                      , MonadThrow m
  => Refined ps a
  -> m (Refined (ps `AddProp` q) a)

-- estPropFail, estPropError are in the same spirit so they are not shown

Slightly better, you could use Template Haskell to check something at the compile time:

  :: forall q ps a. ( Prop a q
                    , KnownSymbol (PropName q)
                    , TH.Lift a
  => Refined ps a
  -> TH.Q TH.Exp -- returns (Refined (ps `AddProp` q) a) as usual

That’s it. Quite a few ways. We could use for example estPropError in your parser or what have you, and since Either is an instance of MonadError, we could indeed match on Either and report parse error in typed and nice ways.

If something goes wrong, this is what you get:

data RefinedException = RefinedException
  { rexpCallStack :: !CallStack
    -- ^ Location where the check failed
  , rexpValue :: !String
    -- ^ Value that failed to satisfy a property check
  , rexpPropName :: !String
    -- ^ Name of the property in question
  , rexpIssue :: !String
    -- ^ Description of why the property check failed
  } deriving (Show, Typeable)

That concludes the boring part.

Identity property and composition of properties

I said that we have a category of refined types where properties are morphisms. Well, questions you want to ask are probably “what is the identity in that category” and “how to compose those properties”?

I’m glad you asked.

IdProp is our identity property. As it happens with this sort of thing, it doesn’t tell us much about anything at all:

data IdProp

instance Prop a IdProp where
  type PropProjection a IdProp = a
  checkProp Proxy = Right

Composition is a bit more interesting. Intuitively, it should compose two checks and get us to the final property projection.

-- | 'Via' is the composition in the category of refined types.

data (t :: *) `Via` (p :: *)

instance (Prop (PropProjection a p) t, Prop a p) => Prop a (t `Via` p) where

  type PropProjection a (t `Via` p) = PropProjection (PropProjection a p) t

  checkProp Proxy =
    checkProp (Proxy :: Proxy p) >=> checkProp (Proxy :: Proxy t)

infixl 5 `Via`

Yeah. So t `Via` p works as a property. It means that p holds and then t holds on projection of p. What can we do with this?

Well, remember I said we could have Length property. Let’s define it for Text:

data Length

instance Text => Prop Text Length where
  type PropProjection Text Length = Int -- yeah, not so refined, but real
                                        -- world will be happier with this
  checkProp Proxy = Right . T.length

An interesting thing here of course that Length always “holds” for any Text. So we could fearlessly assumeProp @Length, but I’ll show you a better way soon.

So now, I can state this:

rText0 :: Refined '[] Text
rText0 = refined "foobar"

-- In real programs use 'estMonadThrow' or similar, don't just blindly
-- assume things!
rText1 :: Refined '[GreaterThan 5 `Via` Length]
rText1 = assumeProp @(GreaterThan 5 `Via` Length) rText0

How about:

rText :: Refined '[UriAbsolute `Via` IsURI]

We can establish properties of projections, or properties of any types that have “connection” to our current refined type via other properties.

Take a moment to understand. GreaterThan 5 `Via` Length is a property of something I can obtain (purely) from my Text. So it’s also a property of Text in a way. Nothing bad happened.

Now of course, I want to get length of my Text and it better be equipped with GreaterThan 5 property by construction!

Let’s just follow the morphism:

-- | Obtain a projection as a refined value, i.e. follow a morphism created
-- by a property.

followProp :: forall p ps a. (Prop a p, ps `HasProp` p)
  => Refined ps a
  -> Refined (ProjectionProps ps p) (PropProjection a p)

-- ...

rLength :: Refined '[GreaterThan 5] Int
rLength = followProp @Length rText1

Notice how the `Via` Length part disappeared.

Just in case you’re wondering if you can follow composite properties (with Via in them), the answer is “yes, you can”. t `Via` p will first follow p and then t as you’d expect.

Are we done yet?


We really just started. No jokes, the whole thing was a preparation for this part. So watch closely now.

Simple things first. We can select a subset of properties or re-order them:

-- | Select some properties from known properties.

selectProps :: forall qs ps a. (ps `HasProps` qs)
  => Refined ps a
  -> Refined qs a
selectProps = coerce

So I guess it’s best to use concrete type-level lists in API instead of constraints like HasProps. But I haven’t decided on this yet.

Now. Why not have ways to reason about stuff?

-- | An @'Axiom' name vs qs p@ allows us to prove property @p@ if properties
-- @qs@ are already proven. @name@ and arguments @vs@ determine both @qs@
-- and @p@.

class Axiom (name :: Symbol) (vs :: [*]) (qs :: [*]) (p :: *) | name vs -> qs p

(It’s a pity we can’t have proper theorems, but I’ll leave that to Coq for now.)

We could apply an Axiom with this:

  :: forall name vs p qs ps a. (Prop a p, Axiom name vs qs p, ps `HasProps` qs)
  => Refined ps a
  -> Refined (ps `AddProp` p) a

…to learn a new fact about a refined value.

The clever thing about name here is that it allows us to determine both qs and p without enumerating them explicitly. You may be wondering what vs is for, but that will be clearer from examples.

First, IpProp demands something to be formalized:

-- | We always can assume that a value has 'IdProp'.
instance Axiom "id_prop" '[]   '[]   IdProp
--             name      args  need  conclusion

-- | An existing property can be pre-composed with 'IdProp'.
instance Axiom "id_prop_pre" '[a]  '[a]  (a `Via` IdProp)
--             name          args  need  conclusion

-- | Pre-composition of 'IdProp' can be dropped.
instance Axiom "id_prop_pre'" '[a]  '[a `Via` IdProp]  a
--             name           args   need              conclusion

-- | An existing prperty can be post-composed with 'IdProp'.
instance Axiom "id_prop_post" '[a]  '[a]  (IdProp `Via` a)
--             name           args  need  conclusion

-- | Post-composition of 'IdProp' can be dropped.
instance Axiom "id_prop_post'" '[a]  '[IdProp `Via` a]  a
--             name            args  need               conclusion

So vs, or arguments is just a helper collection of types (to help determine qs and p because of the functional dependency) that is sometimes necessary in order to state more interesting axioms, such as this one:

instance CmpNat n m ~ GT => Axiom "weaken_gt"
    '[V n, V m] '[GreaterThan n] (GreaterThan m)

Where V is just a helper to allow us to have heterogeneous type-level lists with respect to kinds of elements:

data V (a :: k)

So that’s how it works:

n :: Refined '[GreaterThan 5] Int
n = assumeProp @(GreaterThan 5) (refined 10)

m :: Refined '[GreaterThan 4] Int
m = selectProps $ applyAxiom @"weaken_gt" @'[V 5, V 4] n

Axioms may be quite interesting.

For example, we could demand that a URI is absolute, let’s call that property UriAbsolute. Then we could have the property stating that URI is convertible to Text, let’s call it IsText.

Then what can we say about this?

instance Axiom "abs_uri_not_empty" '[] '[UriAbsolute] (NotEmpty `Via` IsText)

Which reads: if you know what your URI is absolute, then once you render it to Text, that rendering will be not empty.


I guess we could deduce of lot of stuff this way. Then add whatever assumptions we need to the checks at the boundaries of our systems, e.g. in parsers.

I have coded up the whole thing here (will put it on Hackage shortly):

Check it out and maybe try to use, I have no idea how it feels if used at scale. Maybe not very good!


To Arnaud Spiwack, Facundo Dominguez, and Mathieu Boespflug for discussing the design with me.