I am pleased to announce that I have pushed my implementation of ordered overlapping type family instances to GHC HEAD.

This blog post is a literate Haskell file. Copy and paste into a .lhs file to try out this code. This file will only compile with GHC HEAD, however.

We need some header formalities:

```
> {-# LANGUAGE TypeFamilies, DataKinds, PolyKinds, TypeOperators #-}
> import Prelude hiding (zipWith)
```

## The Problem

When writing term-level functions, it is natural to write a series of equations, each using a sequence of patterns to select which equation should be triggered when calling the function. Critically for this discussion, the first matching equation is used. Let’s use a particularly favorite function of mine as an example:

```
> import Prelude hiding (zipWith)
>
> zipWith :: (a -> b -> c) -> [a] -> [b] -> [c]
> zipWith f (a:as) (b:bs) = (f a b):(zipWith f as bs)
> zipWith _ _ _ = []
```

Let’s try to naively write this function at the type level on promoted lists:

```
type family ZipWith (f :: a -> b -> c) (as :: [a]) (bs :: [b]) :: [c]
type instance ZipWith f (a ': as) (b ': bs) = (f a b) ': (ZipWith f as bs)
type instance ZipWith f as bs = '[]
```

Urk. We get the following error:

```
Conflicting family instance declarations:
ZipWith k k k f ((':) k a as) ((':) k b bs)
ZipWith k k k f as bs
```

(The repetition of the variable `k`

is incorrect, and has been reported as GHC bug #7524. This is not the issue we are pursuing here, however.)

The problem is really that `type instance`

declarations are essentially *unordered*. The order in which they appear in a file is irrelevant to GHC. Relatedly, a programmer can define instances of the same type family in multiple modules. With separate compilation, the lack of ordering and the overlap check are necessary for type soundness. This is quite different from term-level function definition equations. All equations defining the same function not only have to be in the same module, but they must be one right after another.

The particular example here has an easy solution. Because we are matching over a closed kind (`[a]`

at the kind level), we could simply expand out the different cases we wish to match against. However, this solution is not possible when matching over an open kind, such as `*`

. We’ll see a useful example of overlap involving `*`

shortly.

## The Solution

GHC HEAD now contains an implementation for ordered overlapping type family instances. The example above can be written thus:

```
> type family ZipWith (f :: a -> b -> c) (as :: [a]) (bs :: [b]) :: [c]
> type instance where
> ZipWith f (a ': as) (b ': bs) = (f a b) ': (ZipWith f as bs)
> ZipWith f as bs = '[]
```

More interestingly, we can now define this:

```
> type family Equals (a :: k) (b :: k) :: Bool
> type instance where
> Equals a a = True
> Equals a b = False
```

Ordered overlapping type family instances allow us to define a general, write-once use-everywhere Boolean equality at the type level. Yay!

This new form of type family instance also seems to close the biggest known gap between the expressivity of functional dependencies and type families: functional dependencies have long supported overlap (through `OverlappingInstances`

or `IncoherentInstances`

) that type families could not. Although functional dependencies’ overlap requires ordering based on specificity and type families’ overlap is based on an explicit ordering, it would seem that any code that took advantage of functional dependencies and overlap can now be translated to use overlapping type families.

## Details

`type instance where`

does not work with associated types. Class instances can be sprinkled across modules, and having this form of overlap appear across modules would not be type safe in the presence of separate compilation.`type instance where`

does not work with associated types, even when the overlap is intended to exist just within one instance. There is no great reason for this restriction, but it seemed unimportant. Yell if this matters to you.- Choosing which equation in a group to use is somewhat delicate. For example, consider the
`Equals`

type family. What if we want to simplify`Equals a Int`

? Well, we can’t. That’s because`a`

might (sometimes) be instantiated to`Int`

, and if we simplified`Equals a Int`

to`False`

, we would have a type soundness issue. So, perhaps counterintuitively, we can’t simplify even`Equals a b`

to`False`

until`a`

and`b`

are known.

This GHC wiki page gives an outline of how to get GHC compiling on your machine so you can play with this feature in HEAD. I don’t imagine it will be in 7.6.2, but I believe it will be in 7.8.1, whenever that is released. Enjoy, and please post any feedback!

## Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Simon Peyton Jones, Dimitrios Vytiniotis, and Stephanie Weirich for getting me started and helping me think through some of the finer points.