# The Compose Newtype and its Applicative Instance

2019-03-27

Table of Contents

When I went through *Haskell From First Principle* the first time, I struggled with the `Compose`

applicative instance, which is part of an exercise in chapter 25. This post will give you a quick overview of the `Compose`

data type and then explain how the applicative instance for that type works.

The `Compose`

data type is part of base and allows composing two functors:

```
> :m Data.Functor.Compose
> let a = Right (Just 2)
> :t Compose a
> Compose a :: Num a => Compose (Either a2) Maybe a
```

*Any code that starts with > is meant to be run in a repl, such as stack ghci or ghci.*

Here we took two functors (a `Maybe`

and an `Either`

) and composed them, giving us a new functor! Why is that useful?

```
> :m Data.Functor.Compose
> let a = Right (Just 2)
> fmap ((+) 2) a
• No instance for (Num (Maybe Int)) arising from a use of ‘+’
```

This does not work because `fmap`

is trying to map `(+) 2`

over our `Either`

, which is equivalent to applying `(+) 2`

to `Just 2`

which doesn’t work. However, with the help of `Compose`

we can create a new functor from `Either`

and `Maybe`

which will work with `fmap`

!

```
> :m Data.Functor.Compose
> let a = Right (Just 2)
> let b = Compose a
> fmap ((+) 2) b
Compose (Right (Just 4))
```

## The Problem

In the book, you’re tasked with writing the applicative instance for `Compose`

, which requires at least two functions^{1}: `pure`

and `<*>`

.

```
pure :: a -> fa a
(<*>) :: fa (a -> b) -> fa a -> fa b
```

I really struggled with the definition of `<*>`

, so I turned to google to find some solutions that I could then reverse engineer. Here’s one possible definition:

```
instance (Applicative fa, Applicative fb) =>
Applicative (Compose fa fb) where
(<*>) ::
Compose fa fb (a -> b)
-> Compose fa fb a
-> Compose fa fb b
Compose x <*> Compose y =
Compose ((<*>) <$> x <*> y)
```

*Functor types are named fa, fb, and so on. If you see an f, it’s a function, both on the type and the data level. I refer to fa and fb as functors since the applicative type class requires those things to be functors.*

As is often the case with Haskell, the code is really concise. In a single line we’re dealing with three operators and one of them is the very operator we’re defining for `Compose`

(`<*>`

). While that kind of code is a joy to read and write if you’re fluent in all things functor and applicative, it’s a mouthful if you’re trying to improve your understanding of these topics.

So let’s work through the implementation one step at a time!

## Something Concrete

The code below shows a function `(+) 2`

wrapped in a `Maybe`

. We apply it to a value (wrapped in a `Maybe`

) by using `<*>`

. Simple enough.

```
> let a = Just ((+) 2)
> let b = Just 5
> a <*> b
Just 7
Just ((+) 2) Just 5 Just 7
<*> :: fa (a -> b) -> fa a -> fa b
```

Let’s up the ante a bit and wrap both the function and the value in another `Maybe`

.

```
> let a = Just (Just ((+) 2))
> let b = Just (Just 5)
> a <*> b
```

This does not work since we can’t just add another layer and expect the original `<*>`

to work. After all, its type signature expects function and value to be inside a single functor, not nested in another.

So what’s the #1 solution for manipulating nested stuff in Haskell? `fmap`

all the things!

```
> :m Control.Applicative
> let a = Just (Just ((+) 2))
> let b = Just (Just 5)
> fmap (<*>) a <*> b
```

We map `<*>`

over `a`

, meaning we partially apply `<*>`

to the `Just ((+) 2)`

inside `a`

. We then take that partially applied function (which is still inside the functor `a`

) and apply it to the `Just 5`

in `b`

. Please go ahead and open a repl now and play around with that code, it can do wonders for understanding stuff like that.

## Something Abstract

But how does the `fmap`

knowledge from the last paragraph help us make sense of the instance code?

```
instance (Applicative fa, Applicative fb) =>
Applicative (Compose fa fb) where
(<*>) ::
Compose fa fb (a -> b)
-> Compose fa fb a
-> Compose fa fb b
Compose x <*> Compose y =
Compose ((<*>) <$> x <*> y)
```

The first part `(<*>) <$> x`

written without infix notation and `fmap`

instead of the operator is `fmap (<*>) x`

. We map the function `<*>`

over `x`

and `x`

has the type `fa fb (a -> b)`

. We therefore apply `<*>`

to the `fb (a -> b)`

inside `x`

. Check out the commented code below, which hopefully makes things clearer.

```
instance (Applicative fa, Applicative fb) =>
Applicative (Compose fa fb) where
(<*>) ::
Compose fa fb (a -> b)
-- ^^^^^^^^^^^
-- This is the first argument to <*>
-> Compose fa fb a
-> Compose fa fb b
Compose x <*> Compose y =
-- fa' :: fa (fb a -> fb b)
-- ^^^^ The 2nd argument to <*>
let fa' = fmap (<*>) x
-- ^^^^ mapping <*> over x means applying
-- <*> to the content of x
in ???
```

The `<*>`

only needs its 2nd argument now, which is a functor with a value inside it. And we have something like that **inside** our `y`

(`y`

is `fa fb b`

and therefore the missing argument to `<*>`

is the `fb b`

part inside the `fa`

). How can we apply a function inside a functor to a value inside a functor? `<*>`

! And that’s how we arrive at the 2nd part:

```
instance (Applicative fa, Applicative fb) =>
Applicative (Compose fa fb) where
(<*>) ::
Compose fa fb (a -> b)
-> Compose fa fb a
-> Compose fa fb b
Compose x <*> Compose y =
let fa' = fmap (<*>) x
in Compose $ fa' <*> y
```

This is not so different from how we used `<*>`

in “Something Concrete”, just that both arguments have an additional level of nesting. Aligning the type signatures of `<*>`

(top) and `Compose x <*> Compose y`

(bottom) helps with visualising the similarities. It’s the exact same operation one level deeper for both arguments.

```
fb (a -> b) -> fb a -> fb b
fa fb (a -> b) -> fa fb a -> fa fb b
```

Quick recap:

`fmap (<*>) x`

: Partially apply`<*>`

the contents of`x`

, which gives us a functor holding a partially applied function.`fa' <*> y`

: Fully apply the`<*>`

inside`fa'`

(!) to the contents of`y`

through another use of`<*>`

.

## The hackage implementation

The implementation of the applicative instance using `<*>`

and a mix of infix operators requires some mental gymnastics. On hackage however the instance uses `liftA2`

, which does a much better job of communicating the essence of what’s going on. Here’s an example of how `liftA2`

works, and where it’s compared to our use of `liftA`

from above.

```
> let a = Just (Just ((+) 2))
> let b = Just (Just 5)
> fmap (<*>) a <*> b
Just (Just 7)
> liftA (<*>) a <*> b
Just (Just 7)
> liftA2 (<*>) a b
Just (Just 7)
```

As you can see, `liftA2`

leads to the same result but is a bit more concise and expressive in this case. We can use `liftA2`

to conveniently apply `<*>`

to the contents of the two functors in the two `Compose`

types.

## Edit

Thanks to `u/Syrak`

from reddit for reminding me that `liftA`

and `fmap`

are pretty much the same. I edited the post so that `liftA`

is only used at the very end. See also his comment for more insights!

^{1}

Technically the minimal definition of applicative requires `pure`

and either `<*>`

or `liftA2`