The question of ambiguity in Haskell is a tricky one. This wiki page is a summary of thoughts and definitions, in the hope of gaining clarity. I'm using a wiki because it's easy to edit, and many people can contribute, even though you can't typeset nice rules.

[Started Jan 2010.] Please edit to improve.


A type system is usually specified by

  • A specification, in the form of some declarative typing rules. These rules often involve "guessing types". Here is a typical example, for variables:
      (f : forall a1,..,an. C => tau) \in G
      theta = [t1/a1, ..., tn/an]        -- Substitution, guessing ti
      Q |= theta( C )
      ------------------------- (VAR)
      Q, G |- f :: theta(tau)
    The preconditions say that f is in the environment G with a suitable polymorphic type. We "guess" types, and use them to instantiate f's polymorphic type variables, via a substitution theta. Under this substitution f's instantiated constraints theta(C) must be satisfiable (using |=) from the ambient constraints Q.

The point is that we "guess" the ai.

  • An inference algorithm, often also presented using similar-looking rules, but in a form that can be read as an algorithm with no "guessing". Typically
    • The "guessing" is replaced by generating fresh unification variables.
    • The algorithm carries an ever-growing substitution that instantiates these unification variables.

We want the inference algorithm to be

  • sound (if it succeeds, then the program is well typed according to the specification) and
  • complete (if the program is well typed according to the specification, the algorithm succeeds).


Suppose we have (I conflate classes Read and Show into one class Text for brevity):

class Text a where
  read :: String -> a
  show :: a -> String

x :: String
x = show (read "3.7")

The trouble is that there is a constraint (Text t), where t is a type variable that is otherwise unconstrained. Moreover, the type that we choose for t affects the semantics of the program. For example, if we chose t = Int then we might get x = "3", but if we choose t = Float we might get x = "3.7". This is bad: we want our type system to be coherent in the sense that every well-typed program has but a single value.

In practice, the Haskell Report, and every Haskell implementation, rejects such a program saying something like

Cannot deduce (Text t) from ()

In algorithmic terms this is very natural: we indeed have a constraint (Text t) for some unification variable t, and no way to solve it, except by searching for possible instantiations of t. So we simply refrain from trying such a search.

But in terms of the type system specification it is harder. We can simply guess a=Int when we instantiate read and show and lo, the program is well typed. But we do not want this program to be well-typed.

Problem 1: How can we write the specification so as to reject programs such as that above.

Digression: open and closed world

Suppose there was precisely one instance for Text:

instance Text Char where ...

Then you might argue that there is only one way for the algorithm to succeed, namely by instantiating read and show at Char.

It's pretty clear that this is a Bad Idea:

  • In general it is hard to say whether there is a unique substitution that would make a collection of constraints satisfiable.
  • If you add just one more instance, the program would become untypeable, which seems fragile.

To avoid this nasty corner we use the open-world assumption; that is, we assume that the programmer may add new instances at any time, and that doing so should not make a well-typed program become ill-typed. (We ignore overlapping instances for now.

Early detection of errors

Suppose, with the above class Text I write

f x = show (read x)

What type should we infer for f? Well, a simple-minded inference algorithm works as follows for a let-definition f=e: typecheck e, collecting whatever constraints it generates. Now simply abstract over them.

In this example we'd get

f :: (Text a) => String -> String

And indeed this is a perfectly fine type for

Last modified 10 years ago Last modified on Jan 20, 2010 9:05:57 PM