[Haskell-cafe] Having our cake and eating it too

Michael Shulman viritrilbia at gmail.com
Thu Oct 5 12:26:31 EDT 2006

This proposal is somewhat tongue in cheek, but at least it's amusing,
and who knows, it might be good for something.  The idea is that one
could, in theory, allow both prefix unary minus and right sections of
subtraction, with the type-checker deciding which is meant based on
the context.  Has this been noticed before?

Consider the following code snippet, which runs in GHC 6.6 (with the
new ability to define postfix operators).

> {-# OPTIONS -fglasgow-exts -fallow-undecidable-instances -fallow-overlapping-instances #-}
> module Minus where
> import TypeCast

> class Minus a b where
>     (<->) :: a -> b

> instance (Num a, TypeCast a b) => Minus a b where
>     (<->) = typeCast . negate

> instance (TypeCast a b, Num b, TypeCast b c) => Minus a (b -> c) where
>     (<->) x y = typeCast ((typeCast x) - y)

(TypeCast is the usual one from HList etc.)  Loading this in the
interpreter, we now have:

*Minus> (1 <->) :: Int

*Minus> 3 <-> 1  :: Int

*Minus> map (<-> 1) [2..5]

*Minus> map (1 <->) [2..5]

*Minus> map (<->) [2..5]  :: [Int]

*Minus> zipWith (<->) [1,3,5] [1,2,3]

In short, the operator <-> can be used as *either* an infix
subtraction operator (which can be sectioned on both sides) or a
postfix unary negation operator (which can also be sectioned once).
The trick is the same one used for variadic arguments: the
type-checker can infer from context whether (1 <->) should return a
number or a function, and resolves it accordingly.

Thus, if we could figure out a way to define prefix operators,
analogous to the way we can now define postfix operators, we could in
theory allow prefix unary minus and right sections of subtraction to
coexist peacefully.  But I haven't had much luck coming up with a
non-ugly suggestion for how to do this.  I'd be interested to hear if
anyone else has ideas, although I doubt any such solution would ever
make it into any Haskell standard.  (-:

It's also unfortunate that we need the explicit type signatures in the
interpreter above, but otherwise there would be no context for
type-inference based on the return value.  As usual, though, this
problem would probably hardly ever arise in an actual program, where
most values have a known type.  (Actually, I still don't understand
why a type signature is necessary on 3 <-> 1; anyone care to enlighten



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