[Haskell-cafe] map (-2) [1..5]

Tamas K Papp tpapp at Princeton.EDU
Fri Sep 8 12:27:34 EDT 2006

Hi Brian and others,

I posted the original question because I didn't know how to get map
(-2) working.

Since the original posting, many people have presented _a priori_
arguments about the merits of different approaches, most importantly
whether or not to abandon the unary - operator.  As a Haskell newbie,
I find the special treatment of - ugly, but as it is generally
difficult to convince others about one's aesthetic judgements, I would
like to suggest an approach that might add additional reasons in favor
of and against the unary -.

Even though I am fond of a priori arguments, I think that questions of
syntax should be handled as practical ones.  In most languages,
choosing infix and unary operators is guided by practical
considerations: for example, the infix + exists because typing

plus 1 2

would take longer, make the code unreadable.  In this case, the
decision to make + (nothing but) an infix operator is easy, because
there is no trade-off involved.  But in the case of -, there is a
clear tradeoff (at least in Haskell): if we allow unary -, sections
like (-2) won't work.

I wonder if it would be possible to take a large sample of Haskell
code that people generally consider "good" (ie written by experienced
programmers) and count (with a script, of course) the occurrences of

(A) unary - 


(B) - used as a binary operator where the programmer had to circumvent
unary -, especially in sections, and including things like

(flip (-) x)
(+ (- x))

and other approaches people use to circumvent the problem.

If A is significantly larger than B, people who wish to retain unary -
would have a good case.  On the other hand, if B >> A, then the
removal of unary - should be at least considered.  This would allow us
to compare the amount of inconvenience caused by either approach in



On Fri, Sep 08, 2006 at 03:30:33PM +0100, Brian Hulley wrote:

> Leaving aside the question of negative literals for the moment, what's so 
> special about unary minus that it warrants a special syntax? For example in 
> mathematics we have x! to represent (factorial x), which is also an 
> important function, yet no-one is arguing that we should introduce a unary 
> postfix operator to Haskell just to support it.
> In maths we also have |x| to denote another common function, (abs x), yet 
> afaia everyone is happy to just write (abs x).
> Would the elimination of the special case rule for unary minus not make the 
> language easier to understand? What's wrong with typing (negate x) in the 
> rare cases where you can't just re-write the expression to use infix minus 
> instead (ie x + -y ===> x - y)? Surely most programs in Haskell are not 
> just arithmetic expressions, and while it is convenient to have infix +, -, 
> *, `div`, `mod` for the integers, so you can do indexing over data types 
> and other "counting" operations, I'd argue that the usual functional 
> notation (eg (exp x) (factorial x) (negate x)) should be sufficient for the 
> other arithmetic operations just as it's deemed sufficient for nearly 
> everything else in Haskell! ;-)
> >In mathematics, we don't use separate symbols for negative integers,
> >and negated positive integers, even though in the underlying
> >representation of the integers as equivalence classes of pairs of
> >naturals, we can write things like -[(1,0)] = [(0,1)], which expressed
> >in ordinary notation just says that -1 = -1. This doesn't bother us,
> >because the two things are always equal.
> >
> >Another thing to note is that all the natural literals are not, as one
> >might initially think, plain values, but actually represent the
> >embedding of that natural number into the ring (instance of Num), by
> >way of 0 and 1. They simply provide a convenient notation for getting
> >particular values of many rings, but in many cases, don't get one very
> >far at all before other functions must be introduced to construct the
> >constant values one wants. While there always is a homomorphism from Z
> >to a ring (represented in Haskell by fromInteger), one would get
> >similar expressiveness by with just the nullary operators 0 and 1, and
> >the unary negation as well as addition and multiplication (albeit with
> >an often severe performance hit, and some annoyance, I'm not
> >recommending we really do this, simply characterising the purpose of
> >numeric literals).
> >
> >If the performance issue regarding the polymorphic literal -5 meaning
> >negate (fromInteger 5) is a problem, it would be easy enough to agree
> >for the compiler to find and rewrite literals like that as fromInteger
> >(-5) instead, where -5 is the precomputed integer -5. Assuming that
> >fromInteger is not broken, that will always mean the same thing
> >(because fromInteger is supposed to be a homomorphism). Similarly,
> >when the type of (fromInteger x) is known statically to be Integer,
> >the compiler can rewrite it as x. In any event, this is a tiny
> >constant factor performance hit.
> >
> >Anyway, the point of all this is that 0,1,2... are not really literals
> >at all. They're nullary operators which give particular elements of
> >any given instance of Num. Perhaps at some level in the compiler after
> >performing the fromInteger transformation they may be taken as literal
> >integers, but there is no reason that this level has to be exposed to
> >the user.
> This seems very theoretical to me. In the context of programming, I don't 
> see the problem of just thinking of the integers as a primitive built-in 
> data type which contains some range of positive and negative integers which 
> I'd argue should all be treated on an equal footing when the context of 
> discourse is the integers not the naturals.
> Another point is that the current treatment requires a special rule for 
> pattern matching against a negative integer or float, which would not be 
> needed if negative literals could be specified directly.
> >
> >Additionally, consider things like Rational. It is possible to write
> >some elements of Rational in terms of integer "literals", but not all
> >of them, even if negative literals become included. Floating point
> >literals help a bit here, but not really all that much. (Consider
> >things like 1/3, or 1/7.) In particular, any rational number with a
> >denominator greater than 1 is inaccessible from that interface. Based
> >on your previously mentioned design principle that all values of a
> >type should be expressible via literals, or none of them should be, we
> >should in fact remove the polymorphic interface for 0,1, etc. and
> >force the user to type 1%1 for the rational 1. But this is annoying,
> >and destroys polymorphism!
> >
> >I think that design principle is broken. If it was extended to say
> >something like "All values of a type should be possible to write
> >solely in terms of its constructors, or none of them should be.", then
> >potentially infinite data structures would be excluded from having
> >exposed constructors, for no good reason other than that there are
> >infinite values which require other operations to define. This is, in
> >a way, rather similar to the problem with rationals.
> Yes I see now that that design principle appears too restrictive in general.
> >
> >I'd also like to say that the exponentiation example is also a good
> >one. -4^2 is *always* -16, in every sane mathematical context since
> >unary negation is treated as an additive operation, and thus should
> >happen after exponentiation and multiplication (though under normal
> >circumstances, it doesn't matter whether it's done before or after
> >multiplication).
> In C, it wouldn't be, since there, unary ops always bind tighter than infix 
> ops, and the precedences used in C are also used in C++, Java, C#, 
> Javascript etc, and even ISO Prolog obeys the rule that unary minus binds 
> tighter so making unary minus have the same precedence as infix minus just 
> makes Haskell syntax difficult to parse for anyone coming from one of these 
> other very popular languages. Imho, for better or worse, C has established 
> a kind of de-facto standard that unary ops always bind tighter than infix 
> ops in programming languages ;-)
> Also, it's a good example of why we should *not* have unary minus, since 
> the above could be written with no ambiguity as:
>    negate (4 ^ 2)
> or better still:
>    negate (expNat 4 2)
> because this would free the ^ symbol for some more widely applicable use, 
> and would also make the particular choice of exponentiation operator more 
> explicit (ie ^ or ^^ - the symbols don't give much clue what the 
> differences between them are, only that they are both something to do with 
> exponentiation, whereas actual words like expNat expInt would make explicit 
> both the similarity and the difference between them).
> >
> >Though this is a little offtopic, another important thing to note
> >about parsing exponentiation is that a^b^c always means a^(b^c) and
> >not (a^b)^c, which is a fairly standard thing in mathematics, because
> >of the tendency to automatically rewrite (a^b)^c as a^(b*c), which
> >looks nicer (and wouldn't normally involve parentheses on the page),
> >and that no such rule exists for the other association.
> >
> >While I've considered that there are reasons that requiring spaces to
> >be included to separate operator symbols from their arguments might
> >actually be a decent thing to have, I wouldn't recommend doing things
> >in the way that you're suggesting. With that in place, we could have
> >negative integer literals (provided that people really care that
> >strongly), but that's no reason to drop unary negation altogether --
> >just require that a space occur between the unary minus and its
> >parameter. However, there are certain operators, especially
> >exponentiation, and multiplication inside an additive expression,
> >which putting spaces around them just looks "wrong" to me, and though
> >I might be able to get used to it, I'd probably end up recompiling
> >things all the time over syntax errors related to it. Newcomers to the
> >language would also probably dislike it when they typed x+y at the
> >ghci prompt and got some error saying that x+y is not in scope.
> I don't think there is a need to force spaces to be put around every infix 
> application. It's only when there would be a conflict with the lexical 
> syntax that spaces are needed, just as at the moment we have (F . G) versus 
> (F.G), (f  $  g) versus (f  $g) etc. As long as one's preferred editor 
> highlights literals differently from symbols, I think it would be difficult 
> to not notice the distinction between "x - 2" and "x -2" if unary minus 
> were replaced by negative literals.
> Regards, Brian.
> -- 
> Logic empowers us and Love gives us purpose.
> Yet still phantoms restless for eras long past,
> congealed in the present in unthought forms,
> strive mightily unseen to destroy us.
> http://www.metamilk.com 
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