[Haskell-cafe] Trouble with non-exhaustive patterns

C.M.Brown cmb21 at kent.ac.uk
Mon Jul 21 07:46:16 EDT 2008

Hi Fernando,

I hope you don't mind, but I've moved this over to the Haskell-beginners
mailing list, where I think this kind of question will be more

In Haskell, it helps to think of functions in terms of an input and an
output, that is, what is the thing that is going into the function; and
what is the thing that is coming out of the function?

In your function, final, the input is clearly a list of something (we can
denote this by the Haskell type [a] which means a list of some type,
a). Its return type is clearly an element of the list, so that must be the
something type (the 'a' from the [a]). This gives the Haskell

final :: [a] -> a

(final takes a list of 'a' and gives back a single 'a'. The 'a' is a
type variable, and it is used to denote that anything can be put in its
place, so we can give final a list of integers, characters, whatever).

Now, let's take a look at your definition of final. If we take a closer
look, in fact only two equations satisfy this type:

final [a] = a
final (_:t) = final t

The other takes a list and returns a list. The equation,

final [] = []

takes an empty list and returns an empty list (its type is therefore
[a] -> [a]).

This is why you got an error, as Haskell doesn't know how what
to do with the conflicting equation. What we need is the final element of
the list. How do we do that?

Let's think of the simple cases first. The final element of a list
containing a single element is just that element,

final [a] = a

But what about if the list contains more elements? Or is an empty list?
The empty list may be confusing, as an empty list contains no elements, so
in effect, we can't return anything. We can, however, return an error

fun [] = error "empty List"

And the final element of any list, must be the final element of its tail:

final (_:t) = final t

this gives us:

final :: [a] -> a
final [] = error "Empty List"
final [a] = a
final (_:t) = final t

I hope that gives some insight.

Kind regards,

On Mon, 21 Jul 2008, Fernando Rodriguez wrote:

> Hi,
> I defiend the  following function to get the last element of a list:
> final [a] = a
> final (_:t) = final t
> and it works as expected. Since I didn't want to have a non exhaustive pattern,
> I added the following case:
> final []  = [] - I consider that the end of an empty list is the empty list
> final [a] = a
> final (_:t) = final t
> Suddenly, the function stoped working with a rather cryptic (for a newbie
> at least) error message:
> *Temp> final [4,5]
> <interactive>:1:9:
>     No instance for (Num [a])
>       arising from the literal `5' at <interactive>:1:9
>     Possible fix: add an instance declaration for (Num [a])
>     In the expr*Temp> ession: 5
>     In the first argument of `final', namely `[4, 5]'
>     In the expression: final [4, 5]
> What have I done so wrong?
> Thanks in advance,
> Fernando
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> Haskell-Cafe at haskell.org
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