[Haskell-cafe] Explicitly calling syntactic equality on datatypes

Juan Casanova juan.casanova at ed.ac.uk
Tue Sep 17 13:56:36 UTC 2019


Pretty simple question here really. I think I've searched for it  
several times in the past and ended up surprised I did not find an  

Simple example: sum expressions.

One way to define this, one that is comfortable to construct new sums,  
would be:

data Sum = Value Int | Sum Sum Sum

Another one, one that is comfortable to check equality with (and other  
similar things that rely on some notion of normal form), would be  
(essentially non-empty lists of ints):

data Sum = Value Int | Sum Int Sum

Now, in many cases you really want to go with the first one for  
several reasons. You just do not care about normalization in most  
cases, or maybe you do something more abstract and complicated on top  
of it that delays the possibility or the sensibility of normalization  
until something else happens later. So say, that I have the first  

But then, I want to define equality semantically. An obvious way to go  
is to produce a function that normalizes Sums (from the first  
definition) to guarantee that the first sub-sum is always going to be  
a value, and then check that these two are "equal".

And this is where my question comes in, because, of course, the  
following is infinite recursion:

instance Eq Sum where a == b = (normalize a) == (normalize b)

What I'd like is to be able to override the default implementation of  
Eq, but be able to *explicitly* call syntactic equality in calculating  
it, so that I can do:

instance Eq Sum where a == b = (syntacticEq (normalize a) (normalize b))

So, I can see how this is not as straightforward as a function. You  
cannot correctly produce a polymorphic function syntacticEq :: a -> a  
-> Bool that works on the SYNTAX of a because it is hidden inside the  
polymorphic function. What (deriving Eq) does (as I understand it) is  
to produce an instance at compilation time by looking at how the  
specific type is presented. But that same  compilation time producing  
could be done to produce it as a function instead of as an  
implementation of Eq, so that syntacticEq would not be an actual  
function, but some sort of "macro" that, on compile time, creates the  
default implementation of equality, but instead of defining it as (==)  
it defines it as a new function that is only used there.

Of course, I can just implement syntactic equality myself explicitly,  
but when I have to do this for 3, 4, 7 types, some of which have many  
cases, and a lot of these are polymorphic, so that I have to put all  
the (Eq arg1, Eq arg2, Eq arg3, ...) => constraints before all of  
them, it gets old quick.

So, is there something like this? Am I saying something really dumb?  
Of course, I am thinking about equality here, but the same could be  
said for any standard derivation of classes, like Functor, Show, etc.  
ALL of them sound like I've wanted to do them at some point in the past.


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