Partial application is one of the most useful tools in a Haskell programmer’s toolbelt. Since functions are just data, they can be passed around without being supplied any arguments, just as one would with any other value. Due to the ubiquity of higher-order functions in Haskell, the ability to partially apply things is extremely useful.

Alas, not everything can be partially applied. In particular, GHC offers a type families extension that lets you define functions for use at the type level, as in the following example:

type family Const a b where
  Const a b = a

i'mAnInt :: Const Int Char
i'mAnInt = 42

i'mAlsoAnInt :: Const Int Bool
i'mAlsoAnInt = 27

If having to repeatedly type out Const Int proves bothersome, then functional programming wisdom would dictate that we factor it out into its own definition:

type family ConstInt where
  ConstInt = Const Int

i'mAnInt :: ConstInt Char
i'mAnInt = 42

i'mAlsoAnInt :: ConstInt Bool
i'mAlsoAnInt = 27

Surprisingly, however, GHC will bluntly reject the definition of ConstInt:

• The type family ‘Const’ should have 2 arguments, but has been given 1
• In the equations for closed type family ‘ConstInt’
  In the type family declaration for ‘ConstInt’

Oh dear. GHC just threw our usual intuition for partial application out the window, since the typechecker is quite adamant that Const be supplied with no fewer than two arguments. This means that we must define ConstInt like this instead:

type family ConstInt b where
  ConstInt b = Const Int b

In general, a type family must be supplied with a minimum number of argument types in order to be considered valid, and that number is referred to as its arity. If a type family has been supplied with enough arguments to match its arity, then it is a fully saturated type family.

The saturation restriction is certainly nothing new—in fact, it’s documented quite clearly in the GHC users’ guide:

We call the number of parameters in a type family declaration, the family’s arity, and all applications of a type family must be fully saturated with respect to that arity.

However, when I recently attempted to explain to someone what exactly “arity” means, I realized that defining the notion of arity is trickier than I expected. The phrase “number of parameters” is a good approximation of arity, but it misses some subtleties that really only become apparent when one looks at different examples of interesting type families. My goal in this blog post is to tease out a more precise definition of arity. I won’t get it right on my first attempt, but we’ll get there in the end, I promise!

Aside 1: Why saturation?

At first blush, you might find the saturation requirement for type families somewhat baffling. Why can’t we just partially apply type families as we can any other function? The answer ultimately stems from the way GHC’s type inference engine works, and since type families can be used at the type level, they must be able to co-exist with type inference.

This is better explained with an example, which I’ve adapted from the wonderful paper Higher-order Type-level Programming in Haskell. Consider the following definition:

d :: forall (f :: Type -> Type) (a :: Type) (b :: Type).
     (f a ~ f b) => a -> b
d x = x

Here, f a ~ f b is an equality constraint, which informs GHC’s constraint solver that f a is the same type as f b. In order for the body of d to be well typed, GHC’s typechecker must be able to conclude that a is the same type as b. Fortunately, this is quite possible. GHC can take the f a ~ f b constraint and decompose it to obtain the simpler constraint a ~ b, which suffices to show that a and b are the same.

Note that f is just an ordinary type variable, so d should still typecheck regardless of whether we instantiate f to be Maybe, Either Bool, or any other type constructor of kind Type -> Type. Question: what happens if we try to instantiate f to be a type family? In particular, consider the following instantiation of d:

d' :: (ConstInt Char ~ ConstInt Bool) => Char -> Bool

Should this work? After all, ConstInt is of kind Type -> Type, and ConstInt Char does in fact equal ConstInt Bool (since both things reduce to Int) so it seems like this is a valid instantiation. Yet something has gone horribly wrong here. If we decompose ConstInt Char ~ ConstInt Bool, we obtain Char ~ Bool, which is completely unsound!

Fortunately, GHC ensures that such blatant unsafety can never occur by requiring that f only ever be instantiated with well formed types. An ordinary type constructor like Maybe is well formed without any extra stipulations. Type families, on the other hand, are only well formed if they are fully saturated. As a consequence, one cannot instantiate f to be ConstInt, since ConstInt is only well formed when it is supplied with an argument. This restriction, heavy-handed as it may be, makes decomposing equalities like f a ~ f b always sound.

Observant readers might wonder if they can subvert this saturation check by instantiating f to be something like /\b. ConstInt b, where /\b is a hypothetical syntax for a type-level lambda. The answer is no: neither the surface syntax nor GHC’s internals support such a construct.

The ins and outs of arity

Since saturation is such an important property to be aware of when using type families, let’s try to nail down what exactly the arity of a type family is. Here is a crude first attempt:

Definition 1: the arity of a type family is the number of arguments it accepts.

Can you see anything wrong with this definition? For starters, it’s not exactly clear what “arguments” means in this context. To illustrate this point, consider the following examples:

type family M0 where
  M0 = Maybe
type family M1 a where
  M1 a = Maybe a

M0 and M1 define the same thing… well, almost. They both have kind Type -> Type, which means that they can each be applied to a single argument. They differ, however, in their respective arities. M0 was defined without any parameters, which gives it arity 0, whereas M1 was defined with one parameter, which gives it arity 1. In other words, M0 can be partially applied, but M1 cannot.

This leads us to an important realization: the kind of a type family doesn’t tell you everything. In particular, there is a distinction between the arguments that must be supplied in order to be fully saturate a type family, and the arguments that can optionally be supplied after a type family is saturated. For example, it is not strictly required to supply M0 with an argument in order to be well formed, but for M1, it is mandatory. This information cannot be gleaned from the kind of a type family alone, as arity is a syntactic property.

It may be informative to see M0 and M1 written with explicit return kinds:

type family M0 :: Type -> Type where
  M0 = Maybe
type family M1 (a :: Type) :: Type where
  M1 a = Maybe a

I’m somewhat fond of this syntax since it suggests a fairly decent intuition for how to compute arity: simply count the number of parameters to the left of the double-colon (::). In M1, one parameter appears to the left of the ::, whereas in M0, no parameters appear to the left of the ::.

Now that we’ve seen this, we can make a better attempt at defining arity:

Definition 2: the arity of a type family is the number of parameters that appear before the return kind in its definition.

Note that return kinds can either be explicit (e.g., type family Blah ... :: Type -> Type where ...) or implicit (e.g., type family Blah ... where ...) depending on which style you prefer. I’ll use both forms in various places later in the post.

Are returns kinds a cheat code?

We have just seen an example of how type family M0 :: Type -> Type was strictly more powerful with respect to partial application than type family M1 (a :: Type) :: Type. It is tantalizing to think that the trick of putting everything in the return kind can make every type family partially applicable. For instance, one might try defining this:

type family ConstInt :: Type -> Type where
  ConstInt b = Const Int b

If this worked, we could finally have a version ConstInt that we could partially apply. But GHC is privy to such hijinks and will complain if one tries to define ConstInt this way:

• Number of parameters must match family declaration; expected 0
• In the type family declaration for ‘ConstInt’

Blast. Because we didn’t define any parameters to the left of the return kind, we are only permitted to define equations that use, well, zero parameters. In other words, we can only write ConstInt = ..., not ConstInt b = ..., ConstInt b1 b2 = ..., or something of a similar ilk.

Therefore, while stuffing more arguments into the return kind grants more power in terms of partial applicability, it also removes the power to define certain things in the equations of the type famiily. Be aware of this tradeoff when deciding what shape your type family should have.

Enter PolyKinds

Now that we’ve sampled a taste of what arity is about, it’s time to add some spice to our examples. In particular, all of the examples we’ve seen up to this point involve very simple kinds. Things really become interesting, however, when polymorphic kinds enter the picture.

Unsurprisingly, we’re going to be making heavy use of GHC’s PolyKinds language extension from here on out. We’re also going to be using some other language extensions we haven’t formally introduced yet, but I’ll bring them up when the situation is appropriate.

A brief introduction to PolyKinds

Just as types can be polymorphic, so too can kinds be polymorphic. Here is the “hello world” of kind polymorphism, the Proxy type:

data Proxy (a :: k) = Proxy

Just as a ranges over types, k ranges over kinds. For example, here are some particular instantiations of Proxy:

Proxy Int
Proxy Maybe
Proxy True -- Using the DataKinds language extension

Each of those examples instantiates k in a different way. Note that unlike the type argument for a, which must be explicitly written by the programmer, the kind argument k is omitted, as it is inferred by the typechecker automatically. While this saves the programmer some effort, it can occasionally hide interesting details from view. If you want to specify what k gets instantiated to explicitly, then the TypeApplications extension lets you just that:

Proxy @Type           Int
Proxy @(Type -> Type) Maybe
Proxy @Bool           True

Note that the code above will only work on GHC 8.8 or later, as that is the first version to support TypeApplications syntax at the kind level.

PolyKinds and type families

One can also have poly-kinded arguments in type families, as this example demonstrates:

type family PK (a :: k) :: Type where
  PK Int   = Char
  PK Maybe = Double
  PK True  = Float

Similarly, one can also use TypeApplications syntax to spell out what the kind argument k is in each equation (again, this assumes GHC 8.8 or later):

type family PK (a :: k) :: Type where
  PK @Type           Int   = Char
  PK @(Type -> Type) Maybe = Double
  PK @Bool           True  = Float

The arity of poly-kinded type families

Question: what is the arity of PK? This is a surprisingly tricky question to answer, and it is one the main reasons why I set out to write this blog post. As we’ve seen in previous examples, one can write type family equations for PK with either one or two arguments, depending on whether TypeApplications is used or not. As a result, it’s not exactly clear whether the arity of PK is 1 or 2.

One thing we can say with certainty is that the arity is at least 1. That much is evident by the fact that GHC is content with this definition:

type family PK1 (a :: k) where
  PK1 a = PK a

But it is not happy with this one:

type family PK0 where
  PK0 = PK
• The type family ‘PK’ should have 1 argument, but has been given none
• In the equations for closed type family ‘PK0’
  In the type family declaration for ‘PK0’

We have seen this error message before when attempting to apply a type family to a number of arguments less than its arity. In those situations, the X in “should have X argument(s)” has always happened to be the arity of the type family in question. For now, let’s trust this assumption and operate under the premise that PK has arity 1.

Having seen that, what happens if we push the kind variable k into the return kind? You end up with something like this:

type family PKRetKind :: k -> Type

Since the argument of kind k is now part of the return kind, we can no longer match against it in any type family equations, so something like PKRetKind Int = Char is now out of the realm of possibility. (As a consequence, I’ve simply defined PKRetKind without any equations.) On the flip side, we can partially apply PKRetKind, so it would be quite permissible to define PK0 = PKRetKind. It seems like PKRetKind has arity 0, so again, let’s operate under this premise (at least, for the time being).

Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there

Hopefully you saw through my hand-waving in the previous section and realized that something is amiss here. Recall that we were able to define equations like PK @Type Int = Char. When we spell out @Type like this, it suggests that PK is actually accepting another argument besides Int.

Indeed, from this perspective, it is not inaccurate to say that PK accepts two arguments: one invisible (k) argument and one visible (a) argument. We don’t normally account for the invisible argument, since GHC usually figures it out for us, but it is still there lurking behind the scenes. You can draw it out of its hiding place with the @ syntax, which is sometimes referred to as a “visibility override”.

For example, consider what happens the following code:

type Comp (f :: b -> c) (g :: a -> b) (x :: a) = f (g x)
type Ex = Comp PKRetKind PKRetKind True

If you follow the type synonyms, the type Ex eventually reduces down to PKRetKind (PKRetKind True), or PKRetKind @Type (PKRetKind @Bool True) with kind arguments spelled out. Even though PKRetKind appeared to be used without any arguments in Ex, in actuality, GHC knew about the invisible @Type and @Bool arguments well in advance. You could just have well written this:

type Ex = Comp (PKRetKind @Type) (PKRetKind @Bool) True

And have achieved the same end result.

Breaking the ranks

Most of the time, the details of invisible arguments can be completely ignored, since they’re usually a bookkeeping detail that GHC’s type inference engine accounts for. But in the case of type family arities, I argue that invisible arguments are actually essential to keep in mind, as invisible arguments can be the difference between whether or not a type family is well formed or not.

To see what I mean, let’s consider this intriguing definition:

type HRK (f :: forall k. k -> Type) = (f Int, f Maybe, f True)

What is interesting about HRK is that its argument has a higher-rank kind, forall k. k -> Type. The explicit forall at the front (made possible with the RankNTypes language extension) indicates that f can only be instantiated with types that are sufficiently polymorphic in k. For instance, one cannot instantiate f to be Maybe since the kind of Maybe, Type -> Type, is not polymorphic enough. It is a good thing that this is the case, lest we end up with the nonsensical types Maybe Maybe or Maybe True!

One example of something that we can instantiate f with is Proxy, whose kind is forall k. k -> Type. As we have seen earlier, Proxy Int, Proxy Maybe, and Proxy True are all perfectly valid types, so this is a fine thing to do.

On the other hand, something that we cannot instantiate f with is Proxy @Type. This is because the kind of Proxy @Type is no longer forall k. k -> Type, but rather Type -> Type, which is not polymorphic enough to be used in a higher-rank situation.

OK, time for a quiz. Can we instantiate f with PKRetKind? It seems like we ought to be able to do this, since the kind of PKRetKind, which is also forall k. k -> Type, appears to be polymorphic enough to be used in a higher-rank context. What happens if we try to use the type HRK PKRetKind? We get this:

• Expected kind ‘forall k. k -> Type’,
    but ‘PKRetKind’ has kind ‘k0 -> Type’
• In the first argument of ‘HRK’, namely ‘PKRetKind’
  In the type ‘HRK PKRetKind’

I was deeply surprised to discover that GHC rejected this when I tried it for the first time. Moreover, the rather inscrutable error message didn’t exactly make clear where I had gone wrong. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the arity of PKRetKind was actually the root cause.

Return kinds, revisited

Let’s take another look at the definition of PKRetKind, this time with a critical eye:

type family PKRetKind :: k -> Type

Earlier, I claimed that its kind was forall k. k -> Type. But where did this forall k quantifier come from? It’s certainly not written out in the return kind, so that seems to indicate that the k is being implicitly quantified somewhere.

My gut instinct was to think that I wasn’t being explicit enough. I tried this seemingly-equivalent definition of PKRetKind:

type family PKRetKind' :: forall k. k -> Type

When I did this, HRK PKRetKind' now worked without issue! This was great, but something felt off about the whole thing. If the two formulations of PKRetKind were equivalent, then why did only one of them work when used as the argument to HRK?

Well, it turns out my original assumption was wrong: the two definitions actually aren’t equivalent. That’s because the first version of PKRetKind has a secret power: one can match on k in type family equations! That is to say, it can support things like this:

type family PKRetKind :: k -> Type where
  PKRetKind @Type = Maybe
  PKRetKind @k    = Proxy

If k is Type, then the first equation is matched, which reduces to Maybe (of kind Type -> Type); otherwise, it falls through to the second equation, which reduces to Proxy (of kind k -> Type). However, this seems to fly in the face of the earlier intuition we developed about type family arities, which states that only things that appear to the left of the :: contribute toward the arity (and, as a result, are permitted to appear on the left-hand sides of equations). How can these two facts be reconciled?

It’s kind of important

As it turns out, k actually does appear to the left of the ::—you just can’t see it under most circumstances. To be more precise, k is implicitly quantified, not as a part of the return kind, but as a parameter to PKRetKind itself. You can see this for yourself by using the :info command in GHCi with the -fprint-explicit-kinds flag enabled [1]:

λ> :set -fprint-explicit-kinds
λ> :info PKRetKind
type family PKRetKind @k :: k -> Type where
    PKRetKind @Type = Maybe
    PKRetKind @k = Proxy @k

Now we’ve uncovered the truth behind PKRetKind. There actually is an invisible parameter to the left of ::, which is why the equations of PKRetKind are able to match on it. More importantly, this led me to realize why HRK PKRetKind doesn’t work—PKRetKind really has an arity of 1! That is, while PKRetKind may not have any visible parameters to the left of the ::, it does have one invisible parameter, and this actually makes a difference when it comes to its arity. Our earlier guess that PKRetKind has arity 0 was wrong, and in reality, it has arity 1.

In the earlier Comp PKRetKind PKRetKind True example, it seemed as though we had partially applied PKRetKind with zero arguments. But this isn’t strictly true, since GHC was actually supplying invisible @Type and @Bool arguments under the hood. In actuality, the types we had written were Comp (PKRetKind @Type) (PKRetKind @Bool) True, which make those uses of PKRetKind fully saturated.

On the other hand, there is no way to interpret HRK PKRetKind as a well formed type. If GHC doesn’t supply PKRetKind with any invisible arguments, then it would fall afoul of the type family saturation check. On the other hand, if GHC tries to insert an invisible argument to make it become, say HRK (PKRetKind @k0) (for some type k0), then the kind of HRK’s argument would be k0 -> Type, which isn’t polymorphic enough to be used in a higher-rank setting (note the absence of a forall). It turns out that in practice, GHC actually attempts the latter approach when typechecking HRK PKRetKind, which is why the error message complains about k0 -> Type instead of the number of arguments.

If you want a poly-kinded, arity-0 type family, then the position of the forall ends up being extremely important. This formulation of PKRetKind truly has arity zero:

type family PKRetKind' :: forall k. k -> Type

PKRetKind' has no parameters, implicit or explicit, to the left of the ::. This means that in terms of partial applicability, PKRetKind' receives top marks. But remember that while arity giveth, arity also taketh away. In exchange for the ability to be partially applied in more contexts, PKRetKind' loses the ability to match on k in its type family equations. As a consequence, a definition like this one is impossible:

type family PKRetKind' :: forall k. k -> Type where
  PKRetKind' = Maybe

This is because Maybe is of kind Type -> Type, which is not polymorphic enough for the expected return kind of forall k. k -> Type. This might work if k could be matched against Type, but since k is not bound to the left of the ::, this cannot happen. The only valid equations that PKRetKind' could possibly have must have truly polymorphic right-hand sides, such as in this example:

type family PKRetKind' :: forall k. k -> Type where
  PKRetKind' = Proxy

Putting it all together

We have seen first-hand how invisible kind arguments can have a major influence on the design considerations of a type family. In light of this, I think it is worth giving these invisible arguments a special mention in the definition of arity, as their presence (or absence) can affect whether GHC accepts or rejects a partial application of a type family:

Definition 3: the arity of a type family is the number of parameters that are bound before the return kind in its definition, either visibly (through a user-written type variable binder) or invisibly (through implicit quantification).

This definition of arity is certainly the wordiest, but I think it best captures all of the subtleties at play here. With this definition in mind, let’s recap once more all of the poly-kinded type families we have discussed in this post, this time using -fprint-explicit-kinds syntax:

-- Arity 2
type family PK @k (a :: k) :: Type where
  PK @Type           Int   = Char
  PK @(Type -> Type) Maybe = Double
  PK @Bool           True  = Float

-- Arity 1
type family PKRetKind @k :: k -> Type where
    PKRetKind @Type = Maybe
    PKRetKind @k    = Proxy @k

-- Arity 0
type family PKRetKind' :: forall k. k -> Type where
  PKRetKind' = Proxy

While the kind of each of these type families is forall k. k -> Type, each one has completely different behavior vis-à-vis arity. They represent different points on a spectrum, with one end (arity 2) having the most freedom to match on its arguments in equations and the other end (arity 0) having the most flexibility to be partially applied.

Aside 2: Arities and kind inference

Most of the examples of poly-kinded type families I presented earlier in this post used explicit return kinds, which make it straightforward to figure out their arities. If a type family doesn’t have an explicit return kind, however, then the arity isn’t always so clear. Here is a particularly tricky example of this in action:

type family MyProxy where
  MyProxy = Proxy

What is the arity of MyProxy? We know that its kind is forall k. k -> Type, but as we’ve discovered, the arity depends on where k is bound. There are two reasonable guesses for where k might be bound:

-- Guess A (arity 1)
type family MyProxy @k :: k -> Type where
  MyProxy @k = Proxy @k

-- Guess B (arity 0)
type family MyProxy :: forall k. k -> Type where
  MyProxy = Proxy

As it turns out, GHC will infer Guess A in practice. I’m not quite sure as to GHC’s rationale for this choice, but them’s the breaks. If you want the behavior of Guess B, you’ll simply have to write out an explicit return kind.

Aside 3: What about type synonyms?

I’ve restricted my focus in this blog post to type families, but much of what I’ve written also applies to type synonyms. Type synonyms, after all, can be thought of as a very special case of type families: they always have exactly one equation, they cannot match on their arguments, and they are not allowed to recursive.

Moreover, type synonyms also have a saturation requirement like type families, which means that type synonyms also have arities. Here are some examples of type synonyms, complete with their arities (I will use -fprint-explicit-kinds syntax once more for poly-kinded definitions):

-- Arity 2
type Const a b = a

-- Arity 1
type ConstInt b = Const Int b

-- Arity 0
type M0 = Maybe

-- Arity 1
type M1 a = Maybe a

-- Arity 2
type PK @k (a :: k) = Proxy @k a

-- Arity 1
type PKRetKind @k = (Proxy @k :: k -> Type)

-- Arity 0
type PKRetKind' = (Proxy :: forall k. k -> Type)

If I want to be really pedantic about my definition of arity, I need to pay mention to type synonyms. So here is my final attempt at defining arity (for real this time):

Definition 4: the arity of a type family or type synonym is the number of parameters that are either:

  1. Bound before the return kind in its definition (in the case of a type family), or
  2. Bound before the equals sign (in the case of a type synonym).

A parameter may either be bound visibly (through a user-written type variable binder) or invisibly (through implicit quantification).

Final thoughts

Through a series of increasingly complex examples, we have seen how arity impacts the usability and power of type families. It was a somewhat long and winding path to get here, but I hope you learned a thing or two along the way.

If the saturation restriction makes you a bit squeamish, you’re not alone. There are others who have pondered ways to drop the saturation restriction altogether, which I’ll briefly mention below:


One way to “partially apply” type families in today’s GHC is through a technique called defunctionalization, which involves encoding type families (and partial applications thereof) as datatypes and “evaluating” them with a special-purpose type family. Defunctionalization requires quite a bit of boilerplate, but it does get the job done. Refer to the blog posts Defunctionalization for the win and Haskell with only one type family for two different approaches to defunctionalization.

Richer kinds

Earlier in this post, I remarked that “the kind of a type family doesn’t tell you everything”. This fact proved annoying enough that it convinced multiple academics to develop alternative typing rules for type families.

Both Richard Eisenberg’s thesis and the more recent paper Higher-order Type-level Programming in Haskell propose systems that, among other things, would enable partially applying any type family, regardless of what its arity may be. To preserve type soundess, the latter paper proposes a new function arrow ->> that corresponds to arguments that count towards arities in today’s GHC. In other words, the arity of a type family is now just a property of its kind.

Here are some examples of type families, along with their kinds [2], to demonstrate the idea:

-- Arity 2
type Const :: Type ->> Type ->> Type
type family Const a b where
  Const a b = a

-- Arity 1
type ConstInt :: Type ->> Type
type family ConstInt b where
  ConstInt b = Const Int b

-- Arity 0
type M0 :: Type -> Type
type family M0 where
  M0 = Maybe

-- Arity 1
type M1 :: Type ->> Type
type family M1 a where
  M1 a = Maybe a

Since the saturation requirement is not present in their system, the arity of a type family is no longer that interesting. Instead, the main purpose of ->> is to guide type inference. For example, this program, which uses the normal -> function arrow in the kind of f, is valid:

d :: forall (f :: Type -> Type) (a :: Type) (b :: Type).
     (f a ~ f b) => a -> b
d x = x

However, if -> is swapped out for ->>, then d will no longer typecheck, since otherwise f could be instantiated with something like ConstInt, which would be unsound.

There’s much more than can be said about this new ->> arrow, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. Hopefully, a system like this will one day make all type families partially applicable like they were meant to be.

  1. I recommend using -fprint-explicit-kinds on GHC 8.8 or later, since it displays invisible arguments using TypeApplications-style @ syntax. You could use earlier versions of GHC if you wish, but it renders invisible arguments without @ syntax, so you’ll have to discern for yourself which arguments were originally visible to start with and which ones were not. 

  2. I’m using a hypothetical syntax for top-level kind signatures, as detailed in this GHC proposal