Recursion Schemes, Part III: Folds in Context


On the last episode of this exploration of recursion schemes, we defined the catamorphism, our first generalized fold operation over any recursive data structure. Catamorphisms admit a beautiful definition and are useful in hosts of situations. But they have their limits: in this installment, we’ll explore these limits, and we’ll discuss how to get around them by introducing a more powerful construct—the paramorphism.

A Refresher

In the past two posts, we defined a datatype Term that represents the fixed-point of a functor f, with an In constructor that ties an f (Term f) into a Term f, and an out deconstructor that unties a Term f into an f (Term f):

newtype Term f = In { out :: f (Term f) }

Using fmap, and the property that fmap is the identity function over a Functor with no children, we can define a bottomUp function that applies a type-preserving transformation to any Term f:

bottomUp :: Functor a => (Term a -> Term a) -> Term a -> Term a
bottomUp fn =
  out                    -- 1) unpack
  >>> fmap (bottomUp fn) -- 2) recurse
  >>> In                 -- 3) repack
  >>> fn                 -- 4) apply

And, when we omit the repacking stage in the above definition, we yield cata, a generalized fold operator that allows us to collapse a given Term f into an accumulated value a, using an Algebra that reunites an f a into an a:

type Algebra f a = f a -> a

cata :: (Functor f) => Algebra f a -> Term f -> a
cata fn =
    out                -- 1) unpack
    >>> fmap (cata fn) -- 2) recurse
    >>> fn             -- 3) apply


Catamorphisms are simple and elegant, but in many real-world use-cases they are insufficient. For example, though the function we pass to cata allows us to view the data we’re transformating, it loses information about the original structure: in the case of pretty-printing, we only have access to the currently-printed tree (the f Doc for any fix): any information about the structure of the original Term Expr is lost, as it has already been pretty-printed.

This would be a problem if you wanted to print, say, zero-argument functions in a different manner than other functions: you’d have to use == to examine the Doc type, then dispatch on the result to implement this different behavior. And your Doc type may omit an Eq instance, so == may not even be possible! (Besides, looking at the pretty-printed results to infer their inputs is clumsy at best and often inaccurate in the presence of hyphenation or spacing.)

It would be ideal if our Algebra could, when examining an Expr node, have access both to its pretty-printed representation and its original representation as a Term—an Algebra that has access to the original, un-transformed datum, represented as its fixed-point Term. That is to say, whereas Algebra is a function from a container f of a, we want a function from container that holds both a Term f and its corresponding a. Rather than using a function with two arguments, we’ll bundle these two arguments together in a tuple (for reasons that will become clear later).

f (Term f, a) -> a

Algebras that carry this extra information are known as R-algebras.

type RAlgebra f a = f (Term f, a) -> a

There is another type of morphism that allows you to traverse a structure with an R-algebra: the paramorphism. As with previous examples, I’m going to explicate the etymology in the hope that it slightly illuminates a complicated concept: the para in paramorphism is the same as in parallel—from the Greek παρά, meaning “beside”, “next to”, or “alongside”Modern English tends to use “para” as a prefix meaning “pseudo” or “abnormal” (as in “parapsychology” or “paresthesia”)—this is an extension of the “alongside” meaning, implying that abnormal things appear alongside normal things. Be sure not to confuse these two meanings—there’s nothing abnormal or second-class about paramorphisms.

. A paramorphism is like a catamorphism except that it can view the original structure beside the structure that is being transformed.

So, let’s implement paramorphisms. They’ll look like the catamorphism we already discussed. But instead of just directly recursing into the structure with fmap para, we have to recurse with a function that returns a tuple, one that contains both the Term we’re recursing into and the result of recursively applying para. We do this here with a helper function called fanout, which takes a Term f and returns both items in which we are interested: the Term itself, and the result of recursively applying para.

para :: (Functor f) => RAlgebra f a -> Term f -> a
para rAlg = out >>> fmap fanout >>> rAlg
    where fanout t = (t, para rAlg t)

And we’re done! This is the classical definition of a paramorphism. With it, we can have our cake and eat it too: we can intelligently fold over a data structure without losing any information about the original representation of said structure.

And Haskell comes with a function that makes expressing the above fanout function even more elegant than it already is. The &&& combinator, provided in the Control.Arrow module, takes two functionsTechnically, two Categories, but if you use instances of Category beyond (->) then you are way ahead of me.

foo and bar and returns another function that, when given a value a, returns a tuple consisting of (foo a, bar a). Simply put, it combines the output of two functions.

Our fanout function, when provided with a Term f, needs to do two things: preserve its input in the first element of the tuple, and recurse with para into its input, providing the result of doing so in the second element. We can use &&& to express this concisely: given a Term f, we preserve the element with the identity function id, and apply para recursively to the argument. Let’s express this as such:

fanout = id &&& para f

Now we can express para with our new, beautiful fanout function:

para' :: Functor f => RAlgebra f a -> Term f -> a
para' f = out >>> fmap (id &&& para' f) >>> f

The type signatures indicate that both these formulations of paramorphisms are equivalent: which one you choose is entirely up to which one you find more aesthetically pleasing.

Obsoleting the Catamorphism

For extra credit: rather than using a function that takes a container of tuples (which can strike the eye as somewhat ugly), we can use one that takes two arguments, both the Term f and the container f a.

type RAlgebra' f a = Term f -> f a -> a

Balazs Komuves refers to this formulation as “slightly less natural” in his Fixplate library. The implementation is indeed less pleasing, as it cannot easily be expressed in a point-free fashion, but it has a nice property that we’ll explore below.

-- The & function is reverse function application,
-- just like the $ operator, but with its arguments flipped.
para'' :: Functor f => RAlgebra' f a -> Term f -> a
para'' alg t = out t & fmap (para'' alg) & alg t

And just as we were able to represent bottomUp in terms of cata, we can express cata in terms of para'—after all, /a catamorphism is merely a paramorphism that ignores the provided Term. And Haskell provides the const function (aka the K-combinator) for just these situations where we want to ignore an argument to a function:

cata' :: Functor f => Algebra f a -> Term f -> a
cata' f = para'' (const f)

Beautiful, no? This is one of the really appealing things about recursion schemes: as we explore more and more powerful constructs, we see how the less-powerful constructs can be implemented straightforwardly in terms of more general ones.

Exempli Gratia

The identity function id, by definition, returns its argument unchanged: id(x) can be replaced with x in every case. Let’s imagine a pretty-printer that, for some reasonIt would be a bad idea to put this optimization step in your pretty-printer—you’d either perform this as an optimization over the original code or during a conversion to a separate intermediate representation—but I’m going to stick with this incredibly contrived example, because the Doc type makes it very clear, when operating on Expr types, when and where the pretty-printing step is happening.

, performs this optimization step on its output.

To do this with a simple catamorphism, we’d need to check every function-call’s pretty-printed name to determine whether it is id, then return the argument unchanged—and, as I mentioned above, our pretty-printed Doc representation shouldn’t even support an equality operation, so examining it is a no-go. However, we can do this easily with a paramorphism. In order to avoid having to write a bunch of tuples, I’m going to use the second representation of R-algebras above (the ternary function), and I’m going to use the Expr syntax tree defined in previous installments.

fastPretty :: RAlgebra' Expr Doc

-- All our cases, aside from the `Call` nodes in which
-- we are interested, are the same as in the pretty-printing
-- catamorphism in the previous installment. We just ignore
-- the first `Term` argument because it doesn't have anything we need
-- to look at.
fastPretty _ (Literal i) = i
fastPretty _ (Ident s)   = Pretty.text s
-- uninteresting cases omitted, blah blah blah

-- Here's where it gets interesting. We're going to look
-- at the first argument to determine  whether this is a
-- `Call` node with the function name (an `Ident`) named `id`.
-- If so, we'll just return the only argument provided.
fastPretty (In (Call { func = "id" }))
           (Call {args = [theArg]}) = theArg

-- Otherwise, we won't look at the first `Term` argument,
-- and just glom the name and the parenthesized and
-- comma-separated arguments together.
fastPretty _ (Call f args) = f <> Pretty.parens (mconcat ("," `Pretty.punctuate` args))

-- Straightforward ALGOL-style syntax for the remaining cases
fastPretty _ (Index it idx)  = it <> Pretty.brackets idx
fastPretty _ (Unary op it)   = Pretty.text op <> it
fastPretty _ (Binary l op r) = l <> Pretty.text op <> r
fastPretty _ (Paren ex)      = Pretty.parens ex

During complicated tree transformations, the context of the structure you’re transforming will eventually come into play. Catamorphisms don’t let you examine this context, but paramorphisms do.


In the previous post, we defined ana, the anamorphism, a generalized unfold operating on any given data type to generate a Term f. While unfolds are a little more abstruse and less common than folds, it’s worth walking through their construction, if only to observe the generality achieved from reversing the arrows in a given morphism.

We expressed ana as the dual to cata, replacing instances of out with In, and replacing left-to-right function composition with the right-to-left equivalent, <<< (more commonly expressed with Haskell’s . function)—in short, reversing the arrows of the definition.

cata f = out >>> fmap (cata f) >>> f

ana f = In <<< fmap (ana f) <<< f

And we defined the function argument that ana takes as a Coalgebra, seeing as how it is dual to the Algebra we already defined:

type Coalgebra f a = a -> f a

ana f :: (Functor f) => Coalgebra f a -> a -> Term f

It stands to reason that we can define the dual of a paramorphism—a co-paramorphism. But, as always, we have a better name for this: the dual of a paramorphism is an apomorphism. Just as the ana- prefix is the opposite of the cata- prefix, so the para- prefix is the opposite of the apo- prefix. In this case, apo- comes from the Greek ἀπο, meaning “away from” or “separate”, as in “apogee” (the moon being away from the earth) or “apostasy” (someone turning away from their beliefs).

So, let’s start by defining the categorical dual of the R-algebra. We’ve reversed the arrows in every case, so the following definition should be correct, right?

type Nope = a -> f (Term f, a)

Wrong! We have to apply the dual to every construct in the definition of RAlgebra. We need to reverse the direction of the function, yes, but we also need to reverse the tuple associated with the above definition. So what’s the dual of a tuple?

Well, let’s consider what a tuple is for. Given two arguments big and pac, a tuple bundles both of them together as (big, pac). That makes sense, yes, but what can we do with both of these arguments that fits the notion of the “opposite” of holding both? Well, we can hold one or the other. And Haskell provides a concept to hold either a big or a pac: namely, Either. So, given that an Algebra f a holds a Term f and an a, we can express the dual of an R-algebra using an Either:

type RCoalgebra f a = a -> f (Either (Term f) a)

But what does this mean when we’re using apomorphisms in practice? Well, it allows us to separate the flow of computation during our unfolds. If our R-coalgebra returns a Left value in which is contained a Term, the apomorphism will terminate and return the provided value. If it returns a Right value containing an f a, the unfold will continue onwards. This is cool! The ability to terminate during a corecursive iteration depending on the argument is a very useful property—and we need no imperative constructs such as break or (shudder) exceptions[fn:4].

So, just as we expressed ana by reversing the arrows of cata, we can express apo by reversing the arrows of para:

para :: Functor f => RAlgebra' f a -> Term f -> a
para f = out >>> fmap fanout >>> f where fanout = id &&& para f

apo f :: Functor f => RCoalgebra f a -> a -> Term f
apo f = In <<< fmap fanin <<< f where fanin = ???

It may not be immediately obvious how to implement fanin. But, when you reverse the arrows of the fanout definition above (I have omitted said reversal for brevity’s sake), you’ll discover that you yield a function that takes an Either (Term f) a and returns a Term f.

fanin :: Either (Term f) a -> Term f

As such, our function will handle this either by applying id in the case of a Left value (as getting a Term means that we can just return the Term) and recursing with apo in the case of a plain old a value, out of which we ultimately yield a Term, thanks to the ultimate signature of apo. And Haskell’s built-in either function, which takes two functions and an Either and returns a result of applying the first to a Left case or the second to the Right case, allows us to express this fanin function beautifully. id does nothing the value contained inside a Left, returning just a Term f, and apo f continues the unfold operation when provided a Right:

apo :: Functor f => RCoalgebra f a -> a -> Term f
apo f = In <<< fmap fanin <<< f where fanin = either id (apo f)

Similarly, we can rewrite fanin with |||, the dual of the &&& function above. (The operators here are a useful visual mnemonic: &&& uses both the functions it provides, where as ||| uses one or the other).

apo :: Functor f => RCoalgebra f a -> a -> Term f
apo f = In <<< fmap (id ||| apo f) <<< f

That’s All, Folks

If you made it this far, I salute you. Next time, we’ll look at futumorphisms and histomorphisms, and uncover some seriously powerful constructs (and some seriously dubious etymologies).

I am indebted to Rob Rix, Colin Barrett, and Manuel Chakravarty for their input and suggestions regarding this post.

In part four, we explore histomorphisms and futumorphisms.