# LambdaCase in the wild

January 19th, 2018

# {-❤ LANGUAGE LambdaCase ❤-}

Of all the many, many Haskell language extensions supported by GHC, LambdaCase is one of my favorites. It has essentially no downside, does not conflict with any existing code, and introduces a single, simple, useful new construct to the language.

## What is LambdaCase?

At a superficial level, LambdaCase merely introduces one tiny bit of syntactic sugar: wherever you would have written

\x -> case x of
pattern1 -> value1
pattern2 -> value2
...


you can now write

\case
pattern1 -> value1
pattern2 -> value2
...


That's it!

That may seem a little too cute for its own good. Yet LambdaCase is one of the most popular GHC extensions---in the 2017 Haskell survey, it was effectively in a multi-way tie for the third-most popular extension. And of the top 10 most popular extensions, LambdaCase is the only one that merely adds syntactic sugar!

What gives? Why is humble LambdaCase so popular? To answer this question, let's see how it gets used in practice.

## Defining by cases, and defining by \case

In practice, LambdaCase gives an ergonomic solution to a small but common problem: introducing an anonymous function defined by cases.

What do I mean by "defining by cases"? Haskell lets you define functions through pattern matching, using "declaration style":1

eitherToMaybe :: Either a b -> Maybe b

eitherToMaybe (Left _)  = Nothing
eitherToMaybe (Right x) = Just x


The alternative is to define a function using "expression style":

eitherToMaybe :: Either a b -> Maybe b

eitherToMaybe e = case e of
Left _  -> Nothing
Right x -> Just x


Stylistically, this has a few advantages. First, we don't need to keep repeating the same function name over and over. This is especially true if the function we are defining also includes several other parameters that are the same for each definition. Second, the indentation helps you to quickly see where the definition begins and ends.

There is one drawback to the expression style that is worth pondering, however. In declaration style, we did not need to name the parameter; we just pattern-matched on it directly: eitherToMaybe (Right x) = ....

In fact, if we had really wanted to, we could have used @-patterns to name the argument:

eitherToMaybe e@(Right x) = Just x


But... why? The argument's shape is the important thing, not its name!

In the expression style, on the other hand, we are forced to name the argument in order to pipe it into the case statement: eitherToMaybe e = case e of .... In fact, my dumb choice of name e shows how obnoxious it is to select a good name here. Maybe input? x? theExpressionI'mAboutToDestructure? I guess there is a reason they say that naming things is one of the hardest problems in computer science.

On the other hand, \case offers a simple way to define a function expression-style, without needing to introduce names for your plumbing. In expression style using LambdaCase, the running example becomes:

eitherToMaybe = \case
Left  _ -> Nothing
Right x -> Just x


## The case of the monadic idiom

Consider this little snippet of code, that reads input from the user until they stop being indifferent:

data Decision = Yes | No | Meh

main = do
case input of
Yes -> putStrLn "ok, sure!"
No  -> putStrLn "fine, whatever."
Meh -> main


This code is slightly annoying, for the same reason that writing an "expression style" definition using case .. of is slightly annoying: we're introducing a named variable in order to provide the logical plumbing between readLn's result and our case statement. We had to come up with a name for this plumbing, even though we'd really like to say to the reader "don't pay too much attention to this variable, I'm just using it to carry data from over here to over there."

Just as before, we can use \case to eliminate the plumbing variable entirely:

main = readLn >>= \case
Yes -> putStrLn "ok, sure!"
No  -> putStrLn "fine, whatever."
Meh -> main


Now the flow of data becomes clear: read something, and do a case analysis on the result.

The reader is not left to wonder if a certain variable is important enough to spend time understanding. The plumbing is hidden behind the wall, where it belongs!

After a while, I noticed that when I was reaching for LambdaCase, it was often in a monadic context. That raises an interesting question: how often in practice is LambdaCase used only in support of this case-under-a-monadic-value idiom?

# Sifting through Hackage

Luckily I keep a local copy of Hackage around, to quickly satisfy my curiosity about questions like this! In my snapshot, I found about 7800 uses of \case in total. These uses are spread across in 1600 modules in 800 packages.

Digging around a bit with grep, we can get an idea of how \case is used in practice. The uses seem to be classifiable into a handful of common, easily-identifiable idioms, described here.

### The define-by-cases idiom

The most-common use of \case is to define a function by cases, expression style. This accounts for 4.0k (51%) of the uses in Hackage. If you think about it, this is a little funny: \case was added to allow for anonymous functions defined by cases, and what do we do? Half the time, we immediately give the new function a name! But as we discussed above, the real benefit here is that we can use expression-style definitions without introducing a name for our plumbing variable.

Here is an example from hedgehog:

renderLineDiff :: LineDiff -> String

renderLineDiff = \case
LineSame x ->
"  " ++ x
LineRemoved x ->
"- " ++ x
"+ " ++ x


Writing in declaration style would be noisy:

renderLineDiff (LineSame x)    = "  " ++ x
renderLineDiff (LineRemoved x) = "- " ++ x
renderLineDiff (LineAdded x)   = "+ " ++ x


while writing with a case .. of expression forces us to name the parameter. We're either going to end up with a redundant name (e.g. lineDiff) or a dummy metasyntactic name (e.g. y or foo). Neither case really helps the reader very much.

renderLineDiff lineDiff = case lineDiff of
LineSame x ->
"  " ++ x
LineRemoved x ->
"- " ++ x
"+ " ++ x


Can you really say lineDiff is aiding the reader very significantly?

The next-most-common idiom is using >>= \case to perform case analysis on the result of a monadic expression. This idiom appears 2.2k times in Hackage. In other words, nearly a third of the real-world uses of \case are actually using this case-inside-monadic-value idiom!

The example from the midi-simple package on Hackage shows a typical use of this idiom, similar to our example above:

systemCommon :: Parser SystemCommon
systemCommon = peekWord8' >>= \case
0xF1 -> mtcQuarter
0xF2 -> songPosition
0xF3 -> songSelect
0xF6 -> tuneRequest
0xF7 -> eox
_    -> empty


The peekWord8 parser is used to inspect the next byte to parse, and then the correct parser is run.

It isn't important to name the byte we peeked at. If anything, introducing a name to that byte will just disrupt the simple flow of this function with an irrelevant name!

This example is interesting because the alternatives are either to introduce do-notation just for a single binding:

systemCommon :: Parser SystemCommon
systemCommon = do
tag <- peekWord8'
case tag of
0xF1 -> mtcQuarter
0xF2 -> songPosition
0xF3 -> songSelect
0xF6 -> tuneRequest
0xF7 -> eox
_    -> empty


or keep the do-free code but wrap the case statement with a lambda (and parentheses!):

systemCommon :: Parser SystemCommon
systemCommon = peekWord8' >>= (\tag -> case tag of
0xF1 -> mtcQuarter
0xF2 -> songPosition
0xF3 -> songSelect
0xF6 -> tuneRequest
0xF7 -> eox
_    -> empty)


What else is in there?

### Traversing by cases

Another idiom is to traverse some data structure and use a \case to decide what to do at each element. This is getting a bit harder to accurately grep, but as a crude approximation I searched for lines containing both  $\case and  for, finding 42 instances. This is from an event loop in the example code for hamilton:  forM_ (processEvt e)$ \case
SEQuit -> do
shutdown vty
exitSuccess
SEZoom s ->
modifyIORef opts $\o -> o { soZoom = soZoom o * s } SERate r -> modifyIORef opts$ \o -> o { soRate = soRate o * r }
SEHist h ->
modifyIORef opts $\o -> o { soHist = soHist o + h }  ### With with A similar idiom makes use of a with* function for acquiring some resource, with a \case on the inside to select what to do with that resource. There are 60 instances of this idiom in Hackage. Here is an example from hpack: instance FromJSON BuildType where parseJSON = withText "String"$ \case
"Simple"    -> return Simple
"Configure" -> return Configure
"Make"      -> return Make
"Custom"    -> return Custom
_           -> fail "build-type must be one of: Simple, Configure, Make, Custom"


### Anonymous functions

Finally, we find approximately 1k uses of \case to introduce an anonymous function.

This example from bit-array is typical:

-- |
-- Convert into a binary notation string.
--
-- >>> toString (BitArray (5 :: Int8))
-- "00000101"
toString :: (FiniteBits a) => BitArray a -> String
toString = fmap (\case True -> '1'; False -> '0') . reverse . toBoolList


# Summary

Altogether, the idiomatic uses of LambdaCase on Hackage fall into these categories:

• Definition by cases (51%)
• Anonymous case function (13%)
• with and for (1%)

with the remaining 7% of uses remaining hard to classify via a simple grep.

It seems that the vast majority of \case usage is to either get a less-noisy and plumbing-free definition by cases, or to do case analysis on a monadic value!

# An alternate syntax

Since the case-under-monadic-value idiom is so common, would it make sense to add it directly to the language?2 The designers of Habit thought so, adding a form case <- val of { pats } to the language. In Haskell, it would mean replacing code like this:

main = readLn >>= \case
Yes -> putStrLn "ok, sure!"
No  -> putStrLn "fine, whatever."
Meh -> main


with something like this:

main = case <- readLn of
Yes -> putStrLn "ok, sure!"
No  -> putStrLn "fine, whatever."
Meh -> main


or, if we don't mind introducing a new keyword, perhaps:

main = caseM readLn of
Yes -> putStrLn "ok, sure!"
No  -> putStrLn "fine, whatever."
Meh -> main


Incidentally, caseM only appears once on Hackage (in caldims), in a module that does not use LambdaCase. So as far as identifiers go, caseM may be rare enough that it is worth re-purposing!

#### Footnotes

1: The distinction between "declaration style" and "expression style" was elaborated in the terrific retrospective A History of Haskell: Being Lazy with Class.

2: The idea of having special syntax to replace >>= \case is not new, of course. In fact, it already appears in the issue tracker that eventually led to LambdaCase's adoption into GHC. If you have 20 minutes to spare, there are lots of interesting corners of design space explored on that Trac page!