Follow the Denotation

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Ian, Jurassic Park


Designing an abstraction or library often feels wonderfully unconstrained; it is the task of the engineer (or logician) to create something from nothing. With experience and training, we begin to be able to consider and make trade-offs: efficiency vs simplicity-of-implementation vs ease-of-use vs preventing our users from doing the wrong thing, among many other considerations. Undeniably, however, there seems to be a strong element of “taste” that goes into design as well; two engineers with the same background, task, and sensibilities will still come up with two different interfaces to the same abstraction.

The tool of denotational design aims to help us nail down exactly what is this “taste” thing. Denotational design gives us the ability to look at designs and ask ourselves whether or not they are correct.

However, it’s important to recognize that having a tool to help us design doesn’t need to take the fun out of the endeavor. Like any instrument, it’s up to the craftsman to know when and how to apply it.

This essay closely works through Conal Elliott’s fantastic paper Denotational design with type class morphisms.

Example: Maps🔗

Consider the example of Data.Map.Map. At it’s essence, the interface is given by the following “core” pieces of functionality:

empty  :: Map k v
insert :: k -> v -> Map k v -> Map k v
lookup :: k -> Map k v -> Maybe v
union  :: Map k v -> Map k v -> Map k v

With the laws:

-- get back what you put in
lookup k   (insert k v m) = Just v

-- keys replace one another
insert k b (insert k a m) = insert k b m

-- empty is an identity for union
union empty m = m
union m empty = m

-- union is just repeated inserts
insert k v m = union (insert k v empty) m

These laws correspond with our intuitions behind what a Map is, and furthermore, capture exactly the semantics we’d like. Although it might seem silly to explicitly write out such “obvious” laws, it is the laws that give your abstraction meaning.

Consider instead the example:

empathy :: r -> f -> X r f -> X r f
fear    :: e -> X e m -> Either () m
taste   :: X o i -> X o i -> X o i
zoo     :: X z x

It might take you some time to notice that this X thing is just the result of me randomly renaming identifiers in Map. The names are valuable to us only because they suggest meanings to us. Despite this, performing the same substitutions on the Map laws would still capture the semantics we want. The implication is clear: names are helpful, but laws are invaluable.


Our quick investigation into the value of laws has shown us one example of how to assert meaning on our abstractions. We will now take a more in-depth look at another way of doing so.

Let us consider the concept of a “meaning functor.” We can think of the term μ(Map k v) as “the meaning of Map k v.” μ(Map k v) asks not how is Map k v implemented, but instead, how should we think about it? What metaphor should we use to think about a Map? The μ()\mu(\cdot) operator, like any functor, will map types to types, and functions to functions.

We can encode this mapping as a function, and the partiality with Maybe:

μ(Map k v) = k -> Maybe v

With the meaning of our type nailed down, we can now also provide meanings for our primitive operations on Maps:

  μ(empty) = \k -> Nothing

An empty map is one which assigns Nothing to everything.

  μ(lookup k m) = μ(m) k

Looking up a key in the map is just giving back the value at that key.

  μ(insert k' v m) = \k ->
    if k == k'
      then Just v
      else μ(m) k

If the key we ask for is the one we inserted, give back the value associated with it.

  μ(union m1 m2) = \k ->
    case μ(m1) k of
      Just v  -> Just v
      Nothing -> μ(m2) k

Attempt a lookup in a union by looking in the left map first.

Looking at these definitions of meaning, it’s clear to see that they capture an intuitive (if perhaps, naive) meaning and implementation of a Map. Regardless of our eventual implementation of Map, μ()\mu(\cdot) is a functor that transforms it into the same “structure” (whatever that means) over functions.

Herein lies the core principle of denotational design: for any type X designed in this way, X must be isomorphic to μ(X); literally no observational (ie. you’re not allowed to run a profiler on the executed code) test should be able to differentiate one from the other.

This is not to say that it’s necessary that X = μ(X). Performance or other engineering concerns may dissuade us from equating the two – after all, it would be insane if Map were actually implemented as a big chain of nested if-blocks. All we’re saying is that nothing in the implementation is allowed to break our suspension of believe that we are actually working with μ(Map). Believe it or not, this is a desirable property; we all have a lot more familiarity with functions and other fundamental types than we do with the rest of the (possibly weird corners of) ecosystem.

The condition that X \cong μ(X) is much more constraining than it might seem at first glance. For example, it means that all instances of our type-classes must agree between X and μ(X) – otherwise we’d be able to differentiate the two.

Our Map has some obvious primitives for building a Monoid, so let’s do that:

instance Monoid (Map k v) where
  mempty  = empty
  mappend = union

While this is indeed a Monoid, it looks like we’re already in trouble. The Monoid instance definition for μ(Map), after specializing to our types, instead looks like this:

instance Monoid v => Monoid (k -> Maybe v) where

There’s absolutely no way that these two instances could be the same. Darn. Something’s gone wrong along the way; suggesting that μ(Map) isn’t in fact a denotation of Map. Don’t panic; this kind of thing happens. We’re left with an intriguing question; is it our meaning functor that’s wrong, or the original API itself?


Our instances of Monoid Map and Monoid μ(Map) do not agree, leading us to the conclusion that μ(Map) cannot be the denotation for Map. We are left with the uneasy knowledge that at least one of them is incorrect, but without further information, we are unable to do better.

A property of denotations is that their instances of typeclasses are always homomorphisms, which is to say that they are structure preserving. Even if you are not necessarily familiar with the word, you will recognize the concept when you see it. It’s a pattern that often comes up when writing instances over polymorphic datastructures.

For example, let’s look at the Functor instance for a pair of type (a, b):

instance Functor ((,) a) where
  fmap f (a, b) = (a, f b)

This is a common pattern; unwrap your datatype, apply what you’ve got anywhere you can, and package it all up again in the same shape. It’s this “same shape” part that makes the thing structure preserving.

The principle to which we must adhere can be expressed with a pithy phrase: the meaning of the instance is the instance of the meaning. This is true for any meaning functor which is truly a denotation. What this means, for our hypothetical type μ(X), is that all of our instances must be of this form:

instance Functor μ(X) where
  μ(fmap f x) = fmap f μ(x)

instance Applicative μ(X) where
  μ(pure x)  = pure x
  μ(f <*> x) = μ(f) <*> μ(x)

and so on.

Having such a principle gives us an easy test for whether or not our meaning functor is correct; if any of our instances do not reduce down to this form, we know our meaning must be incorrect. Let’s take a look at our implementation of mempty:

μ(mempty) = \k -> Nothing
          = \k -> mempty
          = const mempty
          = mempty  -- (1)

At (1), we can collapse our const mempty with mempty because that is the definition of the Monoid ((->) a) instance. So far, our meaning is looking like a true denotation. Let’s also look at mappend:

μ(mappend m1 m2) = \k ->
  case μ(m1) k of
    Just v  -> Just v
    Nothing -> μ(m2) k

It’s not immediately clear how to wrestle this into a homomorphism, so let’s work backwards and see if we can go backwards:

mappend μ(m1) μ(m2)
    = mappend (\k -> v1) (\k -> v2)
    = \k -> mappend v1 v2
    = \k ->
        case v1 of   -- (2)
          z@(Just a) ->
            case v2 of
              Just b  -> Just $ mappend a b
              Nothing -> z
          Nothing -> v2

At (2) we inline the definition of mappend for Maybe.

That’s as far as we can go, and, thankfully, that’s far enough to see that our instances do not line up. While mappend for μ(Map) is left-biased, the one for our denotation may not be.

We’re left with the conclusion that our meaning functor μ()\mu(\cdot) must be wrong; either the representation of μ(Map) is incorrect, or our meaning μ(mappend) is. Fortunately, we are free to change either in order to make them agree. Because we’re sure that the left-bias in mappend is indeed the semantics we want, we must change the representation.

Fortunately, this is an easy fix; Data.Monoid provides the First newtype wrapper, which provides the left-biased monoid instance we want. Substituting it in gives us:

μ(Map k v) = k -> First v

Subsequent analysis of this revised definition of μ(Map) reveals that indeed it satisfies the homomorphism requirement. This is left as an exercise to the reader.

(De)composition of Functors🔗

We have now derived a denotation behind Map, one with a sensible Monoid instance. This gives rise to a further question—which other instances should we provide for Map?

Map is obviously a Functor, but is it an Applicative? There are certainly implementations for Applicative (Map k), but it’s unclear which is the one we should provide. To make the discussion concrete, what should be the semantics behind pure 17? Your intuition probably suggests we should get a singleton Map with a value of 17, but what should it’s key be? There’s no obvious choice, unless we ensure k is a Monoid.

Another alternative is that we return a Map in which every key maps to 17. This is implementation suggested by the Applicative homomorphism of μ(Map), but it doesn’t agree with our intuition. Alternatively, we could follow in the footsteps of Data.Map.Map, whose solution to this predicament is to sit on the fence, and not provide any Applicative instance whatsoever.

Sitting on the fence is not a very satisfying solution, however. Applicative is a particularly useful class, and having access to it would greatly leverage the Haskell ecosystem in terms of what we can do with our Map. As a general rule of thumb, any type which can be an instance of the standard classes should be, even if it requires a little finagling in order to make happen.

We find ourselves at an impasse, and so we can instead turn to other tweaks in our meaning functor, crossing our fingers that they will elicit inspiration.

Given the Compose type from Data.Functor.Compose, we can re-evaluate our choices once more (as we will see, this is a common theme in denotational design.)

data Compose f g a = Compose
  { getCompose :: f (g a)

Compose is a fantastic tool when building new types that are composites of others. For example, consider the meaning of μ(Map k v) = \k -> First v. If we’d like to fmap over the v here, we’ll need to perform two of them:

             f  ::         v  ->         w
  fmap (fmap f) :: μ(Map k v) -> μ(Map k w)

Although it seems minor, this is in fact quite a large inconvenience. Not only does it require us two fmap through two layers of functors, more egregiously, it allows us to use a single fmap to break the abstraction. Consider the case of fmap (const 5) – this will transform a μ(Map k v) into a k -> 5, which is obviously not a functor. Yikes.

We instead can re-redefine μ(Map k v):

`μ(Map k v) = Compose ((->) k) First v`

Presented in this form, we are exposed to another interpretation of what our type means. μ(Map) is a composition of some sort of mapping-ness ((->) k) and of partiality (First). The mapping-ness is obviously crucial to the underlying concept, but it’s harder to justify the partiality. One interpretation is that we use the Nothing value to indicate there was no corresponding key, but another is that we use Nothing as a default value.

When viewed as a default, a few minutes’ pondering on this thought reveals that a partial map (k -> Maybe v) is just a special case of a total map (k -> v) where the value itself is partial. Maybe—if you’ll excuse the pun—partiality is completely orthogonal to the semantics we want to express.

As our final (and ultimately correct) attempt, we define

μ(Map k v) = \k -> v

From here, the problem of “what typeclasses should this thing have” becomes quite trivial—we should provide equivalent instances for all of those of k -> v. The question about what should our Applicative instance do is resolved: the same thing arrows do.

A point worth stressing here is that just because the meaning of Map k v is k -> v, it doesn’t mean our representation must be. For example, we could conceive implementing Map as the following:

data Map k v = Map
  { mapDefVal :: v
  , mapTree   :: BalancedTree k v

lookup :: Ord k => Map k v -> k -> v
lookup m = fromMaybe (mapDefVal m) . treeLookup (mapTree m)

Such an implementation gives us all of the asymptotics of a tree-based map, but the denotations of (and therefore the intuitions behind) functions.

Hopefully this worked example has given you some insight into how the process of denotational design works. Guess at a denotation and then ruthlessly refine it until you get something that captures the real essence of what you’re trying to model. It’s an spectacularly rewarding experience to find an elegant solution to a half-baked idea, and your users will thank you to boot.