Applicative Functors

An applicative functor is a functor that has two additional operations available: pure and seq. pure is the same operator used in Monad, because Monad in fact inherits from Applicative. seq is much like map: it allows a function to be used in order to transform the contents of a datatype. However, with seq, the function is itself contained in the datatype: f (α → β) → (Unit → f α) → f β. Having the function under the type f allows the Applicative instance to control how the function is applied, while unconditionally applies a function. The second argument has a type that begins with Unit → to allow the definition of seq to short-circuit in cases where the function will never be applied.

The value of this short-circuiting behavior can be seen in the instance of Applicative Option:

instance : Applicative Option where
  pure x := .some x
  seq f x :=
    match f with
    | none => none
    | some g => g <$> x ()

In this case, if there is no function for seq to apply, then there is no need to compute its argument, so x is never called. The same consideration informs the instance of Applicative for Except:

instance : Applicative (Except ε) where
  pure x := .ok x
  seq f x :=
    match f with
    | .error e => .error e
    | .ok g => g <$> x ()

This short-circuiting behavior depends only on the Option or Except structures that surround the function, rather than on the function itself.

Monads can be seen as a way of capturing the notion of sequentially executing statements into a pure functional language. The result of one statement can affect which further statements run. This can be seen in the type of bind: m α → (α → m β) → m β. The first statement's resulting value is an input into a function that computes the next statement to execute. Successive uses of bind are like a sequence of statements in an imperative programming language, and bind is powerful enough to implement control structures like conditionals and loops.

Following this analogy, Applicative captures function application in a language that has side effects. The arguments to a function in languages like Kotlin or C# are evaluated from left to right. Side effects performed by earlier arguments occur before those performed by later arguments. A function is not powerful enough to implement custom short-circuiting operators that depend on the specific value of an argument, however.

Typically, seq is not invoked directly. Instead, the operator <*> is used. This operator wraps its second argument in fun () => ..., simplifying the call site. In other words, E1 <*> E2 is syntactic sugar for Seq.seq E1 (fun () => E2).

The key feature that allows seq to be used with multiple arguments is that a multiple-argument Lean function is really a single-argument function that returns another function that's waiting for the rest of the arguments. In other words, if the first argument to seq is awaiting multiple arguments, then the result of the seq will be awaiting the rest. For example, some can have the type Option (Nat → Nat → Nat). Providing one argument, some <*> some 4, results in the type Option (Nat → Nat). This can itself be used with seq, so some <*> some 4 <*> some 7 has the type Option Nat.

Not every functor is applicative. Pair is like the built-in product type Prod:

structure Pair (α β : Type) : Type where
  first : α
  second : β

Like Except, Pair has type Type → Type → Type. This means that Pair α has type Type → Type, and a Functor instance is possible:

instance : Functor (Pair α) where
  map f x := ⟨x.first, f x.second⟩

This instance obeys the Functor contract.

The two properties to check are that id <$> x y = x y and that f <$> g <$> x y = (f ∘ g) <$> x y. The first property can be checked by just stepping through the evaluation of the left side, and noticing that it evaluates to the right side:

id <$> x y
===> x (id y)
===> x y

The second can be checked by stepping through both sides, and noting that they yield the same result:

f <$> g <$> x y
f <$> x (g y)
===> x (f (g y))

(f ∘ g) <$> x y
===> x ((f ∘ g) y)
===> x (f (g y))

Attempting to define an Applicative instance, however, does not work so well. It will require a definition of pure:

def Pair.pure (x : β) : Pair α β := _
don't know how to synthesize placeholder
β α : Type
x : β
⊢ Pair α β

There is a value with type β in scope (namely x), and the error message from the underscore suggests that the next step is to use the constructor

def Pair.pure (x : β) : Pair α β := _ x
don't know how to synthesize placeholder for argument 'first'
β α : Type
x : β
⊢ α

Unfortunately, there is no α available. Because pure would need to work for all possible types α to define an instance of Applicative (Pair α), this is impossible. After all, a caller could choose α to be Empty, which has no values at all.

A Non-Monadic Applicative

When validating user input to a form, it's generally considered to be best to provide many errors at once, rather than one error at a time. This allows the user to have an overview of what is needed to please the computer, rather than feeling badgered as they correct the errors field by field.

Ideally, validating user input will be visible in the type of the function that's doing the validating. It should return a datatype that is specific—checking that a text box contains a number should return an actual numeric type, for instance. A validation routine could throw an exception when the input does not pass validation. Exceptions have a major drawback, however: they terminate the program at the first error, making it impossible to accumulate a list of errors.

On the other hand, the common design pattern of accumulating a list of errors and then failing when it is non-empty is also problematic. A long nested sequences of if statements that validate each sub-section of the input data is hard to maintain, and it's easy to lose track of an error message or two. Ideally, validation can be performed using an API that enables a new value to be returned yet automatically tracks and accumulates error messages.

An applicative functor called Validate provides one way to implement this style of API. Like the Except monad, Validate allows a new value to be constructed that characterizes the validated data accurately. Unlike Except, it allows multiple errors to be accumulated, without a risk of forgetting to check whether the list is empty.

User Input

As an example of user input, take the following structure:

structure RawInput where
  name : String
  birthYear : String

The business logic to be implemented is the following:

  1. The name may not be empty
  2. The birth year must be numeric and non-negative
  3. The birth year must be greater than 1900, and less than or equal to the year in which the form is validated

Representing these as a datatype will require a new feature, called subtypes. With this tool in hand, a validation framework can be written that uses an applicative functor to track errors, and these rules can be implemented in the framework.


Representing these conditions is easiest with one additional Lean type, called Subtype:

structure Subtype {α : Type} (p : α → Prop) where
  val : α
  property : p val

This structure has two type parameters: an implicit parameter that is the type of data α, and an explicit parameter p that is a predicate over α. A predicate is a logical statement with a variable in it that can be replaced with a value to yield an actual statement, like the parameter to GetElem that describes what it means for an index to be in bounds for a lookup. In the case of Subtype, the predicate slices out some subset of the values of α for which the predicate holds. The structure's two fields are, respectively, a value from α and evidence that the value satisfies the predicate p. Lean has special syntax for Subtype. If p has type α → Prop, then the type Subtype p can also be written {x : α // p x}, or even {x // p x} when the type can be inferred automatically.

Representing positive numbers as inductive types is clear and easy to program with. However, it has a key disadvantage. While Nat and Int have the structure of ordinary inductive types from the perspective of Lean programs, the compiler treats them specially and uses fast arbitrary-precision number libraries to implement them. This is not the case for additional user-defined types. However, a subtype of Nat that restricts it to non-zero numbers allows the new type to use the efficient representation while still ruling out zero at compile time:

def FastPos : Type := {x : Nat // x > 0}

The smallest fast positive number is still one. Now, instead of being a constructor of an inductive type, it's an instance of a structure that's constructed with angle brackets. The first argument is the underlying Nat, and the second argument is the evidence that said Nat is greater than zero:

def one : FastPos := ⟨1, by simp⟩

The OfNat instance is very much like that for Pos, except it uses a short tactic proof to provide evidence that n + 1 > 0:

instance : OfNat FastPos (n + 1) where
  ofNat := ⟨n + 1, by simp_arith⟩

The simp_arith tactic is a version of simp that takes additional arithmetic identities into account.

Subtypes are a two-edged sword. They allow efficient representation of validation rules, but they transfer the burden of maintaining these rules to the users of the library, who have to prove that they are not violating important invariants. Generally, it's a good idea to use them internally to a library, providing an API to users that automatically ensures that all invariants are satisfied, with any necessary proofs being internal to the library.

Checking whether a value of type α is in the subtype {x : α // p x} usually requires that the proposition p x be decidable. The section on equality and ordering classes describes how decidable propositions can be used with if. When if is used with a decidable proposition, a name can be provided. In the then branch, the name is bound to evidence that the proposition is true, and in the else branch, it is bound to evidence that the proposition is false. This comes in handy when checking whether a given Nat is positive:

def Nat.asFastPos? (n : Nat) : Option FastPos :=
  if h : n > 0 then
    some ⟨n, h⟩
  else none

In the then branch, h is bound to evidence that n > 0, and this evidence can be used as the second argument to Subtype's constructor.

Validated Input

The validated user input is a structure that expresses the business logic using multiple techniques:

  • The structure type itself encodes the year in which it was checked for validity, so that CheckedInput 2019 is not the same type as CheckedInput 2020
  • The birth year is represented as a Nat rather than a String
  • Subtypes are used to constrain the allowed values in the name and birth year fields
structure CheckedInput (thisYear : Nat) : Type where
  name : {n : String // n ≠ ""}
  birthYear : {y : Nat // y > 1900 ∧ y ≤ thisYear}

An input validator should take the current year and a RawInput as arguments, returning either a checked input or at least one validation failure. This is represented by the Validate type:

inductive Validate (ε α : Type) : Type where
  | ok : α → Validate ε α
  | errors : NonEmptyList ε → Validate ε α

It looks very much like Except. The only difference is that the error constructor may contain more than one failure.

Validate is a functor. Mapping a function over it transforms any successful value that might be present, just as in the Functor instance for Except:

instance : Functor (Validate ε) where
  map f
   | .ok x => .ok (f x)
   | .errors errs => .errors errs

The Applicative instance for Validate has an important difference from the instance for Except: while the instance for Except terminates at the first error encountered, the instance for Validate is careful to accumulate all errors from both the function and the argument branches:

instance : Applicative (Validate ε) where
  pure := .ok
  seq f x :=
    match f with
    | .ok g => g <$> (x ())
    | .errors errs =>
      match x () with
      | .ok _ => .errors errs
      | .errors errs' => .errors (errs ++ errs')

Using .errors together with the constructor for NonEmptyList is a bit verbose. Helpers like reportError make code more readable. In this application, error reports will consist of field names paired with messages:

def Field := String

def reportError (f : Field) (msg : String) : Validate (Field × String) α :=
  .errors { head := (f, msg), tail := [] }

The Applicative instance for Validate allows the checking procedures for each field to be written independently and then composed. Checking a name consists of ensuring that a string is non-empty, then returning evidence of this fact in the form of a Subtype. This uses the evidence-binding version of if:

def checkName (name : String) : Validate (Field × String) {n : String // n ≠ ""} :=
  if h : name = "" then
    reportError "name" "Required"
  else pure ⟨name, h⟩

In the then branch, h is bound to evidence that name = "", while it is bound to evidence that ¬name = "" in the else branch.

It's certainly the case that some validation errors make other checks impossible. For example, it makes no sense to check whether the birth year field is greater than 1900 if a confused user wrote the word "syzygy" instead of a number. Checking the allowed range of the number is only meaningful after ensuring that the field in fact contains a number. This can be expressed using the function andThen:

def Validate.andThen (val : Validate ε α) (next : α → Validate ε β) : Validate ε β :=
  match val with
  | .errors errs => .errors errs
  | .ok x => next x

While this function's type signature makes it suitable to be used as bind in a Monad instance, there are good reasons not to do so. They are described in the section that describes the Applicative contract.

To check that the birth year is a number, a built-in function called String.toNat? : String → Option Nat is useful. It's most user-friendly to eliminate leading and trailing whitespace first using String.trim:

def checkYearIsNat (year : String) : Validate (Field × String) Nat :=
  match year.trim.toNat? with
  | none => reportError "birth year" "Must be digits"
  | some n => pure n

To check that the provided year is in the expected range, nested uses of the evidence-providing form of if are in order:

def checkBirthYear (thisYear year : Nat) : Validate (Field × String) {y : Nat // y > 1900 ∧ y ≤ thisYear} :=
  if h : year > 1900 then
    if h' : year ≤ thisYear then
      pure ⟨year, by simp [*]⟩
    else reportError "birth year" s!"Must be no later than {thisYear}"
  else reportError "birth year" "Must be after 1900"

Finally, these three components can be combined using seq:

def checkInput (year : Nat) (input : RawInput) : Validate (Field × String) (CheckedInput year) :=
  pure <*>
    checkName <*>
    (checkYearIsNat input.birthYear).andThen fun birthYearAsNat =>
      checkBirthYear year birthYearAsNat

Testing checkInput shows that it can indeed return multiple pieces of feedback:

#eval checkInput 2023 {name := "David", birthYear := "1984"}
Validate.ok { name := "David", birthYear := 1984 }
#eval checkInput 2023 {name := "", birthYear := "2045"}
Validate.errors { head := ("name", "Required"), tail := [("birth year", "Must be no later than 2023")] }
#eval checkInput 2023 {name := "David", birthYear := "syzygy"}
Validate.errors { head := ("birth year", "Must be digits"), tail := [] }

Form validation with checkInput illustrates a key advantage of Applicative over Monad. Because >>= provides enough power to modify the rest of the program's execution based on the value from the first step, it must receive a value from the first step to pass on. If no value is received (e.g. because an error has occurred), then >>= cannot execute the rest of the program. Validate demonstrates why it can be useful to run the rest of the program anyway: in cases where the earlier data isn't needed, running the rest of the program can yield useful information (in this case, more validation errors). Applicative's <*> may run both of its arguments before recombining the results. Similarly, >>= forces sequential execution. Each step must complete before the next may run. This is generally useful, but it makes it impossible to have parallel execution of different threads that naturally emerges from the program's actual data dependencies. A more powerful abstraction like Monad increases the flexibility that's available to the API consumer, but it decreases the flexibility that is available to the API implementor.