Types and Functions

Primitive Types

Idris defines several primitive types: Int, Integer and Double for numeric operations, Char and String for text manipulation, and Ptr which represents foreign pointers. There are also several data types declared in the library, including Bool, with values True and False. We can declare some constants with these types. Enter the following into a file Prims.idr and load it into the Idris interactive environment by typing idris Prims.idr:

module Prims

x : Int
x = 42

foo : String
foo = "Sausage machine"

bar : Char
bar = 'Z'

quux : Bool
quux = False

An Idris file consists of an optional module declaration (here module Prims) followed by an optional list of imports and a collection of declarations and definitions. In this example no imports have been specified. However Idris programs can consist of several modules and the definitions in each module each have their own namespace. This is discussed further in Section Modules and Namespaces. When writing Idris programs both the order in which definitions are given and indentation are significant. Functions and data types must be defined before use, incidentally each definition must have a type declaration, for example see x : Int, foo : String, from the above listing. New declarations must begin at the same level of indentation as the preceding declaration. Alternatively, a semicolon ; can be used to terminate declarations.

A library module prelude is automatically imported by every Idris program, including facilities for IO, arithmetic, data structures and various common functions. The prelude defines several arithmetic and comparison operators, which we can use at the prompt. Evaluating things at the prompt gives an answer, and the type of the answer. For example:

*prims> 6*6+6
42 : Integer
*prims> x == 6*6+6
True : Bool

All of the usual arithmetic and comparison operators are defined for the primitive types. They are overloaded using interfaces, as we will discuss in Section Interfaces and can be extended to work on user defined types. Boolean expressions can be tested with the if...then...else construct, for example:

*prims> if x == 6 * 6 + 6 then "The answer!" else "Not the answer"
"The answer!" : String

Data Types

Data types are declared in a similar way and with similar syntax to Haskell. Natural numbers and lists, for example, can be declared as follows:

data Nat    = Z   | S Nat           -- Natural numbers
                                    -- (zero and successor)
data List a = Nil | (::) a (List a) -- Polymorphic lists

The above declarations are taken from the standard library. Unary natural numbers can be either zero (Z), or the successor of another natural number (S k). Lists can either be empty (Nil) or a value added to the front of another list (x :: xs).

Data types may also be declared by giving just the types of the constructors. These definitions are equivalent to those above:

data Nat : Type where
    Z : Nat
    S : Nat -> Nat

data List : Type -> Type where
    Nil : List a
    (::) : a -> List a -> List a

This syntax is more verbose, but more flexible, and is used for types that can’t be described with the simpler syntax.

In the declaration for List, we used an infix operator ::. New operators such as this can be added using a fixity declaration, as follows:

infixr 10 ::

Functions, data constructors and type constructors may all be given infix operators as names. They may be used in prefix form if enclosed in brackets, e.g. (::). Infix operators can use any of the symbols:


Some operators built from these symbols can’t be user defined. These are :, =>, ->, <-, =, ?=, |, **, ==>, \, %, ~, ?, and !.


Functions are implemented by pattern matching, again using a similar syntax to Haskell. The main difference is that Idris requires type declarations for all functions, using a single colon : (rather than Haskell’s double colon ::). Some natural number arithmetic functions can be defined as follows, again taken from the standard library:

-- Unary addition
plus : Nat -> Nat -> Nat
plus Z     y = y
plus (S k) y = S (plus k y)

-- Unary multiplication
mult : Nat -> Nat -> Nat
mult Z     y = Z
mult (S k) y = plus y (mult k y)

The standard arithmetic operators + and * are also overloaded for use by Nat, and are implemented using the above functions. Unlike Haskell, there is no restriction on whether types and function names must begin with a capital letter or not. Function names (plus and mult above), data constructors (Z, S, Nil and ::) and type constructors (Nat and List) are all part of the same namespace. By convention, however, data types and constructor names typically begin with a capital letter. We can test these functions at the Idris prompt:

Idris> plus (S (S Z)) (S (S Z))
4 : Nat
Idris> mult (S (S (S Z))) (plus (S (S Z)) (S (S Z)))
12 : Nat


When displaying an element of Nat such as (S (S (S (S Z)))), Idris displays it as 4. The result of plus (S (S Z)) (S (S Z)) is actually (S (S (S (S Z)))) which is the natural number 4. This can be checked at the Idris prompt:

Idris> (S (S (S (S Z))))
4 : Nat

Like arithmetic operations, integer literals are also overloaded using interfaces, meaning that we can also test the functions as follows:

Idris> plus 2 2
4 : Nat
Idris> mult 3 (plus 2 2)
12 : Nat

You may wonder, by the way, why we have unary natural numbers when our computers have perfectly good integer arithmetic built in. The reason is primarily that unary numbers have a very convenient structure which is easy to reason about, and easy to relate to other data structures as we will see later. Nevertheless, we do not want this convenience to be at the expense of efficiency. Fortunately, Idris knows about the relationship between Nat (and similarly structured types) and numbers. This means it can optimise the representation, and functions such as plus and mult.

where clauses

Functions can also be defined locally using where clauses. For example, to define a function which reverses a list, we can use an auxiliary function which accumulates the new, reversed list, and which does not need to be visible globally:

reverse : List a -> List a
reverse xs = revAcc [] xs where
  revAcc : List a -> List a -> List a
  revAcc acc [] = acc
  revAcc acc (x :: xs) = revAcc (x :: acc) xs

Indentation is significant — functions in the where block must be indented further than the outer function.



Any names which are visible in the outer scope are also visible in the where clause (unless they have been redefined, such as xs here). A name which appears only in the type will be in scope in the where clause if it is a parameter to one of the types, i.e. it is fixed across the entire structure.

As well as functions, where blocks can include local data declarations, such as the following where MyLT is not accessible outside the definition of foo:

foo : Int -> Int
foo x = case isLT of
            Yes => x*2
            No => x*4
       data MyLT = Yes | No

       isLT : MyLT
       isLT = if x < 20 then Yes else No

In general, functions defined in a where clause need a type declaration just like any top level function. However, the type declaration for a function f can be omitted if:

  • f appears in the right hand side of the top level definition
  • The type of f can be completely determined from its first application

So, for example, the following definitions are legal:

even : Nat -> Bool
even Z = True
even (S k) = odd k where
  odd Z = False
  odd (S k) = even k

test : List Nat
test = [c (S 1), c Z, d (S Z)]
  where c x = 42 + x
        d y = c (y + 1 + z y)
              where z w = y + w


Idris programs can contain holes which stand for incomplete parts of programs. For example, we could leave a hole for the greeting in our “Hello world” program:

main : IO ()
main = putStrLn ?greeting

The syntax ?greeting introduces a hole, which stands for a part of a program which is not yet written. This is a valid Idris program, and you can check the type of greeting:

*Hello> :t greeting
greeting : String

Checking the type of a hole also shows the types of any variables in scope. For example, given an incomplete definition of even:

even : Nat -> Bool
even Z = True
even (S k) = ?even_rhs

We can check the type of even_rhs and see the expected return type, and the type of the variable k:

*Even> :t even_rhs
  k : Nat
even_rhs : Bool

Holes are useful because they help us write functions incrementally. Rather than writing an entire function in one go, we can leave some parts unwritten and use Idris to tell us what is necessary to complete the definition.

Dependent Types

First Class Types

In Idris, types are first class, meaning that they can be computed and manipulated (and passed to functions) just like any other language construct. For example, we could write a function which computes a type:

isSingleton : Bool -> Type
isSingleton True = Nat
isSingleton False = List Nat

This function calculates the appropriate type from a Bool which flags whether the type should be a singleton or not. We can use this function to calculate a type anywhere that a type can be used. For example, it can be used to calculate a return type:

mkSingle : (x : Bool) -> isSingleton x
mkSingle True = 0
mkSingle False = []

Or it can be used to have varying input types. The following function calculates either the sum of a list of Nat, or returns the given Nat, depending on whether the singleton flag is true:

sum : (single : Bool) -> isSingleton single -> Nat
sum True x = x
sum False [] = 0
sum False (x :: xs) = x + sum False xs


A standard example of a dependent data type is the type of “lists with length”, conventionally called vectors in the dependent type literature. They are available as part of the Idris library, by importing Data.Vect, or we can declare them as follows:

data Vect : Nat -> Type -> Type where
   Nil  : Vect Z a
   (::) : a -> Vect k a -> Vect (S k) a

Note that we have used the same constructor names as for List. Ad-hoc name overloading such as this is accepted by Idris, provided that the names are declared in different namespaces (in practice, normally in different modules). Ambiguous constructor names can normally be resolved from context.

This declares a family of types, and so the form of the declaration is rather different from the simple type declarations above. We explicitly state the type of the type constructor Vect — it takes a Nat and a type as an argument, where Type stands for the type of types. We say that Vect is indexed over Nat and parameterised by Type. Each constructor targets a different part of the family of types. Nil can only be used to construct vectors with zero length, and :: to construct vectors with non-zero length. In the type of ::, we state explicitly that an element of type a and a tail of type Vect k a (i.e., a vector of length k) combine to make a vector of length S k.

We can define functions on dependent types such as Vect in the same way as on simple types such as List and Nat above, by pattern matching. The type of a function over Vect will describe what happens to the lengths of the vectors involved. For example, ++, defined as follows, appends two Vect:

(++) : Vect n a -> Vect m a -> Vect (n + m) a
(++) Nil       ys = ys
(++) (x :: xs) ys = x :: xs ++ ys

The type of (++) states that the resulting vector’s length will be the sum of the input lengths. If we get the definition wrong in such a way that this does not hold, Idris will not accept the definition. For example:

(++) : Vect n a -> Vect m a -> Vect (n + m) a
(++) Nil       ys = ys
(++) (x :: xs) ys = x :: xs ++ xs -- BROKEN

When run through the Idris type checker, this results in the following:

$ idris VBroken.idr --check
When checking right hand side of Vect.++ with expected type
        Vect (S k + m) a

When checking an application of constructor Vect.:::
        Type mismatch between
                Vect (k + k) a (Type of xs ++ xs)
                Vect (plus k m) a (Expected type)

                Type mismatch between
                        plus k k
                        plus k m

This error message suggests that there is a length mismatch between two vectors — we needed a vector of length k + m, but provided a vector of length k + k.

The Finite Sets

Finite sets, as the name suggests, are sets with a finite number of elements. They are available as part of the Idris library, by importing Data.Fin, or can be declared as follows:

data Fin : Nat -> Type where
   FZ : Fin (S k)
   FS : Fin k -> Fin (S k)

From the signature, we can see that this is a type constructor that takes a Nat, and produces a type. So this is not a set in the sense of a collection that is a container of objects, rather it is the canonical set of unnamed elements, as in “the set of 5 elements,” for example. Effectively, it is a type that captures integers that fall into the range of zero to (n - 1) where n is the argument used to instantiate the Fin type. For example, Fin 5 can be thought of as the type of integers between 0 and 4.

Let us look at the constructors in greater detail.

FZ is the zeroth element of a finite set with S k elements; FS n is the n+1th element of a finite set with S k elements. Fin is indexed by a Nat, which represents the number of elements in the set. Since we can’t construct an element of an empty set, neither constructor targets Fin Z.

As mentioned above, a useful application of the Fin family is to represent bounded natural numbers. Since the first n natural numbers form a finite set of n elements, we can treat Fin n as the set of integers greater than or equal to zero and less than n.

For example, the following function which looks up an element in a Vect, by a bounded index given as a Fin n, is defined in the prelude:

index : Fin n -> Vect n a -> a
index FZ     (x :: xs) = x
index (FS k) (x :: xs) = index k xs

This function looks up a value at a given location in a vector. The location is bounded by the length of the vector (n in each case), so there is no need for a run-time bounds check. The type checker guarantees that the location is no larger than the length of the vector, and of course no less than zero.

Note also that there is no case for Nil here. This is because it is impossible. Since there is no element of Fin Z, and the location is a Fin n, then n can not be Z. As a result, attempting to look up an element in an empty vector would give a compile time type error, since it would force n to be Z.

Implicit Arguments

Let us take a closer look at the type of index:

index : Fin n -> Vect n a -> a

It takes two arguments, an element of the finite set of n elements, and a vector with n elements of type a. But there are also two names, n and a, which are not declared explicitly. These are implicit arguments to index. We could also write the type of index as:

index : {a:Type} -> {n:Nat} -> Fin n -> Vect n a -> a

Implicit arguments, given in braces {} in the type declaration, are not given in applications of index; their values can be inferred from the types of the Fin n and Vect n a arguments. Any name beginning with a lower case letter which appears as a parameter or index in a type declaration, which is not applied to any arguments, will always be automatically bound as an implicit argument. Implicit arguments can still be given explicitly in applications, using {a=value} and {n=value}, for example:

index {a=Int} {n=2} FZ (2 :: 3 :: Nil)

In fact, any argument, implicit or explicit, may be given a name. We could have declared the type of index as:

index : (i:Fin n) -> (xs:Vect n a) -> a

It is a matter of taste whether you want to do this — sometimes it can help document a function by making the purpose of an argument more clear.

Furthermore, {} can be used to pattern match on the left hand side, i.e. {var = pat} gets an implicit variable and attempts to pattern match on “pat”; For example:

isEmpty : Vect n a -> Bool
isEmpty {n = Z} _   = True
isEmpty {n = S k} _ = False

using” notation

Sometimes it is useful to provide types of implicit arguments, particularly where there is a dependency ordering, or where the implicit arguments themselves have dependencies. For example, we may wish to state the types of the implicit arguments in the following definition, which defines a predicate on vectors (this is also defined in Data.Vect, under the name Elem):

data IsElem : a -> Vect n a -> Type where
   Here :  {x:a} ->   {xs:Vect n a} -> IsElem x (x :: xs)
   There : {x,y:a} -> {xs:Vect n a} -> IsElem x xs -> IsElem x (y :: xs)

An instance of IsElem x xs states that x is an element of xs. We can construct such a predicate if the required element is Here, at the head of the vector, or There, in the tail of the vector. For example:

testVec : Vect 4 Int
testVec = 3 :: 4 :: 5 :: 6 :: Nil

inVect : IsElem 5 Main.testVec
inVect = There (There Here)


Implicit Arguments and Scope

Within the type signature the typechecker will treat all variables that start with an lowercase letter and are not applied to something else as an implicit variable. To get the above code example to compile you will need to provide a qualified name for testVec. In the example above, we have assumed that the code lives within the Main module.

If the same implicit arguments are being used a lot, it can make a definition difficult to read. To avoid this problem, a using block gives the types and ordering of any implicit arguments which can appear within the block:

using (x:a, y:a, xs:Vect n a)
  data IsElem : a -> Vect n a -> Type where
     Here  : IsElem x (x :: xs)
     There : IsElem x xs -> IsElem x (y :: xs)

Note: Declaration Order and mutual blocks

In general, functions and data types must be defined before use, since dependent types allow functions to appear as part of types, and type checking can rely on how particular functions are defined (though this is only true of total functions; see Section Totality Checking). However, this restriction can be relaxed by using a mutual block, which allows data types and functions to be defined simultaneously:

  even : Nat -> Bool
  even Z = True
  even (S k) = odd k

  odd : Nat -> Bool
  odd Z = False
  odd (S k) = even k

In a mutual block, first all of the type declarations are added, then the function bodies. As a result, none of the function types can depend on the reduction behaviour of any of the functions in the block.


Computer programs are of little use if they do not interact with the user or the system in some way. The difficulty in a pure language such as Idris — that is, a language where expressions do not have side-effects — is that I/O is inherently side-effecting. Therefore in Idris, such interactions are encapsulated in the type IO:

data IO a -- IO operation returning a value of type a

We’ll leave the definition of IO abstract, but effectively it describes what the I/O operations to be executed are, rather than how to execute them. The resulting operations are executed externally, by the run-time system. We’ve already seen one IO program:

main : IO ()
main = putStrLn "Hello world"

The type of putStrLn explains that it takes a string, and returns an element of the unit type () via an I/O action. There is a variant putStr which outputs a string without a newline:

putStrLn : String -> IO ()
putStr   : String -> IO ()

We can also read strings from user input:

getLine : IO String

A number of other I/O operations are defined in the prelude, for example for reading and writing files, including:

data File -- abstract
data Mode = Read | Write | ReadWrite

openFile : (f : String) -> (m : Mode) -> IO (Either FileError File)
closeFile : File -> IO ()

fGetLine : (h : File) -> IO (Either FileError String)
fPutStr : (h : File) -> (str : String) -> IO (Either FileError ())
fEOF : File -> IO Bool

Note that several of these return Either, since they may fail.

do” notation

I/O programs will typically need to sequence actions, feeding the output of one computation into the input of the next. IO is an abstract type, however, so we can’t access the result of a computation directly. Instead, we sequence operations with do notation:

greet : IO ()
greet = do putStr "What is your name? "
           name <- getLine
           putStrLn ("Hello " ++ name)

The syntax x <- iovalue executes the I/O operation iovalue, of type IO a, and puts the result, of type a into the variable x. In this case, getLine returns an IO String, so name has type String. Indentation is significant — each statement in the do block must begin in the same column. The pure operation allows us to inject a value directly into an IO operation:

pure : a -> IO a

As we will see later, do notation is more general than this, and can be overloaded.


Normally, arguments to functions are evaluated before the function itself (that is, Idris uses eager evaluation). However, this is not always the best approach. Consider the following function:

ifThenElse : Bool -> a -> a -> a
ifThenElse True  t e = t
ifThenElse False t e = e

This function uses one of the t or e arguments, but not both (in fact, this is used to implement the if...then...else construct as we will see later). We would prefer if only the argument which was used was evaluated. To achieve this, Idris provides a Lazy data type, which allows evaluation to be suspended:

data Lazy : Type -> Type where
     Delay : (val : a) -> Lazy a

Force : Lazy a -> a

A value of type Lazy a is unevaluated until it is forced by Force. The Idris type checker knows about the Lazy type, and inserts conversions where necessary between Lazy a and a, and vice versa. We can therefore write ifThenElse as follows, without any explicit use of Force or Delay:

ifThenElse : Bool -> Lazy a -> Lazy a -> a
ifThenElse True  t e = t
ifThenElse False t e = e

Codata Types

Codata types allow us to define infinite data structures by marking recursive arguments as potentially infinite. For a codata type T, each of its constructor arguments of type T are transformed into an argument of type Inf T. This makes each of the T arguments lazy, and allows infinite data structures of type T to be built. One example of a codata type is Stream, which is defined as follows.

codata Stream : Type -> Type where
  (::) : (e : a) -> Stream a -> Stream a

This gets translated into the following by the compiler.

data Stream : Type -> Type where
  (::) : (e : a) -> Inf (Stream a) -> Stream a

The following is an example of how the codata type Stream can be used to form an infinite data structure. In this case we are creating an infinite stream of ones.

ones : Stream Nat
ones = 1 :: ones

It is important to note that codata does not allow the creation of infinite mutually recursive data structures. For example the following will create an infinite loop and cause a stack overflow.

  codata Blue a = B a (Red a)
  codata Red a = R a (Blue a)

  blue : Blue Nat
  blue = B 1 red

  red : Red Nat
  red = R 1 blue

  findB : (a -> Bool) -> Blue a -> a
  findB f (B x r) = if f x then x else findR f r

  findR : (a -> Bool) -> Red a -> a
  findR f (R x b) = if f x then x else findB f b

main : IO ()
main = do printLn $ findB (== 1) blue

To fix this we must add explicit Inf declarations to the constructor parameter types, since codata will not add it to constructor parameters of a different type from the one being defined. For example, the following outputs 1.

  data Blue : Type -> Type where
   B : a -> Inf (Red a) -> Blue a

  data Red : Type -> Type where
   R : a -> Inf (Blue a) -> Red a

  blue : Blue Nat
  blue = B 1 red

  red : Red Nat
  red = R 1 blue

  findB : (a -> Bool) -> Blue a -> a
  findB f (B x r) = if f x then x else findR f r

  findR : (a -> Bool) -> Red a -> a
  findR f (R x b) = if f x then x else findB f b

main : IO ()
main = do printLn $ findB (== 1) blue

Useful Data Types

Idris includes a number of useful data types and library functions (see the libs/ directory in the distribution, and the documentation). This section describes a few of these. The functions described here are imported automatically by every Idris program, as part of Prelude.idr.

List and Vect

We have already seen the List and Vect data types:

data List a = Nil | (::) a (List a)

data Vect : Nat -> Type -> Type where
   Nil  : Vect Z a
   (::) : a -> Vect k a -> Vect (S k) a

Note that the constructor names are the same for each — constructor names (in fact, names in general) can be overloaded, provided that they are declared in different namespaces (see Section Modules and Namespaces), and will typically be resolved according to their type. As syntactic sugar, any type with the constructor names Nil and :: can be written in list form. For example:

  • [] means Nil
  • [1,2,3] means 1 :: 2 :: 3 :: Nil

The library also defines a number of functions for manipulating these types. map is overloaded both for List and Vect and applies a function to every element of the list or vector.

map : (a -> b) -> List a -> List b
map f []        = []
map f (x :: xs) = f x :: map f xs

map : (a -> b) -> Vect n a -> Vect n b
map f []        = []
map f (x :: xs) = f x :: map f xs

For example, given the following vector of integers, and a function to double an integer:

intVec : Vect 5 Int
intVec = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

double : Int -> Int
double x = x * 2

the function map can be used as follows to double every element in the vector:

*UsefulTypes> show (map double intVec)
"[2, 4, 6, 8, 10]" : String

For more details of the functions available on List and Vect, look in the library files:

  • libs/prelude/Prelude/List.idr
  • libs/base/Data/List.idr
  • libs/base/Data/Vect.idr
  • libs/base/Data/VectType.idr

Functions include filtering, appending, reversing, and so on.

Aside: Anonymous functions and operator sections

There are actually neater ways to write the above expression. One way would be to use an anonymous function:

*UsefulTypes> show (map (\x => x * 2) intVec)
"[2, 4, 6, 8, 10]" : String

The notation \x => val constructs an anonymous function which takes one argument, x and returns the expression val. Anonymous functions may take several arguments, separated by commas, e.g. \x, y, z => val. Arguments may also be given explicit types, e.g. \x : Int => x * 2, and can pattern match, e.g. \(x, y) => x + y. We could also use an operator section:

*UsefulTypes> show (map (* 2) intVec)
"[2, 4, 6, 8, 10]" : String

(*2) is shorthand for a function which multiplies a number by 2. It expands to \x => x * 2. Similarly, (2*) would expand to \x => 2 * x.


Maybe describes an optional value. Either there is a value of the given type, or there isn’t:

data Maybe a = Just a | Nothing

Maybe is one way of giving a type to an operation that may fail. For example, looking something up in a List (rather than a vector) may result in an out of bounds error:

list_lookup : Nat -> List a -> Maybe a
list_lookup _     Nil         = Nothing
list_lookup Z     (x :: xs) = Just x
list_lookup (S k) (x :: xs) = list_lookup k xs

The maybe function is used to process values of type Maybe, either by applying a function to the value, if there is one, or by providing a default value:

maybe : Lazy b -> Lazy (a -> b) -> Maybe a -> b

Note that the types of the first two arguments are wrapped in Lazy. Since only one of the two arguments will actually be used, we mark them as Lazy in case they are large expressions where it would be wasteful to compute and then discard them.


Values can be paired with the following built-in data type:

data Pair a b = MkPair a b

As syntactic sugar, we can write (a, b) which, according to context, means either Pair a b or MkPair a b. Tuples can contain an arbitrary number of values, represented as nested pairs:

fred : (String, Int)
fred = ("Fred", 42)

jim : (String, Int, String)
jim = ("Jim", 25, "Cambridge")
*UsefulTypes> fst jim
"Jim" : String
*UsefulTypes> snd jim
(25, "Cambridge") : (Int, String)
*UsefulTypes> jim == ("Jim", (25, "Cambridge"))
True : Bool

Dependent Pairs

Dependent pairs allow the type of the second element of a pair to depend on the value of the first element:

data DPair : (a : Type) -> (P : a -> Type) -> Type where
   MkDPair : {P : a -> Type} -> (x : a) -> P x -> DPair a P

Again, there is syntactic sugar for this. (a : A ** P) is the type of a pair of A and P, where the name a can occur inside P. ( a ** p ) constructs a value of this type. For example, we can pair a number with a Vect of a particular length:

vec : (n : Nat ** Vect n Int)
vec = (2 ** [3, 4])

If you like, you can write it out the long way, the two are precisely equivalent:

vec : DPair Nat (\n => Vect n Int)
vec = MkDPair 2 [3, 4]

The type checker could of course infer the value of the first element from the length of the vector. We can write an underscore _ in place of values which we expect the type checker to fill in, so the above definition could also be written as:

vec : (n : Nat ** Vect n Int)
vec = (_ ** [3, 4])

We might also prefer to omit the type of the first element of the pair, since, again, it can be inferred:

vec : (n ** Vect n Int)
vec = (_ ** [3, 4])

One use for dependent pairs is to return values of dependent types where the index is not necessarily known in advance. For example, if we filter elements out of a Vect according to some predicate, we will not know in advance what the length of the resulting vector will be:

filter : (a -> Bool) -> Vect n a -> (p ** Vect p a)

If the Vect is empty, the result is easy:

filter p Nil = (_ ** [])

In the :: case, we need to inspect the result of a recursive call to filter to extract the length and the vector from the result. To do this, we use with notation, which allows pattern matching on intermediate values:

filter p (x :: xs) with (filter p xs)
  | ( _ ** xs' ) = if (p x) then ( _ ** x :: xs' ) else ( _ ** xs' )

We will see more on with notation later.

Dependent pairs are sometimes referred to as “Sigma types”.


Records are data types which collect several values (the record’s fields) together. Idris provides syntax for defining records and automatically generating field access and update functions. Unlike the syntax used for data structures, records in Idris follow a different syntax to that seen with Haskell. For example, we can represent a person’s name and age in a record:

record Person where
    constructor MkPerson
    firstName, middleName, lastName : String
    age : Int

fred : Person
fred = MkPerson "Fred" "Joe" "Bloggs" 30

The constructor name is provided using the constructor keyword, and the fields are then given which are in an indented block following the where keyword (here, firstName, middleName, lastName, and age). You can declare multiple fields on a single line, provided that they have the same type. The field names can be used to access the field values:

*Record> firstName fred
"Fred" : String
*Record> age fred
30 : Int
*Record> :t firstName
firstName : Person -> String

We can also use the field names to update a record (or, more precisely, produce a copy of the record with the given fields updated):

*Record> record { firstName = "Jim" } fred
MkPerson "Jim" "Joe" "Bloggs" 30 : Person
*Record> record { firstName = "Jim", age $= (+ 1) } fred
MkPerson "Jim" "Joe" "Bloggs" 31 : Person

The syntax record { field = val, ... } generates a function which updates the given fields in a record. = assigns a new value to a field, and $= applies a function to update its value.

Each record is defined in its own namespace, which means that field names can be reused in multiple records.

Records, and fields within records, can have dependent types. Updates are allowed to change the type of a field, provided that the result is well-typed.

record Class where
    constructor ClassInfo
    students : Vect n Person
    className : String

It is safe to update the students field to a vector of a different length because it will not affect the type of the record:

addStudent : Person -> Class -> Class
addStudent p c = record { students = p :: students c } c
*Record> addStudent fred (ClassInfo [] "CS")
ClassInfo [MkPerson "Fred" "Joe" "Bloggs" 30] "CS" : Class

We could also use $= to define addStudent more concisely:

addStudent' : Person -> Class -> Class
addStudent' p c = record { students $= (p ::) } c

Nested record update

Idris also provides a convenient syntax for accessing and updating nested records. For example, if a field is accessible with the expression c (b (a x)), it can be updated using the following syntax:

record { a->b->c = val } x

This returns a new record, with the field accessed by the path a->b->c set to val. The syntax is first class, i.e. record { a->b->c = val } itself has a function type. Symmetrically, the field can also be accessed with the following syntax:

record { a->b->c } x

The $= notation is also valid for nested record updates.

Dependent Records

Records can also be dependent on values. Records have parameters, which cannot be updated like the other fields. The parameters appear as arguments to the resulting type, and are written following the record type name. For example, a pair type could be defined as follows:

record Prod a b where
    constructor Times
    fst : a
    snd : b

Using the Class record from earlier, the size of the class can be restricted using a Vect and the size included in the type by parameterising the record with the size. For example:

record SizedClass (size : Nat) where
    constructor SizedClassInfo
    students : Vect size Person
    className : String

Note that it is no longer possible to use the addStudent function from earlier, since that would change the size of the class. A function to add a student must now specify in the type that the size of the class has been increased by one. As the size is specified using natural numbers, the new value can be incremented using the S constructor:

addStudent : Person -> SizedClass n -> SizedClass (S n)
addStudent p c =  SizedClassInfo (p :: students c) (className c)

More Expressions

let bindings

Intermediate values can be calculated using let bindings:

mirror : List a -> List a
mirror xs = let xs' = reverse xs in
                xs ++ xs'

We can do simple pattern matching in let bindings too. For example, we can extract fields from a record as follows, as well as by pattern matching at the top level:

data Person = MkPerson String Int

showPerson : Person -> String
showPerson p = let MkPerson name age = p in
                   name ++ " is " ++ show age ++ " years old"

List comprehensions

Idris provides comprehension notation as a convenient shorthand for building lists. The general form is:

[ expression | qualifiers ]

This generates the list of values produced by evaluating the expression, according to the conditions given by the comma separated qualifiers. For example, we can build a list of Pythagorean triples as follows:

pythag : Int -> List (Int, Int, Int)
pythag n = [ (x, y, z) | z <- [1..n], y <- [1..z], x <- [1..y],
                         x*x + y*y == z*z ]

The [a..b] notation is another shorthand which builds a list of numbers between a and b. Alternatively [a,b..c] builds a list of numbers between a and c with the increment specified by the difference between a and b. This works for type Nat, Int and Integer, using the enumFromTo and enumFromThenTo function from the prelude.

case expressions

Another way of inspecting intermediate values of simple types is to use a case expression. The following function, for example, splits a string into two at a given character:

splitAt : Char -> String -> (String, String)
splitAt c x = case break (== c) x of
                  (x, y) => (x, strTail y)

break is a library function which breaks a string into a pair of strings at the point where the given function returns true. We then deconstruct the pair it returns, and remove the first character of the second string.

A case expression can match several cases, for example, to inspect an intermediate value of type Maybe a. Recall list_lookup which looks up an index in a list, returning Nothing if the index is out of bounds. We can use this to write lookup_default, which looks up an index and returns a default value if the index is out of bounds:

lookup_default : Nat -> List a -> a -> a
lookup_default i xs def = case list_lookup i xs of
                              Nothing => def
                              Just x => x

If the index is in bounds, we get the value at that index, otherwise we get a default value:

*UsefulTypes> lookup_default 2 [3,4,5,6] (-1)
5 : Integer
*UsefulTypes> lookup_default 4 [3,4,5,6] (-1)
-1 : Integer

Restrictions: The case construct is intended for simple analysis of intermediate expressions to avoid the need to write auxiliary functions, and is also used internally to implement pattern matching let and lambda bindings. It will only work if:

  • Each branch matches a value of the same type, and returns a value of the same type.
  • The type of the result is “known”. i.e. the type of the expression can be determined without type checking the case-expression itself.


Idris distinguishes between total and partial functions. A total function is a function that either:

  • Terminates for all possible inputs, or
  • Produces a non-empty, finite, prefix of a possibly infinite result

If a function is total, we can consider its type a precise description of what that function will do. For example, if we have a function with a return type of String we know something different, depending on whether or not it’s total:

  • If it’s total, it will return a value of type String in finite time;
  • If it’s partial, then as long as it doesn’t crash or enter an infinite loop, it will return a String.

Idris makes this distinction so that it knows which functions are safe to evaluate while type checking (as we’ve seen with First Class Types). After all, if it tries to evaluate a function during type checking which doesn’t terminate, then type checking won’t terminate! Therefore, only total functions will be evaluated during type checking. Partial functions can still be used in types, but will not be evaluated further.