Elm Christmas

Lord of the pipes

A 3 minute read written by
Jørgen Tu Sveli

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If the bulk of your programming experience comes from C-like languages, there’s a chance you find pipes, |>and <| some of the most distinct features of Elm. Roll up your sleeves, it's time to master the art of piping.

Their shape partly reveals what they do; something goes to the right |> or to the left <|. Yet you quickly realize you need to really understand what they do to in turn understand Elm. They have the role of operators in Elm and they control function application.

Below is one way of calculating the sum of the n first natural numbers ( 1 + 2 + 3 + .. n = ? )

nFirstSum: Int -> Int
nFirstSum n =
    List.sum (List.range 1 n)

We make a list of numbers with 1 as the first and n as the last element. Then we pass that list to List.sum. We need parens around the call to List.range. Without them, List.sum would assume the function List.range itself was its argument. This is because function calls are left-associative in Elm.

We can use a pipe to get rid of the parens.

nFirstSum: Int -> Int
nFirstSum n =
  List.range 1 n
    |> List.sum

The improvement might not be apparent. Now, at least the steps are shown in order. Let's assume we instead wanted the sum of the squares of the first n numbers: ( 1² + 2² + 3² + .. n² = ? ).

square: Int -> Int
square x = 
  x * x

-- No pipes
nFirstSquaresSum: Int -> Int
nFirstSquaresSum n =
  List.sum (List.map square (List.range 1 n))
-- With pipes
nFirstSquaresSum: Int -> Int
nFirstSquaresSum n =
  List.range 1 n
    |> List.map square
    |> List.sum 

The former requires us to parse the parens, to spot the order of the statements. In this case the order is right to left. The latter variant instantly reveals the different steps in perfect order of execution. It forms a pipeline.

The backwards pipe, <| could be used to express the same sequence of calls as its brother |>, but in the opposite order. The example above, with the same formatting, would put List.sum first and on a line of its own. This is confusing since in reality it is the last function called. It is better expressed on one line:

nFirstSquaresSum: Int -> Int
nFirstSquaresSum n =   
    List.sum <| List.map square <| List.range 1 n

This is closer to how one would write in a language that uses parens for function calls. However, long sequences of <| quickly produce long lines. It is almost always possible to express the same sequence using |> . My personal rules of thumb are:

  1. Try to express things vertically with |>
  2. Dont mix |> and <| in the same expression
  3. Use a single <| in an expression to avoid parens

Of these, number 3 deserves additional examples. Recall day 1, when we noticed that we can pair two values with both syntax (1, "one") and the function Tuple.pair. One way this function is useful is with pipes. In the code below, we pair an argument to the function tup with the result of some other expression. With a pipe and Tuple.pair it looks cleaner than if we would use normal tuple syntax.

tup : Int -> (Int, String)
tup number =
    Tuple.pair number 
        <| case number of
            1 -> "one"
            2 -> "two"
            3 -> "three"
            _ -> "something else"

Going deep

|> is one of Elm’s operators. Like +, it’s an infix operator which gets its two operands from either side. + adds the left and right operand together. As you will learn more about in coming days, + and all other operators are functions in Elm. This is the type signature for +

(+) : number -> number -> number

|> has its own type signature:

(|>) : a -> (a -> b) -> b

This signature tells us that the left operand (first argument) is an a value, the second operand is something that changes an a value into a b value, and the result is a b. Studying these type signatures might seem like an unnecessarily academic activity, but reading and understanding type signatures will enable you to identify where and how you can use pipes in your own code. In my experience the compiler becomes even more helpful with a basic understanding of what type each side of the pipe is expected to have.

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