Elm Christmas

Hurry, curry!

A 1 minute read written by
Robin Heggelund Hansen
09.12.2020

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Today we'll look at an interesting property of Elm known as currying. We will only explain the principle today, then spend the next two days seeing how it can be useful in practise.

Have you ever wondered why type signatures look the way they do? They seem intuitive for simple functions such as this:

aboveZero : Int -> Bool

Here we can see that aboveZero is a function which takes an Int and returns a Bool. Seems straightforward. Now look at this function:

isBetween : Int -> Int -> Int -> Bool

Many will read this type signature in a different way compared the the easier definition we saw earlier. They might say that isBetween is a function which takes three Ints and returns a Bool. But if that's the case, why are we forced to write all those arrows? Especially considering arrows seemingly work both as a input separator and as a separator between inputs and outputs.

Actually, arrows only seperate one input value and a return value. The type signature for isBetween should be read as 'a function that takes an Int and returns a function that takes an Int and returns a function that takes an Int and returns Bool'. This is the same type signature, but written differently:

isBetween : Int -> (Int -> (Int -> Bool))

For esthetic reasons, Elm allow us to write the type signature without the parentheses.

The key thing to learn from this is that there is no such thing as a function taking multiple arguments. All functions take exactly one argument, and returns something else. That something else might be another function. This also means that when calling a function with more than one argument, it's not only valid to call it in the following way, it's also what conceptually happens:

(((isBetween 1) 2) 3)

This property of functions only taking one argument is known as currying, and is a defining feature of languages like Elm and Haskell. But why should you care about this? When is this knowledge ever useful?

That's what we'll explore in the coming days.

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