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How to think about monads

How to think about Monads

Initially, Monads are the biggest, scariest thing about Functional Programming and especially Haskell. I've used monads for quite some time now, but I didn't have a very good model for what they really are. I read Philip Wadler's paper Monads for functional programming and I still didnt quite see the pattern.

It wasn't until I read the blog post You Could Have Invented Monads! (And Maybe You Already Have.) that I started to see things more clearly.

This is a distillation of those works and most likely an oversimplification in an attempt to make things easier to understand. Nuance can come later. What we need when first learning something is a simple, if inaccurate, model.

This document assumes a beginner's knowledge of pure functional programming and Haskell with some brief encounters of Monads, e.g. Functors, Applicatives, And Monads In Pictures or A Fistful of Monads.

Pure Composition

Take the following pure functions:

f :: Float -> Float
f x = x + 10

g :: Float -> Float
g y = y * 100 

They are simple enough. And as is so common in functional programming, I'm going to combine these two function using functional composition.

h :: Float -> Float
h = g . f


   +-----+    +-----+
-> |  f  | -> |  g  | ->
   +-----+    +-----+

The power of composing smaller, simpler things to produce larger, more complex things can be seen in nature (atoms, molecules, amino acids, protiens, etc.) and programming (statement, function, module, program), and so on.

There is no argument that this operation is advantageous.

Pure Composition with Side Effects

Now let's take our beautiful, pure functions and let's ruin them with some impurity. Let's say we want to log our operations, i.e. make Debuggable versions of our functions.

Here's some impure javascript code to illustrate:

var log = '';
const f = x => { log += 'added 10\n'; return x + 10; };
const g = y => { log += 'multiplied by 100\n'; return y * 100; };
const h = z => g(f(z));

Here the global variable log is appended to each time f or g are called, i.e. these functions produce a side effect.

To do this in a pure functional language requires a very different tact, however. In pure functional programming, everything is passed into a function and everything that function produces is passed out.

To accomplish a similar task with pure functions requires us to return BOTH the result of the computation AND all of its side-effects.

Here's some Haskell code to accomplish just that:

f' :: Float -> (Float, String)
f' x = (x + 10, "added 10\n")

g' :: Float -> (Float, String)
g' y = (y * 100, "multiplied 100\n")

Now we need to compose these 2 functions but we cannot use (.), so we are forced to write:

h' :: Float -> (Float, String)
h' z = 
  let (r, s)  = f' z
      (t, s') = g' r in
  (t, s ++ s')


   +-----+                                  +-----+
-> |  f' | -> (computation, side-effect) -> |  g' | ->
   +-----+                                  +-----+

UGH!!! This code is painful to write each time. Imagine the work we'd have to do if we wanted to compose more than 2 functions.

What would be great is if we had a compose function that would work with f' and g' and produce h' simply and elegantly.

It's not obvious how one goes about doing this. So let's start with the standard compose function, (.):

(.) :: (b -> c) -> (a -> b) -> (a -> c)
(.) g f x = g (f x)

This won't work for us because we don't have functions of type b -> c or a -> b, instead we have functions of type Float -> (Float, String) or more generally, b -> (c, String) and a -> (b, String).

What we want is a compose function that will allow us to compose our Debuggable functions:

compDebuggable :: (b -> (c, String)) -> (a -> (b, String)) -> (a -> (c, String))
compDebuggable g' f' x =
  let (r, s)  = f' x
      (t, s') = g' r in
  (t, s ++ s')

Compare compDebuggable's signature with (.)'s. c and b have been replaced with (c, String) and (b, String) respectively.

Notice how compDebuggable manages the side-effect for us. (This will be important later.) It squirrels them away into variables until it's time to combine them and then it does so returning the result.

With this function we can compose functions that produce String as a side-effect:

h' :: Float -> (Float, String)
h' = g' `compDebuggable` f'

which looks very similar to the no side-effect counterpart:

h :: Float -> Float
h x = g . f

Composing Side Effects with No Side Effects

We can compose side-effect functions with other side-effect functions. We can also compose no side-effect functions with other no side-effect functions. But, how do we compose them with each other?

There are 2 possibilities.

We could convert the side-effect function into a no side-effect function, but then we'd lose all of the side-effects which defeats the whole purpose.

Or we convert the no side-effect function into a side-effect function, letting us keep our side-effects and leverage a ton of pure functions.

Since a Debuggable function appends to the "log", we want our no side-effect function to have no impact on the log. Therefore, we return an empty string as the side-effect of any no side-effect function that we convert:

mkFuncDebuggable :: (a -> b) -> (a -> (b, String))
mkFuncDebuggable p x = (p x, "")

Now we can compose a no side-effect function, nse with a side-effect one, r':

nse :: Float -> Float
nse x = x + 1

r' :: Float -> (Float, String)
r' = mkFuncDebuggable nse `compDebuggable` f'


   |          +------------------+ |                     empty        +-----+
-> | (nse) -> | mkFuncDebuggable | | -> (computation, side-effect) -> |  f' |->
   |          +------------------+ |                                  +-----+

Function Application

Being able to compose functions is fine, but many times we don't want to compose functions. Sometimes, it's just easier to apply functions one after another.

Here is an example of that with NO side-effects:

y :: Float
y = 12.345 & f & g

Here 12.345 is first applied to f and then its results are applied to g.

While this example is pretty simplistic, in real-world programming, things can get more complicated making this form of programming highly desirable.

The side-effect version of function appication is a bit more complex. We can write:

12.345 & f' :: (Float, String)

but we cannot pass the result directly into g' since g' has the signature Float -> (Float, String).

Just like with composition, we need a special apply function for Debuggables that will take the (Float, String) and apply it to a function like g' :: Float -> (Float, String):

applyDebuggable :: (a, String) -> (a -> (b, String)) -> (b, String)
applyDebuggable (x, l) f' = let (r, s) = f' x in (r, l ++ s)

Now with applyDebuggable, we can finally write y':

y' :: (Float, String)
y' = (12.345 & f') `applyDebuggable` g'

This version of y' uses both & and applyDebuggable. To write a version that only uses applyDebuggable we must take the Float and turn it into (Float, String) or more generally:

mkDebuggable :: a -> (a, String)
mkDebuggable x = (x, "")

mkDebuggable takes any value and wraps it in a Debuggable. As an aside, we can rewrite mkFuncDebuggable in terms of mkDebuggable:

mkFuncDebuggable' :: (a -> b) -> (a -> (b, String))
mkFuncDebuggable' p x = mkDebuggable (p x)

Now that we have mkDebuggable, we can write y' using only applyDebuggable:

y' :: (Float, String)
y' = mkDebuggable 12.345 `applyDebuggable` f' `applyDebuggable` g'

We now have the ability to do function application to Debuggable functions.

In fact, we can now rewrite compDebuggable in terms of applyDebuggable:

compDebuggable :: (b -> Debuggable c) -> (a -> Debuggable b) -> (a -> Debuggable c)
compDebuggable g' f' x = f' x `applyDebuggable` g'

Debuggable Type

We've been referring to the output of our side-effect functions as Debuggable, but now it's time to give it a proper type.

type Debuggable a = (a, String)

And here again are the functions that support this type, this time using our new type:

applyDebuggable :: Debuggable a -> (a -> Debuggable b) -> Debuggable b
applyDebuggable (x, l) f' = let (r, s) = f' x in (r, l ++ s)

mkDebuggable :: a -> Debuggable a
mkDebuggable x = (x, "")

(mkFuncDebuggable and compDebuggable have been left out since they can be written in terms of mkDebuggable and applyDebuggable, respectively)

So we are left with 3 very useful things that let us work easily and consistently with Debuggables:

  1. Our special side-effect type (Debuggable)
  2. A way to apply our special side-effect functions (applyDebuggable)
  3. A way to turn non-special types into our special type (mkDebuggable)

Seems like we have everything we need to work with our Debuggable functions and their outputs easily and consistently.

Time to step back and take inventory

What is Debuggable?*

In general terms, Debuggable is a computation with side-effects.

Functions that operate on Debuggables will operate on the computation and optionally produce a side-effect. The previous computation value is input and optionally modified by the function to produce a new computation value along with a side-effect.

The previous side-effect value is modified in a similar way EXCEPT it isn't modified by the function, but instead is modified by applyDebuggable.

So side-effects are "managed" by the code that applies them. This is a nice feature since we don't have to keep writing code to manage the side-effects over and over again.

* (Answer: A Monad)

How can I generalize #2 and #3 in code?*

Instead of having to come up with names like applyDebuggable and mkDebuggable it would be nice to have a common name for these operations.

This is where type classes come in handy. We just have to figure out a good name for our type class functions. Fortunately, these already exist in Haskell, but unfortunately, the names are terrible especially for the newcomer.

* (Answer: type class functions >>= and return)

The dreaded M-word

Let's finally take what we've done with Debuggable and see how it relates to Monads.


First, take mkDebuggable. In the Monad type class, it's called return (see what I mean about terrible names). This name makes sense when you learn about do syntax in Haskell.

mkDebuggable took a non-Debuggable Value and made it a Debuggable Value.

return takes non-Monadic Value and makes it Monadic Value where the Monadic Value is a value in the Monad.

In the Debuggable Monad, a non-Monadic Value could be 12.345 and return 12.345 is a Monadic Value of (12.345, "").


Second, take applyDebuggable. In the Monad type class, it's called bind (another lousy name). It's so commonly used that it has its own operator (>>=).

You can think of bind as binding the Monadic Value to a Monadic Function. This makes sense when you look at applyDebuggable's signature:

applyDebuggable :: Debuggable a -> (a -> Debuggable b) -> Debuggable b

The Monadic Value inside Debuggable a is bound to the Monadic Function a -> Debuggable b to produce Debuggable b.

Monad type class

Here is the Monad type class definition:

class Applicative m => Monad m where
  return :: a -> m a
  (>>=) :: m a -> (a -> m b) -> m b

This is the minimal definition (see Prelude for full definition).

Notice how m a is analogous to Debuggable a and a -> m b is analogous to a -> Debuggable b. Basically, where we had Debuggable we now have m.

Debuggable implementation

The following is the full implementation of Debuggable and its Functor, Applicative and Monad instances. Functor and Applicative are shown only for completeness. We are mainly concerned with Monad.

module Debuggable where

newtype Debuggable a = Debuggable (a, String)

instance Functor Debuggable where
  fmap f (Debuggable (x, s)) = Debuggable (f x, s)

instance Applicative Debuggable where
  pure x = Debuggable (x, "")
  Debuggable (f, s) <*> Debuggable (x, t) = Debuggable (f x, s ++ t)

instance Monad Debuggable where
  return = pure
  Debuggable (x, s) >>= f' = let Debuggable (r, t) = f' x in Debuggable (r, s ++ t)

In the Monad implementation, return leverages the Applicative's pure function. Notice this implementation is equivalent to our mkDebuggable.

Bind, or more accurately, >>=, is implemented exactly like our applyDebuggable. Notice how the side-effects are managed by the Monad's implmentation.

Functions like f' and g' only have to worry about their own side-effects. The bind function concatenates the side-effects. (Note we could have used <> which is the mconcat operator from Data.Monoid, but I left it out for simplicity sake.)

What about the functions we threw away

Remember mkFuncDebuggable and compDebuggable. Well, these are derivative functions, that is, they can be written in terms of other functions, viz. the Monad functions.


mkFuncDebuggable is a function called lift with the following implementation:

lift :: Monad m => (a -> b) -> a -> m b
lift f x = return (f x)

N.B., lift is a highly overloaded function name in Haskell and there are many implementations for different scenarios. This implementation make the most sense for what we're doing here.


compDebuggable is the right-to-left version of Kleisli composition, <=<, which is composition of Monadic Functions, viz. functions of the form Monad m => a -> m b:

(<=<) :: Monad m => (b -> m c) -> (a -> m b) -> (a -> m c)
(g' <=< f') x = f' x >>= g'

Notice how both lift and <=< are NOT part of a type class but instead leverage the implementation of Monad m.

lift is written in terms of return and <=< is written in terms of >>=.

Therefore, these functions can work with any Monads, hence the Monad m => portion of their signatures.

Flow Control

Note that >>= can do limited flow control. In our implemenation of Debuggable, we only have 1 type constructor viz. Debuggable. But Monads such as Maybe and Either have 2.

Maybe has Just a and Nothing and Either has Left a and Right b.

Their bind implementations short-circuit function applications when Maybe encounters a Nothing or Either encounters a Left a.


   +-----+      +-----+      +-----+
-> |  f' | +--> |  g' | +--> |  h' | +-->
   +-----+ |    +-----+ |    +-----+ |
           |            |            |
           +------------+------------+-> SHORT-CIRCUIT

In this picture, the bind may short-circuit, i.e. exit early, after f' or g' are executed.

The flow control is limited because the only control that is possible is an early exit.

It's impossible for the bind, for example, to skip g' and not h' because there is no guarantee that the types would line up.

The bind can only do 1 of 2 things.

  1. Continue function application
  2. Abort function application


I'd recommend re-reading this and implementing these functions yourself just to get a good viceral feel for them.

I suspect that this, like all of the other Monad articles, will only provide a small view of the larger subject regarding Monads.

Hopefully, this has been a beginner friendly treatise of Monads.


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@dlukes dlukes commented Dec 2, 2019

Thanks, this has been a fun read, and I think I'm another step closer to grokking monads :) The article really shows you put some thought and effort into making this material accessible, kudos.

I think the problem with explaining abstract concepts like monads is that for many people (including me), the easiest way to really understand and internalize an abstract concept is by seeing many concrete examples. That's how humans are wired -- we're good at spotting patterns in data, and we need enough data points for our minds to latch onto.

However, people who already understand the concept at an abstract level tend to want to give the abstract, succinct definition, because for them, that's the most economical and elegant way of recalling all the wealth of understanding they've accumulated behind that concept. The succinct definition is like a pointer, but experts often don't realize that for beginners, it's unfortunately a null pointer.

So it's great that different tutorials exist which show different instances of monads as examples. I've seen multiple explanations showcasing the Maybe monad, but these all count as just one concrete data point for the general abstract concept. But with your tutorial focusing on a Debuggable monad, I think I'm starting to see more clearly the kinds of patterns monads are intended to abstract away.


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@cscalfani cscalfani commented Dec 2, 2019

I'm so glad you found this article useful.

Your point about abstract models and concrete models is spot on. I wrote an article on Medium that talks about that very idea Why Experts Make Bad Teachers.


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@dlukes dlukes commented Dec 2, 2019

That's a great article! This type of perspective is crucial in order to understand how meaning works in language in general. Linguistics (my field) is still in many ways stuck thinking that meanings are like Lego bricks, and more complex meanings are "built up" from component parts. I.e. monad = A + B + C, and that's it, we're done, that's all there is to it and ever will be, for every person on Earth.

The competing view is that meanings are discriminated, as and when discriminating them makes practical sense (like your examples with teaching numbers or musical notation). In this perspective, I can always throw more words (or in general, experiences) at monads and (hopefully) improve my understanding (= my ability to put monads to practical use).

The Lego brick mechanism is of course how formal languages/systems work (which is probably the analogy that got linguistics confused), but since even these need to be learnt through the discriminative mechanism, that's what we should try and optimize for.

Depending on how you've been thinking about this, the angles you've considered, the notions you're interested in, your tolerance for academic language, and your background of course, you may or may not find the following interesting: and/or


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@sevillaarvin sevillaarvin commented Feb 20, 2021

Hello, there is a typo:

// missing opening curly brace
const g = y => y * 100; log += 'multiplied by 100\n'; };

// should be
const g = y => { y * 100; log += 'multiplied by 100\n'; };

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@cscalfani cscalfani commented Feb 20, 2021

Thanks. Typo fixed.


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@itytophile itytophile commented Aug 16, 2021

Hi, these JS functions don't return a value (the return clause is missing):

var log = '';
const f = x => { x + 10; log += 'added 10\n'; };
const g = y => { y * 100; log += 'multiplied by 100\n'; };
const h = z => g(f(z));

I think you want that instead:

var log = '';
const f = x => { log += 'added 10\n';  return x + 10; };
const g = y => { log += 'multiplied by 100\n'; return y * 100; };
const h = z => g(f(z));

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@cscalfani cscalfani commented Aug 16, 2021

Good catch. Thanks. Fixed.

I guess I've been writing in FP for so long now that my JS got rusty.

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