List Patterns and Comprehension

Programming Paradigms

Pattern matching

Representations of lists

  • Every non-empty list is created by repeated use of the (:) operator “construct” that adds an element to the start of a list

    [1,2,3,4] = 1 : (2: (3: (4: [])))
  • This is a representation of a linked list

  • Operations on lists such as indexing, or computing the length must therefore traverse the list

  • Operations such as reverse, length (!!) are linear in the length of the list

  • Getting the head and tail is constant time, as is (:) itself

Pattern matching on lists

  • Lists can be used for pattern matching in function definitions

    startsWithA :: [Char] -> Bool
    startsWithA ['a',_,_] = True
    startsWithA _ =False
  • Matches 3-element lists and checks if the first entry is the character ’a’


Use patterns in the equations defining a function. Not in the type of function

Pattern matches in the equations don’t change the type of the function. They just say how it should act on particular expressions

  • How match ’a’ and not care how long the list is?

  • Can’t use literal list syntax. Instead, use list constructor syntax for matching

    startsWithA :: [Char] -> Bool
    startsWithA ('a':_) = True
    startsWithA _ = False
  • ('a':_) matches any list of length at least 1 whose first entry is ’a’

  • The wildcard match _ matches anything else

  • This works with multiple entries too:

    startsWithAB :: [Char] -> Bool
    startsWithAB ('a':'b':_) = True
    startsWithAB _ = False

Binding variables in pattern matching

  • As well as matching literal values, we can also match a (list) pattern, and bind the values

    sumTwo :: Num a => [a] -> a
    sumTwo (x:y:_) = x + y
  • Match lists of length at least two and sum their first two entries

    sumTwo [1,2,3,4]
    -- introduces the bindings
    x = 1
    y = 2
    _ = [3,4]
  • Reminder: can’t repeat variable names in bindings (exception _)

    -- Not allowed
    sumThree (a:a:b:_) = a + a + b
    -- What you'd want to do here would be to have inputs a b and c, but only define through if a==b
    sumThree (a:b:c:_) | a==b = a+b+c
                       | otherwise = undefined
    -- Allowed
    second (_:a:_) = a

What types of pattern can I match on?

  • Patterns are constructed in the same way that we would construct the arguments to the function

    (&&) :: Bool -> Bool -> Bool
    True && True = True
    False && _ = False
    -- Used as
    a && b
    head :: [a] -> a
    head (x:_) = x
    -- Used as:
    head [1,2,3] == head(1:[2,3])
  • This is a general rule in constructing pattern matches “If I were to call the function, what structure do I want to match?”

  • Caveat: can only match “data constructors”

    -- Not allowed
    last :: [a] -> a
    last(xs ++ [x]) = x



  • In maths, we often use comprehensions to construct new sets from old ones

    $$\{2,4\}=\{x | x \in\{1.5\} \wedge(x \bmod 2=0)\}$$

    “The set if all integers x between 1 and 5 such that x is even

  • Haskell supports similar notation for constructing lists

    [x| x <- [1..5], x `mod` 2 ==0]

    “The list of all integers x where x is drawn from [1..5] and x is even”

  • x <- [1..5] is called a generator

  • Compare python comprehensions

    [x for x in range(1,6) if (x%2)==0]


  • Comprehensions can contain multiple generators, separated by commas

    [(x,y) | x <- [1,2,3], y <- [4,5]]
  • Variables in the later generator can change faster, analogous to nested loops

    l = []
    for x in [1,2,3]
        for y in [4,5]
    ## or
    [(x,y) for x in [1,2,3] for y in [4,5]]
  • Later generators can reference variables from earlier generators

    [(x,y) | x <- [1..3], y <- [x..3]]

    “All pairs (x,y) such that $x,y\in \{1,2,3\}$ and $y\geqslant x$


  • As well as binding variables to guards with generators, we can restrict the values using guards

  • A guard can be any function that returns a Bool

  • Cards and generators can be freely interspersed, but guards can only refer to variables to their left

[(x,y) | x<- [1..3], even x,y <- [x..3]]
-- [](2,3), 2,3]
[(x,y) | x <- [1..3], y <- [x..3], even x, even y]
-- [(2,2)]

Pattern matching in generators

  • The left hand side of a generator expression need not be a single variable, but allows pattern matching

  • We’ll illustrate this with the use of the library function zip

    zip :: [a] -> [b] -> [(a,b)]
    zip [] _ = []
    zip _ [] = []
    zip  (x:xs) (y:ys) = (x,y) : zip xs ys