In a previous post I gave an example of how to represent algebraic data types using church encoding. In this post I’ll pick up the thread and show how this technique can be used to mimic any type.

There are two ways of constructing new types in functional programming languages; Either by using a sum type or a product type. Products are composite types such a records and tuples. Sum types are for representing data that can take different shapes and are usually described using an algebraic data type (know as discriminated unions in OCaml or FSharp).


In category theory, the universal property of products states that any two products \(P\) and \(Q\) with the same set of projection arrows must have unique morphisms between them such that any diagram of the following type commutes:

\[\begin{array}[c]{ccccc} T_1 & \leftarrow & P & \rightarrow & T_2 \\ & \nwarrow & \uparrow \downarrow & \nearrow \\ & & Q \end{array}\]

To give a concrete example, in the category of types and functions in ML, the tuple type int * string can be safely substituted with a record type:

type person = {name : string; age : int}

Proving this is trivial, one simply needs to define a function for converting a tuple to a person:

let to_person (name,age) = { name = name; age = age }

And show that:

(to_person t).name = fst t
(to_person t).age  = snd t

name, age, fst and snd are the projection arrows. The equations expresses commutativity in one direction.

Products of more than two components can be expressed as nested binary products. For instance a three component product: \(A \times B \times C\) is isomorphic to \(A \times (B \times C)\).

The following signature captures all there is to know about products, abstracting over the concrete type:

module type Product = sig
    (* The type of the product. *)
    type ('a, 'b) product

    (* Creates a product given the components.*)
    val mk : 'a -> 'b -> ('a, 'b) product

    (* Extracts the first component. *)
    val fst : ('a, 'b) product -> 'a

    (* Extracts the second component. *)
    val snd : ('a, 'b) product -> 'b

First, let’s implement the interface using tuples:

module Tuple_Product : Product = struct
    type ('a, 'b) product = 'a * 'b
    let mk x y = (x,y)
    let fst (x,_) = x
    let snd (_,y) = y

Can this interface be realized with simple functions, i.e. without resorting to tuples or records for representing multiple properties? Church encoding demonstrates that the answer is yes! A product type is isomorphic to a higher order function where the function parameter accepts one argument per component of the product. To give a concrete example, the product 'a * 'b can be encoded as a function '('a -> 'b -> 'c) -> 'c. It’s clear that in order to return a value of type 'c, the function must invoke the continuation, passing it an 'a and a 'b value. The particular values are captured within the closure of the function. Here is the complete church implementation of the Product signature:

module Church_Product : Product = struct
    type ('a , 'b) product = { run : 'c. ('a -> 'b -> 'c) -> 'c}
    let mk x y = { run = fun f -> f x y }
    let fst p = @@ fun x _ -> x
    let snd p = @@ fun _ y -> y

A nice thing with OCaml, comparing with F#, is the support for polymorphic record properties (here needed for run).


Coproduts in category theory look like products with all arrow reversed. Instead of having arrows from a coproduct to other objects there are morphisms from other objects to the coproduct. The following diagram depicts two coproducts \(C\) and \(U\):

\[\begin{array}[c]{ccccc} T_1 & \rightarrow & C & \leftarrow & T_2 \\ & \searrow & \uparrow \downarrow & \swarrow \\ & & U \end{array}\]

Just like with products, the diagram must commute. In functional programming, each arrow to coproduct type can be represented by a constructor of an algebraic data type. For example:

type contact =
    | Email of string
    | Address of address
    | Phone of string

corresponds to two morphisms (string -> contact), for the Email and Phone constructors and another (address -> contact) for the Adress constructor.

Again, sum types with more than two constructors can be achieved by nesting, so in order to define a generalized signature we only need to worry about the binary case:

module type Coproduct = sig
    (* Type representing coproducts. *)
    type ('a, 'b) coproduct

    (* Constructs a value of the first shape. *)
    val left : 'a -> ('a, 'b) coproduct

    (* Constructs a value of the second shape. *)
    val right : 'b -> ('a, 'b) coproduct

    (* Runs a value given two continuations. *)
    val run : ('a, 'b) coproduct -> ('a -> 'c) -> ('b -> 'c) -> 'c

Following is an implementation using discriminated unions:

module DU_Coproduct = struct
    type ('a, 'b) coproduct = | Left of 'a | Right of 'b
    let left x = Left x
    let right x = Right x
    let run cp l r =
        match cp with
        | Left x  -> l x
        | Right x -> r x

A church encoded representation of a coproduct type with two constructors is given by a function accepting one continuation per constructor. A function of type '('a -> 'c) -> ('b -> 'c) -> 'c, can invoke either one of the passed arguments and is equivalent to a discriminated union type with two cases.

Here is a church encoded version of the coproduct interface:

module Church_Coproduct : Coproduct = struct
  type ('a, 'b) coproduct =
    { run : 'c. ('a -> 'c) -> ('b -> 'c) -> 'c }
  let left x = { run = fun l _ -> l x }
  let right x = { run = fun _ r -> r x }
  let run u l r = l r

The left constructor creates a function that only invokes the first continuation while right returns a function that only invokes the second continuation with the given argument.

Implementing lists

To see how the generalized interfaces for product and coproduct can be used, consider defining a simple list structure. First look at the standard implementation of lists using a discriminated union:

let 'a list =
    | Nil
    | Cons of ('a * 'a list)

This can be translated to the following type in terms of the Product and Coproduct signatures:

type 'a ch_list =
    { ext : (unit, ('a, 'a ch_list) product) coproduct }

The unit type is used to represent the Nil case. The non-empty case consists of a product with value of type a and the rest of the list.

In order to simplify the creation of lists, here are a couple of helper functions:

(* Helper for construct a list. *)
let mk_list v = { ext = v }

(* Empty list constructor. *)
let empty = mk_list @@ left ()

(* Cons list constructor.  *)
let cons x xs = mk_list @@ right @@ mk x xs

empty corresponds to [] in Ocaml and cons is equivalent to (::).

We can also define a utility method for simulating pattern matching:

let rec match_list lst nil cons =
  run lst.ext
    (fun p -> cons (fst p) (snd p))

With these definitions, the standard can be ported to:

let rec map f xs =
  match_list xs
    (fun _    -> empty)
    (fun x xs -> cons (f x) (map f xs))

A better implementation would use tail recursion but the principal is the same as with ordinary lists.

At last, following are the conversion functions required for showing that the two versions of lists are indeed isomorphic:

(* Convert to ordinary list. *)
let rec to_list lst =
  match_list lst
    (fun _    -> [])
    (fun x xs -> x :: (to_list xs))

(* Convert from ordinary list. *)
let rec from_list = function
  | []      -> empty
  | x :: xs -> cons x (from_list xs)