Welding Functional Pipes

Published August 15, 2016 · 5 Minute Read · ∞ Permalink

Last time we talked about using <| and |>. <| and |> allow you to create pipelines through with data can flow (like water.) That’s all well and good, but what if you need pipes without the water? Well, that’s easy enough to do with function composition!

Introducing << and >>

<< and >> are “function composition” operators. They build the pipelines we want without having to have an initial value. This will make more sense by looking at the type signature:

(>>) : (a -> b) -> (b -> c) -> a -> c

In other words, given a function from a to b, and a function from b to c, we’ll get a function from a to c. That’s important! When we used |> we got a value back. Here, we’re getting a function.

It seems pretty magical, though, so let’s break it down:


Mmm, curry. Delicious. I’m getting hungry thinking about it.

Wait! I’m not talking about that kind of curry here! This kind of curry is just as delicious, but much more useful for programming.

For us, currying means that applying a function to multiple arguments takes place one argument at a time. Say we have an add function:

add : number -> number -> number
add x y = x + y

And call it with only one argument?

add 1

What do we get? In JavaScript, that’d be the result of calling add(1, undefined), which would result in NaN. But in Elm, we’ll get a function that takes one more number, and gives us a result. This means that this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do:

add x y = x + y

add1 = add 1

add1 1 -- result: 2

In other words, add 1 is the same thing as add1 y = add 1 y. Pretty neat! But how is this useful? How about adding one to every item in a list of numbers?

nums = [1, 2, 3]

List.map (add 1) nums -- result: [2, 3, 4]

List.map only takes a function with a single argument, but we can provide the rest of the arguments with currying!

Welding Functions Together

Photo by Rob Lambert

So now we can understand a little more of what’s going on in >> above. You always see << and >> called like this:

isEven >> not

We know that isEven is our a -> b function, and not is our b -> c. (If that sounds unfamiliar to you, here’s how infix operators work.) In this case, we’re just negating the ouput of isEven.

What’s next? Well, >> takes three arguments, not two, before returning a value. Applying this function to a number will tell us if it’s odd or not! (Side note: creating functions this way is called “point-free” or “tacit” style.)

isOdd : number -> Bool
isOdd = isEven >> not

isOdd 1 -- result: True
isOdd 2 -- result: False

So if functions are our pipes, and values are our water, then >> welds pipes together to make new pipelines! We can keep on welding them together, too:

sqrtIsOdd = Float -> Bool
sqrtIsOdd = sqrt >> isEven >> not

Left or Right?

We’ve only been using >> so far. But, like <| and |>, the reverse of >> is <<. It does exactly the same thing, but takes our b -> c function before the a -> b function. So when should one use << instead of >>?

The Elm documentation for >> suggests the following:

The direction of function composition [with (>>)] seems less pleasant than (<<) which reads nicely in expressions like: filter (not << isRegistered) students

Because of this line of thinking, you’ll more often see << than >>. That said, if it makes more sense to you to use >>, go for it! It’s up to you and your team how you use these operators. If you agree that >> is better, that’s your call. That these operators have a direction is all about improving readability, so if readability is suffering when using <<, use >> (or vice versa.)

But the one thing that you should not do is mix the forward- and backward-facing operators. You’ll have to think hard about how to do it without parentheses to make things explicit. Plus, avoiding those nested parentheses is why you’re using this in the first place!

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