foldl function is broken. Everyone knows it’s broken. It’s been broken for nearly a quarter of a century. We should finally fix it!
Today I am proposing that
Prelude.foldl be redefined using the implementation currently known as
foldl is broken!
I’m sure you knew that already, but just in case…
Have you ever noticed that Haskellers usually recommend using either
foldl' but not
foldl? For example Real World Haskell has this to say:
Due to the thunking behaviour of
foldl, it is wise to avoid this function in real programs: even if it doesn’t fail outright, it will be unnecessarily inefficient. Instead, import
In the online version of the book the first user comments on that paragraph are
Data.List foldlimplementation placed in Prelude?
I second the question: Why isn’t
Ok, so obviously we’re talking about the difference between
The dry technical difference is that
foldl' evaluates the call to
f before making the next recursive call. The consequences of that are perhaps not immediately obvious, so we’ll take a step back and look at a slightly bigger picture.
Folding left and right
When we first learn Haskell we learn that there are two ways to fold a list, from the left or right.
Saying “from the left” or “from the right” is a description of what
foldr calculate, with the parenthesis nesting to the left or to the right. At runtime of course we always have to start from the left (front) of the list.
We later learn other ways of thinking about left and right folds, that a left fold can be used like a classic loop where we go through the whole list eagerly, while a right fold can be used like a demand-driven iterator. For the left fold that means using a function that is strict in its first argument (like
(+)) while for the right fold that means using a function that is not strict in its second argument (like
Indeed when looking at whether we want
foldr in any particular case our choice is usually governed by whether we want “all at once” behaviour (
foldl) or if we want incremental or short-cut behaviour (
Again, as we are learning Haskell, we get told that
foldl has this crazy behaviour
when what we had in mind when we thought of an accumulating loop was
Of course that’s just what
foldl' does, it evaluates the call to
+ before making the next recursive call.
foldl (rather than
The short answer is “almost never”.
As beginners we often assume that
foldl must still make sense in some cases (or why have both?) but it turns out that’s not really the case.
f argument of
foldl is a strict function then delaying the evaluation does not gain us anything as it all has to be evaluated at the end anyway. The only time when delaying the evaluation could save us anything is when the
f function is not strict in its first argument – in which case you either don’t care or probably should have been using
foldr in the first place.
In fact even if our
f function is non-strict in its first argument, we probably do not gain anything from delaying evaluation and it usually does no harm to evaluate earlier. Remember that we still have to traverse the whole list, we don’t get any short-cutting behaviour like with
We can, if we think about it, construct examples where
foldl' would be too strict. We could define
last' like this:
Now if we try
> last [1,undefined,3] 3 > last' [1,undefined,3] *** Exception: Prelude.undefined
This is because our accumulator is always the latest element that we’ve seen but we don’t actually want to evaluate the elements (except the last one).
So it’s true that
foldl' fails in this case, but it’s also a silly definition, the usual definition is a lot clearer
That goes for pretty much all the other examples you might be able to think of where
foldl would work but
foldl' would not: the examples are either artificial or are clearer written in other ways.
People sometimes point out that
sum is defined using
foldl and not
foldl' and claim that this is something to do with Haskell’s designers wanting to allow
Num instances where
(+) might be lazy. This is pretty much nonsense. If that were the case then
sum would have been defined using
foldr rather than
foldl to properly take advantage of short-cutting behaviour. A much simpler explanation is that
foldl' was not available in early versions of Haskell when
sum was defined.
In nearly 15 years as a Haskell programmer I think I’ve specifically needed
foldl rather than
foldl' about three times. I say “about” because I can only actually remember one. That one case was in a slightly cunning bit of code for doing cache updates in a web server. It would almost certainly have been clearer as a local recursion but I was amused to find a real use case for
foldl and couldn’t help myself from using it just for fun. Of course it needed a comment to say that I was using it on purpose rather than by mistake!
So why do we have
foldl is almost always a mistake (or merely benign) then why do we have it in the first place?
I don’t know for sure, but here’s my guess…
When Haskell 1.0 was published on this day 24 years ago there was no
seq function at all, so there was no choice but to define
foldl in the “classic” way.
Eventually, six years later after much discussion, we got the
seq function in Haskell 1.3. Though actually in Haskell 1.3
seq was part of an
Eval class, so you couldn’t use it just anywhere, such as in
foldl. In Haskell 1.3 you would have had to define
foldl' with the type:
Haskell 1.4 and Haskell 98 got rid of the
Eval class constraint for
foldl was not changed. Hugs and GHC and other implementations added the non-standard
I suspect that people then considered it a compatibility and inertia issue. It was easy enough to add a non-standard
foldl' but you can’t so easily change the standard.
I suspect that if we had had
seq from the beginning then we would have defined
foldl using it.
Miranda, one of Haskell’s predecessor languages, already had
seq 5 years before Haskell 1.0.
foldl in Orwell!
Orwell is an interesting case. Orwell was another Haskell predecessor, very similar to Miranda and early Haskell. An informed source told me that Orwell had defined its
foldl in the way that we now define
foldl', ie with strict evaluation. Information on Orwell is a little hard to get ahold of online these days so I asked Philip Wadler. Phil very kindly fished out the manuals and looked up the definitions for me.
In the original version:
An Introduction to Orwell (DRAFT) Philip Wadler 1 April 1985
In the standard prelude:
lred f a  = a lred f a (x:xs) = lred f (f a x) xs
But five years later, by the time Haskell 1.0 is being published…
An Introduction to Orwell 6.00 by Philip Wadler revised by Quentin Miller Copyright 1990 Oxford University Computing Lab
In the standard prelude:
foldl :: (a -> b -> a) -> a -> [b] -> a foldl f a  = a foldl f a (x:xs) = strict (foldl f) (f a x) xs
Note the use of
strict. Presumably Orwell’s
strict function was defined as (or equivalent to)
(These days in Haskell we call this function
So my source was right, Orwell did change
foldl to be the strict version!
I contend that this was and is the right decision, and that it was just a consequence of the late arrival of
seq in Haskell and inertia and fears about backwards compatibility that have kept us from fixing
Just do it!
It’d help all of us who are sometimes tempted to use
foldl because we can’t be bothered to import
Data.List. It’d help confused beginners. It’d save teachers from the embarrassment of having to first explain
foldl and then why you should never use it.
Orwell fixed this mistake at least 24 years ago, probably before Haskell 1.0 was released. Just because it’s an old mistake doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fix it now!
A postscript: which
I hate to complicate a simple story but I should admit that there are two plausible definitions of
foldl' and I’ve never seen any serious discussion of why we use one rather than the other (I suspect it’s another historical accident).
So the version above is the “standard” version, perhaps more clearly written using bang patterns as
But an equally plausible version is
The difference is this: in the first version we evaluate the new accumulating parameter before making the recursive call, while in the second version we ensure that the accumulating parameter is always evaluated (to WHNF) on entry into each call.
These two ways of forcing the evaluation have almost the same effect. It takes a moment or two to find a case where it makes a difference, but here’s one:
foldl' ensures that all the new accumulating parameter values are evaluated, but still allows the initial value to be unevaluated. The alternative version simply says that the accumulating parameter is always evaluated.
The second version is attractive from a code generation point of view. One of the clever things that GHC can do with
foldl' (and strict function arguments generally) is to unbox the values, so for example an
Int can be unboxed to a
Int# and passed in registers rather than on the heap. With the standard
foldl' it needs a special case for the first iteration of the loop where the initial value of the accumulating parameter which might not be evaluated yet. With
foldl'', that’s not a problem, we can unbox things right from the start. In practice, GHC can often see that the initial value is evaluated anyway, but not always.
(Don Stewart and I noticed this a few years back when we were working on stream fusion for lists. We had defined
foldl' on streams in a way that corresponded to the second form above and then got a test failure when doing strictness testing comparing against the standard list functions.)
So if we’re going to fix
foldl to be the strict version, then perhaps it should be the fully strict version, not just the “strict after the first iteration” version.