Ah, the do-notation. Is it good, is it bad; who knows? It's good for beginners, it's bad for beginners. It's considered harmful.

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled on this subject (and still is). Let me try to add a new perspective, informed by the use of Haskell in a heterogeneous team, in a professional setting. Then we'll be able to gleefully conclude that it depends. But rather than fretting too much over the destination, let's try to enjoy the journey.

What's in a do?

Let's start by the beginning. do blocks are a syntactic construct in the language Haskell. It provides an alternative syntax over the use of >>=:

-- without do
main :: IO ()
main =
  getLine >>= \name ->
  let greeting = "Hello " <> name
  in putStrLn greeting

-- with do
main :: IO ()
main = do
  name <- getLine
  let greeting = "Hello " <> name
  putStrLn greeting

That's the gist of do-notation. There are a few additional features, but we don't need to talk about them for now. The example is formatted in a way that makes the correspondence obvious. You might be tempted to think that do is a smart trick to remove syntactic noise when writing monadic expression. And you'd be right.

Ten things I hate about do

Julia Stiles as Kat Stratford, saying "But mostly, I hate the way I don't hate you, not even close" in Ten Things I Hate About You

If you look at things this way, it's easy to discard do notation: it doesn't add any expressive power, and it makes things more complex for no good reason. As Paul Hudack nicely put it,

Functions are in my comfort zone; syntax that hides them takes me out of my comfort zone.

Another issue is that it makes imperative code too nice-looking, thus earning Haskell its famous finest imperative language badge of shame. The familiarity provided by do notation might encourage imperative-minded programmers into putting too many things in IO (or any other monadic context, for that matter) instead of composing functions as ${DEITY:-or lack thereof} intended.

Love me do

The Beatles, crossing the street from right to left

All that is good and well, but let's go back to our nice (and artificial) example:

main :: IO ()
main =
  getLine >>= \name ->
  let greeting = "Hello " <> name
  in putStrLn greeting

What do you think happens when you insist on using function composition in a team of Haskell programmers?

Yeah, that's right, getLine >>= putStrLn . ("Hello " <> ). And in real life, stuff like (runService =<< parseConfig) *> otherTask will pop up, because composing functions is good, obviously. I do love the smell of η-reduction in the morning, but hear me out: what if (bear with me) η-reduction was not always good? Sometimes you care about the pipeline of functions, sometimes you care about the intermediate values.

Why not both?

Now for my main thesis: using do over bind (=<< or >>=) is contextual. And the context can be very small. Ask yourself: what part of your program is important enough to be obvious when you read it? Are all those intermediate variables bringing meaning?

parseString :: String -> Handler Int
parseString = …

getString :: Handler String
getString = …

myDoHandler :: Handler Response
myDoHandler = do
  rawString <- getString
  value <- parseString rawString
  log $ "Got value " <> show value
  pure $ mkResponse value

myMixedHandler :: Handler Response
myMixedHandler = do
  value <- parseString =<< getString
  log $ "Got value " <> show value
  pure $ mkResponse value
myPointfreeHandler :: Handler Response
myPointfreeHandler =
 let logAnd = log . ("Got value" <>) . show >>= ($>)
 in mkResponse <$> getString >>= parseString >>= logAnd

Which one do you prefer? My favourite is myMixedHandler: I care about value, so that makes sense to give it a name. On the other hand, the intermediate String value is not that interesting, so I'm okay with hiding it.

If your favourite is myPointfreeHandler, I don't know what to say. Maybe you won't agree with my conclusions.

In my opinion, do and bind are complementary: do nudges me into naming variables by providing a clean syntax. bind makes function pipelines more obvious by hiding intermediary values. Both have their uses, even on the same line!

But do discourages applicative style!

That's right, do works with monads (since it desugars to >>=), so that encourages a monadic style where applicative functors could be enough. Two things:

  • If you work with a type where applicative and monadic behaviour are inconsistent, you're in for nasty surprises and do blocks are not your most pressing issue
  • Choosing between putting emphasis on values or functions is not inherently monadic
myParser :: Parser (Int, Maybe String)
myParser = do
  char '@'
  intValue <- int
  many space
  stringValue <- optional string
  pure (intValue, stringValue)
myApplicativeParser :: Parser (Int, Maybe String)
myApplicativeParser =
  liftA2 (,)
    (char '@' *> int <* many space)
    (optional string)

Both parsers parse the same thing, but the second is obviously better because it truly showcases the applicative nature of what we're doing.

Here, parser has both a Monad and an Applicative instance, so that's just style.

What about a parser that is not a Monad?

Let's put our environment variables parsers to work.

data MyConfig
  = MyConfig
  { value2 :: String
  , value1 :: String
  , value3 :: Int
configParser :: EnvParser MyConfig
configParser = MyConfig
  <$> required (str "VALUE_1")
  <*> required (str "VALUE_2")
  <*> required (int "VALUE_3")

Ah that's where applicative syntax shines! It's clear and easy to read. Oh by the way did you spot the surprising behaviour? Yes? Congrats then. Something really close happened to us, got past code review, went to production and caused an outage. Yes we were using newtypes instead of plain strings. No it did not help us (IsString can be tricky). If you did not notice the issue, VALUE_1 maps to value2, and VALUE_2 maps to value1.

The issue here is that we rely on the order of arguments in the constructor. A nice rule of thumb when constructing records is to make fields explicit:

configParser :: EnvParser MyConfig
configPaser =
  let mkConfig value1 value2 value3 =
    MyConfig { value1 = value1
             , value2 = value2
             , value3 = value3
   in mkConfig <$> required (str "VALUE_1")
               <*> required (str "VALUE_2")
               <*> required (int "VALUE_3")

That's a bit better, because everything is in the same function: we don't have to look at the record definition to know what will happen. Still, the names are one level away from the parsers.

It turns out that we can have do notation even without Monad, thanks to ApplicativeDo (I've also thrown a RecordWildCards in the mix since we're playing with forbidden extensions.

{-# LANGUAGE ApplicativeDo   #-}
{-# LaNgUaGe RecordWildCards #-}

configParser :: EnvParser Config
configParser = do
  value1 <- required (str "VALUE_1")
  value2 <- required (str "VALUE_2")
  value3 <- required (int "VALUE_3")
  pure Config{..} 

Is it theoretically pure and syntactically minimal? No. Does it provide easier to read code, even in messy, real-worldy context? I do think so, yes.

ApplicativeDo pitfalls

So like me, you think ApplicativeDo is criminally underused? Good! Now might be a good time to mention two things:

ApplicativeDo changes the behaviour of all do blocks. So if you are using types with inconsistent Applicative and Monad instances, you may curse a bit. Purescript solved it nicely by introducing ado, to make the behaviour explicit. Personally, I try to only enable ApplicativeDo in small modules where the only do blocks are over types with no Monad instance.

Another pitfall is a somewhat surprising behaviour with let bindings in do blocks:

-- this requires a `Monad` instance on `EnvParser`
myParser :: EnvParser Result
myParser = do
  v1 <- v1Parser
  v2 <- v2Parser
  let v3 = f v1 v2
  pure $ Result v1 v2 v3

The way do blocks are de-sugared lead to the use of >>= when there are let bindings.

You'll run in a similar issue if you try to pattern-match on the left-hand side of <-:

-- this requires a `Monad` instance on `EnvParser`
myParser :: EnvParser Result
myParser = do
  (v1, v2) <- bothVsParser
  -- you can bypass the limitation with a lazy pattern
  -- ~(v1, v2) <- bothVsParser
  v3       <- v3Parser
  pure $ Result v1 v2 v3

Thankfully there is a simple solution for both issues: using a let … in expression as the last part (after pure). This is always possible for applicative composition.

myParser :: EnvParser Result
myParser = do
  v1 <- v1Parser
  v2 <- v2Parser
  pure $ let v3 = f v1 v2
          in Result v1 v2 v3
myOtherParser :: EnvParser Result
myOtherParser = do
  both <- bothVsParser
  v3   <- v3Parser
  pure $ let (v1, v2) = both
         in Result v1 v2 v3

What did we learn then?

I guess we learned to not do it again

There are multiple layers to the do notation. At first you can see it as a way to make Haskell look more imperative. It's a good beginner-friendly crutch, but you soon grow past it: function composition is what Haskell is all about, anyway. That's where I was for a long time. But using Haskell in a professional setting led me to a more nuanced opinion: the language provides different tools, it's up to me to use them in order to get something that best expresses my intent. Of course nothing is really perfect and do notation has its issues, but it can be of great help when it comes to choosing how to structure my code.

Haskell is a mature language and, perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, not that opinionated: it provides developers with a lot of tools and alternative ways to do the same thing. Personally, I love it because I can craft code in a way that lets me outline what I want, depending on context. Of course a pragmatic compromise like this is not the best choice for everyone, some may prefer a more opinionated language that makes more decisions for you.