How do type classes differ from interfaces?

Haskell type classes are a tricky concept for many Haskell beginners to learn. Most languages cannot express them at all, and they don’t have a concept that comes close. For many object oriented languages, the Interface is the closest language construct available. Ruby modules fill a similar niche. However, while these concepts both address name overloading and a kind of polymorphism, they miss some of the power that type classes provide.

This post is intended for people curious about type classes. It doesn’t assume any knowledge of Haskell or functional programming. Familiarity with a statically typed language like Java or C# will help.

Type Class Introduction/Recap

If you know what a type class is, feel free to skip to the next header.

To recap, a Haskell type class is defined like this:

--    [1]       [2] [3]
class (Eq a) => Ord  a  where
--  [4]
    compare :: a -> a -> Ordering

data Ordering = EQ | GT | LT
  1. This is the “super class” constraint. To make a type an instance of Ord, it must be an instance of Eq.
  2. This is the class name.
  3. This is the type that we are parameterizing the class over.
  4. This is the function type definition (or list of such) we need to define for a in order to make a an instance of Ord.

We can read the above code snippet as:

Declare a class Ord that is parameterized on some type a where a has an Eq type class instance. To make the type a an instance of Ord, you must define the compare function. This function takes two values of the type a and returns a value with the type Ordering.

First, we’ll create a toy datatype ToyOrd.

data ToyOrd = Smol | Large Int

This data type has two constructors: Smol, which has no fields, and Large, which has a single Int field. In order to make it an instance of Ord, we have to make it an instance of Eq:

--  [1]  [2]  [3]
instance Eq  ToyOrd where
--         [4]
    Smol    == Smol    = True
    Large x == Large y = x == y
    _       == _       = False
  1. We start making an instance with the instance keyword.
  2. This is the class name we’re making an instance of.
  3. ToyOrd is the type that we’re making an Eq instance for.
  4. The Eq class defines a function (==) :: a -> a -> Bool and (/=) :: a -> a -> Bool. Since (/=) has a default implementation, we can only implement (==).

Now that we’ve defined an Eq instance for our ToyOrd data type, we can define Ord.

instance Ord ToyOrd where
    compare Smol Smol =           -- [1]
    compare Smol (Large _) =      -- [2]
    compare (Large x) (Large y) = -- [3]
        compare x y
    compare (Large _) Smol =      -- [4]
  1. Two Smol values are equal.
  2. A Smol value is always less than a Large.
  3. Two Large values are compared by their Int values.
  4. A Large is always greater than a Smol.

Once you have a type class, you can write functions which expect an instance of that type class as an input. Let’s define the ordering operators:

(<=) :: Ord a => a -> a -> Bool
a1 <= a2 =
    case compare a1 a2 of
        LT -> True
        EQ -> True
        GT -> False

(>) :: Ord a => a -> a -> Bool
a1 > a2 = not (a1 <= a2)

We specify that this function works for all types a provided that these types are an instance of the Ord type class.

Similarity With Interfaces

Java interfaces allow you to specify a set of methods that an object supports, and, as of Java 8, default implementations for these methods. So we can write an interface that does essentially the same thing as Ord.

public interface Eq {
    default public bool equalTo(Eq a) {
        return ! this.notEqualTo(a);   

    default public bool notEqualTo(Eq a) {
        return ! this.equalTo(a);

This is the Eq interface in Java. We’re taking advantage of those default implementations. If we don’t override one of them, then we’ll loop infinitely if we try to call a method.

public interface Ord extends Eq {
    public Ordering compare(Ord other);

public enum Ordering {
    LT, EQ, GT

We can also write generic methods in terms of these interfaces.

class OrdUtil {
    bool lessThanOrEqual(Ord a1, Ord a2) {
        Ordering result =;
        return result == LT || result == EQ;

On the surface, these look similar. However, there are a number of important differences!


Differing types!

The type signature for the Haskell compare function is very specific about the types of it’s arguments.

compare :: Ord a => a -> a -> Ordering

This type signature says:

The caller of this function can pick any type a that is an instance of Ord. I will return an Ordering.

Note that the type signature requires that both parameters to compare have the same type! It is illegal to write compare Smol 10. The Java version allows any two objects to be passed, provided they implement the Ord interface.

The Java equivalent looks more like:

public class OrdUtil {
    static <A extends Ord> bool lessThanOrEqual(A a1, A a2) {
        Ordering result =;
        return result == LT || result == EQ;

This method signature introduces a generic type variable A, and says that A must extend/implement the Ord interface. The method then takes two parameters, both of which have the same generic A type.

Separation of Implementation

Java classes are defined in one place. Any interface a class implements must be defined on that class. Java doesn’t handle sum types very well, so we’ll just do Large from our ToyOrd class above.

class Large implements Eq, Ord {
    public final int size;

    public Large(int size) {
        this.size = size; 

    public bool equalTo(Eq other) {
        if (other instanceof Large) {
            Large other1 = (Large) other;
            return other1.size == this.size; 

        return false;

    public Ordering compare(Ord other) {
        if (other instanceof Large) {
            Large other1 = (Large) other;
            if (other1.size < this.size) {
                return Ordering.LT; 
            if (other2.size == this.size) {
                return Ordering.EQ; 
            return Ordering.GT;

        throw new RuntimeException("what does this even mean");

We’ve defined compare and equalTo. Note that we have to do instanceof and type casting in order to properly implement these methods. What does it even mean to try and compare two objects of arbitrary type?

Suppose that we’ve imported Large from some upstream package, and we’ve defined our own interface.

interface SomeOtherPackage {
    public bool doSomeThing(int lol);

We are completely incapable of making Large implement our SomeOtherPackage interface! Instead, we must wrap the class with a new class that we control, which implements the interface and otherwise delegates to Large.

public class MyLarge implements SomeOtherPackage {
    public final Large large;

    public MyLarge(Large large) {
        this.large = large; 

    public bool doSomething(int lol) {

Type classes separate the definition of data types and the instances of a class. So, supposing that I imported the ToyOrd from another package, I can easily do:

import JokesAreFun (ToyOrd(..))

class MyNewClass a where
    doSomething :: a -> Int -> IO ()

instance MyNewClass ToyOrd where
    doSomething Smol x = putStrLn "hahahaa yess"
    doSomething (Large x) y = putStrLn ("numbers! " ++ show (x + y))

Return Type Polymorphism

Here’s one of the bigger and more amazing things that type classes allow you to do. We call it return type polymorphism. And it’s kind of obscene.

Let’s define a Haskell type class for actions which can fail.

--            [1]
class CanFail failable where
--  [2]       [3]
    oops :: failable a
--  [4]       [5]            [6]           [7]
    pick :: failable a -> failable a -> failable a
--  [8]
    win  :: a -> failable a
  1. failable is the type variable name that we’re using for the class.
  2. oops is a value representing a failed computation.
  3. We apply the type variable a to the class variable failable. So failable must take a generic type parameters.
  4. pick is a function which looks at the two parameters.
  5. If the first parameter is not a failure, then we accept it.
  6. Otherwise, we return the 2nd parameter.
  7. So the return value is going to allow us to choose a successful value from two possibilities, or fail entirely.
  8. Finally, we give a way to succeed, but only if we take an a as a parameter.

We can easily make an instance for the Maybe type:

--   [1]   [2]
data Maybe  a
--    [3]
    = Just  a
--    [5]
    | Nothing
  1. Maybe is the name of the type we are declaring here.
  2. It takes a single generic type variable, which we introduce and name as a.
  3. It has two constructors. The first is Just, which takes a single parameter of the generic type a.
  4. The second constructor Nothing does not take any type parameters.
-- without annotations,

data Maybe a = Just a | Nothing

notAnInt :: Maybe Int
notAnInt = Nothing

hasAnInt :: Maybe Int
hasAnInt = Just 5

Now, let’s write our CanFail instance!

instance CanFail Maybe where
    oops = Nothing
    pick (Just a) _ = Just a
    pick Nothing (Just a) = Just a
    pick Nothing Nothing = oops
    win a = Just a

Now, we can write some functions in terms of CanFail. We can write a safe division by zero function:

safeDivision :: CanFail failable => Double -> Double -> failable Double
safeDivision x y =
    if y == 0 
       then oops
       else win (x / y)

This function signature is doing something very interesting here! Let’s translate it to plain English:

safeDivision is a function which accepts two arguments of type Double, and returns a value having the type failable Double where failable is a generic type variable that the caller may pick, as long as that type has an instance of CanFail.

Woah! The caller gets to pick the type? That means I can write code like:

someMathFunction :: Double -> Double -> Double
someMathFunction x y =
    let result = safeDivision x y in
    case result of
        Just number -> 
            number * 3
        Nothing ->

As the caller of safeDivision in this function, I am able to select the Maybe type. What if there are other instances?

data MaybeError a = Error String | Result a 

instance CanFail MaybeError where
    oops = Error "oops"
    pick (Result a) _ = Result a
    pick _ (Result a) = Result a
    pick ohNooo = ohNooo
    win a = Result a

Now I can also select the MaybeError type! If I want to, I can also make it an instance of IO:

-- simplified. Runs an action and catches an exception.
try :: IO a -> IO (MaybeError a)

instance CanFail IO where
    oops = throwException "oops"
    pick first second = do
        eResult <- try first
        case eResult of
            Result a ->
                return a
            Error exception ->
    win a = return a

Now, we can use our safeDivision function in IO, just like it were print or similar!

main :: IO ()
main = do
    putStrLn "Woah, look at us!" :: IO ()
    x <- safeDivision 3 2        :: IO Double
    putStrLn "the result was: "
    print x
    y <- safeDivision 3 0
    print "This never happens because we threw an exception!"

Return type polymorphism is super cool, and definitely one of the best things about type classes. It’s also one of the things that really sets it apart from interfaces or modules in other languages.