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Parametric polymorphism vs Ad-hoc polymorphism

Posted by: admin November 17, 2021 Leave a comment


I would like to understand the key difference between parametric polymorphism such as polymorphism of generic classes/functions in the Java/Scala/C++ languages and “ad-hoc” polymorphism in the Haskell type system. I’m familiar with the first kind of languages, but I have never worked with the Haskell.

More precisely:

  1. How is type inference algorithm e.g. in Java different from the type inference in Haskell?
  2. Please, give me an example of the situation where something can be written in Java/Scala but can not be written in Haskell(according to the modular features of these platforms too), and vice-versa.

Thanks in advance.


As per the TAPL, §23.2:

Parametric polymorphism (…), allows a single piece of
code to be typed “generically,” using variables in place of actual types, and
then instantiated with particular types as needed. Parametric definitions
are uniform: all of their instances behave the same. (…)

Ad-hoc polymorphism, by contrast, allows a polymorphic value to exhibit
different behaviors when “viewed” at different types. The most common
example of ad-hoc polymorphism is overloading, which associates a single
function symbol with many implementations; the compiler (or the runtime system, depending on whether overloading resolution is static or dynamic) chooses an appropriate implementation for each application of the
function, based on the types of the arguments.

So, if you consider successive stages of history, non-generic official Java (a.k.a pre-J2SE 5.0, bef. sept. 2004) had ad-hoc polymorphism – so you could overload a method – but not parametric polymorphism, so you couldn’t write a generic method. Afterwards you could do both, of course.

By comparison, since its very beginning in 1990, Haskell was parametrically polymorphic, meaning you could write:

swap :: (A; B) -> (B; A)
swap (x; y) = (y; x)

where A and B are type variables can be instantiated to all types, without assumptions.

But there was no preexisting construct giving ad-hoc polymorphism, which intends to let you write functions that apply to several, but not all types. Type classes were implemented as a way of achieving this goal.

They let you describe a class (something akin to a Java interface), giving the type signature of the functions you want implemented for your generic type. Then you can register some (and hopefully, several) instances matching this class. In the meantime, you can write a generic method such as :

between :: (Ord a)  a -> a -> a -> Bool
between x y z = x ≤ y ^ y ≤ z

where the Ord is the class that defines the function (_ ≤ _). When used, (between "abc" "d" "ghi") is resolved statically to select the right instance for strings (rather than e.g. integers) – exactly at the moment when (Java’s) method overloading would.

You can do something similar in Java with bounded wildcards. But the key difference between Haskell and Java on that front is that only Haskell can do dictionary passing automatically: in both languages, given two instances of Ord T, say b0 and b1, you can build a function f that takes those as arguments and produces the instance for the pair type (b0, b1), using, say, the lexicographic order. Say now that you are given (("hello", 2), ((3, "hi"), 5)). In Java you have to remember the instances for string and int, and pass the correct instance (made of four applications of f!) in order to apply between to that object. Haskell can apply compositionality, and figure out how to build the correct instance given just the ground instances and the f constructor (this extends to other constructors, of course) .

Now, as far as type inference goes (and this should probably be a distinct question), for both languages it is incomplete, in the sense that you can always write an un-annotated program for which the compiler won’t be able to determine the type.

  1. for Haskell, this is because it has impredicative (a.k.a. first-class) polymorphism, for which type inference is undecidable. Note that on that point, Java is limited to first-order polymorphism (something on which Scala expands).

  2. for Java, this is because it supports contravariant subtyping.

But those languages mainly differ in the range of program statements to which type inference applies in practice, and in the importance given to the correctness of the type inference results.

  1. For Haskell, inference applies to all “non-highly polymorphic” terms, and make a serious effort to return sound results based on published extensions of a well-known algorithm:

    • At its core, Haskell’s inference is based on Hindley-Milner, which gives you complete results as soon as when infering the type of an application, type variables (e.g. the A and B in the example above) can be only instantiated with non-polymorphic types (I’m simplifying, but this is essentially the ML-style polymorphism you can find in e.g. Ocaml.).
    • a recent GHC will make sure that a type annotation may be required only for a let-binding or λ-abstraction that has a non-Damas-Milner type.
    • Haskell has tried to stay relatively close to this inferrable core across even its most hairy extensions (e.g. GADTs). At any rate, proposed extensions nearly always come in a paper with a proof of the correctness of the extended type inference .
  2. For Java, type inference applies in a much more limited fashion anyway :

    Prior to the release of Java 5, there was no type inference in Java. According to the Java language culture, the type of every variable, method, and dynamically allocated object must be explicitly declared by the programmer. When generics (classes and methods parameterized by type) were introduced in Java 5, the language retained this requirement for variables, methods, and allocations. But the introduction of polymorphic methods (parameterized by type) dictated that either (i) the programmer provide the method type arguments at every polymorphic method call site or (ii) the language support the inference of method type arguments. To avoid creating an additional clerical burden for programmers, the designers of Java 5 elected to perform type inference to determine the type arguments for polymorphic method calls. (source, emphasis mine)

    The inference algorithm is essentially that of GJ, but with a somewhat kludgy addition of wildcards as an afterthought (Note that I am not up to date on the possible corrections made in J2SE 6.0, though). The large conceptual difference in approach is that Java’s inference is local, in the sense that the inferred type of an expression depends only on constraints generated from the type system and on the types of its sub-expressions, but not on the context.

    Note that the party line regarding the incomplete & sometimes incorrect type inference is relatively laid back. As per the spec:

    Note also that type inference does not affect soundness in any way. If the types inferred are nonsensical, the invocation will yield a type error. The type inference algorithm should be viewed as a heuristic, designed to perfdorm well in practice. If it fails to infer the desired result, explicit type paramneters may be used instead.


Parametric polymorphism means, we don’t care about the type, we’ll implement the function the same for any type. For example, in Haskell:

length :: [a] -> Int
length [] = 0          
length (x:xs) = 1 + length xs

We don’t care what the type of the elements of the list are, we just care how many there are.

Ad-hoc polymorphism (aka method overloading), however, means that we’ll use a different implementation depending on the type of the parameter.

Here’s an example in Haskell. Let’s say we want to define a function called makeBreakfast.

If the input parameter is Eggs, I want makeBreakfast to return a message on how to make eggs.

If the input parameter is Pancakes, I want makeBreakfast to return a message on how to make pancakes.

We’ll create a typeclass called BreakfastFood that implements the makeBreakfast function. The implementation of makeBreakfast will be different depending on the type of the input to makeBreakfast.

class BreakfastFood food where
  makeBreakfast :: food -> String

instance BreakfastFood Eggs where
  makeBreakfast = "First crack 'em, then fry 'em"

instance BreakfastFood Toast where
  makeBreakfast = "Put bread in the toaster until brown"

According to John Mitchell’s Concepts in Programming Languages,

The key difference between parametric polymorphism and overloading (aka ad-hoc polymorphism) is that parameteric polymorphic functions use one algorithm to operate on arguments of many different types, whereas overloaded functions may use a different algorithm for each type of argument.


A complete discussion of what parametric polymorphism and ad-hoc polymorphism mean and to what extent they’re available in Haskell and in Java is longish; however, your concrete questions can be tackled much more simply:

How algorithm of type inference e.g. in Java difference from the type inference in Haskell?

As far as I know, Java does not do type inference. So the difference is that Haskell does it.

Please, give me an example of the situation where something can be written in Java/Scala but can not be written in Haskell(according to the modular features of these platforms too), and vice-versa.

One very simple example of something Haskell can do that Java can’t is to define maxBound :: Bounded a => a. I don’t know enough Java to point out something it can do that Haskell can’t.