Deriving strategies

Deriving strategies are a proposed feature to grant users finer-grained control over how instances may be derived.


GHC Trac #10598 revealed a limitation of GHC's current instance deriving mechanism. Consider the following program which uses both DeriveAnyClass and GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving:

{-# LANGUAGE DeriveAnyClass, GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving #-}

class C a where
  c :: a -> String
  c _ = "default"

instance C Int where
  c = show

newtype T = MkT Int deriving C

What C instance should be derived for T? GHC could use GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving and use the underlying instance for Int. On the other hand, GHC could just as well use DeriveAnyClass and give T a default implementation for c! We've uncovered an ambiguity.

Currently, GHC will accept the above code by defaulting to the DeriveAnyClass strategy (after emitting a warning). This is an unfortunate outcome, because it now prevents users from using GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving and DeriveAnyClass simultaneously.

There are some other shortcomings of instance deriving as well. For instance, one cannot derive "newtype-style" Read or Show instances. For example:

{-# LANGUAGE GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving #-}

newtype S = MkS Int deriving Show

sOne :: String
sOne = show (MkS 1)

Despite our best efforts, the value of sOne will be MkS 1 instead of 1. The behavior of a deriving Show clause is to always produce a Show instance that includes the name of the constructor, even if GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving is on. While this is usually what you want, there are rare occasions where you simply want to use the underlying type's Show instance instead of constructing an entirely new one. Unfortunately, GHC does not give you a way to express this.

Deriving strategies

A solution to the above issues is to introduce a syntax extension called deriving strategies. They are named as such because they allow users to state explicitly in a deriving clause what approach GHC should take when attempting to derive an instance for a typeclass. There are currently three strategies that GHC is aware of:

  • Deriving stock instances: This is the usual approach that GHC takes. For certain classes that GHC is aware of, such as Eq, Ord, Functor, Generic, and others, GHC can use an algorithm to derive an instance of the class for a particular datatype mechanically. For example, a stock derived Eq instance for data Foo = Foo Int is:
instance Eq Foo where
  Foo a == Foo b = a == b

Stock applies to the "standard" derivable typeclasses mentioned in the Haskell Report like Eq and Show, as well as some GHC-specific classes like Data and Generic. The stock strategy only requires enabling language extensions in certain cases (DeriveFunctor, DeriveGeneric, etc.).

While GHC can pick a strategy internally, users don't have a reliable way to pick a strategy other than enabling language extensions and hoping that GHC does the right thing (which it often doesn't, as evidenced in the above problematic examples). The deriving strategies proposal aims to:

  1. Introduce a new -XDerivingStrategies language extension.
  2. Allocate three keywords (stock, newtype, and anyclass) that can be used in deriving clauses or standalone deriving declarations to indicate which strategy to use when -XDerivingStrategies is enabled. (Note that stock and anyclass would still be able to used outside the context of deriving as, say, function argument names.)
  3. Allow datatypes to have multiple deriving clauses when -XDerivingStrategies is enabled.


Here is an example showing off what -XDerivingStrategies allows:

{-# LANGUAGE DeriveAnyClass #-}
{-# LANGUAGE DeriveFoldable #-}
{-# LANGUAGE DeriveFunctor #-}
{-# LANGUAGE DerivingStrategies #-}
{-# LANGUAGE GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving #-}
{-# LANGUAGE StandaloneDeriving #-}

newtype T a = T a
  deriving          Show
  deriving stock    (Eq, Foldable)
  deriving newtype  Ord
  deriving anyclass Read

deriving stock instance Functor T

This demonstrates why part 3 is important: with multiple deriving clauses, one can fine-tune which instances should be derived with particular deriving strategies.

The deriving strategy resolution algorithm

With -XDerivingStrategies in the picture, we can now state how GHC figures out which deriving strategy to use for a particular derived instance:

  1. Look for a deriving strategy. If one is present, use that. This will throw an error if you try to do something impossible, like using the newtype strategy on a non-newtype or the stock keyword with a non-stock typeclass.
  1. If deriving a stock class:

(a) If deriving Eq, Ord, Ix, or Bounded for a newtype, use the GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving strategy (even if the language extension isn't enabled).

(b) If deriving Functor, Foldable, or Enum for a newtype, the datatype can be successfully used with GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving, and -XGeneralizedNewtypeDeriving has been enabled, use the GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving strategy.

(c) Otherwise, if deriving a stock class and the corresponding language extension is enabled (if necessary), use the stock strategy. If the language extension is not enabled, throw an error.

  1. If not deriving a stock class:

(a) If deriving an instance for a newtype and both -XGeneralizedNewtypeDeriving and -XDeriveAnyClass are enabled, default to DeriveAnyClass, but emit a warning stating the ambiguity.

(b) Otherwise, if -XDeriveAnyClass is enabled, use DeriveAnyClass.

(c) Otherwise, if deriving an instance for a newtype, the datatype and typeclass can be successfully used with GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving, and -XGeneralizedNewtypeDeriving is enabled, do so.

(d) Otherwise, throw an error.

The stock classes are:

  • Bounded
  • Enum
  • Eq
  • Ix
  • Ord
  • Read
  • Show
  • Functor (with -XDeriveFunctor)
  • Foldable (with -XDeriveFoldable)
  • Traversable (with -XDeriveTraversable)
  • Generic and Generic1 (with -XDeriveGeneric)
  • Data (with -XDeriveDataTypeable)
  • Lift (with -XDeriveLift)

The relationship between stock classes and DeriveAnyClass can be be summarized as follows: In the absence of an explicit anyclass keyword, GHC will never attempt to derive a stock class instance using DeriveAnyClass, since it is guaranteed that doing so would not produce the instance you'd want.

Step 2 is fairly intricate since GHC tries to use GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving in certain special cases whenever it can to optimize the generated instances. In addition, the phrase "can be successfully used with GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving" must be invoked since it is possible for GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving to fail for certain datatypes. For example, you cannot have a newtype-derived Functor instance for newtype Compose f g a = Compose (f (g a)), since the last type variable a cannot be eta-reduced.

To help visualize things, here's a table summarizing which typeclasses GHC decides it can use the newtype strategy for (thanks to Ørjan Johansen):

No extension required Requires language extension to use
GND when possible 2(a) Eq, Ord, Ix, Bounded
GND with extension 2(b) Enum 2(b) Functor, Foldable
Never select GND 2(c) Read, Show 2(c) Data, Generic, Generic1, Typeable, Traversable, Lift

This provides another reason to use -XDerivingStrategies: trying to memorize this algorithm is almost impossible!

Interaction with Safe Haskell

Safe Haskell has some things to say about derived Typeable and Generic instances, so it's worth mentioning how -XDerivingStrategies fits into the picture.

GHC currently disallows manually implementing Typeable instances, and derived Typeable instances are ignored, as GHC automatically generates Typeable instances for all datatypes, typeclasses, and promoted data constructors. Similarly, GHC will ignore derived Typeable instances even if a deriving strategy is used.

GHC also disallows manually implementing Generic instances when -XSafe is enabled, so the only way to declare Generic instances in Safe Haskell is to use the -XDeriveGeneric extension. To preserve this property, it is forbidden to derive a Generic instance with a deriving strategy other than stock.

What -XDerivingStrategies is not

-XDerivingStrategies is not intended to be a catch-all language extension that enables all of -XDeriveFunctor, -XDeriveAnyClass, -XGeneralizedNewtypeDeriving, -XDeriveGeneric, and all other exotic deriving language extensions. To see why consider the following code:

{-# LANGUAGE GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving #-}
newtype T = MkT S deriving (Foo, Bar)

This code compiles without issue, and uses GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving to derive Foo and Bar instances for T. But if you turn on -XDerivingStrategies as well, suddenly the above code will change in semantics: it will emit a warning about GeneralizedNewtypeDeriving and DeriveAnyClass both being on, and default to DeriveAnyClass! The intention of -XDerivingStrategies is to simply enable new syntactic forms that allow strictly more code to compile, and in particular, it is not intended to change the semantics of any existing code.

In addition, having -XDerivingStrategies imply -XGeneralizedNewtypeDeriving would have Safe Haskell repercussions, since one cannot currently use -XSafe in combination with -XGeneralizedNewtypeDeriving (see Trac #8827).

Alternative syntax

Several alternative syntaxes and keyword suggestions have been proposed in the original track ticket (#10598) and on the ghc-devs mailing list ( Here is an overview of some previous ideas:

  • Use pragmas instead of keywords. We could indicate the use of deriving strategies like so:
newtype T a = T a
  deriving          Show
  deriving {-# STOCK    #-} (Eq, Foldable)
  deriving {-# NEWTYPE  #-} Ord
  deriving {-# ANYCLASS #-} Read

deriving {-# STOCK #-} instance Functor T

This has the advantage of being backwards compatible. On the other hand, several people objected to this idea on the basis that the presence of pragmas shouldn't affect the semantics of programs.

  • Use type synonyms instead of keywords. We could have three builtin type syonyms:
type Stock    (a :: k)  = a
type Newtype  (a :: k)  = a
type AnyClass (a :: k) = a

that we imbue with compiler magic to indicate the presence of a deriving strategy. For example:

newtype T a = T a deriving (Stock Eq, Newtype Ord, AnyClass Read, Show)
deriving instance Stock (Functor T)

This is fairly backwards compatible (back to GHC 7.6), and would require absolutely no Template Haskell or parser changes. On the other hand, it requires making type synonyms behave magically, and it muddies up the actual class being derived, perhaps making it more confusing to look at.

  • Instead of allowing multiple deriving clauses per datatype, one could indicate the presence of a deriving strategy by preceding every derived class with the appropriate keyword. For example:
newtype T a = T a
  deriving (          Show
           , stock    Eq
           , stock    Foldable
           , newtype  Ord
           , anyclass Read

This is cleaner in some respects, as it more closely resembles an English-language description of how to derive all the instances that T needs (Eq via stock, Ord via newtype, Read via anyclass...). A downside is that this is much trickier (though likely not impossible) to parse, since all-lowercase words can be confused for type variables.

Another factor to consider is the semantic noise that this suggestion brings. Unlike with multiple deriving clauses, this suggestion requires the use of a keyword next to every class. This can lead to more keystrokes than the multi-clause suggestion would when you derive several instances with the same deriving strategy. For instance, in the above example you need to type stock twice, whereas in the multi-clause proposal you need only type stock once. This can really add up when you derive loads of instances at a time, e.g.,

newtype T a = T a
  deriving ( newtype A
           , newtype B
           , newtype C
           , newtype D
           , newtype E
           , newtype F

This can be expressed much more succintly as:

newtype T a = T a
  deriving newtype (A, B, C, D, E, F)

In addition, I (the proposal author, Ryan) would argue that it's tidier to put the strategy keyword outside of the parentheses, since it makes it clear that these keywords aren't modifying the type we're deriving, only the means by which we're deriving it.

One could also argue that GHC should support both syntaxes, although it would combine the downsides of both for questionable gain.

  • Previous alternative suggestions for the stock keyword were bespoke, builtin, magic, wiredin, standard, native, original, and specialized. In particular, builtin is what I (Ryan) originally suggested, but it was poorly received since all deriving extensions are, to some extent, built-in to GHC. I then championed bespoke, but others expressed reservations about the word's relative obscurity outside of Commonwealth English.
  • A previous alternative suggestion for the anyclass keyword was default, since it's already a keyword, and the connection to -XDefaultSignatures would be evocative of generic programming, which -XDeriveAnyClass is often used for. On the other hand, I (Ryan) felt it would be too easy to confuse with what stock accomplishes (i.e., the "default" GHC behavior when deriving an instance), so I proposed anyclass to make it very explicit what's going on there.
Last modified 10 months ago Last modified on Sep 29, 2016 2:29:44 PM