Implementing concatMap

Implementing concatMap

The concat function joins a list of lists into a single list:

concat [[1,2,3],[4,5,6]]

Prelude provides a function named concatMap that can be naively implemented by composing concat and map:

concatMap f = concat . map f

Try implementing concatMap using foldl and foldr. Which one is better? Why?


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Remember that you can concatenate two lists using the (<>) operator:

λ [1,2,3] <> [4,5,6]
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You can concatenate two lists by folding over them using the (<>) operator.

λ concatFoldl = foldl (<>) []
λ concatFoldl [[1,2],[3,4],[5,6]]
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You can map over a list by applying your function and then adding the result to a new list using (:)

λ mapFoldr f = foldr (\x acc -> f x : acc) []
λ mapFoldr (+1) [1..10]


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We can write concatMap easily using either foldl or foldr. Let’s take a look at a foldr based version first:

concatMapFoldr f = foldr (\x acc -> f x <> acc) []

Like the other examples where we’ve used foldr, this version of concatMap is lazy and well-behaved when we need to deal with infinite lists. The most obvious example of this is directly passing an infinite list to concatMapFoldr:

λ take 10 $ concatMapFoldr (\x -> [x,x]) [1..]

We can also handle cases where the input is a finite list, but our function outputs infinite lists that we we want to concatenate together. You’ll notice in this example we’re using a new function: repeat. This function takes a value and generates a list of that value repeated indefinitely:

-- When we return an infinite list for each finite input element
λ take 10 $ concatMapFoldr (\x -> repeat x) [1,2,3]

As you might expect, we can also handle both cases at the same time. Even with an infinitely long input, and a function that generates infinitely long lists from each input, we’re still able to get a finite result:

-- When we return an infinite list for each of infinite inputs
λ take 10 $ concatMapFoldr (\x -> repeat x) [1..]

We can implement a foldl based version of concatMap just as easily as our foldr version, we just need to flip around the order of some of our operations:

concatMapFoldl f = foldl (\acc x -> acc <> f x) []

As you might expect, this version of concatMap doesn’t do well with infinite lists. Whether you pass in an finitely list, generate one with the function you pass in, or both, concatMapFoldl will hang and ever complete.

So, Which One Is Better?

In most cases, concatMapFoldr is the version of this function that we’d want. If we look at the behavior of the concatMap defined for us in Prelude you’ll notice it’s behavior with infinite lists matches our foldr based implementation:

λ take 10 $ concatMap repeat [1..]