Zipping Lists

Zipping Lists

The zip function is a special case of a more general function available in Prelude called zipWith. The zipWith function combines two lists according to a function. Consider this implementation of zip in terms of zipWith:

λ let zip' = zipWith (,)
λ zip' [1..5] [5,4..1]

Implement the zipWith function with and without using list comprehensions. Can you implement zipWith using foldl?


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You can use pattern matching to easily figure out if either of the lists that you are zipping is empty.

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The zip and zipWith functions in Prelude always return a list as long as the shortest input list. If either list is empty, they return an empty list. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

λ zip [] [1..100]

λ zip [1..100] []

λ zip [1] [2..100]
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Implementing zipWith using list comprehensions will be tricky. Remember that by default a list comprehension will generate every combination of elements:

λ [(a,b) | a <- [1,2,3], b <- [1,2,3]]

Can you think of any ways to work around this?


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As you might expect, it’s possible to implement zipWith with manual recursion, foldl, or using a list comprehension. In fact, there are several different options, all with their own tradeoffs.

Let’s start by looking at the manual recursive definition. We’ll use pattern matching to decide whether we have enough data to create a new value. Naively, we could check if either list is empty, and otherwise return a value:

exampleZipWith f [] bs = []
exampleZipWith f as [] = []
exampleZipWith f (a:as) (b:bs) = f a b : exampleZipWith f as bs

Although it works, this approach is a bit more verbose than necessary. If either list is empty, or if both of them are, then we’re returning an empty list. We’re only applying f when both lists are non-empty. If we put that pattern first, then we can use a wildcard pattern for all other cases:

exampleZipWith f (a:as) (b:bs) = f a b : exampleZipWith f as bs
exampleZipWith _f _as _bs = []

Alternatively, you could use a case expression to implement this function. The logic is the same, but we’ll use a single implementation of our function:

exampleZipWithCase f a b =
  case (a,b) of
    (a':as, b':bs) -> f a' b' : exampleZipWith f as bs
    _ -> []

Another option for implementing our function with manual recursion would be to use a guard. Naively you might want to use null and head to implement this function using a guard:

exampleGuard f as bs
  | null as || null bs = []
  | otherwise = f (head as) (head bs) : exampleGuard f (tail as) (tail bs)

Although technically safe and correct, since we’re testing for empty lists before using the partial head function, it’s common practice to avoid partial functions like head in general, even when we know them to be safe. In that case, we can use pattern guards to pattern match inside of a guard clause:

examplePatternGuard f as bs
  | (a:as') <- as, (b:bs') <- bs = f a b : examplePatternGuard f as' bs'
  | otherwise = []

You’ll notice that the syntax here is the same as the syntax when working with a list comprehension. We use the left arrow (<-) to pattern match on a value. If any of the patterns fail , then the guard clause fails and we move onto the next one.

Now that you’ve seen how to implement zipWith using manual recursion, can you do it using foldl or a list comprehension? Try it yourself, or click below to see the next part of the solution.

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Now that you’ve implemented a manually recursive version of zipWith, let’s move our attention to a version that uses foldl. If we’re willing to cheat a little bit, our implementation is pretty straightforward:

zipWithFoldl f as bs = reverse $ foldl applyFunction [] zipped
    zipped = zip as bs
    applyFunction accumulator (a,b) = f a b : accumulator

In this solution we’re using zip to handle combining each pair of elements in the two lists. Afterwards, we take one trip through the list with foldl and apply f to each pair of arguments. You’ll notice that we’re prepending each new value to the beginning of our accumulator, and then reversing the whole list at the end. Doing a single call to reverse at the end of our fold lets us avoid having to update the entire list every time we add a new element. Alternatively, we could use foldr and save ourselves the call to reverse:

zipWithFoldr f as bs = foldr applyFunction [] zipped
    zipped = zip as bs
    applyFunction (a,b) accumulator = f a b : accumulator

Since the exercise asked us to solve this with foldl let’s stick with that. If we don’t want to cheat by using zip, we can still solve the problem with foldl, but we need to do a bit more work to keep track of our two lists.

Instead of zipping both lists together, then applying our function, we can do both in a single step:

zipWithFoldl' f as bs =
  reverse $ fst results
    results = foldl applyFunction ([], as) bs
    applyFunction (zipped, []) _ = (zipped, [])
    applyFunction (zipped, x:xs) val = (f x val : zipped, xs)

This function isn’t too different from our original version. We’re still starting with an empty list in our accumulator, and we’re still calling f for each item in our fold. What’s different is that our accumulator value is now keeping track of both the new list that we’re building up, and also the second list that we’re slowly breaking down. If as is shorter than bs we’ll start ignoring any new values in the fold and return the list that we were able to build up as long as we had values in each list.

Once we’re finished with the fold, we’re left with a tuple that contains both the new list, as well as any remainder of as that we weren’t able to process. We discard the leftover as and return the reversed list just like we did with our earlier foldl implementation.

Now that you’ve seen how to implement zipWith using both manual recursion and foldl, you can try to implement it with a list comprehension yourself, or expand the solution below.

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Now that you’ve written zipWith using both foldl and with manual recursion, the last task in this exercise is to build a version that uses list comprehensions. This is the most challenging of the three parts of this problem, because we’re working against the language. This part of the example shows that just because you can use a feature to do something doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.

The problem with using a list comprehension to implement zipWith is, as you may recall from the chapter, a list comprehension returns a value for each pairing of our two lists. That means the naive approach won’t work. Let’s try it and see why:

exampleZipWithComprehensionBad f as bs = [f a b | a <- as, b <- bs]

Let’s load this up in ghci and compare the behavior of this function with the real zipWith:

λ zipWith (,) [1,2] [3,4]

λ exampleZipWithComprehensionBad (,) [1,2] [3,4]

As you can see, the real definition of zipWith pairs the first element of the first list with the first element of the second list, and so on, until it reaches the end of one of the lists. Our list comprehension version pairs the first element of the first list with each element of the second list, and so on, until it’s gone through every pairing. That’s a significantly different behavior.

So, how can work work around this? Just like with our earlier foldl example, the easiest option is to cheat by using zip:

exampleZipWithComprehension f as bs = [f a b | (a,b) <- zip as bs]

Not only does using zip mean that we don’t need to worry about one list being longer than the other, it also combines our two lists so that we don’t need to worry about the fact that list comprehensions don’t combine elements the way we want for zipWith.

If we don’t want to cheat by using zip, then we need to be a bit creative in how we approach the problem. Using two lists won’t work, but how can we get a single list out of our two lists if we’re not combining them with zip? Let’s think again about the nature of our problem: We want to combine the first element of as with the first element of bs, then we want to combine the second element of as with the second element of bs and so on until we reach the end of one of our two lists. Although we have two lists, at each step we’re combining the values at the same index. All we need to do is to step through the list of indexes.

exampleZipWithComprehensionIndex f as bs =
  [f (as !! idx) (bs !! idx) | idx <- [0 .. len - 1]]
    len = min (length as) (length bs)

As you can see, moving to an index based approach to using a list comprehension lets get an implementation that’s fairly easy to read, and doesn’t require that we use zip.

Thinking about how to implement something like zipWith using list comprehensions is a great way to stretch your mind and think about the different ways you can apply the features of Haskell creatively, but in practice this isn’t the way we’d normally implement something like this. Although the (!!) operator should be safe in this example since we’re checking the length of our inputs, it’s still an unsafe operation. Indexing into the lists repeatedly is also much less efficient than even using a foldl and reversing the output. Indexing into a list requires that we traverse the whole list up to the element we want, and so repeated indexing ends up being more work than walking through the list twice (once for the foldl and again for the reverse).