Record Dot Syntax

Records in Haskell are widely recognised as being under-powered, with duplicate field names being particularly troublesome. We propose new language extensions OverloadedRecordDot and OverloadedRecordUpdate that provide syntactic sugar to make the features introduced in the HasField proposal more accessible, improving the user experience.

1. Motivation

In almost every programming language we write a.b to mean the b field of the a record expression. In Haskell that becomes b a, and even then, only works if there is only one b in scope. Haskell programmers have struggled with this weakness, variously putting each record in a separate module and using qualified imports, or prefixing record fields with the type name. We propose bringing a.b to Haskell, which works regardless of how many b fields are in scope. Here’s a simple example of what is on offer:

{-# LANGUAGE OverloadedRecordDot, OverloadedRecordUpdate #-}

data Company = Company {name :: String, owner :: Person}
data Person = Person {name :: String, age :: Int}

display :: Company -> String
display c = ++ " is run by " ++

nameAfterOwner :: Company -> Company
nameAfterOwner c = c{name = ++ "'s Company"}

We declare two records both having name as a field label. The user may then write and to access those fields. We can also write c{name = x} as a record update, which works even though name is no longer unique. Under the hood, we make use of getField and setField from the HasField proposal.

An implementation of this proposal has been battle tested and hardened over two years in the enterprise environment as part of Digital Asset’s DAML smart contract language (a Haskell derivative utilizing GHC in its implementation), and also in a Haskell preprocessor and a GHC plugin. When initially considering Haskell as a basis for DAML, the inadequacy of records was considered the most severe problem, and without devising the scheme presented here, wouldn’t be using Haskell. The feature enjoys universal popularity with users.

2. Proposed Change Specification

For the specification we focus on the changes to the parsing rules, and the desugaring, with the belief the type checking and renamer changes required are an unambiguous consequences of those.

2.1 Language extensions

This change adds new language extensions OverloadedRecordDot and OverloadedRecordUpdate.

If OverloadedRecordDot is on:

  • The expression .lbl means getField @"lbl";

  • The expression e.lbl means getField @"lbl" e.

If OverloadedRecordDot is not on, these expressions are parsed as uses of the function (.).

If OverloadedRecordUpdate is on:

  • The expression e{lbl = val} means setField @"lbl" val;

  • Update expressions with qualified labels like r{M.x = val} are disallowed.

If OverloadedRecordUpdate is not on, e{lbl = val} means just what it does in Haskell98.

If OverloadedRecordDot and OverloadedRecordUpdate are both on the expression e{lbl₁.lbl₂ = val} means e{lbl₁ = (e.lbl₁){lbl2 = val}} otherwise the expression e{lbl₁.lbl₂ = val} is illegal.

2.1.1 Syntax

In the event the language extensions OverloadedRecordDot and OverloadedRecordUpdate are enabled:




(\e -> e.lbl)


(\e -> e.lbl₁.lbl₂)


getField @"lbl" e



e{lbl = val}

setField @"lbl" e val

e{lbl₁.lbl₂ = val}

e{lbl₁ = (e.lbl₁){lbl₂ = val}}

e.lbl₁{lbl₂ = val}

(e.lbl₁){lbl₂ = val}

e{lbl₁ = val₁}.val₂

(e{lbl₁ = val₁}).val₂


e{lbl₁ = lbl₁} [Note: requires NamedFieldUpdates]


e{lbl₁.lbl₂ = lbl₂} [Note: requires NamedFieldUpdates]

  • Updating nested fields. e{lbl = val} is the syntax of a standard H98 record update. It’s the nested form introduced by this proposal that is new : e{lbl1.lbl2 = val}. However, in the event OverloadedRecordUpdate is in effect, note that e{lbl = val} desugars to setField @"lbl" e val].

  • Punning. With NamedFieldPuns, the form e { x, y } means e { x=x, y=y }. With OverloadedRecordUpdate this behaviour is extended to nested updates: e { a.b.c, x.y } means e { a.b.c=c, x.y=y }. Note the variable that is referred to implicitly (here c and y) is the last chunk of the field to update. So c is the last chunk of a.b.c, and y is the last chunk of x.y.

2.1.2 Precedence

M.N.x looks ambiguous. It could mean:

  • (M.N).x that is, select the x field from the (presumably nullary) data constructor M.N, or

  • The qualifed name M.N.x, meaning the x imported from M.N.

The ambiguity is resolved in favor of M.N.x as a qualified name. If the other interpretation is desired you can still write (M.N).x

We propose that . “bind more tightly” than function application thus, f r.a.b parses as f (r.a.b).



f r.x

means f (r.x)

f r .x

is illegal

f (g r).x

f ((g r).x)

f (g r) .x

is illegal

f M.n.x

means f (M.n.x) (that is, f (getField @"x" M.n))

f M.N.x

means f (M.N.x) (M.N.x is a qualified name, not a record field selection)

2.1.3 Fields whose names are operator symbols

We propose that dot notation isn’t available for fields whose names are operator symbols (for example, +, .+. and so on).

[Note : For fields whose names are operator symbols, one can still write getField expressions (e.g. getField @".+." r)].

2.2 Definitions

For what follows, we use these informal definitions:

  • A field selector is an expression like .a or .a.b;

  • A field selection is an expression like r.a or (f x).a.b;

  • A field update is an expression like r{a = 12} or r{a.b = "foo"};

  • A punned field update is an expression like r{a} or r{a.b} (here it is understood that b is a variable bound in the environment of the expression and only valid syntax if the NamedFieldPuns language extension is in effect).

2.3 Lexing and Parsing

The prototype implements the parsing scheme presented here. More information about the prototype is available in this section.

2.3.1 Lexer

A new token case ITproj Bool is introduced. When the OverloadedRecordDot extension is enabled occurences of operator . not as part of a qualified name are classified using the whitespace sensitive operator mechanism from this (accepted) GHC proposal. The rules are:






ITproj True

field selector


tight infix

ITproj False

field selection




function composition

f. g

loose infix


function composition

f . g

No ITproj tokens will ever be issued if OverloadedRecordDot is not enabled.

2.3.2 Parsing

The Haskell grammar is extended with the following productions. We use these notations:







     field   →   varid

[Field to update]
     fieldToUpdate   →   fieldToUpdate .ᵀ field   |   field

[Field selectors]
     aexp   →   ( projection )
     projection   →   .ᴾ field   |   projection .ᵀ field

[Field selection]
     fexp   →   fexp .ᵀ field

[Field update]
     fbind   →    field .ᵀ fieldToUpdate = exp
     fbind   →   field .ᵀ fieldToUpdate

3. Examples

This is a record type with functions describing a study Class (Oh! Pascal, 2nd ed. Cooper & Clancy, 1985).

data Grade = A | B | C | D | E | F
data Quarter = Fall | Winter | Spring
data Status = Passed | Failed | Incomplete | Withdrawn

data Taken =
  Taken { year :: Int
        , term :: Quarter

data Class =
  Class { hours :: Int
        , units :: Int
        , grade :: Grade
        , result :: Status
        , taken :: Taken

getResult :: Class -> Status
getResult c = c.result -- get

setResult :: Class -> Status -> Class
setResult c r = c{result = r} -- update

setYearTaken :: Class -> Int -> Class
setYearTaken c y = c{taken.year = y} -- nested update

getResults :: [Class] -> [Status]
getResults = map (.result) -- selector

getTerms :: [Class]  -> [Quarter]
getTerms = map (.taken.term) -- nested selector

Further examples accompany the prototype and yet more (as tests) are available in the examples directory of this repository. Those tests include infix applications, polymorphic data types, interoperation with other extensions and more.

4. Effect and Interactions

Polymorphic updates: When enabled, this extension takes the a{b=c} syntax and uses it to mean setField. The biggest difference a user is likely to experience is that the resulting type of a{b=c} is the same as the type a - you cannot change the type of the record by updating its fields. The removal of polymorphism is considered essential to preserve decent type inference, and is the only option supported by the HasField proposal. Anyone wishing to use polymorphic updates can write let Foo{..} = a in Foo{polyField=[], ..} instead.

Higher-rank fields: It is impossible to express HasField instances for data types such as data T = MkT { foo :: forall a . a -> a}, which means they can’t have this syntax available. Users can still write their own selector functions using record puns if required. There is a possibility that with future types of impredicativity such getField expressions could be solved specially by the compiler.

Lenses and a.b syntax: The a.b syntax is commonly used in conjunction with the lens library, e.g. expr^.field1.field2. Treating a.b without spaces as a record projection would break such code. The alternatives would be to use a library with a different lens composition operator (e.g. optics), introduce an alias in lens for . (perhaps %), write such expressions with spaces, or not enable this extension when also using lenses. While unfortunate, we consider that people who are heavy users of lens don’t feel the problems of inadequate records as strongly, so the problems are lessened. In addition, it has been discussed (e.g. here), that this proposal is complimentary to lens and can actually benefit lens users (as with NoFieldSelectors one can use the same field names for everything: dot notation, lens-y getting, lens-y modification, record updates, Show/Generic).

Rebindable syntax: When RebindableSyntax is enabled the getField and setField functions are those in scope, rather than those in GHC.Records. The . function (as used in the a.b.c desugaring) remains the Prelude version (we see the . as a syntactic shortcut for an explicit lambda, and believe that whether the implementation uses literal . or a lambda is an internal detail).

Enabled extensions: The extensions do not imply enabling/disabling any other extensions. It is often likely to be used in conjunction with either the NoFieldSelectors extension orDuplicateRecordFields.

5. Costs and Drawbacks

The implementation of this proposal adds code to the compiler, but not a huge amount. Our prototype shows the essence of the parsing changes, which is the most complex part.

If this proposal becomes widely used then it is likely that all Haskell users would have to learn that a.b is a record field selection. Fortunately, given how popular this syntax is elsewhere, that is unlikely to surprise new users.

This proposal advocates a different style of writing Haskell records, which is distinct from the existing style. As such, it may lead to the bifurcation of Haskell styles, with some people preferring the lens approach, and some people preferring the syntax presented here. That is no doubt unfortunate, but hard to avoid - a.b really is ubiquitous in programming languages. We consider that any solution to the records problem must cause some level of divergence, but note that this mechanism (as distinct from some proposals) localises that divergence in the implementation of a module - users of the module will not know whether its internals used this extension or not.

The use of a.b with no spaces on either side can make it harder to write expressions that span multiple lines. To split over two lines it is possible to use the & function from Base or do either of:


let temp = myexpression.field1.field2.field3
in temp.field4.field5

6. Alternatives to this proposal

Instead of this proposal, we could do any of the following:

  • Using the lens library. While lenses help both with accessors and overloaded names (e.g. makeFields), one still needs to use one of the techniques mentioned below (or similar) to work around the problem of duplicate name selectors. In addition, lens-based syntax is more verbose, e.g. f $ record ^. field instead of possible f record.field. More importantly, while the concept of lenses is very powerful, that power can be complex to use, and for many projects that complexity is undesirable. In many ways lenses let you abstract over record fields, but Haskell has neglected the “unabstracted” case of concrete fields. Moreover, as it has been previously mentioned, this proposal is orthogonal to lens and can actually benefit lens users.

  • The DuplicateRecordFields extension is designed to solve similar problems. We evaluated this extension as the basis for DAML, but found it lacking. The rules about what types must be inferred by what point are cumbersome and tricky to work with, requiring a clear understanding of at what stage a type is inferred by the compiler.

  • Some style guidelines mandate that each record should be in a separate module. That works, but then requires qualified modules to access fields - e.g. (Company.owner c). Forcing the structure of the module system to follow the records also makes circular dependencies vastly more likely, leading to complications such as boot files that are ideally avoided.

  • Some style guidelines suggest prefixing each record field with the type name, e.g. personName (companyOwner c). While it works, it isn’t pleasant, and many libraries then abbreviate the types to lead to code such as prsnName (coOwner c), which can increase confusion.

  • There is a GHC plugin and preprocessor that both implement much of this proposal. While both have seen light use, their ergonomics are not ideal. The preprocessor struggles to give good location information given the necessary expansion of substrings. The plugin cannot support the full proposal and leads to error messages mentioning getField. Suggesting either a preprocessor or plugin to beginners is not an adequate answer. One of the huge benefits to the a.b style in other languages is support for completion in IDE’s, which is quite hard to give for something not actually in the language.

  • Continue to vent about records on social media.

All these approaches are currently used, and represent the “status quo”, where Haskell records are considered not fit for purpose.

7. Alternatives within this proposal

7.1 Should the extensions imply NoFieldSelectors or another extension?

Typically the extensions will be used in conjunction with NoFieldSelectors, but DuplicateRecordFields would work too. Of those two, DuplicateRecordFields complicates GHC, while NoFieldSelectors conceptually simplifies it, so we prefer to bias the eventual outcome. However, there are lots of balls in the air, and enabling the extensions should ideally not break normal code, so we leave everything distinct (after being convinced).

7.2 Should a syntax be provided for modification?

Earlier versions of this proposal contained a modify field syntax of the form a{field * 2}. While appealing, there is a lot of syntactic debate, with variously a{field <- (*2)}, a{field * = 2} and others being proposed. None of these syntax variations are immediately clear to someone not familiar with this proposal. To be conservative, we leave this feature out.

7.3 Should there be update sections?

There are no update sections. Should ({a=}), ({a=b}) or (.lbl=) be an update section? While nice, we leave this feature out.

7.4 Should pattern matching be extended?

We do not extend pattern matching, although it would be possible for P{ x} to be defined.

7.5 Will whitespace sensitivity become worse?

We’re not aware of qualified modules giving any problems, but it’s adding whitespace sensitivity in one more place.

7.6 Should a new update syntax be added?

One suggestion is that record updates remain as normal, but a { .foo = 1 } be used to indicate the new forms of updates. While possible, we believe that option leads to a confusing result, with two forms of update both of which fail in different corner cases. Instead, we recommend use of C{foo} as a pattern (with -XNamedFieldPuns) to extract fields if necessary.

7.7 Why two extensions and not just one?

Things we could have done instead:

  1. Add two extensions, as proposed here.

  • Pro: flexibility for people who want type-changing update, but would still like dot-notation. Breaking back on type-changing update, like OverloadedRecordUpdate does, has proved to be controversial, and we don’t want it to hold back the integration of this proposal in GHC.

  • Pro: orthogonal things are controlled by separate flags.

  • Con: each has to be documented separately: two flags with one paragraph each, instead of one flag with two paragraphs. (The implementation cost is zero: it’s only a question of which flag to test.)

  1. Add a single extension (OverloadedRecordFields, say) to do what OverloadedRecordDot and OverloadedRecordUpdate do in this proposal.

  • Pro: only one extension.

  • Con: some users might want dot-notation, but not want to give up type-changing update.

  1. Make this modification a no-op, doing nothing. Instead adopt precisely the previous proposal. Use RecordDotSyntax as the extension, covering both record dot and update. However, we should then be prepared to change what RecordDotSyntax means later. In particular, it is very likely that we’ll want RecordDotSyntax to imply NoFieldSelectors.

  • Pro: only one extension

  • Con: changing the meaning of an extension will break programs.

  1. Use RecordDotSyntax, just as in the original proposal, but add NoFieldSelectors immediately

  • Con: it’s too early to standardize this, we’re not really sure that it’s what we want (e.g. we may want DuplicatRecordFields instead).

NB: the difference between (2) and (3) is tiny: only whether we have OverloadedRecordFields now and RecordDotSyntax later; or RecordDotSyntax now and <something else> later.

7.8 Why not make RecordDotSyntax part of this proposal?

We think RecordDotSyntax will enable these extensions plus some extension that allows multiple field names, e.g. NoFieldSelectors. Which final extension that is has not yet been determined.

8. Unresolved issues


9. Implementation Plan

9.1 Prototype

To gain confidence these changes integrate as expected a prototype was produced that parses and desugars forms directly in the parser. For confirmation, we do not view desugaring in the parser as the correct implementation choice, but it provides a simple mechanism to pin down the changes without going as far as adding additional AST nodes or type checker rules. The prototype was rich enough to “do the right thing”. Update July 2021: More tests are now available in the GHC tree, e.g. RecordDotSyntax1.hs.

9.2 Who will provide an implementation?

If accepted, the proposal authors would be delighted to provide an implementation. Implementation depends on the implementation of the HasField proposal.