6.8.8. Instance declarations and resolution¶
An instance declaration has the form
instance (assertion1, ..., assertionn) => class type1 ... typem where ...
The part before the “=>
” is the context, while the part after the
“=>
” is the head of the instance declaration.
When GHC tries to resolve, say, the constraint C Int Bool
, it tries
to match every instance declaration against the constraint, by
instantiating the head of the instance declaration. Consider these
declarations:
instance context1 => C Int a where ...  (A)
instance context2 => C a Bool where ...  (B)
GHC’s default behaviour is that exactly one instance must match the
constraint it is trying to resolve. For example, the constraint
C Int Bool
matches instances (A) and (B), and hence would be
rejected; while C Int Char
matches only (A) and hence (A) is chosen.
Notice that
 When matching, GHC takes no account of the context of the instance
declaration (
context1
etc).  It is fine for there to be a potential of overlap (by including both declarations (A) and (B), say); an error is only reported if a particular constraint matches more than one.
See also Overlapping instances for flags that loosen the instance resolution rules.
6.8.8.1. Relaxed rules for the instance head¶

TypeSynonymInstances
¶ Since: 6.8.1 Allow definition of type class instances for type synonyms.

FlexibleInstances
¶ Implies: TypeSynonymInstances
Since: 6.8.1 Allow definition of type class instances with arbitrary nested types in the instance head.
In Haskell 98 the head of an instance declaration must be of the form
C (T a1 ... an)
, where C
is the class, T
is a data type
constructor, and the a1 ... an
are distinct type variables. In the
case of multiparameter type classes, this rule applies to each
parameter of the instance head (Arguably it should be okay if just one
has this form and the others are type variables, but that’s the rules at
the moment).
GHC relaxes this rule in two ways:
With the
TypeSynonymInstances
extension, instance heads may use type synonyms. As always, using a type synonym is just shorthand for writing the RHS of the type synonym definition. For example:type Point a = (a,a) instance C (Point a) where ...
is legal. The instance declaration is equivalent to
instance C (a,a) where ...
As always, type synonyms must be fully applied. You cannot, for example, write:
instance Monad Point where ...
The
FlexibleInstances
extension allows the head of the instance declaration to mention arbitrary nested types. For example, this becomes a legal instance declarationinstance C (Maybe Int) where ...
See also the rules on overlap.
The
FlexibleInstances
extension impliesTypeSynonymInstances
.
However, the instance declaration must still conform to the rules for instance termination: see Instance termination rules.
6.8.8.2. Formal syntax for instance declaration types¶
The top of an instance declaration only permits very specific forms of types. To make more precise what forms of types are or are not permitted, we provide a BNFstyle grammar for the tops of instance declarations below.
inst_top ::= 'instance' opt_forall opt_ctxt inst_head opt_where
opt_forall ::= <empty>
 'forall' tv_bndrs '.'
tv_bndrs ::= <empty>
 tv_bndr tv_bndrs
tv_bndr ::= tyvar
 '(' tyvar '::' ctype ')'
opt_ctxt ::= <empty>
 btype '=>'
 '(' ctxt ')' '=>'
ctxt ::= ctype
 ctype ',' ctxt
inst_head ::= '(' inst_head ')'
 prefix_cls_tycon arg_types
 arg_type infix_cls_tycon arg_type
 '(' arg_type infix_cls_tycon arg_type ')' arg_types
arg_type ::= <empty>
 arg_type arg_types
opt_where ::= <empty>
 'where'
Where:
btype
is a type that is not allowed to have an outermostforall
/=>
unless it is surrounded by parentheses. For example,forall a. a
andEq a => a
are not legalbtype
s, but(forall a. a)
and(Eq a => a)
are legal.ctype
is abtype
that has no restrictions on an outermostforall
/=>
, soforall a. a
andEq a => a
are legalctype
s.arg_type
is a type that is not allowed to haveforall
s or=>
sprefix_cls_tycon
is a class type constructor written prefix (e.g.,Show
or(&&&)
), whileinfix_cls_tycon
is a class type constructor written infix (e.g.,\`Show\`
or&&&
).
This is a simplified grammar that does not fully delve into all of the implementation details of GHC’s parser (such as the placement of Haddock comments), but it is sufficient to attain an understanding of what is syntactically allowed. Some further various observations about this grammar:
Instance declarations are not allowed to be declared with nested
forall
s or=>
s. For example, this would be rejected:instance forall a. forall b. C (Either a b) where ...
As a result,
inst_top
puts all of its quantification and constraints up front withopt_forall
andopt_context
.Furthermore, instance declarations types do not permit outermost parentheses that surround the
opt_forall
oropt_ctxt
, if at least one of them are used. For example,instance (forall a. C a)
would be rejected, since GHC would treat theforall
as being nested.Note that it is acceptable to use parentheses in a
inst_head
. For instance,instance (C a)
is accepted, as isinstance forall a. (C a)
.
6.8.8.3. Instance termination rules¶

UndecidableInstances
¶ Since: 6.8.1 Permit definition of instances which may lead to typechecker nontermination.
Regardless of FlexibleInstances
and FlexibleContexts
,
instance declarations must conform to some rules that ensure that
instance resolution will terminate. The restrictions can be lifted with
UndecidableInstances
(see Instance termination rules).
The rules are these:
 The Paterson Conditions: for each class constraint
(C t1 ... tn)
in the context No type variable has more occurrences in the constraint than in the head
 The constraint has fewer constructors and variables (taken together and counting repetitions) than the head
 The constraint mentions no type functions. A type function application can in principle expand to a type of arbitrary size, and so are rejected out of hand
 The Coverage Condition. For each functional dependency,
⟨tvs⟩_{left}
>
⟨tvs⟩_{right}, of the class, every type variable in S(⟨tvs⟩_{right}) must appear in S(⟨tvs⟩_{left}), where S is the substitution mapping each type variable in the class declaration to the corresponding type in the instance head.
These restrictions ensure that instance resolution terminates: each reduction step makes the problem smaller by at least one constructor. You can find lots of background material about the reason for these restrictions in the paper Understanding functional dependencies via Constraint Handling Rules.
For example, these are okay:
instance C Int [a]  Multiple parameters
instance Eq (S [a])  Structured type in head
 Repeated type variable in head
instance C4 a a => C4 [a] [a]
instance Stateful (ST s) (MutVar s)
 Head can consist of type variables only
instance C a
instance (Eq a, Show b) => C2 a b
 Nontype variables in context
instance Show (s a) => Show (Sized s a)
instance C2 Int a => C3 Bool [a]
instance C2 Int a => C3 [a] b
But these are not:
 Context assertion no smaller than head
instance C a => C a where ...
 (C b b) has more occurrences of b than the head
instance C b b => Foo [b] where ...
The same restrictions apply to instances generated by deriving
clauses. Thus the following is accepted:
data MinHeap h a = H a (h a)
deriving (Show)
because the derived instance
instance (Show a, Show (h a)) => Show (MinHeap h a)
conforms to the above rules.
The restrictions on functional dependencies (Functional dependencies) are particularly troublesome. It is tempting to introduce type variables in the context that do not appear in the head, something that is excluded by the normal rules. For example:
class HasConverter a b  a > b where
convert :: a > b
data Foo a = MkFoo a
instance (HasConverter a b,Show b) => Show (Foo a) where
show (MkFoo value) = show (convert value)
This is dangerous territory, however. Here, for example, is a program that would make the typechecker loop:
class D a
class F a b  a>b
instance F [a] [[a]]
instance (D c, F a c) => D [a]  'c' is not mentioned in the head
Similarly, it can be tempting to lift the coverage condition:
class Mul a b c  a b > c where
(.*.) :: a > b > c
instance Mul Int Int Int where (.*.) = (*)
instance Mul Int Float Float where x .*. y = fromIntegral x * y
instance Mul a b c => Mul a [b] [c] where x .*. v = map (x.*.) v
The third instance declaration does not obey the coverage condition; and indeed the (somewhat strange) definition:
f = \ b x y > if b then x .*. [y] else y
makes instance inference go into a loop, because it requires the
constraint (Mul a [b] b)
.
The UndecidableInstances
extension is also used to lift some of the
restrictions imposed on type family instances. See
Decidability of type synonym instances.
6.8.8.4. Overlapping instances¶

OverlappingInstances
¶ Since: 6.8.1 Deprecated extension to weaken checks intended to ensure instance resolution termination.

IncoherentInstances
¶ Since: 6.8.1 Deprecated extension to weaken checks intended to ensure instance resolution termination.
In general, as discussed in Instance declarations and resolution, GHC requires that it be unambiguous which instance declaration should be used to resolve a typeclass constraint. GHC also provides a way to loosen the instance resolution, by allowing more than one instance to match, provided there is a most specific one. Moreover, it can be loosened further, by allowing more than one instance to match irrespective of whether there is a most specific one. This section gives the details.
To control the choice of instance, it is possible to specify the overlap
behavior for individual instances with a pragma, written immediately
after the instance
keyword. The pragma may be one of:
{# OVERLAPPING #}
, {# OVERLAPPABLE #}
, {# OVERLAPS #}
,
or {# INCOHERENT #}
.
The matching behaviour is also influenced by two modulelevel language
extension flags: OverlappingInstances
and
IncoherentInstances
. These extensions are now
deprecated (since GHC 7.10) in favour of the finegrained perinstance
pragmas.
A more precise specification is as follows. The willingness to be overlapped or incoherent is a property of the instance declaration itself, controlled as follows:
 An instance is incoherent if: it has an
INCOHERENT
pragma; or if the instance has no pragma and it appears in a module compiled withIncoherentInstances
.  An instance is overlappable if: it has an
OVERLAPPABLE
orOVERLAPS
pragma; or if the instance has no pragma and it appears in a module compiled withOverlappingInstances
; or if the instance is incoherent.  An instance is overlapping if: it has an
OVERLAPPING
orOVERLAPS
pragma; or if the instance has no pragma and it appears in a module compiled withOverlappingInstances
; or if the instance is incoherent.
Now suppose that, in some client module, we are searching for an
instance of the target constraint (C ty1 .. tyn)
. The search works
like this:
 Find all instances \(I\) that match the target constraint; that is, the target constraint is a substitution instance of \(I\). These instance declarations are the candidates.
 If no candidates remain, the search fails
 Eliminate any candidate \(IX\) for which there is another candidate
\(IY\) such that both of the following hold:
 \(IY\) is strictly more specific than \(IX\). That is, \(IY\) is a substitution instance of \(IX\) but not vice versa.
 Either \(IX\) is overlappable, or \(IY\) is overlapping. (This “either/or” design, rather than a “both/and” design, allow a client to deliberately override an instance from a library, without requiring a change to the library.)
 If all the remaining candidates are incoherent, the search succeeds, returning an arbitrary surviving candidate.
 If more than one nonincoherent candidate remains, the search fails.
 Otherwise there is exactly one nonincoherent candidate; call it the “prime candidate”.
 Now find all instances, or inscope given constraints, that unify with the target constraint, but do not match it. Such noncandidate instances might match when the target constraint is further instantiated. If all of them are incoherent toplevel instances, the search succeeds, returning the prime candidate. Otherwise the search fails.
Notice that these rules are not influenced by flag settings in the client module, where the instances are used. These rules make it possible for a library author to design a library that relies on overlapping instances without the client having to know.
Errors are reported lazily (when attempting to solve a constraint), rather than eagerly (when the instances themselves are defined). Consider, for example
instance C Int b where ..
instance C a Bool where ..
These potentially overlap, but GHC will not complain about the instance
declarations themselves, regardless of flag settings. If we later try to
solve the constraint (C Int Char)
then only the first instance
matches, and all is well. Similarly with (C Bool Bool)
. But if we
try to solve (C Int Bool)
, both instances match and an error is
reported.
As a more substantial example of the rules in action, consider
instance {# OVERLAPPABLE #} context1 => C Int b where ...  (A)
instance {# OVERLAPPABLE #} context2 => C a Bool where ...  (B)
instance {# OVERLAPPABLE #} context3 => C a [b] where ...  (C)
instance {# OVERLAPPING #} context4 => C Int [Int] where ...  (D)
(These all need FlexibleInstances
.)
Now suppose that the type inference engine needs to solve the constraint
C Int [Int]
. This constraint matches instances (A), (C) and (D), but
the last is more specific, and hence is chosen.
If (D) did not exist then (A) and (C) would still be matched, but
neither is most specific. In that case, the program would be rejected,
unless IncoherentInstances
is enabled, in which case it would be
accepted and (A) or (C) would be chosen arbitrarily.
An instance declaration is more specific than another iff the head of
former is a substitution instance of the latter. For example (D) is
“more specific” than (C) because you can get from (C) to (D) by
substituting a := Int
and b := Int
.
The final bullet (about unifying instances) makes GHC conservative about committing to an overlapping instance. For example:
f :: [b] > [b]
f x = ...
Suppose that from the RHS of f
we get the constraint C b [b]
.
But GHC does not commit to instance (C), because in a particular call of
f
, b
might be instantiated to Int
, in which case instance (D)
would be more specific still. So GHC rejects the program.
If, however, you enable the extension IncoherentInstances
when compiling
the module that contains (D), GHC will instead pick (C), without
complaining about the problem of subsequent instantiations.
Notice that we gave a type signature to f
, so GHC had to check
that f
has the specified type. Suppose instead we do not give a type
signature, asking GHC to infer it instead. In this case, GHC will
refrain from simplifying the constraint C Int [b]
(for the same
reason as before) but, rather than rejecting the program, it will infer
the type
f :: C b [b] => [b] > [b]
That postpones the question of which instance to pick to the call site
for f
by which time more is known about the type b
. You
will need the
FlexibleContexts
extension.
Exactly the same situation can arise in instance declarations themselves. Suppose we have
class Foo a where
f :: a > a
instance Foo [b] where
f x = ...
and, as before, the constraint C Int [b]
arises from f
‘s right
hand side. GHC will reject the instance, complaining as before that it
does not know how to resolve the constraint C Int [b]
, because it
matches more than one instance declaration. The solution is to postpone
the choice by adding the constraint to the context of the instance
declaration, thus:
instance C Int [b] => Foo [b] where
f x = ...
(You need FlexibleContexts
to do this.)
In the unification check in the final bullet, GHC also uses the “inscope given constraints”. Consider for example
instance C a Int
g :: forall b c. C b Int => blah
g = ...needs (C c Int)...
Here GHC will not solve the constraint (C c Int)
from the
toplevel instance, because a particular call of g
might
instantiate both b
and c
to the same type, which would
allow the constraint to be solved in a different way. This latter
restriction is principally to make the constraintsolver complete.
(Interested folk can read Note [Instance and Given overlap]
in TcInteract
.)
It is easy to avoid: in a type signature avoid a constraint that
matches a toplevel instance. The flag Wsimplifiableclassconstraints
warns about such signatures.
Warning
Overlapping instances must be used with care. They can give
rise to incoherence (i.e. different instance choices are made in
different parts of the program) even without IncoherentInstances
.
Consider:
{# LANGUAGE OverlappingInstances #}
module Help where
class MyShow a where
myshow :: a > String
instance MyShow a => MyShow [a] where
myshow xs = concatMap myshow xs
showHelp :: MyShow a => [a] > String
showHelp xs = myshow xs
{# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances, OverlappingInstances #}
module Main where
import Help
data T = MkT
instance MyShow T where
myshow x = "Used generic instance"
instance MyShow [T] where
myshow xs = "Used more specific instance"
main = do { print (myshow [MkT]); print (showHelp [MkT]) }
In function showHelp
GHC sees no overlapping instances, and so uses
the MyShow [a]
instance without complaint. In the call to myshow
in main
, GHC resolves the MyShow [T]
constraint using the
overlapping instance declaration in module Main
. As a result, the
program prints
"Used more specific instance"
"Used generic instance"
(An alternative possible behaviour, not currently implemented, would be
to reject module Help
on the grounds that a later instance
declaration might overlap the local one.)
6.8.8.5. Instance signatures: type signatures in instance declarations¶

InstanceSigs
¶ Since: 7.6.1 Allow type signatures for members in instance definitions.
In Haskell, you can’t write a type signature in an instance declaration,
but it is sometimes convenient to do so, and the language extension
InstanceSigs
allows you to do so. For example:
data T a = MkT a a
instance Eq a => Eq (T a) where
(==) :: T a > T a > Bool  The signature
(==) (MkT x1 x2) (MkTy y1 y2) = x1==y1 && x2==y2
Some details
The type signature in the instance declaration must be more polymorphic than (or the same as) the one in the class declaration, instantiated with the instance type. For example, this is fine:
instance Eq a => Eq (T a) where (==) :: forall b. b > b > Bool (==) x y = True
Here the signature in the instance declaration is more polymorphic than that required by the instantiated class method.
The code for the method in the instance declaration is typechecked against the type signature supplied in the instance declaration, as you would expect. So if the instance signature is more polymorphic than required, the code must be too.
One stylistic reason for wanting to write a type signature is simple documentation. Another is that you may want to bring scoped type variables into scope. For example:
class C a where foo :: b > a > (a, [b]) instance C a => C (T a) where foo :: forall b. b > T a > (T a, [b]) foo x (T y) = (T y, xs) where xs :: [b] xs = [x,x,x]
Provided that you also specify
ScopedTypeVariables
(Lexically scoped type variables), theforall b
scopes over the definition offoo
, and in particular over the type signature forxs
.