Type classes and extension methods in Scala 3

September 29, 2022

Type classes in Scala

A type class is a type system construct that supports “ad hoc polymorphism”. It defines features than can be added to any type A if an instance of the type class for the A type is provided.

Type class definition

Let’s define a type class with an “add” method :

trait Addable[A]:
  extension (a1: A) def add(a2: A): A

The extension keyword means that we will augment the capabilties of a type A with an add method, that takes another A to produce a sum (also of type A).


We also need instances to use this type class with concrete types. We will start to define instances to add integers and strings :

given Addable[Int] with
  extension (i1: Int) def add(i2: Int) = i1 + i2

given Addable[String] with
  extension (s1: String) def add(s2: String) = s"$s1 . $s2"

Then we can use the extension method, directly on any integer or string :

  "Hello".add("How are you?")

// This prints: Hello . How are you?

We can add this capability to any data type, without changing the type directly. If you know Domain Driven Design (DDD) you know it is important to be able to keep the domain pure. Type classes are very useful for this in a lot of cases, like JSON serialization for example (Scala JSON librairies defined typeclass that offer toJson methods, which can be added to any types).

It is also possible to add given instances to data type you can’t change (from libs/external modules for example).

For example, if we have a Color type, defined like that :

  enum Color :
    case Red 
    case Green
    case Blue
    case Purple
    case Yellow
    case Unknown

Without changing the Color type, we can add new capabilities to it :

given Addable[Color] with
  extension (c1: Color) def add(c2: Color) = 

   // dumb color addition example
   (c1, c2) match {
     case (Color.Red, Color.Green) => Color.Yellow
     case (Color.Red, Color.Blue) => Color.Purple
     //... etc.
     case _=> Color.Unknown


// This prints: Purple

More powerful functions

Finally, we can write methods that require a type with some given instances to work, so we can make operations using the augmented capabilities of this type.

For example, we can write a addAll method, that will take any list of A, if there a given instance of Addable[A], and make the sum of all the A.

def addAll[A: Addable](l: List[A]) = l.reduceLeft(((total, current) => total.add(current)))

// or simply :
def addAll[A: Addable](l: List[A]) = l.reduceLeft(_.add(_))

println(addAll(List("Coucou", "comment", "ça", "va")))
// This prints : Coucou . comment . ça . va

A: Addable means that an instance of Addable[A] must be defined.

Note : this is exactly how the sum method of the Scala List type works.

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