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. Relaxed rules for the instance head


Allow definition of type class instances for type synonyms.


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 multi-parameter 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 declaration

    instance C (Maybe Int) where ...

    See also the rules on overlap.

    The FlexibleInstances extension implies TypeSynonymInstances.

However, the instance declaration must still conform to the rules for instance termination: see Instance termination rules. 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 BNF-style 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'


  • btype is a type that is not allowed to have an outermost forall/=> unless it is surrounded by parentheses. For example, forall a. a and Eq a => a are not legal btype``s, but ``(forall a. a) and (Eq a => a) are legal.
  • ctype is a btype that has no restrictions on an outermost forall/=>, so forall a. a and Eq a => a are legal ``ctype``s.
  • arg_type is a type that is not allowed to have ``forall``s or ``=>``s
  • prefix_cls_tycon is a class type constructor written prefix (e.g., Show or (&&&)), while infix_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 with opt_forall and opt_context.

  • Furthermore, instance declarations types do not permit outermost parentheses that surround the opt_forall or opt_ctxt, if at least one of them are used. For example, instance (forall a. C a) would be rejected, since GHC would treat the forall as being nested.

    Note that it is acceptable to use parentheses in a inst_head. For instance, instance (C a) is accepted, as is instance forall a. (C a). Relaxed rules for instance contexts

In Haskell 98, the class constraints in the context of the instance declaration must be of the form C a where a is a type variable that occurs in the head.

The FlexibleContexts extension relaxes this rule, as well as relaxing the corresponding rule for type signatures (see The context of a type signature). Specifically, FlexibleContexts, allows (well-kinded) class constraints of form (C t1 ... tn) in the context of an instance declaration.

Notice that the extension does not affect equality constraints in an instance context; they are permitted by TypeFamilies or GADTs.

However, the instance declaration must still conform to the rules for instance termination: see Instance termination rules. Instance termination rules


Permit definition of instances which may lead to type-checker non-termination.

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 Undecidable instances).

The rules are these:

  1. The Paterson Conditions: for each class constraint (C t1 ... tn) in the context
    1. No type variable has more occurrences in the constraint than in the head
    2. The constraint has fewer constructors and variables (taken together and counting repetitions) than the head
    3. 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
  2. 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

    -- Non-type 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.

A useful idiom permitted by the above rules is as follows. If one allows overlapping instance declarations then it’s quite convenient to have a “default instance” declaration that applies if something more specific does not:

instance C a where
  op = ... -- Default Undecidable instances

Sometimes even the termination rules of Instance termination rules are too onerous. So GHC allows you to experiment with more liberal rules: if you use the experimental extension UndecidableInstances, both the Paterson Conditions and the Coverage Condition (described in Instance termination rules) are lifted. Termination is still ensured by having a fixed-depth recursion stack. If you exceed the stack depth you get a sort of backtrace, and the opportunity to increase the stack depth with -freduction-depth=⟨n⟩. However, if you should exceed the default reduction depth limit, it is probably best just to disable depth checking, with -freduction-depth=0. The exact depth your program requires depends on minutiae of your code, and it may change between minor GHC releases. The safest bet for released code – if you’re sure that it should compile in finite time – is just to disable the check.

For example, sometimes you might want to use the following to get the effect of a “class synonym”:

class (C1 a, C2 a, C3 a) => C a where { }

instance (C1 a, C2 a, C3 a) => C a where { }

This allows you to write shorter signatures:

f :: C a => ...

instead of

f :: (C1 a, C2 a, C3 a) => ...

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. Overlapping instances


Deprecated extension to weaken checks intended to ensure instance resolution termination.


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 type-class 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 module-level language extension flags: OverlappingInstances and IncoherentInstances. These extensions are now deprecated (since GHC 7.10) in favour of the fine-grained per-instance 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 with IncoherentInstances.
  • An instance is overlappable if: it has an OVERLAPPABLE or OVERLAPS pragma; or if the instance has no pragma and it appears in a module compiled with OverlappingInstances; or if the instance is incoherent.
  • An instance is overlapping if: it has an OVERLAPPING or OVERLAPS pragma; or if the instance has no pragma and it appears in a module compiled with OverlappingInstances; 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 non-incoherent candidate remains, the search fails.
  • Otherwise there is exactly one non-incoherent candidate; call it the “prime candidate”.
  • Now find all instances, or in-scope given constraints, that unify with the target constraint, but do not match it. Such non-candidate instances might match when the target constraint is further instantiated. If all of them are incoherent top-level 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)

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.

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 can write this type signature yourself if you use 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 FlexibleInstances to do this.)

In the unification check in the final bullet, GHC also uses the “in-scope 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 top-level 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 constraint-solver 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 top-level instance. The flag -Wsimplifiable-class-constraints warns about such signatures.


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.) Instance signatures: type signatures in instance declarations


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)
           xs :: [b]
           xs = [x,x,x]

    Provided that you also specify ScopedTypeVariables (Lexically scoped type variables), the forall b scopes over the definition of foo, and in particular over the type signature for xs.