# Learn From Errors: Overlapping Instances

October 22nd, 2021

Not all GHC errors are born equal. Some of them are easy to trace and fix, while some of them are not. And some errors can have variants that span the entire spectrum.

In this article, we’ll look at the overlapping instances error. We’ll understand the many variants of it and what the error means in each of those cases. Along the way, we might also learn a couple of interesting and advanced things about the behavior of GHC.

## Simple overlapping instances

Let us look at a basic version of this error that is triggered by the following code.

{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances #-}

class Printable a where
printMe :: a -> IO ()

instance Printable a where
printMe a = putStrLn "dummy instance"

instance Printable Int where
printMe x = putStrLn ("I am an Int with value :" ++ show x)

main :: IO ()
main = printMe (5 :: Int)


This gives us the following error:

• Overlapping instances for Printable Int
arising from a use of ‘printMe’
Matching instances:
instance Printable a -- Defined at app/Main.hs:8:10
instance Printable Int -- Defined at app/Main.hs:11:10
• In the expression: printMe (5 :: Int)


Note that the error happens where there is a call to printMe function. If there is no call to the function, the error won’t be there.

Overlapping instance error is triggered by an instance search, and not by an instance declaration. You can put all kinds of overlapping instances in your code, and GHC won’t bat an eye until you trigger an instance search, like when calling a typeclass method.

Let us see what happens in the call site printMe (5 ::Int). We have two matching instances in scope. The general instance, Printable a, and a specific instance for Int. We call it the ‘general instance’ because it can match any type, while the instance for Int can only match the Int type.

Here GHC chooses to present an error rather than go with the more specific Int instance. This behavior can help the programmer to not accidentally override a general instance by mistake. It is easy to spot when both instances are in the same module, but what if the general instance is in another module, or in a different package? Silently overriding an existing instance or not being aware of an existing instance while adding a new one could break the program in subtle ways.

### How to fix it?

One way to fix this is to let GHC know that it is alright to choose the instance in the presence of other matching instances. We do it by using the OVERLAPPING pragma. For example:

instance Printable a where
printMe a = putStrLn "dummy instance"

instance {-# OVERLAPPING #-} Printable Int where
printMe x = putStrLn ("I am an Int with value :" ++ show x)

Full code
  {-# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances #-}

class Printable a where
printMe :: a -> IO ()

instance Printable a where
printMe a = putStrLn "dummy instance"

instance {-# OVERLAPPING #-} Printable Int where
printMe x = putStrLn ("I am an Int with value :" ++ show x)

main :: IO ()
main = printMe (5 :: Int)


We can also do it by marking the general instance as being safely overridable by using the OVERLAPPABLE pragma, as shown below.

instance {-# OVERLAPPABLE #-} Printable a where
printMe a = putStrLn "dummy instance"

instance Printable Int where
printMe x = putStrLn ("I am an Int with value :" ++ show x)

Full code
  {-# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances #-}

class Printable a where
printMe :: a -> IO ()

instance {-# OVERLAPPABLE #-} Printable a where
printMe a = putStrLn "dummy instance"

instance Printable Int where
printMe x = putStrLn ("I am an Int with value :" ++ show x)

main :: IO ()
main = printMe (5 :: Int)


If you want to mark an instance as being overridable, as well as it being able to safely override other instances, you can use the OVERLAPS pragma. So in our example, you can use the OVERLAPS pragma in either of these instances, and it will work.

Note that the OVERLAPPING pragma just means that it is alright to use that instance (even if there are other, more general instances) and not an explicit instruction to prefer that instance.

## Overlapping instances with type variables

Here we slightly change one of the above fixes to call the printMe function via another function fn that accepts a polymorphic argument.

fn :: a -> IO ()
fn x = printMe x

Full code
{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances    #-}

class Printable a where
printMe :: a -> IO ()

instance Printable a where
printMe a = putStrLn "general instance"

instance {-# OVERLAPPING #-} Printable Int where
printMe a = putStrLn "int instance"

fn :: a -> IO ()
fn x = printMe x

main :: IO ()
main = fn (5 :: Int)



Lo and behold, the dreaded error appears again.

   • Overlapping instances for Printable a
arising from a use of ‘printMe’
Matching instances:
instance [overlappable] Printable a -- Defined at app/Main.hs:8:32
instance Printable Int -- Defined at app/Main.hs:11:10
(The choice depends on the instantiation of ‘a’
To pick the first instance above, use IncoherentInstances
when compiling the other instance declarations)


Here we have some additional information in the error message. It says ‘The choice depends on the instantiation of ‘a’ To pick the first instance above, use IncoherentInstances’.

So this happens because at the call site of printMe x, GHC only knows that x can be of any type, including Int. Without knowing if a is an Int or not, it cannot pick the most specific instance, causing the error.

### How to fix it?

The proper solution to this problem is nothing other than the plain old typeclass constraints.

So if you add a Printable a constraint to fn, then the proper instance will be passed from the call site, and the call in fn can use this instance.

So that is the proper fix in this situtation. Add a Printable a constraint to fn.

fn :: Printable a => a -> IO ()
fn x = printMe x

Full code
{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances #-}

class Printable a where
printMe :: a -> IO ()

instance Printable a where
printMe a = putStrLn "general instance"

instance {-# OVERLAPPING #-} Printable Int where
printMe a = putStrLn "int instance"

main :: IO ()
main = fn (5 :: Int)

fn :: Printable a => a -> IO ()
fn x = printMe x


Another fix, of course, is to mark the Int instance as INCOHERENT. This will pick the instance with the information available at the call site, even if a different instance is available and could be picked if more information were available.

instance {-# INCOHERENT #-} Printable Int where
printMe a = putStrLn "int instance"

Full code
{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances #-}

class Printable a where
printMe :: a -> IO ()

instance Printable a where
printMe a = putStrLn "general instance"

instance {-# INCOHERENT #-} Printable Int where
printMe a = putStrLn "int instance"

main :: IO ()
main = fn (5 :: Int)

fn :: a -> IO ()
fn x = printMe x


The rules followed by the instance resolution algorithm are described here and in this specific case, the general instance will get applied because it ends up being the single ‘prime candidate’ which gets selected since the remaining instance is marked as INCOHERENT. This means that the program will print “general instance” if you run it.

## The ‘Shortsighted GHC’ overlapping instances

Here we look at a variant of this error where one feels that GHC is sometimes very short sighted.

{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances #-}

import Data.Typeable

class Printable a where
printMe :: a -> IO ()

instance Printable a where
printMe _ = putStrLn "General instance"

instance Functor f => Printable (f a) where
printMe _ = putStrLn "Instance for a Functor"

newtype MyType a = MyType a

main :: IO ()
main = printMe (MyType 5)



As expected, we get the overlapping instances error.

• Overlapping instances for Printable (MyType Char)
arising from a use of ‘printMe’
Matching instances:
instance Printable a -- Defined at app/Main.hs:10:10
instance Functor f => Printable (f a)
-- Defined at app/Main.hs:13:10


Since we saw a similar error in the last example and fixed it by removing one of the instances, it might appear that same could work here as well.

And it also kind of makes sense. Since GHC is confused by two eligible instances, in all probability, removing one of them should fix it, right?

So we try by removing the instance for Printable a.

Show changed code
{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances #-}

import Data.Typeable

class Printable a where
printMe :: a -> IO ()

instance Functor f => Printable (f a) where
printMe _ = putStrLn "Instance for a Functor"

newtype MyType a = MyType a

main :: IO ()
main = printMe (MyType 'c')


And when we re-compile, we get…

• No instance for (Functor MyType) arising from a use of ‘printMe’
• In the expression: printMe (MyType 'c')
In an equation for ‘main’: main = printMe (MyType 'c')


To our great surprise, we find that removing one instance from the two eligible instances seems to have made GHC look closer into the remaining instance, and it ended up rejecting the instance after that. It seems that GHC did not look at the instances well enough the first time, before declaring them as redundant.

Let us walk through this algorithm and see why the first error happens.

So the very first step is:

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.

Our target constraint here is MyType Char, and both the instances for Printable a and Printable (f a) match.

The next step says:

If no candidates remain, the search fails.

Since we have two instances that match, we can continue to the next step, which says,

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.)

We have two candidates, Printable a and Printable (f a). Let us process Printable a first. The rule says to check if there is another candidate $IY$ such that $IY$ is a substitution instance of $IX$. Here f a is a substituation instance for a, because if something can accept a, it can accept f a as well, but not the other way around. So it fits, and the next part of the rule says that either Printable a is overlappable, or Printable (f a) should be overlapping. And since this is not the case, we cannot eliminate Printable a.

The next one is Printable (f a), and we cannot eliminate it since the other instance a is not a substitution instance of f a. If something is expecting f a you cannot give a to it. Or in other words, a is not more specific than f a, but instead, it is more general.

So after this rule, both instances remain, and the next rule says:

If all the remaining candidates are incoherent, the search succeeds, returning an arbitrary surviving candidate.

None of our instances are marked with the {-# INCOHERENT #-} pragma, so we proceed to the next rule.

If more than one non-incoherent candidate remains, the search fails.

Considering that we have two such instances now, the lookup fails here.

Let us try adding an OVERLAPPING pragma to the instance for f a.

instance {-# OVERLAPPING #-} Functor f => Printable (f a) where
printMe _ = putStrLn "Instance for a Functor"


And now we get the error:

• No instance for (Functor MyType) arising from a use of ‘printMe’
• In the expression: printMe (MyType 'c')
In an equation for ‘main’: main = printMe (MyType 'c')


We can see that adding OVERLAPPING pragma enabled the elimination of the instance for Printable a at step 3. But the remaining instance Functor f => Printable (f a) failed to work because MyType is not a Functor. But this failure happens at a later phase: when constraints are matched, and after GHC has picked an instance. This is why we get a No instance for Functor MyType error instead of an overlapping instance error.

Something similar happens if we remove the general instance instance Printable a. The remaining instance will be rejected during the context matching step.

Here we come across a crucial aspect of instance resolution: the algorithm works in two distinct steps and it never backtracks.

In the first step, it does not look at constraints at all, only instance heads.

instance Printable a
instance Functor f => Printable (f a)


It sees:

instance Printable a
instance ... => Printable (f a)


And it has to pick an instance for the next step on this information alone. In the next step, constraints are matched.

So in this example, when we add an OVERLAPPING pragma, it made the first step to complete successfully with the instance Functor f => Printable (f a) as result. But in the context matching step, this instance failed, because MyType is not a Functor.

And since GHC does not backtrack, it will not go back to first step with the memory of this failure and pick the general instance. Understanding this two step process with the no-backtracking behavior is crucial in untangling most occurances of this error.

### How to fix it?

We can either remove the instance for f a, which makes the algorithm pick the instance for Printable a. Or else we can add a Functor instance for MyType a if it makes sense.

## Poly-kinded overlapping instances

This is a verison of overlapping instances error that only happens with PolyKinds language extension and automatic kind inference that comes with it.

To demonstrate this, we unfortunately need a bit more elaborate setup, and frankly, this example is a bit contrived. Anyway, so we have this code below which triggers our beloved error:

{-# LANGUAGE DataKinds              #-}
{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances      #-}
{-# LANGUAGE FunctionalDependencies #-}
{-# LANGUAGE KindSignatures         #-}
{-# LANGUAGE MultiParamTypeClasses  #-}
{-# LANGUAGE PolyKinds              #-}
{-# LANGUAGE RankNTypes             #-}
{-# LANGUAGE UndecidableInstances   #-}

import Data.Proxy
import GHC.TypeLits

class Printable n a where
printMe :: Proxy n -> a -> IO ()

class SomeClass (n :: Symbol) a where

instance SomeClass n (Maybe Char) where

instance Printable n a where
printMe p a = putStrLn "General instance"

instance {-# OVERLAPPING #-} SomeClass n (Maybe a) => Printable n (Maybe a) where
printMe p a = putStrLn "Specific instance"

fn :: Proxy n -> Maybe Char -> IO ()
fn p a = printMe p a

main :: IO ()
main = fn Proxy (Just 'c')


As you can see, apart from enabling a bunch of language extensions, we have added a Proxy argument to the printMe method. It serves no other purpose other than to trigger and demonstrate the error.

Here we have these two instances:

instance Printable n a where
printMe p a = putStrLn "General instance"

instance {-# OVERLAPPING #-} SomeClass n (Maybe a) => Printable n (Maybe a) where
printMe p a = putStrLn "Specific instance"


And as per what we have seen already, the second instance should be selected in the call to printMe p (Just 'c') because it has the OVERLAPPING pragma and it appears to be the more specific instance.

But nevertheless, here is the error:

||     • Overlapping instances for Printable n (Maybe Char)
||         arising from a use of ‘printMe’
||       Matching instances:
||         instance forall k (n :: k) a. Printable n a
||           -- Defined at app/Main.hs:22:10
||         instance [overlapping] SomeClass n (Maybe a) =>
||                                Printable n (Maybe a)
||           -- Defined at app/Main.hs:25:30
||       (The choice depends on the instantiation of ‘k, n’
||        To pick the first instance above, use IncoherentInstances
||        when compiling the other instance declarations)
||     • In the expression: printMe p a
||       In an equation for ‘fn’: fn p a = printMe p a


Let us look closer at the second instance.

instance {-# OVERLAPPING #-} SomeClass n (Maybe a) => Printable n (Maybe a) where


Here it appears that the kind of n can by any kind, but the PolyKinds extension and constraint SomeClass n (Maybe a) causes the kind inference system to infer that type n must be of kind Symbol. And at the call site, in the fn function, we don’t know the kind of n. If it is of kind Symbol then the second instance should be called, but if it something else, then the first instance should be called. And this dilemma makes GHC give up and produce the error.

### How to fix it?

We can see the error disappear once we remove the SomeClass n (Maybe a) constraint from the second instance. Alternatively, we can keep the constraint and kind annotate the proxy from the call site. For example, the following change to the call site will fix the error and call the first (general) instance.

fn :: Proxy (n :: *) -> Maybe Char -> IO ()
fn p a = printMe p a


And the following will fix it and call the second (specific) instance.

fn :: Proxy (n :: Symbol) -> Maybe Char -> IO ()
fn p a = printMe p a


## Conclusion

Here we saw some commonly occurring instances of the overlapping instances error that GHC seemingly loves to present us now and then. Hopefully, we have learned a thing or two about how GHC resolves type class instances, which might help us track down and fix the error properly the next time we come across it.