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More with Functions

Look again at the type of a simple function with more than one argument:


We have been considering functions like this as taking two arguments and returning a result. In fact, the truth is a little different. The type int int int can also be written as int (int int). OCaml lets us omit the parentheses because is a right-associative operator in the language of types. This gives us a clue.

In truth, the function add is a function which, when you give it an integer, gives you a function which, when you give it an integer, gives the sum.

This would be of no particular interest to us, except for one thing: we can give a function with two arguments just one argument at a time, and it turns out to be rather useful. For example:


# let add x y = x + y
val add : int -> int -> int = <fun>
# let f = add 6
val f : int -> int = <fun>
# f 5
- : int = 11

Here, we have defined a function f by applying just one argument to add. This gives a function of type int int which adds six to any number. We then apply 5 to this function, giving 11. When defining f, we used partial application (we applied only some of the arguments). In fact, even when applying all the arguments at once, we could equally write (add 6) 5 rather than add 6 5. We can add six to every element in a list:

map (add 6) [10; 20; 30]

Here, add 6 has the type int int, which is an appropriate type to be the first argument to map when mapping over a list of integers. We can use partial application to simplify some examples from earlier in the book. We mentioned that you can write, for example, ( * ) to produce a function from an operator. It has type int int int. We may partially apply this function, so instead of writing

map (fun x -> x * 2) [10; 20; 30]

we may write

map (( * ) 2) [10; 20; 30]

Recall the function to map something over a list of lists from the questions to Chapter 6:


With partial application, we can write


Can you see why? The partially applied function map f is of type α list β list, which is exactly the right type to pass to map when mapping over lists of lists. In fact, we can go even further and write:


Here,  map (map f) has type α list list β list list so when an f is supplied to mapl, a function is returned requiring just the list. This is partial application at work again.

You can see the real structure of multiple-argument functions, by writing add using anonymous functions:


This makes it more obvious that our two-argument add function is really just composed of one-argument functions, but let add x y = x + y is much clearer! We can apply one or more arguments at a time, but they must be applied in order. Everything in this chapter also works for functions with more than two arguments.


The function f x y has type α β γ which can also be written α (β γ). Thus, it takes an argument of type α and returns a function of type β γ which, when you give it an argument of type β returns something of type γ. And so, we can apply just one argument to the function f (which is called partial application), or apply both at once. When we write let f x y = … this is just shorthand for let f = fun x -> fun y -> …


  1. Rewrite the summary paragraph at the end of this chapter for the three argument function g a b c.

  2. Recall the function member x l which determines if an element x is contained in a list l. What is its type? What is the type of member x? Use partial application to write a function member_all x ls which determines if an element is a member of all the lists in the list of lists ls.

  3. Why can we not write a function to halve all the elements of a list like this: map (( / ) 2) [10; 20; 30]? Write a suitable division function which can be partially applied in the manner we require.

  4. Write a function mapll which maps a function over lists of lists of lists. You must not use the let rec construct. Is it possible to write a function which works like map, mapl, or mapll depending upon the list given to it?

  5. Write a function truncate which takes an integer and a list of lists, and returns a list of lists, each of which has been truncated to the given length. If a list is shorter than the given length, it is unchanged. Make use of partial application.

  6. Write a function which takes a list of lists of integers and returns the list composed of all the first elements of the lists. If a list is empty, a given number should be used in place of its first element.