TypeScript for Functional Programmers

TypeScript began its life as an attempt to bring traditional object-oriented types to JavaScript so that the programmers at Microsoft could bring traditional object-oriented programs to the web. As it has developed, TypeScript’s type system has evolved to model code written by native JavaScripters. The resulting system is powerful, interesting and messy.

This introduction is designed for working Haskell or ML programmers who want to learn TypeScript. It describes how the type system of TypeScript differs from Haskell’s type system. It also describes unique features of TypeScript’s type system that arise from its modelling of JavaScript code.

This introduction does not cover object-oriented programming. In practice, object-oriented programs in TypeScript are similar to those in other popular languages with OO features.


In this introduction, I assume you know the following:

  • How to program in JavaScript, the good parts.
  • Type syntax of a C-descended language.

If you need to learn the good parts of JavaScript, read JavaScript: The Good Parts. You may be able to skip the book if you know how to write programs in a call-by-value lexically scoped language with lots of mutability and not much else. R4RS Scheme is a good example.

The C++ Programming Language is a good place to learn about C-style type syntax. Unlike C++, TypeScript uses postfix types, like so: x: string instead of string x.

Concepts not in Haskell

Built-in types

JavaScript defines 7 built-in types:

Type Explanation
Number a double-precision IEEE 754 floating point.
String an immutable UTF-16 string.
Boolean true and false.
Symbol a unique value usually used as a key.
Null equivalent to the unit type.
Undefined also equivalent to the unit type.
Object similar to records.

See the MDN page for more detail.

TypeScript has corresponding primitive types for the built-in types:

  • number
  • string
  • boolean
  • symbol
  • null
  • undefined
  • object

Other important TypeScript types

Type Explanation
unknown the top type.
never the bottom type.
object literal eg { property: Type }
void a subtype of undefined intended for use as a return type.
T[] mutable arrays, also written Array<T>
[T, T] tuples, which are fixed-length but mutable
(t: T) => U functions


  1. Function syntax includes parameter names. This is pretty hard to get used to!

    let fst: (a: any, d: any) => any = (a, d) => a; // or more precisely: let snd: <T, U>(a: T, d: U) => U = (a, d) => d;
  2. Object literal type syntax closely mirrors object literal value syntax:

    let o: { n: number; xs: object[] } = { n: 1, xs: [] };
  3. [T, T] is a subtype of T[]. This is different than Haskell, where tuples are not related to lists.

Boxed types

JavaScript has boxed equivalents of primitive types that contain the methods that programmers associate with those types. TypeScript reflects this with, for example, the difference between the primitive type number and the boxed type Number. The boxed types are rarely needed, since their methods return primitives.

(1).toExponential(); // equivalent to Number.prototype.toExponential.call(1);

Note that calling a method on a numeric literal requires it to be in parentheses to aid the parser.

Gradual typing

TypeScript uses the type any whenever it can’t tell what the type of an expression should be. Compared to Dynamic, calling any a type is an overstatement. It just turns off the type checker wherever it appears. For example, you can push any value into an any[] without marking the value in any way:

// with "noImplicitAny": false in tsconfig.json, anys: any[] const anys = []; anys.push(1); anys.push("oh no"); anys.push({ anything: "goes" });

And you can use an expression of type any anywhere:

anys.map(anys[1]); // oh no, "oh no" is not a function

any is contagious, too — if you initialise a variable with an expression of type any, the variable has type any too.

let sepsis = anys[0] + anys[1]; // this could mean anything

To get an error when TypeScript produces an any, use "noImplicitAny": true, or "strict": true in tsconfig.json.

Structural typing

Structural typing is a familiar concept to most functional programmers, although Haskell and most MLs are not structurally typed. Its basic form is pretty simple:

// @strict: false let o = { x: "hi", extra: 1 }; // ok let o2: { x: string } = o; // ok

Here, the object literal { x: "hi", extra: 1 } has a matching literal type { x: string, extra: number }. That type is assignable to { x: string } since it has all the required properties and those properties have assignable types. The extra property doesn’t prevent assignment, it just makes it a subtype of { x: string }.

Named types just give a name to a type; for assignability purposes there’s no difference between the type alias One and the interface type Two below. They both have a property p: string. (Type aliases behave differently from interfaces with respect to recursive definitions and type parameters, however.)

type One = { p: string }; interface Two { p: string; } class Three { p = "Hello"; } let x: One = { p: "hi" }; let two: Two = x; two = new Three();


In TypeScript, union types are untagged. In other words, they are not discriminated unions like data in Haskell. However, you can often discriminate types in a union using built-in tags or other properties.

function start( arg: string | string[] | (() => string) | { s: string } ): string { // this is super common in JavaScript if (typeof arg === "string") { return commonCase(arg); } else if (Array.isArray(arg)) { return arg.map(commonCase).join(","); } else if (typeof arg === "function") { return commonCase(arg()); } else { return commonCase(arg.s); } function commonCase(s: string): string { // finally, just convert a string to another string return s; } }

string, Array and Function have built-in type predicates, conveniently leaving the object type for the else branch. It is possible, however, to generate unions that are difficult to differentiate at runtime. For new code, it’s best to build only discriminated unions.

The following types have built-in predicates:

Type Predicate
string typeof s === "string"
number typeof n === "number"
bigint typeof m === "bigint"
boolean typeof b === "boolean"
symbol typeof g === "symbol"
undefined typeof undefined === "undefined"
function typeof f === "function"
array Array.isArray(a)
object typeof o === "object"

Note that functions and arrays are objects at runtime, but have their own predicates.


In addition to unions, TypeScript also has intersections:

type Combined = { a: number } & { b: string }; type Conflicting = { a: number } & { a: string };

Combined has two properties, a and b, just as if they had been written as one object literal type. Intersection and union are recursive in case of conflicts, so Conflicting.a: number & string.

Unit types

Unit types are subtypes of primitive types that contain exactly one primitive value. For example, the string "foo" has the type "foo". Since JavaScript has no built-in enums, it is common to use a set of well-known strings instead. Unions of string literal types allow TypeScript to type this pattern:

declare function pad(s: string, n: number, direction: "left" | "right"): string; pad("hi", 10, "left");

When needed, the compiler widens — converts to a supertype — the unit type to the primitive type, such as "foo" to string. This happens when using mutability, which can hamper some uses of mutable variables:

let s = "right"; pad("hi", 10, s); // error: 'string' is not assignable to '"left" | "right"' Argument of type 'string' is not assignable to parameter of type '"left" | "right"'.2345Argument of type 'string' is not assignable to parameter of type '"left" | "right"'.

Here’s how the error happens:

  • "right": "right"
  • s: string because "right" widens to string on assignment to a mutable variable.
  • string is not assignable to "left" | "right"

You can work around this with a type annotation for s, but that in turn prevents assignments to s of variables that are not of type "left" | "right".

let s: "left" | "right" = "right"; pad("hi", 10, s);

Concepts similar to Haskell

Contextual typing

TypeScript has some obvious places where it can infer types, like variable declarations:

let s = "I'm a string!";

But it also infers types in a few other places that you may not expect if you’ve worked with other C-syntax languages:

declare function map<T, U>(f: (t: T) => U, ts: T[]): U[]; let sns = map((n) => n.toString(), [1, 2, 3]);

Here, n: number in this example also, despite the fact that T and U have not been inferred before the call. In fact, after [1,2,3] has been used to infer T=number, the return type of n => n.toString() is used to infer U=string, causing sns to have the type string[].

Note that inference will work in any order, but intellisense will only work left-to-right, so TypeScript prefers to declare map with the array first:

declare function map<T, U>(ts: T[], f: (t: T) => U): U[];

Contextual typing also works recursively through object literals, and on unit types that would otherwise be inferred as string or number. And it can infer return types from context:

declare function run<T>(thunk: (t: T) => void): T; let i: { inference: string } = run((o) => { o.inference = "INSERT STATE HERE"; });

The type of o is determined to be { inference: string } because

  1. Declaration initialisers are contextually typed by the declaration’s type: { inference: string }.
  2. The return type of a call uses the contextual type for inferences, so the compiler infers that T={ inference: string }.
  3. Arrow functions use the contextual type to type their parameters, so the compiler gives o: { inference: string }.

And it does so while you are typing, so that after typing o., you get completions for the property inference, along with any other properties you’d have in a real program. Altogether, this feature can make TypeScript’s inference look a bit like a unifying type inference engine, but it is not.

Type aliases

Type aliases are mere aliases, just like type in Haskell. The compiler will attempt to use the alias name wherever it was used in the source code, but does not always succeed.

type Size = [number, number]; let x: Size = [101.1, 999.9];

The closest equivalent to newtype is a tagged intersection:

type FString = string & { __compileTimeOnly: any };

An FString is just like a normal string, except that the compiler thinks it has a property named __compileTimeOnly that doesn’t actually exist. This means that FString can still be assigned to string, but not the other way round.

Discriminated Unions

The closest equivalent to data is a union of types with discriminant properties, normally called discriminated unions in TypeScript:

type Shape = | { kind: "circle"; radius: number } | { kind: "square"; x: number } | { kind: "triangle"; x: number; y: number };

Unlike Haskell, the tag, or discriminant, is just a property in each object type. Each variant has an identical property with a different unit type. This is still a normal union type; the leading | is an optional part of the union type syntax. You can discriminate the members of the union using normal JavaScript code:

type Shape = | { kind: "circle"; radius: number } | { kind: "square"; x: number } | { kind: "triangle"; x: number; y: number }; function area(s: Shape) { if (s.kind === "circle") { return Math.PI * s.radius * s.radius; } else if (s.kind === "square") { return s.x * s.x; } else { return (s.x * s.y) / 2; } }

Note that the return type of area is inferred to be number because TypeScript knows the function is total. If some variant is not covered, the return type of area will be number | undefined instead.

Also, unlike Haskell, common properties show up in any union, so you can usefully discriminate multiple members of the union:

function height(s: Shape) { if (s.kind === "circle") { return 2 * s.radius; } else { // s.kind: "square" | "triangle" return s.x; } }

Type Parameters

Like most C-descended languages, TypeScript requires declaration of type parameters:

function liftArray<T>(t: T): Array<T> { return [t]; }

There is no case requirement, but type parameters are conventionally single uppercase letters. Type parameters can also be constrained to a type, which behaves a bit like type class constraints:

function firstish<T extends { length: number }>(t1: T, t2: T): T { return t1.length > t2.length ? t1 : t2; }

TypeScript can usually infer type arguments from a call based on the type of the arguments, so type arguments are usually not needed.

Because TypeScript is structural, it doesn’t need type parameters as much as nominal systems. Specifically, they are not needed to make a function polymorphic. Type parameters should only be used to propagate type information, such as constraining parameters to be the same type:

function length<T extends ArrayLike<unknown>>(t: T): number {} function length(t: ArrayLike<unknown>): number {}

In the first length, T is not necessary; notice that it’s only referenced once, so it’s not being used to constrain the type of the return value or other parameters.

Higher-kinded types

TypeScript does not have higher kinded types, so the following is not legal:

function length<T extends ArrayLike<unknown>, U>(m: T<U>) {}

Point-free programming

Point-free programming — heavy use of currying and function composition — is possible in JavaScript, but can be verbose. In TypeScript, type inference often fails for point-free programs, so you’ll end up specifying type parameters instead of value parameters. The result is so verbose that it’s usually better to avoid point-free programming.

Module system

JavaScript’s modern module syntax is a bit like Haskell’s, except that any file with import or export is implicitly a module:

import { value, Type } from "npm-package"; import { other, Types } from "./local-package"; import * as prefix from "../lib/third-package";

You can also import commonjs modules — modules written using node.js’ module system:

import f = require("single-function-package");

You can export with an export list:

export { f }; function f() { return g(); } function g() {} // g is not exported

Or by marking each export individually:

export function f { return g() } function g() { }

The latter style is more common but both are allowed, even in the same file.

readonly and const

In JavaScript, mutability is the default, although it allows variable declarations with const to declare that the reference is immutable. The referent is still mutable:

const a = [1, 2, 3]; a.push(102); // ): a[0] = 101; // D:

TypeScript additionally has a readonly modifier for properties.

interface Rx { readonly x: number; } let rx: Rx = { x: 1 }; rx.x = 12; // error

It also ships with a mapped type Readonly<T> that makes all properties readonly:

interface X { x: number; } let rx: Readonly<X> = { x: 1 }; rx.x = 12; // error

And it has a specific ReadonlyArray<T> type that removes side-affecting methods and prevents writing to indices of the array, as well as special syntax for this type:

let a: ReadonlyArray<number> = [1, 2, 3]; let b: readonly number[] = [1, 2, 3]; a.push(102); // error b[0] = 101; // error

You can also use a const-assertion, which operates on arrays and object literals:

let a = [1, 2, 3] as const; a.push(102); // error a[0] = 101; // error

However, none of these options are the default, so they are not consistently used in TypeScript code.

Next Steps

This doc is a high level overview of the syntax and types you would use in everyday code. From here you should:

The TypeScript docs are an open source project. Help us improve these pages by sending a Pull Request

Contributors to this page:

OTOrta Therox  (9)
DTMVPDr. Tom Murphy VII Ph.D  (1)
EBEli Barzilay  (1)
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GDGonzalo Diethelm  (1)

Last updated: Jun 26, 2020