As you work more with Elm, you will start seeing the Maybe type quite frequently. It is defined like this:

type Maybe a
  = Just a
  | Nothing

-- Just 3.14 : Maybe Float
-- Just "hi" : Maybe String
-- Just True : Maybe Bool
-- Nothing   : Maybe a

This is a type with two variants. You either have Nothing or you have Just a value. The type variable makes it possible to have a Maybe Float and Maybe String depending on the particular value.

This can be handy in two main scenarios: partial functions and optional fields.

Partial Functions

Sometimes you want a function that gives an answer for some inputs, but not others. Many people run into this with String.toFloat when trying to convert user input into numbers. Let's see it in action:

[ { "input": "String.toFloat", "value": "\u001b[36m<function>\u001b[0m", "type_": "String -> Maybe Float" }, { "input": "String.toFloat \"3.1415\"", "value": "\u001b[96mJust\u001b[0m \u001b[95m3.1415\u001b[0m", "type_": "Maybe Float" }, { "input": "String.toFloat \"abc\"", "value": "\u001b[96mNothing\u001b[0m", "type_": "Maybe Float" } ]

Try calling String.toFloat with other strings to see what happens ⬆️

Not all strings make sense as numbers, so this function models that explicitly. Can a string be turned into a float? Maybe! From there we can pattern match on the resulting data and continue as appropriate.

Exercise: I wrote a little program here that converts from Celsius to Fahrenheit. Try refactoring the view code in different ways. Can you put a red border around invalid input? Can you add more conversions? Fahrenheit to Celsius? Inches to Meters?

Optional Fields

Another place you commonly see Maybe values is in records with optional fields.

For example, say we are running a social networking website. Connecting people, friendship, etc. You know the spiel. The Onion outlined our real goals best back in 2011: mine as much data as possible for the CIA. And if we want all the data, we need to ease people into it. Let them add it later. Add features that encourage them to share more and more information over time.

So let's start with a simple model of a user. They must have a name, but we are going to make the age optional.

type alias User =
  { name : String
  , age : Maybe Int

Now say Sue creates an account, but decides not to provide her birthday:

sue : User
sue =
  { name = "Sue", age = Nothing }

Sue’s friends cannot wish her a happy birthday though. I wonder if they really care about her... Later Tom creates a profile and does give his age:

tom : User
tom =
  { name = "Tom", age = Just 24 }

Great, that will be nice on his birthday. But more importantly, Tom is part of a valuable demographic! The advertisers will be pleased.

Alright, so now that we have some users, how can we market alcohol to them without breaking any laws? People would probably be mad if we market to people under 21, so let's check for that:

canBuyAlcohol : User -> Bool
canBuyAlcohol user =
  case user.age of
    Nothing ->

    Just age ->
      age >= 21

Notice that the Maybe type forces us to pattern match on the user's age. It is actually impossible to write code where you forget that users may not have an age. Elm makes sure of it! Now we can advertise alcohol confident that we are not influencing minors directly! Only their older peers.

Avoiding Overuse

This Maybe type is quite useful, but there are limits. Beginners are particularly prone to getting excited about Maybe and using it everywhere, even though a custom type would be more appropriate.

For example, say we have an exercise app where we compete against our friends. You start with a list of your friend’s names, but you can load more fitness information about them later. You might be tempted to model it like this:

type alias Friend =
  { name : String
  , age : Maybe Int
  , height : Maybe Float
  , weight : Maybe Float

All the information is there, but you are not really modeling the way your particular application works. It would be much more precise to model it like this instead:

type Friend
  = Less String
  | More String Info

type alias Info =
  { age : Int
  , height : Float
  , weight : Float

This new model is capturing much more about your application. There are only two real situations. Either you have just the name, or you have the name and a bunch of information. In your view code, you just think about whether you are showing a Less or More view of the friend. You do not have to answer questions like “what if I have an age but not a weight?” That is not possible with our more precise type!

Point is, if you find yourself using Maybe everywhere, it is worth examining your type and type alias definitions to see if you can find a more precise representation. This often leads to a lot of nice refactors in your update and view code!

Aside: Connection to null references

The inventor of null references, Tony Hoare, described them like this:

I call it my billion-dollar mistake. It was the invention of the null reference in 1965. At that time, I was designing the first comprehensive type system for references in an object oriented language (ALGOL W). My goal was to ensure that all use of references should be absolutely safe, with checking performed automatically by the compiler. But I couldn't resist the temptation to put in a null reference, simply because it was so easy to implement. This has led to innumerable errors, vulnerabilities, and system crashes, which have probably caused a billion dollars of pain and damage in the last forty years.

That design makes failure implicit. Any time you think you have a String you just might have a null instead. Should you check? Did the person giving you the value check? Maybe it will be fine? Maybe it will crash your server? I guess we will find out later!

Elm avoids these problems by not having null references at all. We instead use custom types like Maybe to make failure explicit. This way there are never any surprises. A String is always a String, and when you see a Maybe String, the compiler will ensure that both variants are accounted for. This way you get the same flexibility, but without the surprise crashes.

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