Higher Order Functions in Scala

This post is part 3 of the Functional Programming in Scala series. You can view all the posts in the series here.


Functional programming is all about working with functions. We need to pass functions as parameters, and return functions as results. Basically we want to work with functions as we work with any other kind of values.

This introduces the concept of Higher Order Functions:

def nTimesBetter(f: Int => Int, n: Int): Int => Int = ...

Currying in Scala is a by product of dealing with higher order functions. Currying means functions that have multiple parameter lists:

def curriedFormatter(a: Int, b: Int)(c: String): String

You can have as many parameter lists as you want in a curried function. And you can define helper functions with smaller parameter lists that you can then use later - supplying the additional parameter lists as required.

Introducing Higher Order Functions

In the previous blog posts so far in this series, we have spent time looking at function types in Scala.

Let’s create a slightly more complex function, and go over how to read it:

val superFunction: (Int, (String, (Int => Boolean)) => Int) => (Int => Int) = null
  • Starting with the return type, that comes after the final =>. In this case, it is (Int => Int) - so the return type is another function that takes an Int and returns an Int
  • The first parameter of this function is simply an Int
  • The second parameter is (String, (Int => Boolean)) => Int. This is another function that takes a String, and the function Int to Boolean. The return type of this function is an Int

In short, the superFunction takes two parameters, an Int and a Function. It returns another function.

As we touched upon in the last blog posts, such a function that takes a function as parameters, or returns a function as its result, is called a Higher Order Function or HOF for short.

Examples of higher order functions that we have seen so far are the map, flatMap and filter that we wrote in the MyList application. These are all higher order functions because each of them has a function as a parameter.

Classic Higher Order Function Example

Say that we had the following function, that applies another function n times over a given value x:

def nTimes(f: Int => Int, n: Int, x: Int): Int = {
  // ... implementation todo

This function takes 3 parameters:

  • The function f that will be applied
  • The number of applications of this function n
  • And the subject or value of the application of this function x

So if for example we called nTimes(f, 3, x), this will be 3 times the application of f over x. Or f(x) 3 times. We could express this as f(f(f(x))). This is a classic example of a higher order function. It takes a function as a parameter and applies it a number of times.

Our implementation of nTimes might look like this:

def nTimes(f: Int => Int, n: Int, x: Int): Int = {
  if (n <= 0) x
  else nTimes(f, n-1, f(x))

The first statement is if (n <= 0) x. If this is true, there are no more applications of f to consider. So we can just return the value of x.

Otherwise, we recursively call nTimes. With the function f, the number of applications reduced n-1, and f being applied to x.

To explain this, think of our example with nTimes(f, 3, x). This applies the f 3 times over the value x. Writing this out in pseudo code, we could say that nTimes(f, 3, x) = f(f(f(x))) = nTimes(f, 2, f(x)). What we are saying here, is this is still nTimes, with the same function f, but n has been reduced to 2 and the value for x is now f(x) (or f applied to x). This is were the recursion is happening.

This is quite mathematically tricky to understand, so read it over carefully.

Improving the nTimes Function

The function below simply takes an Int and increases the value by 1:

val plusOne = (x: Int) => x + 1

What happens when we call nTimes with this plusOne function, 10 times over the value 1?

println(nTimes(plusOne, 10, 1))

As you might expect, we will call plusOne, on the value 1, 10 times. We increment by 1 10 times, so we will print 11 to the console.

But there is a better way to implement the nTimes function. Instead of passing all the parameters at once (i.e. (f: Int => Int, n: Int, x: Int)), we can instead say that the function nTimes does this:

  • It takes a function
  • And it takes a number
  • And it returns another function which is the application of the first function n times

It would look like this:

def nTimesBetter(f: Int => Int, n: Int): (Int => Int) = {
  // ... implementation to follow

So this takes the function f as a parameter, and the number n as a parameter. But instead of taking the value x as a parameter as well, we can save for that later. Instead we just say that the return type will be (Int => Int).

The difference here with nTimesBetter is that instead of applying f, n times to the value x, we can save that for later.

In pseudo code, it would look like this: nTimesBetter(f,n) = x => f(f(f...(x))) . So instead of actually applying f n times to x, we are actually returning a lambda each time. You can then use that lambda as many times as you want, and apply it to various values.

Say we make a function called increment10, which is nTimesBetter of the increment plusOne that we made earlier, and 10. This will return a lambda that applies plus10 10 times to x. In pseudo code it looks like this: increment10 = nTimesBetter(plusOne, 10) = x => plusOne(plusOne(plusOne...(x))).

You can then use this later, and say val y = increment10(1). You can use increment10 as if it were a function that you computed earlier by calling nTimesBetter(plusOne, 10).

Let’s get back to the implementation of nTimesBetter:

def nTimesBetter(f: Int => Int, n: Int): (Int => Int) = {
  if (n <= 0) (x: Int) => x
  else (x: Int) => nTimesBetter(f, n-1)(f(x))

And comparing it to the original nTimes:

def nTimes(f: Int => Int, n: Int, x: Int): Int = {
  if (n <= 0) x
  else nTimes(f, n-1, f(x))

It is similar to what we had before. Firstly if n <= 0 then instead of x we just return the identity function. This is a lambda that takes an Int and returns that value.

Otherwise it return a lambda, with the implementation basically the same as before.

So nTimesBetter, as we can see in the function definition returns a function, and that will be applied to f(x)

Let’s test out nTimesBetter, by creating a simple value of plus10:

val plus10 = nTimesBetter(plusOne, 10)

And then we will print plus10 applied to the value 1 . We would expect to see the same value of 11 printed to the console:


This is because plus10 is nTimesBetter applied to plusOne and 10. Which is a function that applies plusOne 10 times to whatever value we pass in (in this case 1).

Curried Functions

If you look at the style of writing for nTimesBetter(f, n-1)(f(x)), you can see that we provide two sets of arguments in parentheses. This style is a concept called curried functions.

Previously we created this superAdder function:

val superAdder = (x: Int) => (y: Int) => x + y

The type of this function (as we can see in the IDE by hovering) is Int => Int => Int. So we can say that this function receives an Int, and then return another function that is Int => Int. Therefore we could actually say that the type is Int => (Int => Int). The parentheses is implied by the compiler.

So we could call superAdder by creating some additional helper functions. For example if we wanted to add 3:

val add3 = superAdder(3)

The above is actually a lambda from y => 3 + y. So we could println 3 called with 10:

println(add3(10)) // prints 13

These curried functions are very useful if you want to define helper functions that you want to use later on with various values.

So if you instead wanted to call superAdder without the helper function add3, then you can pass in two sets of parameters instead:


Curried Functions with Multiple Parameter Lists

Scala supports another type of curried function, by specifying functions with multiple parameter lists. Let’s write out a curried formatter that will turn a double into a string according to some kind of format:

def curriedFormatter(c: String)(x: Double): String = c.format(x)

This function receives a format c, and a double x. It is receiving two parameter lists. It will return a String as the result. The implementation will simply be c.format(x).

Here we have defined a function with multiple parameter lists, and it will act like a curried function.

Let’s create a couple of different formats that make use of this function:

val standardFormat: (Double => String) = curriedFormatter("%4.2f")
val preciseFormat: (Double => String) = curriedFormatter("%10.8f")

Both of these functions are a curriedFormatter, with the format string supplied to them. They are a function from Double to String, that applies curriedFormater with the format already supplied.

Let’s test these out with Math.PI:

println(standardFormat(Math.PI)) // prints 3.14
println(preciseFormat(Math.PI)) // prints 3.14159265

The function curriedFormatter acts like a curried function, because we can later create sub functions that apply curriedFormatter with fewer parameter lists. We can then use them with another value later on, in this case with Math.PI.

Curried functions like these can have as many parameter lists as you want.

For functions with multiple parameter lists, if you want to define smaller functions later, you have to specify their type. Otherwise the code will not compile.

Source Code

As always, the source code for this post is available on Github.