“‘Begin at the beginning’, the King said, very gravely,
‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

### 1. Introduction

The goal of this blog post is to define the concept of enum types and compare the implementation of enum types in three different functional programming languages: Kotlin, Elixir, and Elm.

The post is structured as follows. In Section 2, we define the concept of enum types. Then, in Sections 3, 4, and 5 we look at concrete implementations of enum types in Kotlin, Elixir, and Elm, respectively. The post is concluded in Section 6.

### 2. Enum types

In this section, we define the concept of enum types.

An enum - short for enumerated - type is a data type consisting of a set of named values which we call the members of the type. One of the most common enum types in modern programming languages is the boolean type, which has exactly two members: true and false. We can express this boolean type in an ML-like syntax as:

where we declare a datatype with the name boolean that has two type constructors, True and False (separated by a |), corresponding to the two members of the enum type. Consequently, any instance of the type boolean can only have the value of either True or False, which allows us to do exhaustive pattern matching like so:

where we define a function, foo, that takes an argument, bool, of type boolean and cases on its members/type constructors, True and False, using a case <var> of ... expression.

For practical reasons, a boolean type is usually included by default in most modern programming languages, so in the following three sections we instead look at how to express a shape enum type, with members Rectangle, Circle, and Triangle:

in each of our three programming languages of choice. Furthermore, in order to see how each language handles pattern matching, we also implement an example function, edges, which takes an argument of type shape and returns the number of edges of the given shape:

In the next section, we implement shape and edges in Kotlin.

### 3. Enum types in Kotlin

In this section, we implement the shape enum type and edges example function in Kotlin.

Given Java’s strong influence on Kotlin, it is no surprise that Kotlin has inherited Java’s class-oriented paradigm, where all non-primitive data types are defined in terms of classes. Furthermore, Kotlin has also inherited the enum keyword from Java, which - as the name suggests - is used for defining enum types (or classes). Thus, in order to define our custom enum type we declare our new type as enum class Shape followed by listing each of the members of the enum type, Rectangle, Circle, and Triangle:

each separated by a , and terminated with a ;.

Kotlin also allows us to do pattern matching on enums, as demonstrated below where we define the edges function, which takes an argument of type Shape and returns its number of edges:

Instead of a case <var> of ... expression, Kotlin uses a when (var) {...} expression for pattern matching and as in our reference example in the previous section, the body of the expression includes a clause for each of the members of the enum type (class).

Before we move on, there are a few things worth noting about the above code snippets:

• Despite Kotlin’s Java heritage, it allows us easily to separate data, Shape, and logic, edges, such that we do not have to introduce the concept of edges into our enum class definition as a method, but instead we can define a separate function, edges, somewhere else in the source code, resulting in lower coupling,
• we do not need to include an else clause in the body of the when expression, as the pattern matching of shape in the when expression is exhaustive, and lastly,
• since edges takes an argument of type Shape rather than Shape?, the type system enforces the constraint that edges cannot be called with a null reference, which helps make Kotlin code easier to reason about than traditional Java code, as it reduces the number of needed null checks.

Finally, in order to test the above code, we write a main function which instantiates a variable of type Shape and prints the result of calling edges on it:

Having implemented our shape enum type and edges example function in Kotlin, while demonstrating how to pattern match on its members, we move on to repeat the exercise in Elixir.

### 4. Enum types in Elixir

In this section, we implement the shape enum type and edges example function in Elixir.

Unlike Kotlin, Elixir does not have a dedicated keyword or construct for defining an enum type as part of the language, so instead we have to use the @type directive to declare our own enum types. The @type directive allows us to combine existing types, and instances of types, into new custom types. These custom types can then be enforced by a static analysis tool like dialyxir, which is used for type checking Elixir source code.

In order to define our shape enum in Elixir, we create a module named Shape and declare a custom @type named t inside of it, where the members of t are the atoms :rectangle, :circle, and :triangle:

Here, :: separates the name of the type, on the left, from its definition, on the right, while | separates each of the members of the type, and finally : is used for constructing each of the atoms.

Having defined the above module, we can then refer to the shape enum type as Shape.t, in the same way as we would refer to the String.t type.

Similar to the Kotlin case, we define an example function, edges, which given an argument of type Shape.t, returns the numbers of edges of the matched Shape.t member, via pattern matching:

Here, the case expression used in Elixir, case <var> do ..., is very similar to the case expression used in Section 2, case <var> of ..., and likewise for the actual clauses for each of the members.

Once again, we notice a few things about the code snippets above:

• While Kotlin allowed us to separate the logic for calculating the number of edges from the actual definition of the Shape enum type, this is always the case in Elixir, as it does not include constructs for combining data and logic as classes, and
• just as we used the @type directive to define our custom type, we use the @spec directive to state that the edges function takes as input a value of type Shape.t and returns a value of type integer.

Again, we can test the above code by instantiating a value of type Shape.t and pass it to edges:

While the function call and definition above looks very similar to the Kotlin version, there is one distinctive difference: because of Elixir’s dynamic type checking, we cannot fully guarantee that edges is never given an argument that is not of type Shape on runtime, which may result in a runtime error if we don’t include an else-clause in the case expression. However, by specifying proper type signatures of our functions combined with Elixir’s excellent type inference engine and tools like dialyxir, all of which we have discussed above, we can do much to reduce this risk without scattering else-clauses in our code.

Finally, we note that we could also have written edges in a slightly more Elixir idiomatic way:

where we inline the pattern matching in the function declaration. In this particular case, we chose the former style with the case expression as it closer resembles the other example snippets.1

Having implemented our shape enum type and edges example function in both Kotlin and Elixir, we move on to our final language example, Elm.

### 5. Enum types in Elm

In this section, we implement the shape enum type and edges example function in Elm.

In the case of Elm, we return to an ML-like syntax similar to what we saw at the beginning of this post, where we define our type, Shape, using the type keyword followed by listing each of the members of the type, Rectangle, Circle, and Triangle, separated by |:

As in the Kotlin case, we can do exhaustive pattern matching without any else-clause in our case expression, as the Shape type can only be constructed using the three listed members:

While the above snippets are very similar to the original examples in Section 2, there is the added function declaration, edges : Shape -> Int, which states that edges takes a value of type Shape and returns a value of type Int.

Note also, that unlike Kotlin and Elixir, we do not even have to think about the possibility of passing a null or nil reference to edges, as these concepts are not even part of the Elm language.

Finally, in order to run the above code, we implement the main function, where we instantiate a value of type Shape, pass it to the edges function, and print it as a text DOM element:

Having implemented our shape enum type and edges example function in our third and final language, Elm, we conclude this post in the next section.

### 6. Conclusion

In this blog post, we have defined the concept of enum types, and compared the implementation of enum types in the three different programming languages: Kotlin, Elixir, and Elm.

Across the three implementations, we notice that Elixir is the only language which does not have a dedicated keyword or construct for defining enum types while Elm has the highest level of type safety by default, as it does not include the concept of a null reference.

1. Given that Elixir allows us to write macros - and thereby extend the language - we could take a third approach to enums: define our own keyword, defenum, for defining enums, which could then be used for hiding the actual implementation details of a given enum type.