Learning F# – Part 3

Disclaimer: I do not claim credit for the code examples and much of the contents here, these are mostly extracts from the book by Chris Smith, Programming F#: A comprehensive guide for writing simple code to solve complex problems. In fact, if you’re thinking of learning F# and like what you read here, you should buy the book yourself, it’s easy to read and the author has gone go great lengths to keep things simple and included a lot of code examples for you to try out yourself.


You define functions the same way you define values, except everything after the name of the function servers as the function’s parameters. The following defines a function called square that takes an integer, x, and returns its square:


Unlike C#, F# has no return keyword. The last expression to be evaluated in the function determines the return type.

Also, from the FSI output above, it shows the function square has signature int -> int, which reads as “a function taking an integer and returning an integer”.

Type Inference

Take this add function for example:


Looking at this you might be wondering why does the compiler think that the add function only takes integers? The + operator also works on floats too!

The reason is type inference. Unlike C#, F# doesn’t require you to explicitly state the types of all the parameters to a function, it figures it out based on usage. Because the + operator works for many different types such as byte, int, and decimal, the compiler simply defaults to int if there is no additional information.

The following FSI snippet shows what type inference in action if we not only define the add function but also call it passing in floats, then the function’s signature will be inferred to be of type float -> float -> float instead:


However, you can provide a type annotation, or hint, to the F# compiler about what the types are. To do this, simply replace a function parameter with the following form ident -> (ident: type) like this:


This works because the only overload for + that takes a float as its first parameter is float -> float -> float, so the F# compiler infers y to be a float as well.

Type inference can reduce code clutter by having the compiler figure out what types to use, but the occasional type annotation is required and can sometimes improve code readability.

Generic Functions

You can write functions that work for any type of a parameter, such as an identity function below:


Because the type inference system could not determine a fixed type for value x in the ident function, it was generic. If a parameter is generic, then that parameter can be of any type.

The type of a generic parameter can have the name of any valid identifier prefixed with an apostrophe, but typically letters of the alphabet starting with ‘a’ as you can see from the FSI snippet for the ident function above.

Writing generic code is important for maximizing code reuse.


Every value declared in F# has a specific scope, more formally referred to as a declaration space.

The default scope is module scope, meaning variables can be used anywhere after their declaration. However, values defined within a function are scoped only to that function.

For example:


The scoping of a variable is important because F# supports nested functions – i.e. you can declare new function values within the body of a function. Nested functions have access to any value declared in a higher scope as well as any new values declared within itself. The following examples shows this in action:


In F#, having two values with the same name doesn’t lead to a compiler error; rather it simply leads to shadowing. When this happens, both values exists in memory, except there is no way to access the previously declared value. For example:


This technique of intentionally shadowing values is useful for giving the illusion of updating values without relying on mutation. Think strings in C#, which is an immutable type that allows reassignment using the same shadowing technique.

Control Flow

You can branch control flow using the if keyword which works exactly like an if statement in C#:


F# supports if-then-else structure, but the thing the sets if statements in F# apart is that if expressions return a value:


F# has some syntactic sugar to help you combat deeply nested if expression with the elif keyword:


Because the result of the if expression is a value, every clause of an if expression must return the same type.

But if you only have a single if and no corresponding else, then the clause must return unit, which is a special type in F# that means essentially “no value”.

Core Types

Besides the primitive types, the F# library includes several core types that will allow you to organize, manipulate and process data:



The unit type is a value signifying nothing of consequence. unit can be thought of as a concrete representation of void and is represented in code via ():


if expressions without a matching else must return unit because if they did return a value, what would happen if else was hit?

Also, in F#, every function must return a value, think method in C# and the void return type, so even if the function doesn’t conceptually return anything then it should return a unit value.

The ignore function can swallow a function’s return value if you want to return unit:


Learning F# – Part 2

Disclaimer: I do not claim credit for the code examples and much of the contents here, these are mostly extracts from the book by Chris Smith, Programming F#: A comprehensive guide for writing simple code to solve complex problems. In fact, if you’re thinking of learning F# and like what you read here, you should buy the book yourself, it’s easy to read and the author has gone go great lengths to keep things simple and included a lot of code examples for you to try out yourself.

Primitive Types

F# is statically typed, meaning that type checking is done at compile time.

F# supports the full set of primitive .Net types which are built into the F# language and separate from user-defined types.

Here’s a table of all the numeric types (both integer and floating-point) with their suffixes:


F# also allows you to specify values in hexadecimal (base 16), octal (base 8 ) or binary (base 2) using prefix 0x, 0o, or 0b:


There are no implicit type conversion in F#, which eliminates subtle bugs introduced by implicit type conversion as can be found in other languages.

Arithmetic Operators

You can use standard arithmetic operators on numeric primitives, like other CLR-based languages, integer division rounds down to the next lowest number discarding the remainder. Here’s a table of all supported operators:


A very important to note here is that by default, these arithmetic operators do not check for overflow! If a number becomes too big for its type it’ll overflow to be negative, and vice versa:


F# also features all the standard math functions, here’s a table of the common math functions:



If you are dealing with data larger than 2^64, F# has the BigInt type for representing arbitrarily large integers. While the BigInt type is simply an alias for the System.Numerics.BigInteger type, it’s worth noting that neither C# nor VB.Net has syntax to support arbitrarily large integers.

BigInt uses the I suffix for literals, see example below:


You should remember that although BigInt is heavily optimized, it is still much slower than using the primitive integer types.

Bitwise Operations

Primitive integer types support bitwise operators for manipulating values at a binary level:



The .Net platform is based on Unicode, so characters are represented using 2-byte UTF-16 characters. To define a character value, you can put any Unicode character in single quotes, for example:


Like C#, to represent special control characters you need to use an escape sequence from the table below:


You can get the byte value of a character literal by adding a B suffix:



String literals are defined by enclosing a series of characters in double quotes which can span multiple lines. To access a character from within a string, use the indexer syntax, .[ ], and pass in a zero-based character index. For example:


If you want to specify a long string, you can break it up across multiple lines using a single backslash, \, for example:


Like in C#, you can define a verbatim string using the @ symbol, which ignores any escape sequence characters:


Boolean Values

F# has the bool type (System.Boolean) as well as standard Boolean operators listed below:


F# uses short-circuit evaluation when evaluating Boolean expressions, meaning that if a result can be determined after evaluating the first of the two expressions, the second value won’t be evaluated. For example:

true || f() – will evaluate to true without executing function f.

false && g() – will evaluate to false without executing function g.

Comparison and Equality

You can compare numeric values using standard operators listed below:


All these operators evaluate to a Boolean value except the compare function which returns -1, 0, or 1 depending on whether the first parameter is less than, equal to, or greater than the second.

You should have noticed that these operators are similar to those found in SQL Server and F# doesn’t distinguish assignment from equality (like C#, where = is assignment and == is equality comparison).

When it comes to equality, as in other CLR-based languages, it can mean different things – value equality or referential equality. For value types, equality means the values are identical. For reference types, equality is determined by overriding the System.Object method Equals.

Learning F# – Part 1

I decided to take some time out on Silverlight and have a play around with Microsoft’s new language F#, I’ll be making notes as I go along and post them here so maybe they’d help satisfy some of your curiosity too!

Disclaimer: I do not claim credit for the code examples and much of the contents here, these are mostly extracts from the book by Chris Smith, Programming F#: A comprehensive guide for writing simple code to solve complex problems. In fact, if you’re thinking of learning F# and like what you read here, you should buy the book yourself, it’s easy to read and the author has gone go great lengths to keep things simple and included a lot of code examples for you to try out yourself.

Before you start, you need to download F# from:


and install it for either VS2008 or VS2010 beta.

Hello, World

In VS2008, open a new project and choose F# Application, in Program.fs type in:

printfn “Hello, World”

Hit Ctrl+F5, and voila:

You might notice that your program worked without an explicit Main method.

Here’s a slightly more complex Hello, World to show off the syntax of F#:


The let keyword binds a name to a value, unlike most other programming languages, in F#, values are immutable by default (meaning they cannot be changed once initialized).


F# is also case-sensitive. The name of a variable can contain letters, numbers, underscore, or apostrophe (‘) and must begin with a letter or an underscore. However, you can enclose the value’s name with a pair of tickmarks in which case the name can contain any character except for tabs and newline:

let “this.Isn’t %A% good value Name$!#“ = DateTime.Now.ToString(“hh:mm tt”)

printfn “%s, %s at %s” greeting thing “this.Isn’t %A% good value Name$!#“

Other languages like C# use semicolons and curly braces to indicate when statements and blocks of code are complete, but it clutters the code.

In F#, whitespace (spaces and newlines) is significant. The F# compiler allows you to use whitespace to delimit code blocks. For example, anything indented more than the if keyword is considered to be in the body of the if statement. Because tab characters can indicate an unknown number of space characters, they are prohibited in F# code. You can configure the Visual Studio editor to automatically convert tab characters into spaces in Tools -> Options -> Text Editor -> F#.

The earlier code also demonstrated how F# can interoperate with existing .Net libraries:

let timeOfDay = DateTime.Now.ToString(“hh:mm tt”)

F# can take advantage of any .Net library by calling directly into it, conversely any code written in F# can be consumed by other .Net languages.


Like any language, F# allows you to comment your code. To declare a single line comment, use two slashes (//).

For larger comments that span multiple lines, you can use the multiline comments using (* and *) characters.

For F# applications written in Visual Studio, there is a third type of comments: an XML documentation comment. If a comment starting with three slashes (///) is placed above an identifier, Visual Studio will display the comment’s text when you hover over it:


F# Interactive

Visual Studio comes with a tool called F# Interactive or FSI. F# Interactive is a tool known as a REPL (read-evaluate-print loop), it accepts F# code, compiles and executes it, then prints the results. This allows you to quickly and easily experiment with F# code similar to how snippet editor allows you to do the same with C# code.

Once it’s open, it accepts F# code until you terminate the input with ;; and a newline, the code entered will be compiled and executed. After each code snippet is sent to FSI, for every name introduced you will see val <name> : type value, for example:

Notice when you don’t give a variable a name, FSI will simply call it ‘it‘.

FSI allows you to write code in Visual Studio editor which offers syntax highlighting and IntelliSense, but test your code in the FSI window. You can copy the entire code body from the example earlier and test the main method in FSI by calling it:

Managing F# Source Files

The F# language has some unique characteristics when it comes to managing projects with multiple source files. In F#, the order in which code files are compiled is significant.

You can only call into functions and classes defined earlier in the code file or in a separate code file compiled before the file where the function or class is used. If you rearrange the order of the source files, your program may no longer build!

The reason for this significance in compilation order is type inference, a topic to be covered later on.

F# source files are compiled in the order they are displayed in Visual Studio’s Solution Explorer, from top to bottom. You can rearrange the files by right-clicking and selecting Move Up or Move Down. The equivalent keyboard shortcuts are Alt+Up and Alt+Down, though these don’t seem to be working in VS2008 with Resharper, or maybe I just need to tweak my key mapping.