DEV Community

Menestret Martin
Menestret Martin

Posted on • Originally published at

Anatomy of semigroups and monoids

[Check my articles on my blog here]

I will try to group here, in an anatomy atlas, basic notions of functional programming that I find myself explaining often lately into a series of articles.

The idea here is to have a place to point people needing explanations and to increase my own understanding of these subjects by trying to explain them the best I can.
I'll try to focus more on making the reader feel an intuition, a feeling about the concepts rather than on the perfect, strict correctness of my explanations.

What is a semigroup ?

General definition

Semigroup (and monoid, you'll see later) is a complicated word for a really simple concept.
We'll cover quickly semigroups and we'll explain longer monoids since they are strongly related.

Wikipedia's definition is:

In mathematics, a semigroup is an algebraic structure consisting of a set together with an associative binary operation.

Ok, that sounds a bit abstract, let's try to re-phrase it with programming terms:

In the context of programming, a semigroup is composed of two things:

  1. A type A
  2. An associative operation combining two values of type A into a value of type A, let's call it combine
    • That would be a function with a type signature: (A, A) => A
    • Which is associative, meaning that the order in which you combine elements together (where you decide to put your parenthesis) does not matter
      • combine(combine(a1, a2), a3) == combine(a1, combine(a2, a3)) with a1, a2, a3 values of type A

Then it is said that A forms a semigroup under combine.

Some examples

Integer under addition

  • type: Int
  • operation: +


  • + type here is: (Int, Int) => Int
  • + is associative (20 + 20) + 2 == 20 + (20 + 2)

Integers form a semigroup under addition.

Boolean under OR

  • type: Boolean
  • operation: ||


  • || type here is: (Boolean, Boolean) => Boolean
  • || is associative (true || false) || true == true || (false || true)

Booleans form a semigroup under OR.

List under list concatenation

  • type: List[A]
  • operation: ++


  • ++ type here is: (List[A], List[A]) => List[A]
  • ++ is associative (List(1, 2) ++ List(3, 4)) ++ List(5, 6) == List(1, 2) ++ (List(3, 4) ++ List(5, 6))

More examples !

  • Integers under multiplication
  • Booleans under AND
  • String under concatenation
  • A LOT more.

We'll now explore monoids since they are a "upgraded" version of semigroups.

What is a monoid ?

General definition

Given the definition of a semigroup, the definition of a monoid is pretty straight forward:

In mathematics, a monoid is an algebraic structure consisting of a set together with an associative binary operation and an identity element.

Which means that a monoid is a semigroup plus an identity element.

In our programming terms:

In the context of programming, a monoid is composed of two things:

  1. A semigroup:
    • A type A
    • An associative operation combining two values of type A into a value of type A, let's call it combine
  2. An identity element of type A, let's call it id, that has to obey the following laws:
    • combine(a, id) == a with a a value of type A
    • combine(id, a) == a with a a value of type A

Then it is said that A forms a monoid under combine with identity element id.

Some examples

We could take our semigroups examples here and add their respective identity elements:

  • Integer under addition
    • With identity element 0:
      • 42 + 0 = 42
      • 0 + 42 = 42
  • Boolean under OR
    • With identity element false:
      • true || false == true, false || true == true
      • false || false == false
  • List under list concatenation
    • With identity element Nil (empty List):
      • List(1, 2, 3) ++ Nil == List(1, 2, 3)
      • Nil ++ List(1, 2, 3) == List(1, 2, 3)

Whenever you have an identity element for your semigroup's type and combine operation that holds the identity laws, then you have a monoid for it.

But be careful, there are some semigroups which are not monoids:

Tuples form a semigroup under first (which gives back the tuple's first element).

  • type: Tuple2[A, A]
  • operation: first (def first[A](t: Tuple2[A, A]): A = t._1)


  • first type here is: Tuple2[A, A] => A
  • first is associative first(Tuple2(first(Tuple2(a1, a2)), a3)) == first(Tuple2(a1, first(Tuple2(a2, a3)))) with a1, a2, a3 values of type A

But there is no way to provide an identity element id of type A so that:

  • first(Tuple2(id, a)) == a and first(Tuple2(a, id)) == a with a a value of type A

What the hell is it for ?

Monoid is a functional programming constructs that embodies the notion of combining "things" together, often in order to reduce "things" into one "thing". Given that the combining operation is associative, it can be parallelized.

And that's a BIG deal.

As a simple illustration, this is what you can do, absolutely fearlessly when you know your type A forms a monoid under combine with identity id:

  • You have a huge, large, massive list of As that you want to reduce into a single A
  • You have a cluster of N nodes and a master node
  • You split your huge, large, massive list of As in N sub lists
  • You distribute each sub list to a node of your cluster
  • Each node reduce its own sub list by combining its elements 2 by 2 down to 1 final element
  • They send back their results to the master node
  • The master node only has N intermediary results to combine down (in the same order as the sub lists these intermediary results were produced from, remember, associativity !) to a final result

You successfully, without any fear of messing things up, parallelized, almost for free, a reduction process on a huge list thanks to monoids.

Does it sound familiar ? That's naively how fork-join operations works on Spark ! Thank you monoids !

How can we encode them in Scala ?

Semigroups and monoids are encoded as type classes.

We are gonna go through a simple implementation example, you should never have to do it by hand like that since everything we'll do is provided by awesome FP libraries like Cats or Scalaz.

Here are our two type classes:

trait Semigroup[S] {
    def combine(s1: S, s2: S): S

trait Monoid[M] extends Semigroup[M] {
    val id: M

And here is my business domain modeling:

type ItemId = Int
case class Sale(items: List[ItemId], totalPrice: Double)

I want to be able to combine all my year's sales into one big, consolidated, sale.

Let's define a monoid type class instance for Sale by defining:

  • id being an empty Sale which contains no item ids, and 0 as totalPrice
  • combine as concatenation of item id lists and addition of totalPrices
implicit val saleMonoid: Monoid[Sale] = new Monoid[Sale] {
    override val id: Sale                          = Sale(List.empty[ItemId], 0)
    override def combine(s1: Sale, s2: Sale): Sale = Sale(s1.items ++ s2.items, s1.totalPrice + s2.totalPrice)

Then I can use a lot of existing tooling, generic functions, leveraging the fact that the types they are working on are instances of monoid.

combineAll (which is also provided by Cats or Scalaz) is one of them and permit to, generically, combine all my sales together for free !

def combineAll[A](as: List[A])(implicit M: Monoid[A]): A = {
    def accumulate(accumulator: A, remaining: List[A]): A = remaining match {
        case Nil           accumulator
        case head :: tail  accumulate(M.combine(accumulator, head), tail)
    accumulate(, as)

val sales2018: List[Sale] = List(Sale(List(0), 32), Sale(List(1), 10))
val totalSale: Sale       = combineAll(sales2018) // Sale(List(0, 1),42)

Nota bene: Here, for sake of simplicity, I did not implement combineAll with foldLeft so I don't have to explain foldLeft, but you should know that my accumulate inner function is foldLeft and that combineAll should in fact be implemented like that:

def combineAll[A](as: List[A])(implicit M: Monoid[A]): A = as.foldLeft(

Voilà !

More material

If you want to keep diving deeper, some interesting stuff can be found on my FP resources list and in particular:


To sum up, we saw:

  • How simple semigroups and monoids are and how closely related they are
  • We saw examples of semigroups and monoids
  • We had an insight about how useful these FP constructs can be in real life
  • And finally we showed how they are encoded in Scala and had a glimpse on what you can do with it thanks to major FP librairies

I'll try to keep that blog post updated.
If there are any additions, imprecision or mistakes that I should correct or if you need more explanations, feel free to contact me on Twitter or by mail !

Top comments (0)