There are a lot of functions that accomplish the same thing, but using Applicative vs Monad definitions.

Some examples are:

  • (<*>) vs ap
  • pure vs return
  • (*>) vs (>>)
  • traverse vs mapM
  • sequenceA vs sequence
  • liftA vs liftM
  • liftA2 vs liftM2
  • etc.

And for Alternative vs MonadPlus:

  • empty vs mzero
  • (<|>) vs mplus

In the scenario that prompted this question, I wanted to traverse/mapM where the Applicative/Monad is [].

In general, when it is known that the result will be the same, is it better style to use the Applicative ones or the Monad ones? E.g., is one more readable than another, or maybe faster than the other?

Edit (in response being suggested as a duplicate): Personally, I find these to be equally readable. I am in no way asking about maintainability, as these can be used interchangeably, and preferring one over another would have no impact on the code structure. I'm really wondering if one is more idiomatic, or more efficient, than the other.

  • The general rule of thumb I follow – although I don't have a good source for this, which is why this isn't an answer – is "always use the Applicative ones". In a hypothetically correctly-having-Applicative-from-the-beginning Haskell, we'd only have (<*>), traverse, etc. (Also: liftA is the same as fmap / (<$>), which is the real thing to use there.) Jun 29, 2017 at 19:26
  • 1
    @gnat I'm curious, why do you think this question is a duplicate? To me, it doesn't seem to be even be superficially related to the "duplicate" you identified. Aug 21, 2017 at 16:11

1 Answer 1


For both efficiency and generality, you should typically prefer the most general operators. So you should use Applicative operators in preference to Monad, and Alternative to MonadPlus.

The efficiency difference is often not significant, so if you already have a Monad/MonadPlus constraint, you should feel free to use any of the relevant operators to produce the nicest looking code.

The ApplicativeDo extension can allow you to get the benefit of do-notation without a Monad requirement. I recommend the Haxl paper for an non-trivial example where there is a quite significant performance difference between Applicative and Monad (and was a motivator for implementing ApplicativeDo notation).

  • 1
    I agree with this answer, except that often, using the most general operator gives less efficiency, because the particular type may have special properties that make the algorithm faster for it (trivial example: built-in [a] versus length-tagged ([a], Int) have, respectively, O(n) and O(1) length functions).
    – Ryan Reich
    Oct 16, 2017 at 17:52
  • I'm not suggesting using the most general operator in all cases; I'm only suggesting it in the context of choosing between operations in the Monad, Applicative, Functor hierarchy and closely related classes. The idea is not to pay for something you don't use. In the general case, a less contrived example is nub versus nubOrd. For more elaborate functions built from the Monad/Applicative operations, the extra structure can allow for better algorithms, e.g. a generate-and-test algorithm where you filter as you go, but the implementation difference is more than swapping operators. Oct 16, 2017 at 21:11

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