Scala Language Type Classes


To avoid serialization problems, particularly in distributed environments (e.g. Apache Spark), it is a best practice to implement the Serializable trait for type class instances.

Simple Type Class

A type class is simply a trait with one or more type parameters:

trait Show[A] {
  def show(a: A): String

Instead of extending a type class, an implicit instance of the type class is provided for each supported type. Placing these implementations in the companion object of the type class allows implicit resolution to work without any special imports:

object Show {
  implicit val intShow: Show[Int] = new Show {
    def show(x: Int): String = x.toString

  implicit val dateShow: Show[java.util.Date] = new Show {
    def show(x: java.util.Date): String = x.getTime.toString

  // ..etc

If you want to guarantee that a generic parameter passed to a function has an instance of a type class, use implicit parameters:

def log[A](a: A)(implicit showInstance: Show[A]): Unit = {

You can also use a context bound:

def log[A: Show](a: A): Unit = {

Call the above log method like any other method. It will fail to compile if an implicit Show[A] implementation can't be found for the A you pass to log

log(10) // prints: "10"
log(new java.util.Date(1469491668401L) // prints: "1469491668401"
log(List(1,2,3)) // fails to compile with
                 // could not find implicit value for evidence parameter of type Show[List[Int]]

This example implements the Show type class. This is a common type class used to convert arbitrary instances of arbitrary types into Strings. Even though every object has a toString method, it's not always clear whether or not toString is defined in a useful way. With use of the Show type class, you can guarantee that anything passed to log has a well-defined conversion to String.

Extending a Type Class

This example discusses extending the below type class.

trait Show[A] {
  def show: String

To make a class you control (and is written in Scala) extend the type class, add an implicit to its companion object. Let us show how we can get the Person class from this example to extend Show:

class Person(val fullName: String) {    
  def this(firstName: String, lastName: String) = this(s"$firstName $lastName")

We can make this class extend Show by adding an implicit to Person's companion object:

object Person {
  implicit val personShow: Show[Person] = new Show {
    def show(p: Person): String = s"Person(${p.fullname})"

A companion object must be in the same file as the class, so you need both class Person and object Person in the same file.

To make a class you do not control, or is not written in Scala, extend the type class, add an implicit to the companion object of the type class, as shown in the Simple Type Class example.

If you control neither the class nor the type class, create an implicit as above anywhere, and import it. Using the log method on the Simple Type Class example:

object MyShow {
  implicit val personShow: Show[Person] = new Show {
    def show(p: Person): String = s"Person(${p.fullname})"

def logPeople(persons: Person*): Unit = {
  import MyShow.personShow
  persons foreach { p => log(p) }

Add type class functions to types

Scala's implementation of type classes is rather verbose. One way to reduce the verbosity is to introduce so-called "Operation Classes". These classes will automatically wrap a variable/value when they are imported to extend functionality.

To illustrate this, let us first create a simple type class:

// The mathematical definition of "Addable" is "Semigroup"
trait Addable[A] {
  def add(x: A, y: A): A

Next we will implement the trait (instantiate the type class):

object Instances {

  // Instance for Int
  // Also called evidence object, meaning that this object saw that Int learned how to be added
  implicit object addableInt extends Addable[Int] {
    def add(x: Int, y: Int): Int = x + y

  // Instance for String
  implicit object addableString extends Addable[String] {
    def add(x: String, y: String): String = x + y


At the moment it would be very cumbersome to use our Addable instances:

import Instances._
val three = addableInt.add(1,2)

We would rather just write write 1.add(2). Therefore we'll create an "Operation Class" (also called an "Ops Class") that will always wrap over a type that implements Addable.

object Ops {
  implicit class AddableOps[A](self: A)(implicit A: Addable[A]) {
    def add(other: A): A = A.add(self, other)

Now we can use our new function add as if it was part of Int and String:

object Main {

  import Instances._ // import evidence objects into this scope
  import Ops._       // import the wrappers

  def main(args: Array[String]): Unit = {

    // println(1.add(3.141)) // Fails because we didn't create an instance for Double


"Ops" classes can be created automatically by macros in simulacrum library:

import simulacrum._

@typeclass trait Addable[A] {
  @op("|+|") def add(x: A, y: A): A