Max Kopinsky

Functional Programming, Formal Methods, Computer Architecture, and Math!

What are Monoids and Groups?

In the last post, we explored unital magma, quasigroups, loops, and groupoids. Each structure arose by adding more restrictions to the binary operation of the structure.

When we looked at groupoids, we saw how the combination of restrictions can lead to generalized results about all groupoids, like the inverse of the inverse theorem, and the inverse of product theorem.

In this post, we’re going to start looking at monoids, which have a set of properties satisfied by, well, nearly everything. In particular, monoids appear everywhere in programs.

Monoids (From Categories): Totality

Categories didn’t have a requirement that multiplication be total. For many pairs of arrows, it doesn’t make sense to chain them together. It only works if they have the same intermediate node in the graph.

Let’s require the multiplication to be total.

For that to work, every pair of arrows is going to have to go to and from the same graph node. As a result, there is only one graph node (and there are multiple arrows from that node to itself).

This gives us a view of monoids as categories. We have identites (every arrow is an identity, in this view).

However this view isn’t super useful, because every arrow is the same. This model kind of sucks. We could modify how we look at the model to make it more interesting. Or… we could let the same thing happen by starting somewhere else.

Monoids (From Semigroups): Identities

Semigroups have associative, total multiplication, but they don’t have to have identities. Our example of a finite semigroup was to start with some arbitrary set \(A\). Then we considered a set of functions, \(F\), where each function \(f \in F\) is from \(A\) to \(A\). Function composition in any set is total and associative.

But the only function which is an identity under composition is the function that maps any \(a : A\) to itself, which we write as either \(f(a) = a\), or \(a \mapsto a\). We didn’t require that this function be in \(F\) when we considered semigroups.

For monoids, we’re going to require it.

The identity function is a function that “does nothing.” This is spectacularly useful. Not only do we know that there is an identity that works for every function in \(F\), we know what it is. And if we need to conjure up an element of our monoid to use somewhere, we can always safely use this identity because multiplication by it will never “mess up” another value.

Monoids (From Unital Magma): Association

Starting from an operation which has an identity and which is total, we can get a monoid by also requiring it to be associative. I unfortunately don’t have a good way to visualize this change. Please let me know if you do!

Correspondingly, a structure which is both a unital magma and a semigroup will always be a monoid.

Monoid Examples


Let’s consider some examples. Let’s start with the set \(\mathbb B = \{ true, false \}\). Let’s pick the common operation “or”:

\[\begin{aligned} false &\| false &= false \\ false &\| true &= true \\ true &\| false &= true \\ true &\| true &= true \\ \end{aligned}\]

As we can see, \(false\) certainly acts as the identity on either side. Operating false on false gives false, false on true gives true. We can check that it’s associative (exercise). And, the above table shows that it’s total.

This gives us the monoid \((\mathbb B, false, \|)\), or “booleans with or.”

Sometimes, there’s more than one way to imbue a set with a monoid structure. What if we pick a different operation?

\[\begin{aligned} false\ & \&\&\ false &= false \\ false\ & \&\&\ true &= false \\ true\ & \&\&\ false &= false \\ true\ & \&\&\ true &= true \\ \end{aligned}\]

Now \(true\) is an identity1. This gives us a different monoid over the same domain, \((\mathbb B, true, \&\&)\), or “booleans with and.”

Pointed Semigroups

Notice that we can recover a semigroup from any monoid by simply “forgetting” the identity element. If we neglect to point out that \(true\) is the identity of \(\&\&\), we get the semigroup \((\mathbb B, \&\&)\).

There’s a way that we can describe functions between structures - the function from monoids to semigroups, defined by \(F(D, e, *) = (D, *)\), is known as a forgetful functor. I’ll probably have some future posts exploring this idea further, as it can be combined with category theory to do some pretty general things.

The nicest thing it can do is be reversed. If we have some semigroup, we can attach a new element \(e\) to the domain of the semigroup and define \(e\) to be the identity. This new \(e\) is called a “point,”2 and it might not be distinguishable from every element already in the domain. If the semigroup already had an identity which was forgotten, then we can prove that \(e\) and the identity are one and the same.

Regardless, sometimes we have a semigroup without an identity, and this construction allows us to summon one out of thin air.

Let’s consider a little bit of C code for a moment.

struct SomeSemigroup; // opaque

SomeSemigroup *times(SomeSemigroup x, SomeSemigroup y);

By assumption, times here is an associative operation, which may or may not have an identity element. We don’t know. But we can extend the operation with a new identity as follows;

SomeSemigroup *id = NULL;

SomeSemigroup *times_extension(SomeSemigroup *x, SomeSemigroup *y) {
    if (x == id) {
        return y;
    else if (y == id) {
        return x;
    else {
        return times(*x, *y);

This new semigroup is now a monoid. The identity is NULL. It may be that there was already some other identity in semigroup; in this case, NULL is functionally indistinguishable from that other identity within the semigroup structure.

A common example of a semigroup in programming languages is non-empty array(list)s. We can append any two arrays to get a third, and this append operation is associative. We have an additional (useful) structure that we can lookup any element in an array and get something meaningful back, since they are never empty.

But sometimes, when initializing an array for an algorithm, for example, it’s truly useful to be able to say that it is initially empty. We can recover a structure where that is allowed by appending a new point to our array semigroup, the null pointer, and extending the concatenation operation as above.

Now even if the language allowed empty arrays (as most do), the empty array and the null pointer are functionally indistinguishable. You can’t lookup values from either of them, and appending either one to another array will result in that other array.

We say that the null pointer and the empty array are isomorphic. They carry the same information. In this case, that is no information at all! We can easily write a pair of functions to witness the isomorphism3. One of them sends the empty array to NULL, the other sends NULL to the empty array. While we generally have a structural definition of equality in programs, what we often truly want is informational equality, where two objects are equal if they are isomorphic.

The exact meaning of isomorphic can differ with respect to context. Sometimes the structure is information that we care about (for example, trees). Thinking about what exactly equality means for a particular datatype and implementing it correctly can avoid major headache- inducing bugs. The concept of monoids (indeed, unital magma) tells us that if we have two different objects which are both the identities of a type’s core operation, then we should probably be writing a normalizing function, which replaces one with the other, because they must be functionally indistinguishable.


What if we have some unknown type \(T\), and we want to imbue it with a monoid structure? Perhaps we want to be able to put off deciding what binary operation to use until later, if there are several choices. Or perhaps there’s no reasonable choice at all, but we still want to be able to put things together.

One common example of this is validation, or parsing. We may encounter an error while validating a piece of data, but we don’t want our program to just fail immediately.

Instead, we want to combine all the errors that we discover during the entire process of validation (or at least, as far as we can go), so that the user can get as much relevant information as possible back from our tool. It’s not really meaningful to “combine” errors. We could append the callstacks and append the messages, but that doesn’t tell anyone anything. If anything, it’s actively confusing. Instead, we just want some monoid structure that leaves individual errors alone.

We can always construct such a structure. Instead of considering elements of \(T\) itself, we consider elements of a new type, \(L(T)\). \(L(T)\) is the type of lists containing elements of type \(T\). Each element of \(T\) corresponds exactly to a singleton list containing it. We call the function from \(T \to L(T)\) an injection, because it “injects” elements of \(T\) into this monoid structure. For example, the definition might be as simple as inject(t) = List.singleton(t), in a language where this syntax makes sense.

Now the monoid multiplication is list concatenation, which as above is associative. If we need to conjure up an element from nowhere, we have to be able to do that without relying on the existence of things in \(T\). Perhaps we are initializing our parser and we need some initial value for the set of errors. It’s perfectly safe to choose the empty list, because it is the identity of this monoid and the concatenation with non-empty lists later won’t cause weird things to happen to our structure.

This is a very real example of why being able to conjure up a “nothing” element of a type is extremely useful!

If you’re a programmer, you’ve probably written loops like this before:

bool flag = false;
while (someCondition) {
    flag = flag || checkFlag();
if (flag) {

flag here is acting in the \((\mathbb B, false, \|)\) monoid. If the body of the loop is also implementing some type of monoidal behavior4, we could combine these two monoids and possibly clean up our code.

Turing Machines

I want to leave off this overview of monoids with a quick proof that every program can be described by the structure of some monoid.

Firstly, it is well known that any program can be represented by a Turing Machine. It’s generally fairly easy to find such a machine, because the semantics of the programming language are usually defined in terms of an abstract machine, which is then implemented in terms of some assembly language, which is itself (usually) quite close to a Turing Machine on its own.

A Turing Machine is its own kind of structure, generally written \((Q, \Gamma, b, \Sigma, \delta, q_0, F)\). In order, we have a set of states, a set of symbols that we can write to some kind of memory, a designated “blank symbol,” which appears in any memory cell that has not yet been written to, a subset of \(\Gamma\) representing the symbols which can be in memory before we start (the “program input”), a set of transitions, an initial state, and a set of final states.

The Turing Machine starts in the “initial configuration,” where the memory has some input symbols in it, the machine is pointed at a particular memory cell, and is in the initial state. It executes by using the transitions, which describe for each state, how to use the value of memory currently being looked at to decide how to modify the current memory cell and switch to a different one, as well as possibly also switching states.

In any configuration of the turing machine, we can apply some sequence of transitions to get to a new configuration. A record of configurations that we move through between the initial state and a final state is called an accepting history.

A Turing Machine accepts an input (computes a result for that input) if and only if an accepting history exists. An accepting history is a chain of states, all of which are valid. So given any two states in an accepting history, we can find a (composition of) transition(s) which moves one to the other.

This structure is monoidal. We have the set \(C\) of configurations for our machine \(M\). We can define, for any input \(w \in L(\Sigma)\), the function \(T_w : C \to C\). \(T_w(c)\) tells us which state \(c'\) we will end up in if the “input” in memory begins with \(w\); if it does not begin with \(w\), then the result is whichever state \(M\) uses to reject an input.

The set \(T = \{ T_w \ | \ w \in L(\Sigma) \}\) is the domain of our monoid. The multiplication is the composition of these transition operators. The identity transition is \(T_\emptyset\), because every input can be seen as beginning with the empty string. Any two of these can be composed, and composition is associative, hence we have a monoid.

This is called the transition monoid of a machine. It formalizes the notion that any computation can be broken down into steps which are independent of each other, and the results of those steps can be combined according to some monoidal structure to produce the result of the program.


Why is that useful? After all, the construction is, well, rather obtuse. It does tell us exactly how to find such a monoid, but that monoid doesn’t exactly lend itself to pretty code. An example of the constructed monoid might look like this, in a dialect of C extended with nested functions that are safe to return pointers to5.

typedef void*(*step)(void*) ConstructedMonoid;

void *id_step(void *state) {
    return state;

step *times_step(step *step1, step *step2) {
    step *new_step(void *state) {
        return step2(step1(state))
    return new_step;

step *id = id_step;
step *(*times)(step*,step*) = times_step;

Here the monoid is the set of all functions which take a pointer and return a pointer. The pointer is presumed to point to any relevant information that the program needs to continue. The identity is the function which returns the state unchanged, and the multiplication composes two steps.

Naively, this is stupid. We don’t gain anything by writing our program this way, and really it just makes the program more opaque. Chances are we were already breaking the problem down into smaller steps in a more readable fashion.

This idea becomes useful when the monoid is isomorphic to a simpler monoid. In that case, we can disregard the elements-are-functions notion, and replace the functions with the elements of the simpler monoid. Each step of our program becomes as simple as generating the next monoid element, with regards to the globally-available input but without caring about the results or side effects of other steps. Then we multiply all the resulting monoid elements together and the result falls out.

We used this pattern when writing an autograder for a course taught in Haskell, which requires some functions to be a written in a certain recursive style. The grader is implemented as a a function converts a stack of nested function definitions into a flattened list of bindings along with all the other names in scope. This transformation is implemented by (recusively) translating each individual definition into an element of a monoid and then multiplying them together as we recurse back out. Each element of the flattened list of bindings is then checked individually for violations of the desired property and the results are monoidally combined into the final result.

Ability to Generalize

Any monoid corresponding to a turing machine in this way ends up being isomorphic to another monoid which is an instance of a special kind of monoid called a monad. Monads are studied in category theory, which we’re not going to get into here, but some programming languages make them explicitly representable. This makes it possible to express programs by describing how to translate inputs into elements of the monoid and combining them together.

A monoid in this way represents the structure of the programming environment. What that means is that it represents what side effects can be performed by the functions which return elements of the monoid - throwing errors, manipulating a shared state, things like that.

By generalizing such a program from a specific monoid to “any monoid which contains that monoid as a substructure,” we can generalize the environments in which a function will work. Rather than having a function which works “with my database,” we can have a function which works “with some database.” We can then easily test our programs with a mock database, while using a real database for our actual business environment. Since it’s the same code running in both cases, we can be confident that the tests passing means our logic is sound, even though the underlying database is different.

This is related to other programming patterns like dependency injection. There’s a very rich space of programming constructs and patterns that can be explored here to find ways to write cleaner programs. Haskell has a collection of libraries known as algebraic effect libraries which provide implementations of this idea.

We’ll explore this concept further in future posts, I hope, but now back to the math.


A group is a monoid with inverses. Alternatively, it is a total groupoid, or an associative loop.

A monoid \((D, e, *)\) is a group if for any \(x \in D\), there is an element \(x^{-1} \in D\) such that \(x * x^{-1} = e\). We can easily prove that inverses are unique, which is a good exercise.

Many, many things that we say in day-to-day mathematics form groups. For example, the monoid \((\mathbb Z, 0, +)\) is also a group, because for any \(x \in \mathbb Z\), we have \(-x \in \mathbb Z\), and \(x + (-x) = 0\).

However, the monoid \((\mathbb N, 0, +)\) is not a group, because negative numbers aren’t in \(\mathbb N\). The monoid \((\mathbb Z, 1, *)\) is also not a group, because for example, there’s no inverse of 2. There’s a mechanism by which we could extend this monoid into a group, and the result would be \(\mathbb Q\). Perhaps in the future I’ll explore this construction in another series of posts, which would probably build up to how we can define \(\mathbb R\) algebraicly.6

As discussed in the last post, Rubik’s Cubes are associated with a group where every element of the group is a sequence of moves. We can get this group by starting with all of the 90 degree clockwise rotations of a single face (there are 6 such moves) and then “closing” the set under concatenation: add to the set every move or sequence of moves which can be obtained by concatenating two (sequences of) moves in the set. Repeat until nothing new gets added.

We can check that inverses exist in this group. Call the clockwise rotation of the front face \(F\). We can check that \(F^{-1} = F * F * F\), which we can also write \(F^3\). This means that \(F\) can be undone by performing \(F\) three more times; \(F^{-1} * F = F^4 = e\). The groupoid properties then tell us that (since products are always defined in a group), if we have the sequence of moves \(A * B\), then \((A * B)^{-1}\) is nothing other than \(B^{-1} * A^{-1}\). This corresponds to undoing sequence \(AB\) by first undoing \(B\), and then undoing \(A\). That’s exactly what we expect!

From here, we could develop a rich theory of groups, called group theory, and apply it to the study of a huge variety of real groups that appear in mathematics. Eventually, I’d like to develop some of that theory in a sequence of posts, and build up to an understandable proof of the fact that quintic polynomials are not solvable in general in terms of addition, multiplication, and \(n\)th roots.

One Final Property: Getting To Work

One other property that we frequently ask of binary operations is that they commute. That is, they satisfy the restriction that \(x * y = y * x\).

If we have a monoid with this property, we call it a commutative monoid. If we have a group with this property, we call it an abelian group. Most of the examples we’ve discussed so far are commutative, including the boolean monoids, and the additive group. The list monoid is not commutative, because order matters in lists. In contrast, the set monoid is commutative, because sets are unordered. The transition monoids of state machines are not commutative.

If you have a Rubik’s Cube handy, check that the Rubik’s cube group is not abelian. We could loosen our restriction a little bit, and ask the following. Given some group \((G, e, *)\), what is the largest subset \(C \subseteq G\) such that for any \(z \in C, g \in G\), we have that \(z * g = g * z\)? We say that every element of \(C\) commutes with every element of \(G\).

We can prove that this set \(C\), called the center of \(G\), is itself a group:

  1. \(C\) has an identity element, because for any \(g \in G\), \(e * g = g * e\), so \(e \in C\).
  2. The restriction of \(*\) from \(G\) to \(C\), \(*_C : C \times C \to C\), is total. Consider two elements \(y,z \in C\) and some \(g \in G\). Then we have that
\[\begin{aligned} (y * z) * g &= y * (z * g) & \text{Associative} \\ &= y * (g * z) & z \in C \\ &= (g * z) * y & y \in C \\ &= g * (z * y) & \text{Associative} \\ &= g * (y * z) & y,z \in C\\ \end{aligned}\]

so \(y * z\) is also in \(C\).

  1. If \(z \in C\), then \(z^{-1} \in C\) as well:
\[\begin{aligned} z^{-1} * g &= (z^{-1} * g) * e & \text{Identity} \\ &= (z^{-1} * g) * (z * z^{-1}) & \text{Product of Inverse} \\ &= z^{-1} * (g * z) * z^{-1} & \text{Association} \\ &= z^{-1} * (z * g) * z^{-1} & z \in C \\ &= (z^{-1} * z) * (g * z^{-1}) & \text{Association} \\ &= e * (g * z^{-1}) & \text{Product of Inverse} \\ &= g * z^{-1} & \text{Identity} \\ \end{aligned}\]

Since \(C\) is a subset of \(G\), and \((C, e, *)\) is still a group, we call \((C, e, *)\) a subgroup of \((G, e, *)\) and we write \(C < G\).

The center of a group is nice because it is the largest subgroup which is abelian. In some groups, the center is trivial, meaning it contains only the identity.

I’ll end this post with something that I consider to be a good thought exercise: is the center of the Rubik’s Cube group trivial? If not, how big is it?

By developing some group theory, we could fairly easily prove an answer to this question.


In this series of posts, we introduced the general concepts of each of the major single-sorted, binary-operator algebraic structures. We saw how they arise from adding increasingly stringent constraints to the binary operator, and attached some examples to each of the weird names.

I hope that abstract algebra feels approachable from here. We can use it to achieve general results which we can then apply to specific scenarios to get results for free. A further treatment of abstract algebra would explore some more important structures, notably rings, fields, and vector fields. These structures are nothing more than adding some new requirements to our set.

We can improve programs, by implementing the results as very general functions and then applying the general functions to specific scenarios, achieving great degrees of code re-use and understandability. Simply by seeing a reference to a common general function, we can immediately understand the broad strokes of what the function is doing, even if we don’t yet understand all the specifics of the structure we’re applying it on.

Most likely, my next posts will be about computer hardware, specifically superscalar out-of-order processing and how we can use the visual digital logic simulator Turing Complete to explore the different components of such systems and how they work together.

Further down the line, future posts will explore some more group theory, and some more direct application of abstract algebra to programming in Haskell. I want to explore so-called free structures, and how we can use them to describe computations that build other computations, a technique called higher-order programming. We’ve seen some free structures in these posts already, though I didn’t explicitly call them out7. I also alluded to higher-order programming via effects earlier in this post, but there are other neat things we can do with the technique that don’t seem to get much exposure.

  1. Remember from the last post, we proved that identites are unique in unital magma. Since monoids are unital magma, identities are unique in monoids too. So without checking this fact, we immediately know that \(true\) is the only identity. For the remainder of the post, I’ll say “the identity” of a monoid, instead of “an identity.” 

  2. In the original post in this overview series, I mentioned that distinguished elements of structures are always called points, and structures that have any are called “pointed.” 

  3. As discussed in Setting the Stage 

  4. We’ll see in a moment that it always is. 

  5. C++ has such a construct, but I very strongly dislike C++, so this is what we get. In a later post, we will review these concepts through the lens of Haskell, where this structure will turn out to be… quite familiar. 

  6. That is, in terms of the properties that the set should have. What might those properties even be, and how can we construct a set that has those properties if it is necessarily uncoutably infinite? 

  7. Specifically, our example of magma was the free magma on binary tree nodes, linked lists (the semigroups that we got by making the magma associative) are the free semigroups on linked list nodes, and general lists containing things of type \(T\) are the free monoids on \(T\).

    In a deep sense, the composition of functions that we saw when expressing programs as monoids described how to take a list of steps to perform and flatten it into a single long step that composes all the elements of the list. By generalizing over more interesting composition operators (which tend to arise from the “more interesting” monoids that we may be lucky enough to be isomorphic to), we can again arrive at a free monoid, this time over programs themselves. These free monoids are called free monads and form the basis for programming via effects. 

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