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Version: 2.0.x


NonEmptyList represents a List that is guaranteed not to be empty.

This is useful to allow more accurate domain modeling in situations where we know a collection is not empty.

For example, we might be handling a collection of errors. If an error has occurred at all then we know the collection is not empty.

However, if we are working with a collection type from the Scala standard library such as List, Vector, or Iterable then the Scala compiler does not know that. It will force us to handle the case where the collection is empty even though we know that cannot occur.

Or perhaps we are implementing a batched API and need to handle a collection of requests. We know the collection is not empty, or we would not have been called at all, but now we have to handle the case of an empty collection.

Sometimes there are sensible defaults in these cases, but other times we are forced to resort to potentially unsafe operators like head or to throw exceptions in branches of logic we know should never occur. This wastes developer time, makes code harder to understand, and encourages bad coding practices.

To avoid these problems we want a data type that is specific enough to describe at the type level what we know to be true, in this case that a collection is not empty.

We can try to represent this using the :: case of List from the Scala standard library but unfortunately :: itself has extremely poor ergonomics. It is hard to construct :: values, and it is easy for operators to forget the more specific type. This is where NonEmptyList comes in.

A NonEmptyList looks like this:

sealed trait NonEmptyList[+A]

object NonEmptyList {
case class Single[A](head: A) extends NonEmptyList[A]
case class Cons[A](head: A, tail: NonEmptyList[A]) extends NonEmptyList[A]

We can see that NonEmptyList looks very similar to List except that there is no Nil case. A NonEmptyList is either a Single with a single value of type A or a Cons with a value of type A and a NonEmptyList of further values of type A.

Generally you should just be able to use higher level operators on NonEmptyList but if you ever want to implement your own operators on NonEmptyList you can do so by pattern matching on a NonEmptyList just like you would on a List.

Constructing NonEmptyList Values

The easiest way to construct a NonEmptyList is with the apply operator.

trait NonEmptyList[+A]

object NonEmptyList {
def apply[A](a: A, as: A*): NonEmptyList[A] =

If we already have another collection type we can convert it into a NonEmptyList using the fromIterableOption operator.

object NonEmptyList {
def fromIterableOption[A](as: Iterable[A]): Option[NonEmptyList[A]] =

Notice that fromIterableOption returns an Option[NonEmptyList[A]] because the original collection might be empty, and so we might not be able to construct a NonEmptyList from it.

If we know the collection is not empty we can use the fromIterable operator and provide the first element of the collection to establish that it is not empty.

object NonEmptyList {
def fromIterable[A](a: A, as: Iterable[A]): NonEmptyList[A] =

We can also construct a NonEmptyList from the :: case of a List.

object NonEmptyList {
def fromCons[A](as: ::[A]): NonEmptyList[A] =

This is useful if we already have a :: value, for example from a ZIO operator like ZIO.validate that returns ::[E] if it fails.

In addition to these operators for constructing NonEmptyList values from other values there are a couple of operators that are useful for building up NonEmptyList values.

The single operator lets us construct a NonEmptyList from a single value. The cons operator lets us construct a new NonEmptyList from an existing NonEmptyList and a new head value.

object NonEmptyList {
def cons[A](a: A, as: NonEmptyList[A]): NonEmptyList[A] =
def single[A](a: A): NonEmptyList[A] =

These operators let us build larger NonEmptyList values from smaller ones in recursive algorithms much like the :: operator and Nil allow us to do for List values.

Working With NonEmptyList Values

The operators on NonEmptyList values are essentially the same as those on List. So if you know how to work with a List you know how to work with a NonEmptyList.

The main difference between a NonEmptyList and a List is that many operators are safe on NonEmptyList that are not safe on List.

For example, we would generally not consider it a good practice to call head on a List because that could throw an exception. However, it is fine to call head on a NonEmptyList because it is always guaranteed to contain at most one value.

Similarly, we can use reduceLeft or reduceRight to reduce the elements of a NonEmptyList to a summary value even though this would not be safe to do on a List because we know there is always at least one element.

The other difference between a NonEmptyList and a List is that operators on NonEmptyList will try to preserve the knowledge that the list is not empty whenever possible.

For example, the map operator on NonEmptyList looks like this:

trait NonEmptyList[+A] {
def map[B](f: A => B): NonEmptyList[B]

The return type is also a NonEmptyList because map transforms each element with a function but does not change the number of elements, so if the original list was not empty then we know that the resulting list is not empty.

However, sometimes it is not possible to preserve this information because of the nature of the operator.

trait NonEmptyList[+A] {
def dropWhile(f: A => Boolean): List[A]

The dropWhile operator returns a List[A] instead of a NonEmptyList[A] because it could drop all of the elements of the list, resulting in a list that is empty. So we can no longer return a NonEmptyList.

The final difference between NonEmptyList and List is some additional operators are provided that take advantage of the fact that we know the list is not empty.

The most notable of these are reduceMapLeft and reduceMapRight, which take the place of foldLeft and foldRight.

trait NonEmptyList[+A] {
def reduceMapLeft[B](map: A => B)(reduce: (B, A) => B): B
def reduceMapRight[B](map: A => B)(reduce: (A, B) => B): B

On standard collections foldLeft and foldRight are fundamental collection operators that allow us to "tear down" a collection to a summary value by providing an initial value to use if the collection is empty and a way to update that initial value for every element in the collection.

Since we know that a NonEmptyList contains at least one value, we don't need to provide an initial value for when the list is empty and can use the reduceLeft and reduceRight operators. However, these operators don't provide us quite the power we need in a lot of situations because they don't allow the type of the summary value to differ from the type of the elements in the collection.

The reduceMapLeft and reduceMapRight operators allow us to transform the first value in the NonEmptyList to the summary value and then combine each other value with that summary value. This is useful because it allows us to preserve the information that the collection is not empty.

For example, here is how we could use reduceMapLeft to convert a NonEmptyList to a NonEmptyChunk.

import zio.NonEmptyChunk
import zio.prelude.NonEmptyList

def toNonEmptyChunk[A](as: NonEmptyList[A]): NonEmptyChunk[A] =
as.reduceMapLeft(a => NonEmptyChunk(a))(_ appended _)

This would have been difficult to express with foldLeft because we would have had to start with an initial value that was an empty chunk and thus would have gotten back a Chunk instead of a NonEmptyChunk.

Of course, we could have just used the toNonEmptyChunk operator on NonEmptyList.

def toNonEmptyChunk[A](as: NonEmptyList[A]): NonEmptyChunk[A] =

Interoperability With Scala Collections

One of the great features of the NonEmptyList data type is its excellent integration with the Scala standard library collections framework.

A NonEmptyList is implicitly convertible into the :: case of a List so anywhere you need a List and provide a NonEmptyList it will just work.

import zio.prelude.NonEmptyList

def myExistingAPI(as: List[Int]): String =
"Some fancy stuff"

val nonEmptyList: NonEmptyList[Int] =
NonEmptyList(1, 2, 3)
// nonEmptyList: NonEmptyList[Int] = Cons(
// head = 1,
// tail = Cons(head = 2, tail = Single(head = 3))
// )

// res2: String = "Some fancy stuff"

This is also extremely convenient because it means all operators available on List are available on NonEmptyList.

For example, the filter operator is not implemented directly on NonEmptyList. But you can still filter a NonEmptyList because we can always view a NonEmptyList as a List.

val filtered: List[Int] =
nonEmptyList.filter(_ % 2 == 0)
// filtered: List[Int] = List(2)

The return type of List[Int] is as specific as possible because the filter operator could filter out all the elements of the list and return a list that is empty.

Thus, NonEmptyList lets us work in a way that is as close as possible to being as if NonEmptyList was a subtype of List, which conceptually it is.