Doug's Compiler Corner

Originally posted on 2024-06-25 06:58:00 +0000

Last updated on 2024-07-01 03:52:10 +0000

Swift for C++ Practitioners, Part 9: Extensible Literals

One of the things that I really liked about C++ was the ability to create great libraries: the combination of classes, templates, and operator overloading made it possible to create abstractions that nicely describe a subject domain (whether graphs, matrices, parsers, whatever) within a library.

Swift provides similar affordances to create the right abstractions to model a subject domain. I've already talked about value types and generics at length, so we won't go into those again. However, Swift also has additional features that let you customize the language to your needs, including the ability to interact with literals (like 0 or ""), overload operators to your heart's content, provide specific access behavior for properties, or define your own declarative sub-language (DSL) embedded in Swift. These features, used well, can enable beautiful library designs that get at the heart of describing a domain.

I'm going to tackle language extensibility in several different posts, because there's a lot to explore, including a few side quests into other parts of the language. For this post, we're going to dive ito something that you use everyday but probably don't think about much in C++: literals.

Literals are constant values written in the source code. In Swift, there are quite a few different kinds of literals:

  • Integer literals: numbers like 42 and -10.
  • Floating-point literals: numbers like 3.14159
  • Boolean literals: true and false
  • String literals: strings like "Hello, world!"
  • Interpolated string literals: strings with interpolations in them, such as "Hello, \(name)!"
  • Nil literal: nil
  • Array literal: an array of things, such as [a, b, c]
  • Dictionary literal: a list of key-value pairs, such as [a: x, b: y, c: z]

In most programming languages, literals have a specific type. 0 in C++ is an int, 3.14159 is a double. C++ also has suffixes that are part of the literal to let you change the literal type: 0u is an unsigned int, 3.14159f is a float, and so on. C++ also allows many kinds of implicit conversion, which lets us be somewhat cavalier with the exact type of literals: you can write int8_t x = 64; and the literal int will be implicitly converted to int8_t. One hopes to get a compiler warning if the literal doesn't fit into the type of x.

In Swift, literals pick up the type of their enclosing context. So, we can write the equivalent to the above x as:

let x: UInt8 = 64

and the literal 64 will pick up the type UInt8 from its context. You can also be explicit about what type you want your literal to have by using the as operator: 64 as UInt8 will ensure that the integer literal 64 is treated as a UInt8. You can use the as operator to perform an implicit conversion explicitly in Swift: x as Any will put the value of x into a value types as Any.

With the so-called "collection" literals (for arrays and dictionaries), the contextual type can affect both the collection type and its element type. For example, if I were to write:

let numbers: Set<UInt8> = [ 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 ]

Then the array literal has type Set<UInt8>, meaning that each of the elements in the array literal will have type UInt8. This inference can go both ways: consider something like this:

let someNumbers: Set<_> = [ 1 as UInt8, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 ]

The _ is a placeholder for "I don't want to write the type, figure it out for me". I've specified that I want a Set, so the array literal will be of a Set type, but the element type will be dictated by the array literal elements themselves: here the only one given a specific type is given UInt8, so the type of someNumbers will be Set<UInt8>.

If there is no contextual type for a literal, it will default to an appropriate type: Bool for Boolean literals, Int for integer literals, Double for floating-point literals, String for string literals, Array for array literals, and Dictionary for dictionary literals. This is what enables type inference for something like

let favoriteConstants = [ "Ο€" : 3.14159, "e": 2.71828 ]

to determine that favoriteConstants has the type [String: Double] aka Dictionary<String, Double>.

Type inference is nice and all, but I promised extensibility. Let's get to that.

The ExpressibleBy*Literal protocols

The types I listed above that work as literal types aren't magical. They are defined in the standard library, and declare conformances to protocols in the "expressible by" family. Each kind of literal has one or more protocols associated with it: a type that conforms to one of these protocols can be constructed from the corresponding literal type. Here's the mapping from literal kinds to protocols:

If you had some kind of collection type that you wanted to work be constructible from an array literal, you would make it conform to ExpressibleByArrayLiteral. For our example, let's create a single type that conforms to lots of these protocols: a representation of a JSON value. We can describe any JSON value as an enum, like this:

enum JSONValue {
    case null
    case object(String)
    case number(Double)
    case array([JSONValue])
    case dictionary([String: JSONValue])

We can represent the JSON null value with a nil literal by introducing a conformance to ExpressibleByNilLiteral, like this:

extension JSONValue: ExpressibleByNilLiteral {
    init(nilLiteral: ()) {
        self = .null

There's one oddity here to point out: the parameter nilLiteral has the type (), which is an empty tuple. Here, it's used so that we can provide a special name for this initializer (init(nilLiteral:)) even though there's no need for a specific value with a nil literal. Fun fact: the Swift standard library has a type Void that's defined like this:

typealias Void = ()

Functions that have no specified return type in Swift are said to return Void, somewhat like in C++. But the analogy to C++ void stops there. Empty tuple types are normal types in Swift: you can have variables and properties of empty tuple type, and they have a size of zero (gasp). One can create a value of empty tuple type with the expression (). Some languages refer to these types as "unit" types.

For the next two cases of JSONValue, we can provide string, integer, and floating-point literal conformances:

extension JSONValue: ExpressibleByStringLiteral {
    init(stringLiteral value: String) {
        self = .object(value)

extension JSONValue: ExpressibleByIntegerLiteral {
    init(integerLiteral value: Int) {
        self = .number(Double(value))

extension JSONValue: ExpressibleByFloatLiteral {
    init(floatLiteral value: Double) {
        self = .number(value)

We can now create a JSONValue instance from a nil literal (nil), string literal ("Hello"), integer literal ('42'), or floating-point literal ('3.14159').

Let's do some collections to finish it off:

extension JSONValue: ExpressibleByArrayLiteral {
    init(arrayLiteral elements: JSONValue...) {
        self = .array(elements)

extension JSONValue: ExpressibleByDictionaryLiteral {
    init(dictionaryLiteral elements: (String, JSONValue)...) {
        self = .dictionary(.init(uniqueKeysWithValues: elements))

The only new bit of syntax is the .... These are variadic parameters (not variadic generics), which accept any number of arguments, all of the same type. Within the body of the function/initializer, variadic parameters are accessed as arrays. So, the init(arrayLiteral:) initializer can directly put the elements array into its array case, because it already contains JSON values. The init(dictionaryLiteral:) initializer accepts an array of (String, JSONValue) pairs, which it uniques based on key to place in the dictionary.

Now, we can go ahead and write out JSON literals in Swift:

let math: JSONValue = [ 
    "Ο€" : 3.14159,
    "e": 2.71828,
    "i": "sqrt(i)",
    "zero": 0,
    "undefined": nil

If we were to print the above variable without any additional customization, we'd get something like this (formatting is mine):

         "zero": Extensibility.JSONValue.number(0.0),
          "Ο€": Extensibility.JSONValue.number(3.14159),
          "i": Extensibility.JSONValue.object("sqrt(i)"),
          "e": Extensibility.JSONValue.number(2.71828),
          "undefined": Extensibility.JSONValue.null

Aside: Hashing in Swift

If you try the above example yourself, you might notice an interesting difference in the output: the dictionary key/value pairs could get printed in a different order from what I have above. Run the program again---you'll likely get a different order! Swift's hashed collections (Dictionary and Set) choose a random seed at program start to mix into hash elements, so you'll get different hash values for the same values from one run to the next. This was motivated partially by security and partially to promote correctness.

The security angle is that knowing how a hash table performs hashes allows you to craft a set of inputs that all hash to the same value, making operations on the hash table linear when they shouldn't be, leading to a potential denial-of-service attack. By changing the random seed on each execution, it makes it harder to provide a set of inputs like this.

The correctness angle is, essentially, that it's often too easy to mistakenly depend on the iteration order of a hashed data structure or the specific hash value of a type. One approach I've seen proposed for C++ is to prohibit iteration on hashed data structures entirely (e.g., by not providing begin/end on a custom version of unordered_map or unordered_set). Swift's approach to allow the iteration, but have the ordering changing from one program run to the next. That way, you can iterate to make use of collection algorithms, but if it affects your output (e.g., because you forgot to sort at the end), you're very likely to notice because your unit tests will break.

Strings and characters

String literals have their own hierarchy of protocols. ExpressibleByStringLiteral is the most capable, allowing an arbitrary, well-formed UTF-8 string literal. A string literal like "Hello" will go through this protocol.

ExpressibleByStringLiteral inherits from the ExpressibleByExtendedGraphemeClusterLiteral protocol. The name is a mouthful, but this protocol is used for string literals that consist of a single extended grapheme cluster---the closest thing what a human would think of as a "character". The string literal "πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡¦" is a single extended grapheme cluster (although it has several Unicode scalars in it). Any type that conforms to ExpressibleByStringLiteral can handle such a string literal, but the converse is not true: some types might only be able to represent a single character, not an entire string. The standard library's Character type, for example, conforms to only ExpressibleByExtendedGraphemeClusterLiteral:

let c1: Character = "πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡¦"      // okay
let c2: Character = "Hello"   // error: Character does not conform to ExpressibleByStringLiteral

There is one more protocol in the string literal family: ExpressibleByUnicodeScalarLiteral, from which ExpressibleByExtendedGraphemeClusterLiteral inherits, handles string literals that can be represented by a single Unicode scalar such as "!" or "κΉ€". The Unicode.Scalar type in the Swift standard library conforms to this protocol. One benefit to ExpressibleByUnicodeScalarLiteral is that all Unicode scalars can fit into a single 32-bit word, whereas extended grapheme clusters can require several scalars.

String interpolation

The final "expressible by" protocol we'll explore is ExpressibleByStringInterpolation. This is the protocol a type can conform to for string literals that include interpolations, i.e., something like this:

let s = "Ο€=\(3.14159), but the answer is \(42)"

The closest analogy in C++ is probably output streaming (with >>) to a std::ostringstream, which lets you mix string literals and values to be formatted. That's a pure library solution; in Swift, we have string interpolation syntax in the language, and libraries can opt in to supporting string interpolation by conforming to ExpressibleByStringInterpolation. Why might a library want to do that? Well, you can think of string interpolation as a general templating engine built that lets you layer on type safety in an appropriate manner.

Say you want to create a SQL query that's customized by some user-supplied values. You could absolutely do this with normal strings and interpolation:

let query: String = """
SELECT * FROM \(tableName)
ORDER BY \(fieldName);

That code just screams "SQL injection attack", so we need to do better. By creating a SQL query type that supports string interpolation, it can make sure to properly escape any values interpolated into the string, as well as performing any other validation that's needed. The swift-syntax package for manipulating Swift source code uses this approach to make it easy to create Swift source code from templates, like this:

let sourceFile: SourceFileSyntax = """
    let \(varName): Int = \(value)
    print(\(varName) + 42)

The ExpressibleByStringInterpolation protocol

To create your own strongly-typed templating solution with string interpolation, you'll need to create a type that conforms to the ExpressibleByStringInterpolation protocol:

public protocol ExpressibleByStringInterpolation: ExpressibleByStringLiteral {
    associatedtype StringInterpolation: StringInterpolationProtocol = where StringLiteralType == StringInterpolation.StringLiteralType

    init(stringInterpolation: StringInterpolation)

ExpressibleByStringInterpolation inherits from ExpressibleByStringLiteral, because anything that can be created from a string interpolation must also be able to handle the simpler case of a non-interpolated string literal. For a string interpolation with a given contextual type (let's call it MyString), the compiler will create an instance of the type MyString.StringInterpolation to collect the various parts of the string interpolation. That instance will then be passed into init(stringInterpolation:) to create the final string.

The StringInterpolation type conforms to the StringInterpolationProtocol protocol, which is a little odd because it only lists two requirements... even though the compiler requires that every type conforming to StringInterpolationProtocol support addition operations not described by the requirements. We refer to this as an ad hoc protocol, and it's a pragmatic compromise: we lose some descriptive benefits (you can't just look at the protocol to figure out how to write a fully-conforming type), but we gain a bit of expressive power through the use of overloading. We'll get back to that last part in a bit; for now, here's the protocol as written:

public protocol StringInterpolationProtocol {
    associatedtype StringLiteralType
    init(literalCapacity: Int, interpolationCount: Int)
    mutating func appendLiteral(_ literal: StringLiteralType)

The initializer (init(literalCapacity:interpolationCount:)) is called to initialize an instance of the StringInterpolation type, and is provided with the total number of characters in the string literal parts and the number of "interpolation" segments (for the values that are placed into string). So, if we have a string interpolation like this:

let myStr: MyString = "Ο€=\(3.14159), but the answer is \(42)"

The call to create the instance will be MyString.StringInterpolation(literalCapacity: 23, interpolationCount: 2). Once created, the contents of the interpolation will be passed to the instance with method calls: appendLiteral for each string literal part (e.g., the first call is appendLiteral("Ο€=")) and appendInterpolation for each interpolated value (e.g., the second call is appendInterpolation(3.14159)), alternating. Once all of the pieces of the string interpolation have been sent to the StringInterpolation instance, that value is passed to the initializer of the ExpressibleByStringInterpolation-conforming type, i.e., MyString(stringInterpolation: /*the MyString.StringInterpolation instance*/).

String interpolation in action

To see this in action, let's create a string interpolation type that's only for debugging purposes:

struct MyString: ExpressibleByStringInterpolation {
    typealias StringLiteralType = String
    init(stringLiteral value: String) {
        print(#"MyString(stringLiteral: "\#(value)")"#)
    init(stringInterpolation: StringInterpolation) {
    struct StringInterpolation: StringInterpolationProtocol {
        init(literalCapacity: Int, interpolationCount: Int) {
            print("MyString.StringInterpolation(literalCapacity: \(literalCapacity), interpolationCount: \(interpolationCount))")
        mutating func appendLiteral(_ string: String) {
        mutating func appendInterpolation(_ value: Int) {
            print(#"appendInterpolation(\#(value): Int)"#)
        mutating func appendInterpolation(_ value: Double) {
            print(#"appendInterpolation(\#(value): Double)"#)

When we initialize a value of type MyString from a string interpolation, we'll see the set of calls that will be performed. Here's the output from the string interpolation example we've been using:

MyString.StringInterpolation(literalCapacity: 23, interpolationCount: 2)
appendInterpolation(3.14159: Double)
appendLiteral(", but the answer is ")
appendInterpolation(42: Int)

There are a few things to notice: the appendLiteral calls alternate with appendInterpolation calls, even when the string literal is empty. This means that there are always interpolationCount * 2 + 1 calls to appendLiteral along with interpolationCount calls to appendInterpolation.

Additionally, the two interpolated values have different types (Double and Int, respectively), and end up calling different overloads of appendInterpolation. This is where the ad hoc nature of the StringInterpolationProtocol comes in: you can define different overloads of appendInterpolation for each of the types that your type is intended to support. If you don't want to support a type, don't provide an appendInterpolation overload for it. If you want to support entire classes of types, add a generic appendInterpolation with the appropriate constraints on it. Moreover, you can add additional parameters to appendInterpolation that can be used to customize rendering. For example, we could support an optional "radix" for integer interpolations:

mutating func appendInterpolation(_ value: Int, radix: Int) {
    print(#"appendInterpolation(\#(value), radix: \#(radix)")#)

Now, if we have a string interpolation like this:

"The value of \(value) in hexadecimal is \(value, radix: 16)" as MyString

we'll get this series of calls:

MyString.StringInterpolation(literalCapacity: 32, interpolationCount: 2)
appendLiteral("The value of ")
appendInterpolation(42: Int)
appendLiteral(" in hexadecimal is ")
appendInterpolation(42, radix: 16)

Extending the default string interpolation behavior

If all you want is to customize the way your own types get interpolated into strings, you don't need to create a new ExpressibleByStringInterpolation type at all. Instead, you can add on to the default string interpolation behavior by adding your own appendInterpolation operations to the standard library's DefaultStringInterpolation type. For example, say we want to be able to render a string with inline Markdown format, as described by this enum:

enum InlineMarkdownStyle {
  case regular
  case italicized
  case bold
  case underlined
  case monospaced

Now, we can add string interpolation support for supplying the inline markdown style to a string literal (but please do so with better escaping than I did):

extension DefaultStringInterpolation {
    mutating func appendInterpolation(_ value: String, markdownStyle: InlineMarkdownStyle) {
        switch markdownStyle {
        case .regular:    write(value)
        case .italicized: write("*\(value)*")
        case .bold:       write("**\(value)**")
        case .underlined: write("_\(value)_")
        case .monospaced: write("`\(value)`")

Now, we can do this:

print("String interpolation is \("so", markdownStyle: .italicized") \(positiveAdjective, markdownStyle: .bold).")

and if positiveAdjective were "cool", this would print:

String interpolation is *so* **cool**.

Wrap-up and what's next?

Literals in Swift are a surprisingly deep topic. The surface is very much like other languages, including C++: you have numeric literals, Boolean literals, and string literals, plus some additional support for array and dictionary literals that's straightforward. But Swift literals are affected by their contextual type, and any library can opt to supply its own literal types by conforming to the various `ExpressibleByLiteral protocols, allowing one to express structured data cleanly. String interpolation is also highly extensible, allowing one to create type-safe templating engines that work well with the language syntax.

Next up, we're going to look at operator overloading, where the story is much the same: on the surface, it's fairly similar to C++ and other languages that have such overloading. But dig a little deeper and there's a world of customization you can do to create elegant domain-specific embedded languages (DSELs).

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