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Referencing the Objective-C selector of a method


In Swift 2, Objective-C selectors are written as string literals (e.g., "insertSubview:aboveSubview:") in the type context of a Selector. This proposal seeks to replace this error-prone approach with Selector initialization syntax that refers to a specific method via its Swift name.

Swift-evolution thread: here, Review, Amendments after acceptance


The use of string literals for selector names is extremely error-prone: there is no checking that the string is even a well-formed selector, much less that it refers to any known method, or a method of the intended class. Moreover, with the effort to perform automatic renaming of Objective-C APIs, the link between Swift name and Objective-C selector is non-obvious. By providing explicit "create a selector" syntax based on the Swift name of a method, we eliminate the need for developers to reason about the actual Objective-C selectors being used.

Proposed solution

Introduce a new expression #selector that allows one to build a selector from a reference to a method, e.g.,

control.sendAction(#selector(MyApplication.doSomething), to: target, forEvent: event)

where “doSomething” is a method of MyApplication, which might even have a completely-unrelated name in Objective-C:

extension MyApplication {
  func doSomething(sender: AnyObject?) {  }

By naming the Swift method and having the #selector expression do the work to form the Objective-C selector, we free the developer from having to do the naming translation manually and get static checking that the method exists and is exposed to Objective-C.

This proposal composes with the Naming Functions with Argument Labels proposal, which lets us name methods along with their argument labels, e.g.:

let sel = #selector(UIView.insertSubview(_:atIndex:)) // produces the Selector "insertSubview:atIndex:"

With the introduction of the #selector syntax, we should deprecate the use of string literals to form selectors. Ideally, we could perform the deprecation in Swift 2.2 and remove the syntax entirely from Swift 3.

Additionally, we should introduce specific migrator support to translate string-literals-as-selectors into method references. Doing this well is non-trivial, requiring the compiler/migrator to find all of the declarations with a particular Objective-C selector and determine which one to reference. However, it should be feasible, and we can migrate other references to a specific, string-based initialization syntax (e.g., Selector("insertSubview:atIndex:")).

Detailed design

The subexpression of the #selector expression must be a reference to an objc method. Specifically, the input expression must be a direct reference to an Objective-C method, possibly parenthesized and possibly with an "as" cast (which can be used to disambiguate same-named Swift methods). For example, here is a "highly general" example:

let sel = #selector(((UIView.insertSubview(_:at:)) as (UIView) -> (UIView, Int) -> Void))

The expression inside #selector is limited to be a series of instance or class members separated by . where the last component may be disambiguated using as. In particular, this prohibits performing method calls inside #selector, clarifying that the subexpression of #selector will not be evaluated and no side effects occur because of it.

The complete grammar of #selector is:

selector → #selector(selector-path)

selector-path → type-identifier . selector-member-path as-disambiguationopt
selector-path → selector-member-path as-disambiguationopt

selector-member-path → identifier
selector-member-path → unqualified-name
selector-member-path → identifier . selector-member-path

as-disambiguation → as type-identifier

Impact on existing code

The introduction of the #selector expression has no impact on existing code. However, deprecating and removing the string-literal-as-selector syntax is a source-breaking change. We can migrate the uses to either the new #selector expression or to explicit initialization of a Selector from a string.

Alternatives considered

The primary alternative is type-safe selectors, which would introduce a new "selector" calling convention to capture the type of an @objc method, including its selector. One major benefit of type-safe selectors is that they can carry type information, improving type safety. From that discussion, referencing MyClass.observeNotification would produce a value of type:

@convention(selector) (MyClass) -> (NSNotification) -> Void

Objective-C APIs that accept selectors could provide type information (e.g., via Objective-C attributes or new syntax for a typed SEL), improving type safety for selector-based APIs. Personally, I feel that type-safe selectors are a well-designed feature that isn't worth doing: one would probably not use them outside of interoperability with existing Objective-C APIs, because closures are generally preferable (in both Swift and Objective-C). The cost of adding this feature to both Swift and Clang is significant, and we would also need adoption across a significant number of Objective-C APIs to make it worthwhile. On iOS, we are talking about a relatively small number of APIs (100-ish), and many of those have blocks/closure-based variants that are preferred anyway. Therefore, we should implement the simpler feature in this proposal rather than the far more complicated (but admittedly more type-safe) alternative approach.

Syntactically, @selector(method reference) would match Objective-C more closely, but it doesn't make sense in Swift where @ always refers to attributes.

The original version of this proposal suggested using a magic Selector initializer, e.g.:

let sel = Selector(((UIView.insertSubview(_:at:)) as (UIView) -> (UIView, Int) -

However, concerns over this being magic syntax that looks like instance construction (but is not actually representable in Swift as an initializer), along with existing uses of # to denote special expressions (e.g., #available), caused the change to the #selector syntax at the completion of the public review.

Revision history

  • 2016-05-20: The proposal was amended post-acceptance to limit the syntax inside the subexpression of #selector, in particular disallowing methods calls. Originally any valid Swift expression was supported.