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Limiting inout capture to @noescape contexts


Swift's behavior when closures capture inout parameters and escape their enclosing context is a common source of confusion. We should disallow implicit capture of inout parameters except in @noescape closures.

Swift-evolution thread: only allow capture of inout parameters in @noescape closures



Before we had @noescape, we still wanted inout parameters and mutating methods to be usable in closures, without compromising the strong guarantee that an inout parameter can only locally mutate its parameter without callers having to worry about unexpected aliasing or lifetime extension. Since Swift uses closures pervasively for standard library collection operations, and even for assertions and operators like && and || via its @autoclosure feature, it would be extremely limiting if inout parameters could not be captured at all. Dave Abrahams designed our current capture semantics as a compromise: an inout parameter is captured as a shadow copy that is written back to the argument when the callee returns. This allows inout parameters to be captured and mutated with the expected semantics when the closure is called while the inout parameter is active:

func captureAndCall(inout x: Int) {
  let closure = { x += 1 }
var x = 22
print(x) // => 23

But this leads to unintuitive results when the closure escapes, since the shadow copy is persisted independently of the original argument:

func captureAndEscape(inout x: Int) -> () -> Void {
  let closure = { x += 1 }
  return closure

var x = 22
let closure = captureAndEscape(&x)
print(x) // => 22
print("still \(x)") // => still 22

This change has been a persistent source of confusion and bug reports, and was recently called out in David Ungar's recent post to the IBM Swift Blog, "Seven Swift Snares & How to Avoid Them", one in a long line of complaints on the topic.

Proposed solution

I propose we make it so that implicitly capturing an inout parameter into an escapable closure is an error. We added the explicit @noescape annotation in Swift 1.2, and have since adopted it throughout the standard library where appropriate, so the compromise has outlived its usefulness and become a source of confusion.

Detailed design

Capturing an inout parameter, including self in a mutating method, becomes an error in an escapable closure literal, unless the capture is made explicit (and thereby immutable):

func escape(f: () -> ()) {}
func noEscape(@noescape f: () -> ()) {}

func example(inout x: Int) {
  escape { _ = x } // error: closure cannot implicitly capture an inout parameter unless @noescape
  noEscape { _ = x } // OK, closure is @noescape
  escape {[x] in _ = x } // OK, immutable capture

struct Foo {
  mutating func example() {
    escape { _ = self } // error: closure cannot implicitly capture a mutating self parameter
    noEscape { _ = self } // OK

For nested function declarations, we defer formation of a closure until a reference to the unapplied function is used as a value. If a nested function references inout parameters from its enclosing scope, we disallow references to the nested function that would form an escaping closure:

func exampleWithNested(inout x: Int) {
  func nested() {
    _ = x
  escape(nested) // error: nested function that references an inout cannot be escaped
  noEscape(nested) // OK

As an implementation detail, this eliminates the need for a shadow copy to be emitted for inout parameters in case they are referenced by closures. For code that is still accepted after this change, this should not have an observable effect, since a guaranteed optimization pass always removes the shadow copy when it is known not to escape.

Impact on existing code

This will break code that relies on the current inout capture semantics. Some particular legitimate cases that may be affected:

  • A closure captures the parameter after its local mutations, and never mutates it further or expects to observe mutations from elsewhere. These use cases can explicitly capture the inout parameter immutably using a capture list, which is both more explicit and safer.

  • The inout parameter is captured by escapable closures that dynamically never execute outside the originating scope, for instance, by referencing the parameter in a lazy sequence adapter that is applied in the immediate scope, or by forking off one or more dispatch_async jobs that access different parts of the parameter but which are synced with the originating scope before it exits. For these use cases, the shadow copy can be made explicit:

    func foo(q: dispatch_queue_t, inout x: Int) {
      var shadowX = x; defer { x = shadowX }
      // Operate on shadowX asynchronously instead of the original x
      dispatch_async(q) { use(&shadowX) }
      dispatch_sync(q) {}

For migration, the compiler can offer one of the above fixits, checking the use of the captured inout for mutations after the capture to decide whether an immutable capture or explicit shadow copy is more appropriate. (Or naively, the fixit can just offer the shadow copy fixit.)

This also increases pressure on libraries to make more use of @noescape where possible, as proposed in SE-0012.

Alternatives considered

A possible extension of this proposal is to introduce a new capture kind to ask for shadow copy capture:

func foo(inout x: Int) {
  {[shadowcopy x] in use(&x) } // strawman syntax

In discussion, we deemed this rare enough not to be worth the added complexity. An explicit copy using a new var declaration is much clearer and doesn't require new language support.