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Compensate for the inconsistency of @NSCopying's behaviour


First of all, in Swift, the Objective-C copy property attribute translates to @NSCopying.

Like Objective-C, in Swift, avoiding accessing ivar via setter methods in initializer is considered as the best practice. Unlike Objective-C, which gives developers the freedom to decide on whether assign a value to a property by invoking setter or by accessing ivar directly, accessing a property in Swift from within an initializer always does direct access to the storage rather than going through the setter, even if using dot syntax.

However, as a side-effect, @NSCopying attribute does not work as consistently as we usually expected in Swift initializers after developers declared a property as @NSCopying.

This proposal is intent on proposing several solutions to this inconsistency.

Swift-evolution thread


Here's an example of the inconsistency mentioned above:

class Person: NSObject, NSCopying {

  var firstName: String
  var lastName: String
  var job: String?

  init( firstName: String, lastName: String, job: String? = nil ) {
    self.firstName = firstName
    self.lastName = lastName
    self.job = job


  /// Conformance to <NSCopying> protocol
  func copy( with zone: NSZone? = nil ) -> Any {
    let theCopy = Person.init( firstName: firstName, lastName: lastName )
    theCopy.job = job

    return theCopy

  /// For convenience of debugging
  override var description: String {
    return "\(firstName) \(lastName)" + ( job != nil ? ", \(job!)" : "" )


Person class has promised that it conforms to <NSCopying> protocol.

let johnAppleseed = Person( firstName: "John", lastName: "Appleseed", job: "CEO" )
var refJohnAppleseed = johnAppleseed // assigning without copying semantic

refJohnAppleseed.job = "Engineer"

// `cloneJohnAppleseed` and `johnAppleseed` have the identical `job` ...

print( refJohnAppleseed ) // Prints "John Appleseed, Engineer"
print( johnAppleseed )	  // Prints "John Appleseed, Engineer" too

// ... and the assertion **would not** fail:
assert( refJohnAppleseed === johnAppleseed )

// Assigning a copy of johnAppleseed to clonedJohnAppleseed,
// which was returned by `copy( zone: ) -> Any`
var clonedJohnAppleseed = johnAppleseed/* refJohnAppleseed is also okay */.copy() as! Person

clonedJohnAppleseed.job = "Designer"
print( clonedJohnAppleseed ) // Prints "John Appleseed, Designer"
print( johnAppleseed )		 // Prints "John Appleseed, Engineer"
// Alright as what you see, setting the job of `clonedJohnAppleseed` doesn't affect the
// job stored in `johnAppleseed`.

Up to now, everything seems to run right. However, problems will soon emerge once we begin introducing a new class consuming instances of Person class:

class Department: NSObject {

  // Here, we're expecting that `self.employee` would automatically
  // store the deeply-copied instance of `Person` class
  @NSCopying var employee: Person

  init( employee candidate: Person ) {

    // CAUTION! That's the key point:
    // `self.employee` has been marked with `@NSCopying` attribute
    // but what would take place here is only the shallow-copying.
    // In the other words, `self.employee` will share identical underlying
    // object with `candidate`.
    self.employee = candidate

    // Assertion will definitely fail since Swift do not actually 
    // copy the value assigned to this property even though 
    // `self.employee` has been marked as `@NSCoyping`:

    /* assert( self.employee !== employee ) */

  override var description: String {
    return "A Department: [ ( \(employee) ) ]"


Department's designated initializer receives an external instance of Person and expects to assign its deeply-copied value to self.employee property.

let isaacNewton = Person( firstName: "Isaac", lastName: "Newton", job: "Mathematician" )
let lab = Department.init( employee: isaacNewton )

isaacNewton.job = "Astronomer"

print( isaacNewton ) 	// Prints "Isaac Newton, Astronomer"

print( lab.employee )	// Prints "Isaac Newton, Astronomer"
// Expected output printed here is "Isaac Newton, Mathematician" instead

Setting the job of isaacNewton affects the job stored in lab.employee. That's an unexpected behavior as we have declared employee property as @NSCopying. Obviously, @NSCopying semantic became effectless implicitly in the initializer of Department class.

For the moment, if we indeed require copy we have to invoke copy() method explicitly on instances that want to be copied to make sure that classes' properties are able to store deeply-copied results during the initialization:

init( employee candidate: Person ) {
  // ...
  self.employee = candidate.copy() as! Person
  // ...

The reason why it is considered inconsistency is that @NSCopying contract will be well respected within the rest of class definition:

lab.employee = isaacNewton
isaacNewton.job = "Physicist"

print( isaacNewton )	// Prints "Isaac Newton, Physicist"
print( lab.employee ) 	// Prints "Isaac Newton, Astronomer"

It is undeniably reasonable to enforce programmers to access instance variables directly from initializer methods because of the potential troubles made by setter methods' additional side-effects when the initialization is not complete yet. However, I believe we at least should be warned by the Swift compiler when we assigned an instance of NSCopying conforming class to a class's property declared as @NSCopying during the initialization.

In Objective-C, developers can make a decision on this process explicitly by writing done either:

- ( instancetype )initWithName: ( NSString* )name {
  // ...
  self->_name = [ name copy ];
  // ...


- ( instancetype )initWithName: ( NSString* )name {
  // ... = name; /* has been qualified with @property ( copy ) */
  // ...

Speaking of Swift, however, there is no stuff like -> operator to access ivar directly. As a result, with property marked with @NSCopying attribute, developers who are new to this language, especially those who have had experience of writing Objective-C, are likely to automatically suppose it acts normally when they're writing down code like self.employee = candidate in initializer. That's bug-prone.

Proposed solution

Do the compiler magic to call copy( with: ) in the initializer so that @NSCopying attribute no longer subjects to the fact that setter methods would not be invoked in initializers. Copying should always take place after a property has been declared as @NSCopying. It seems like the most direct way to maintain the @NSCopying contract without changing the underlying direct-storage model.

Source compatibility

Projects written with prior versions of Swift that have not yet adopted this proposal may fail to be built due to the compile-time error. But overall, it will be easy to be resolved. IDEs' Fix-it and auto migrator tools will deal with all works painlessly.

Effect on ABI stability

The proposal doesn't change the ABI of existing language features.

Alternatives Considered

Compile-time checking

Instead of introducing the copy within the initializer, have the compiler emit a compile-time error or warning if developers are performing an assignment operation from within an initializer between a property declared as @NSCopying and an instance of a <NSCopying> protocol conforming class. Also, speaking of GUI integrated development environments such as Xcode, leaving this kind of error or warning FIXABLE would be needed in order to make them can be quickly fixed by both IDEs and migrator tools through simply appending .copy() as! AutoInferredClassType.

With the adjustment mentioned above, following code fragment, for instance, will no longer be successfully compiled:

class Person: NSObject, NSCopying { /* ... */ }
@NSCopying var employee: Person
init( employee candidate: Person ) {
  // ...
  self.employee = candidate
  // ...

GUI IDE will be expected to leave developers a fixable error or warning, and thus if we hit the either red or yelloe point in Xcode, or something similar to those in other IDEs, they will automatically append the lacked statement:

self.employee = candidate***.copy() as! Person***

Inferring AutoInferredClassType from context should be the responsibility of compiler.