478 lines (374 sloc) 19.8 KB

Introduce user-defined dynamically "callable" types


This proposal is a follow-up to SE-0195 - Introduce User-defined "Dynamic Member Lookup" Types, which shipped in Swift 4.2. It introduces a new @dynamicCallable attribute, which marks a type as being "callable" with normal syntax. It is simple syntactic sugar which allows the user to write:

a = someValue(keyword1: 42, "foo", keyword2: 19)

and have it be rewritten by the compiler as:

a = someValue.dynamicallyCall(withKeywordArguments: [
    "keyword1": 42, "": "foo", "keyword2": 19

Many other languages have analogous features (e.g. Python "callables", C++ operator(), and functors in many other languages), but the primary motivation of this proposal is to allow elegant and natural interoperation with dynamic languages in Swift.

Swift-evolution threads:

Motivation and context

Swift is exceptional at interworking with existing C and Objective-C APIs and we would like to extend this interoperability to dynamic languages like Python, JavaScript, Perl, and Ruby. We explored this overall goal in a long design process wherein the Swift evolution community evaluated multiple different implementation approaches. The conclusion was that the best approach was to put most of the complexity into dynamic language specific bindings written as pure-Swift libraries, but add small hooks in Swift to allow these bindings to provide a natural experience to their clients. SE-0195 was the first step in this process, which introduced a binding to naturally express member lookup rules in dynamic languages.

What does interoperability with Python mean? Let's explain this by looking at an example. Here's some simple Python code:

class Dog:
    def __init__(self, name): = name
        self.tricks = []  # creates a new empty list for each `Dog`
    def add_trick(self, trick):

With the SE-0195 @dynamicMemberLookup feature introduced in Swift 4.2, it is possible to implement a Python interoperability layer written in Swift. It interoperates with the Python runtime, and project all Python values into a single PythonObject type. It allows us to call into the Dog class like this:

// import DogModule.Dog as Dog
let Dog = "DogModule.Dog")

// dog = Dog("Brianna")
let dog = "Brianna")

// dog.add_trick("Roll over") "Roll over")

// dog2 = Dog("Kaylee").add_trick("snore")
let dog2 = "Kaylee") "snore")

This also works with arbitrary other APIs as well. Here is an example working with the Python pickle API and the builtin Python function open. Note that we choose to put builtin Python functions like import and open into a Python namespace to avoid polluting the global namespace, but other designs are possible:

// import pickle
let pickle = "pickle")

// file = open(filename)
let file = filename)

// blob =
let blob =

// result = pickle.loads(blob)
let result = blob)

This capability works well, but the syntactic burden of having to use bar, baz) instead of foo(bar, baz) is significant. Beyond the syntactic weight, it directly harms code clarity by making code hard to read and understand, cutting against a core value of Swift.

The proposed @dynamicCallable attribute directly solves this problem. With it, these examples become more natural and clear, effectively matching the original Python code in expressiveness:

// import DogModule.Dog as Dog
let Dog = Python.import("DogModule.Dog")

// dog = Dog("Brianna")
let dog = Dog("Brianna")

// dog.add_trick("Roll over")
dog.add_trick("Roll over")

// dog2 = Dog("Kaylee").add_trick("snore")
let dog2 = Dog("Kaylee").add_trick("snore")

Python builtins:

// import pickle
let pickle = Python.import("pickle")

// file = open(filename)
let file =

// blob =
let blob =

// result = pickle.loads(blob)
let result = pickle.loads(blob)

This proposal merely introduces a syntactic sugar - it does not add any new semantic model to Swift. We believe that interoperability with scripting languages is an important and rising need in the Swift community, particularly as Swift makes inroads into the server development and machine learning communities. This feature is also precedented in other languages (e.g. Scala's Dynamic trait), and can be used for other purposes besides language interoperability (e.g. implementing dynamic proxy objects).

Proposed solution

We propose introducing a new @dynamicCallable attribute to the Swift language which may be applied to structs, classes, enums, and protocols. This follows the precedent of SE-0195.

Before this proposal, values of these types are not valid in a call expression: the only existing callable values in Swift are those with function types (functions, methods, closures, etc) and metatypes (which are initializer expressions like String(42)). Thus, it is always an error to "call" an instance of a nominal type (like a struct, for instance).

With this proposal, types with the @dynamicCallable attribute on their primary type declaration become "callable". They are required to implement at least one of the following two methods for handling the call behavior:

func dynamicallyCall(withArguments: <#Arguments#>) -> <#R1#>
// `<#Arguments#>` can be any type that conforms to `ExpressibleByArrayLiteral`.
// `<#Arguments#>.ArrayLiteralElement` and the result type `<#R1#>` can be arbitrary.

func dynamicallyCall(withKeywordArguments: <#KeywordArguments#>) -> <#R2#>
// `<#KeywordArguments#>` can be any type that conforms to `ExpressibleByDictionaryLiteral`.
// `<#KeywordArguments#>.Key` must be a type that conforms to `ExpressibleByStringLiteral`.
// `<#KeywordArguments#>.Value` and the result type `<#R2#>` can be arbitrary.

// Note: in these type signatures, bracketed types like <#Arguments#> and <#KeywordArguments#>
// are not actual types, but rather any actual type that meets the specified conditions.

As stated above, <#Arguments#> and <#KeywordArguments#> can be any types that conform to the ExpressibleByArrayLiteral and ExpressibleByDictionaryLiteral protocols, respectively. The latter is inclusive of KeyValuePairs, which supports duplicate keys, unlike Dictionary. Thus, using KeyValuePairs is recommended to support duplicate keywords and positional arguments (because positional arguments are desugared as keyword arguments with the empty string "" as the key).

If a type implements the withKeywordArguments: method, it may be dynamically called with both positional and keyword arguments: positional arguments have the empty string "" as the key. If a type only implements the withArguments: method but is called with keyword arguments, a compile-time error is emitted.

Since dynamic calls are syntactic sugar for direct calls to dynamicallyCall methods, additional behavior of the dynamicallyCall methods is directly forwarded. For example, if a dynamicallyCall method is marked with throws or @discardableResult, then the corresponding sugared dynamic call will forward that behavior.

Ambiguity resolution: most specific match

Since there are two @dynamicCallable methods, there may be multiple ways to handle some dynamic calls. What happens if a type specifies both the withArguments: and withKeywordArguments: methods?

We propose that the type checker resolve this ambiguity towards the tightest match based on syntactic form of the expression. The exact rules are:

  • If a @dynamicCallable type implements the withArguments: method and it is called with no keyword arguments, use the withArguments: method.
  • In all other cases, attempt to use the withKeywordArguments: method.
    • This includes the case where a @dynamicCallable type implements the withKeywordArguments: method and it is called with at least one keyword argument.
    • This also includes the case where a @dynamicCallable type implements only the withKeywordArguments: method (not the withArguments: method) and it is called with no keyword arguments.
    • If @dynamicCallable type does not implement the withKeywordArguments: method but the call site has keyword arguments, an error is emitted.

Here are some toy illustrative examples:

struct Callable {
  func dynamicallyCall(withArguments args: [Int]) -> Int { return args.count }
let c1 = Callable()
c1() // desugars to `c1.dynamicallyCall(withArguments: [])`
c1(1, 2) // desugars to `c1.dynamicallyCall(withArguments: [1, 2])`
c1(a: 1, 2) // error: `Callable` does not define the 'withKeywordArguments:' method

struct KeywordCallable {
  func dynamicallyCall(withKeywordArguments args: KeyValuePairs<String, Int>) -> Int {
    return args.count
let c2 = KeywordCallable()
c2() // desugars to `c2.dynamicallyCall(withKeywordArguments: [:])`
c2(1, 2) // desugars to `c2.dynamicallyCall(withKeywordArguments: ["": 1, "": 2])`
c2(a: 1, 2) // desugars to `c2.dynamicallyCall(withKeywordArguments: ["a": 1, "": 2])`

struct BothCallable {
  func dynamicallyCall(withArguments args: [Int]) -> Int { return args.count }
  func dynamicallyCall(withKeywordArguments args: KeyValuePairs<String, Int>) -> Int {
    return args.count
let c3 = BothCallable()
c3() // desugars to `c3.dynamicallyCall(withArguments: [])`
c3(1, 2) // desugars to `c3.dynamicallyCall(withArguments: [1, 2])`
c3(a: 1, 2) // desugars to `c3.dynamicallyCall(withKeywordArguments: ["a": 1, "": 2])`

This ambiguity resolution rule works out naturally given the behavior of the Swift type checker, because it only resolves call expressions when the type of the base expression is known. At that point, it knows whether the base is a function type, metatype, or a valid @dynamicCallable type, and it knows the syntactic form of the call.

This proposal does not require massive or invasive changes to the constraint solver. Please look at the implementation for more details.

Example usage

Here, we sketch some example bindings to show how this could be used in practice. Note that there are lots of design decisions that are orthogonal to this proposal (e.g. how to handle exceptions) that we aren't going into here. This is just to show how this feature provides an underlying facility that language bindings authors can use to achieve their desired result. These examples also show @dynamicMemberLookup to illustrate how they work together, but elides other implementation details.

JavaScript supports callable objects but does not have keyword arguments.

Here is a sample JavaScript binding:

@dynamicCallable @dynamicMemberLookup
struct JSValue {
  // JavaScript doesn't have keyword arguments.
  func dynamicallyCall(withArguments: [JSValue]) -> JSValue { ... }

  // This is a `@dynamicMemberLookup` requirement.
  subscript(dynamicMember member: JSValue) -> JSValue {...}
  // ... other stuff ...

On the other hand, a common JavaScript pattern is to take a dictionary of values as a stand-in for argument labels (called like example({first: 1, second: 2, third: 3}) in JavaScript). A JavaScript bridge in Swift could choose to implement keyword argument support to allow this to be called as example(first: 1, second: 2, third: 3) from Swift code (kudos to Ben Rimmington for this observation).

Python does support keyword arguments. While a Python binding could implement only the withKeywordArguments: method, it is be better to implement both the non-keyword and keyword forms to make the non-keyword case slightly more efficient (avoid allocating temporary storage) and to make direct calls with positional arguments nicer (x.dynamicallyCall(withArguments: 1, 2) instead of x.dynamicallyCall(withKeywordArguments: ["": 1, "": 2])).

Here is a sample Python binding:

@dynamicCallable @dynamicMemberLookup
struct PythonObject {
  // Python supports arbitrary mixes of keyword arguments and non-keyword
  // arguments.
  func dynamicallyCall(
    withKeywordArguments: KeyValuePairs<String, PythonObject>
  ) -> PythonObject { ... }

  // An implementation of a Python binding could choose to implement this
  // method as well, avoiding allocation of a temporary array.
  func dynamicallyCall(withArguments: [PythonObject]) -> PythonObject { ... }

  // This is a `@dynamicMemberLookup` requirement.
  subscript(dynamicMember member: String) -> PythonObject {...}
  // ... other stuff ...


Following the precedent of SE-0195, this attribute must be placed on the primary definition of a type, not on an extension.

This proposal does not introduce the ability to provide dynamically callable static/class members. We don't believe this is important given the goal of supporting dynamic languages like Python, but it could be explored if a use case is discovered in the future. Such future work should keep in mind that call syntax on metatypes is already meaningful, and that ambiguity would have to be resolved somehow (e.g. through the most specific rule).

This proposal supports direct calls of values and methods, but subsets out support for currying methods in Smalltalk family languages. This is just an implementation limitation given the current state of currying in the Swift compiler. Support can be added in the future if there is a specific need.

Source compatibility

This is a strictly additive proposal with no source breaking changes.

Effect on ABI stability

This is a strictly additive proposal with no ABI breaking changes.

Effect on API resilience

This has no impact on API resilience which is not already captured by other language features.

Future directions

Dynamic member calling (for Smalltalk family languages)

In addition to supporting languages like Python and JavaScript, we would also like to grow to support Smalltalk derived languages like Ruby and Squeak. These languages resolve method calls using both the base name as well as the keyword arguments at the same time. For example, consider this Ruby code:

time =

The reference is a member lookup, but zone.parse(user_time) is a method call, and needs to be handled differently than a lookup of zone.parse followed by a direct function call.

This can be handled by adding a new @dynamicMemberCallable attribute, which acts similarly to @dynamicCallable but enables dynamic member calls (instead of dynamic calls of self).

@dynamicMemberCallable would have the following requirements:

func dynamicallyCallMethod(named: S1, withArguments: [T5]) -> T6
func dynamicallyCallMethod(named: S2, withKeywordArguments: [S3 : T7]) -> T8

Here is a sample Ruby binding:

@dynamicMemberCallable @dynamicMemberLookup
struct RubyObject {
  func dynamicallyCallMethod(
    named: String, withKeywordArguments: KeyValuePairs<String, RubyObject>
  ) -> RubyObject { ... }

  // This is a `@dynamicMemberLookup` requirement.
  subscript(dynamicMember member: String) -> RubyObject {...}
  // ... other stuff ...

General callable behavior

This proposal is mainly directed at dynamic language interoperability. For this use case, it makes sense for the dynamicallyCall method to take a variable-sized list of arguments where each argument has the same type. However, it may be useful to support general callable behavior (akin to operator() in C++) where the desugared "callable" method can have a fixed number of arguments and arguments of different types.

For example, consider something like:

struct BinaryFunction<T1, T2, U> {
  func call(_ argument1: T1, _ argument1: T2) -> U { ... }

It is not unreasonable to look ahead to a day where sugaring such things is supported, particularly when/if Swift gets variadic generics. This could allow typesafe n-ary smart function pointer types.

We feel that the approach outlined in this proposal supports this direction. When/if a motivating use case for general callable behavior comes up, we can simply add a new form to represent it and enhance the type checker to prefer that during ambiguity resolution. If this is a likely direction, then it may be better to name the attribute @callable instead of @dynamicCallable in anticipation of that future growth.

We believe that general callable behavior and @dynamicCallable are orthogonal features and should be evaluated separately.

Alternatives considered

Many alternatives were considered and discussed. Most of them are captured in the "Alternatives Considered" section of SE-0195.

Here are a few points raised in the discussion:

  • It was suggested that we use subscripts to represent the call implementations instead of a function call, aligning with @dynamicMemberLookup. We think that functions are a better fit here: the reason @dynamicMemberLookup uses subscripts is to allow the members to be l-values, but call results are not l-values.

  • It was requested that we design and implement the 'static callable' version of this proposal in conjunction with the dynamic version proposed here. In the author's opinion, it is important to consider static callable support as a likely future direction to make sure that the two features sit well next to each other and have a consistent design (something we believe this proposal has done) but it doesn't make sense to join the two proposals. So far, there have been no strong motivating use case presented for the static callable version, and Swift lacks certain generics features (e.g. variadics) that would be necessary to make static callables general. We feel that static callable should stand alone on its own merits.