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pattern matching

  • Proposed
  • Prototype:
  • Implementation:
  • Specification:

Summary

Pattern matching extensions for C# enable many of the benefits of algebraic data types and pattern matching from functional languages, but in a way that smoothly integrates with the feel of the underlying language. The basic features are: record types, which are types whose semantic meaning is described by the shape of the data; and pattern matching, which is a new expression form that enables extremely concise multilevel decomposition of these data types. Elements of this approach are inspired by related features in the programming languages F# and Scala.

Motivation

Why are we doing this? What use cases does it support? What is the expected outcome?

Detailed design

Is Expression

The is operator is extended to test an expression against a pattern.

relational_expression
    : relational_expression 'is' pattern
    ;

This form of relational_expression is in addition to the existing forms in the C# specification. It is a compile-time error if the relational_expression to the left of the is token does not designate a value or does not have a type.

Every identifier of the pattern introduces a new local variable that is definitely assigned after the is operator is true (i.e. definitely assigned when true).

Patterns

Patterns are used in the is operator and in a switch_statement to express the shape of data against which incoming data is to be compared. Patterns may be recursive so that parts of the data may be matched against sub-patterns.

pattern
    : type_pattern
    | constant_pattern
    | discard_pattern
    | var_pattern
    | recursive_pattern
    ;

type_pattern
    : type identifier
    ;

discard_pattern
    : '_'
    ;

var_pattern
    : 'var' identifier
    ;

constant_pattern
    : shift_expression
    ;

recursive_pattern
    : positional_pattern
    | property_pattern
    ;

positional_pattern
    :  type? '(' subpattern_list? ')'
    ;

subpattern_list
    : subpattern
    | subpattern ',' subpattern_list
    ;

subpattern
    : argument_name? pattern
    ;

property_pattern
    : type? '{' property_subpattern_list? '}'
    | type identifier '{' property_subpattern_list? '}'
    | var identifier '{' property_subpattern_list? '}'
    ;

property_subpattern_list
    : property_subpattern
    | property_subpattern ',' property_subpattern_list
    ;

property_subpattern
    : identifier 'is' pattern
    ;

Note: There is technically an ambiguity between type in an is-expression and constant_pattern, either of which might be a valid parse of a qualified identifier. We try to bind it as a type for compatibility with previous versions of the language; only if that fails do we resolve it as we do in other contexts, to the first thing found (which must be either a constant or a type). This ambiguity is only present on the right-hand-side of an is expression.

Type Pattern

The type_pattern both tests that an expression is of a given type and casts it to that type if the test succeeds. This introduces a local variable of the given type named by the given identifier. That local variable is definitely assigned when the result of the pattern-matching operation is true.

type_pattern
    : type identifier
    ;

The runtime semantic of this expression is that it tests the runtime type of the left-hand relational_expression operand against the type in the pattern. If it is of that runtime type (or some subtype), the result of the is operator is true. It declares a new local variable named by the identifier that is assigned the value of the left-hand operand when the result is true.

Certain combinations of static type of the left-hand-side and the given type are considered incompatible and result in compile-time error. A value of static type E is said to be pattern compatible with the type T if there exists an identity conversion, an implicit reference conversion, a boxing conversion, an explicit reference conversion, or an unboxing conversion from E to T. It is a compile-time error if an expression of type E is not pattern compatible with the type in a type pattern that it is matched with.

The type pattern is useful for performing run-time type tests of reference types, and replaces the idiom

var v = expr as Type;
if (v != null) { // code using v }

With the slightly more concise

if (expr is Type v) { // code using v }

It is an error if type is a nullable value type and the identifier is present.

The type pattern can be used to test values of nullable types: a value of type Nullable<T> (or a boxed T) matches a type pattern T2 id if the value is non-null and the type of T2 is T, or some base type or interface of T. For example, in the code fragment

int? x = 3;
if (x is int v) { // code using v }

The condition of the if statement is true at runtime and the variable v holds the value 3 of type int inside the block.

Constant Pattern

A constant pattern tests the value of an expression against a constant value. The constant may be any constant expression, such as a literal, the name of a declared const variable, or an enumeration constant, or a typeof expression.

If both e and c are of integral types, the pattern is considered matched if the result of the expression e == c is true.

Otherwise the pattern is considered matching if object.Equals(e, c) returns true. In this case it is a compile-time error if the static type of e is not pattern compatible with the type of the constant.

constant_pattern
    : constant_expression
    ;

Var Pattern

An expression e matches the pattern var identifier always. In other words, a match to a var pattern always succeeds. At runtime the value of e is bounds to a newly introduced local variable. The type of the local variable is the static type of e.

If the name var binds to a type, then we instead treat the pattern as a type_pattern.

Discard Pattern

An expression e matches the pattern _ always. In other words, every expression matches the discard pattern.

Positional Pattern

A positional pattern enables the program to invoke an appropriate operator is, and (if the operator has a void return type, or returns true) perform further pattern matching on the values that are returned from it. It also supports a tuple-like pattern syntax when the static type is the same as the type containing operator is, or if the runtime type of the expression implements ITuple.

positional_pattern
    : type? '(' subpattern_list? ')'
    ;

If the type is omitted, we take it to be the static type of e. In this case it is an error if e does not have a type.

Given a match of an expression e to the pattern type ( subpattern_list ), a method is selected by searching in type for accessible declarations of operator is and selecting one among them using match operator overload resolution.

  • If a suitable operator is exists, it is a compile-time error if the expression e is not pattern compatible with the type of the first argument of the selected operator. If the type is omitted, it is an error if the operator is found does not have the static type of e as its first parameter. At runtime the value of the expression is tested against the type of the first parameter as in a type pattern. If this fails then the positional pattern match fails and the result is false. If it succeeds, the operator is invoked with fresh compiler-generated variables to receive the out parameters. Each value that was received is matched against the corresponding subpattern, and the match succeeds if all of these succeed. The order in which subpatterns are matched is unspecified, and a failed match may not match all subpatterns.
  • If no suitable operator is exists, but the expression is pattern compatible with the type System.ITuple, and no argument_name appears among the subpatterns, then we match using ITuple. [Note: this needs to be made more precise.]
  • Otherwise the pattern is a compile-time error.

If a subpattern has an argument_name, then every subsequent subpattern must have an argument_name. In this case each argument name must match a parameter name (of an overloaded operator is in the first bullet above). [Note: this needs to be made more precise.]

Property Pattern

A property pattern enables the program to recursively match values extracted by the use of properties.

property_pattern
    : type? '{' property_subpattern_list? '}'
    | type identifier '{' property_subpattern_list? '}'
    | var identifier '{' property_subpattern_list? '}'
    ;

property_subpattern_list
    : property_subpattern
    | property_subpattern ',' property_subpattern_list
    ;

property_subpattern
    : identifier 'is' pattern
    ;

Given a match of an expression e to the pattern type { property_pattern_list }, it is a compile-time error if the expression e is not pattern compatible with the type T designated by type. If the type is absent or designated by var, we take it to be the static type of e. If the identifier is present, it declares a pattern variable of type type. Each of the identifiers appearing on the left-hand-side of its property_pattern_list must designate a readable property or field of T. If the identifier of the property_pattern is present, it defines a pattern variable of type T.

At runtime, the expression is tested against T. If this fails then the property pattern match fails and the result is false. If it succeeds, then each property_subpattern field or property is read and its value matched against its corresponding pattern. The result of the whole match is false only if the result of any of these is false. The order in which subpatterns are matched is not specified, and a failed match may not match all subpatterns at runtime. If the match succeeds and the identifier of the property_pattern is present, it is assigned the matched value.

Note: The property pattern can be used to pattern-match with anonymous types.

Scope of Pattern Variables

The scope of a pattern variable is as follows:

  • If the pattern appears in the condition of an if statement, its scope is the condition and controlled statement of the if statement, but not its else clause.
  • If the pattern appears in the when clause of a catch, its scope is the catch_clause.
  • If the pattern appears in a switch_label, its scope is the switch_section.
  • If the pattern is the pattern of or in the expression of a match_section, its scope is that match_section.
  • If the pattern appears in the when clause of a switch_label or match_label, its scope of that switch_section or match_section.
  • If the pattern appears in the body of an expression_bodied lambda, its scope is that lambda's body.
  • If the pattern appears in the body of an expression_bodied method or property, its scope is that expression body.
  • If the pattern appears in the body of an expression_bodied local function, its scope is that method body.
  • If the pattern appears in a ctor_initializer, its scope is the constructor body.
  • If the pattern appears in a field initializer, its scope is that field initializer.
  • If the pattern appears in the pattern of a let_statement, its scope is the enclosing block.
  • If the pattern appears in the pattern of a case_expression, its scope is the case_expression.
  • Otherwise if the pattern appears directly in some statement, its scope is that statement.

Other cases are errors for other reasons (e.g. in a parameter's default value or an attribute, both of which are an error because those contexts require a constant expression).

The use of a pattern variables is a value, not a variable. In other words pattern variables are read-only.

User_defined operator is

An explicit operator is may be declared to extend the pattern matching capabilities. Such a method is invoked by the is operator or a switch_statement with a positional_pattern.

For example, suppose we have a type representing a Cartesian point in 2-space:

public class Cartesian
{
    public int X { get; }
    public int Y { get; }
}

We may sometimes think of them in polar coordinates:

public static class Polar
{
    public static bool operator is(Cartesian c, out double R, out double Theta)
    {
        R = Math.Sqrt(c.X*c.X + c.Y*c.Y);
        Theta = Math.Atan2(c.Y, c.X);
        return c.X != 0 || c.Y != 0;
    }
}

And now we can operate on Cartesian values using polar coordinates

var c = Cartesian(3, 4);
if (c is Polar(var R, *)) Console.WriteLine(R);

Which prints 5.

Switch Statement

The switch statement is extended to select for execution the first block having an associated pattern that matches the switch expression.

switch_label
    : 'case' complex_pattern case_guard? ':'
    | 'case' constant_expression case_guard? ':'
    | 'default' ':'
    ;

case_guard
    : 'when' expression
    ;

[TODO: we need to explain the interaction with definite assignment here.] [TODO: we need to describe the scope of pattern variables appearing in the switch_label.]

The order in which patterns are matched is not defined. A compiler is permitted to match patterns out of order, and to reuse the results of already matched patterns to compute the result of matching of other patterns.

In some cases the compiler can prove that a switch section can have no effect at runtime because its pattern is subsumed by a previous case. In these cases a warning may be produced. [TODO: these warnings should be mandatory and we should specify precisely when they are produced.]

If a case-guard is present, its expression is of type bool. It is evaluated as an additional condition that must be satisfied for the case to be considered satisfied.

Match Expression

A match_expression is added to support switch-like semantics for an expression context.

The C# language syntax is augmented with the following syntactic productions:

relational_expression
    : match_expression
    ;

match_expression
    : relational_expression 'switch' match_block
    ;

match_block
    : '(' match_sections ','? ')'
    ;

match_sections
    : match_section
    | match_sections ',' match_section
    ;

match_section
    : 'case' pattern case_guard? ':' expression
    ;

case_guard
    : 'when' expression
    ;

The match_expression is not allowed as an expression_statement.

The type of the match_expression is the best common type of the expressions appearing to the right of the : tokens of the match sections.

It is an error if the compiler can prove (using a set of techniques that has not yet been specified) that some match_section's pattern cannot affect the result because some previous pattern will always match.

At runtime, the result of the match_expression is the value of the expression of the first match_section for which the expression on the left-hand-side of the match_expression matches the match_section's pattern, and for which the case_guard of the match_section, if present, evaluates to true.

Throw expression

We extend the set of expression forms to include

throw_expression
    : 'throw' null_coalescing_expression
    ;

null_coalescing_expression
    : throw_expression
    ;

The type rules are as follows:

  • A throw_expression has no type.
  • A throw_expression is convertible to every type by an implicit conversion.

The flow-analysis rules are as follows:

  • For every variable v, v is definitely assigned before the null_coalescing_expression of a throw_expression iff it is definitely assigned before the throw_expression.
  • For every variable v, v is definitely assigned after throw_expression.

A throw expression is permitted in only the following syntactic contexts:

  • As the second or third operand of a ternary conditional operator ?:
  • As the second operand of a null coalescing operator ??
  • After the colon of a match section
  • As the body of an expression-bodied lambda or method.

Destructuring assignment

Inspired by an F# feature and a conversation on github, and similar features in Swift and proposed for Rust, we support decomposition with a let statement:

block_statement
    : let_statement
    ;

let_statement
    : 'let' identifier '=' expression ';'
    | 'let' pattern '=' expression ';'
    | 'let' pattern '=' expression 'else' embedded_statement
    | 'let' pattern '=' expression 'when' expression 'else' embedded_statement
    ;

let is an existing contextual keyword.

The form

let identifier = expression ;

is shorthand for

let var identifier = expression ;

(i.e. a var_pattern) and is a convenient way for declaring a read-only local variable.

Semantically, it is an error unless precisely one of the following is true

  • the compiler can prove that the expression always matches the pattern; or
  • an else clause is present.

Any pattern variables in the pattern are in scope throughout the enclosing block. They are not definitely assigned before the else clause. They are definitely assigned after the let_statement if there is no else clause or they are definitely assigned at the end of the else clause (which could only occur because the end point of the else clause is unreachable). It is an error to use these variables before their point of definition.

A let_statement is a block_statement and not an embedded_statement because its primary purpose is to introduce names into the enclosing scope. It therefore does not introduce a dangling-else ambiguity.

If a when clause is present, the expression following it must be of type bool.

At runtime the expression to the right of = is evaluated and matched against the pattern. If the match fails control transfers to the else clause. If the match succeeds and there is a when clause, the expression following when is evaluated, and if its value is false control transfers to the else clause.

Some Possible Optimizations

The compilation of pattern matching can take advantage of common parts of patterns. For example, if the top-level type test of two successive patterns in a switch_statement is the same type, the generated code can skip the type test for the second pattern.

When some of the patterns are integers or strings, the compiler can generate the same kind of code it generates for a switch-statement in earlier versions of the language.

For more on these kinds of optimizations, see [Scott and Ramsey (2000)].

It would be possible to support declaring a type hierarchy closed, meaning that all subtypes of the given type are declared in the same assembly. In that case the compiler can generate an internal tag field to distinguish among the different subtypes and reduce the number of type tests required at runtime. Closed hierarchies enable the compiler to detect when a set of matches are complete. It is also possible to provide a slightly weaker form of this optimization while allowing the hierarchy to be open.

Some Examples of Pattern Matching

Is-As

We can replace the idiom

var v = expr as Type;   
if (v != null) {
    // code using v
}

With the slightly more concise and direct

if (expr is Type v) {
    // code using v
}

Testing nullable

We can replace the idiom

Type? v = x?.y?.z;
if (v.HasValue) {
    var value = v.GetValueOrDefault();
    // code using value
}

With the slightly more concise and direct

if (x?.y?.z is Type value) {
    // code using value
}

Arithmetic simplification

Suppose we define a set of recursive types to represent expressions (per a separate proposal):

abstract class Expr;
class X() : Expr;
class Const(double Value) : Expr;
class Add(Expr Left, Expr Right) : Expr;
class Mult(Expr Left, Expr Right) : Expr;
class Neg(Expr Value) : Expr;

Now we can define a function to compute the (unreduced) derivative of an expression:

Expr Deriv(Expr e)
{
  switch (e) {
    case X(): return Const(1);
    case Const(*): return Const(0);
    case Add(var Left, var Right):
      return Add(Deriv(Left), Deriv(Right));
    case Mult(var Left, var Right):
      return Add(Mult(Deriv(Left), Right), Mult(Left, Deriv(Right)));
    case Neg(var Value):
      return Neg(Deriv(Value));
  }
}

An expression simplifier demonstrates positional patterns:

Expr Simplify(Expr e)
{
  switch (e) {
    case Mult(Const(0), *): return Const(0);
    case Mult(*, Const(0)): return Const(0);
    case Mult(Const(1), var x): return Simplify(x);
    case Mult(var x, Const(1)): return Simplify(x);
    case Mult(Const(var l), Const(var r)): return Const(l*r);
    case Add(Const(0), var x): return Simplify(x);
    case Add(var x, Const(0)): return Simplify(x);
    case Add(Const(var l), Const(var r)): return Const(l+r);
    case Neg(Const(var k)): return Const(-k);
    default: return e;
  }
}

A match expression (contributed by @orthoxerox):

var areas =
    from primitive in primitives
    let area = primitive switch (
        case Line l: 0,
        case Rectangle r: r.Width * r.Height,
        case Circle c: Math.PI * c.Radius * c.Radius,
        case *: throw new ApplicationException()
    )
    select new { Primitive = primitive, Area = area };

Tuple decomposition

The let_statement would apply to tuples as follows. Given

public (int, int) Coordinates => …

You could receive the results into a block scope this way

    let (int x, int y) = Coordinates;

(This assumes that the tuple types define an appropriate operator is.)

Roslyn diagnostic analyzers

Much of the Roslyn compiler code base, and client code written to use Roslyn for producing user-defined diagnostics, could have its core logic simplified by using syntax-based pattern matching.

Cloud computing applications

[NOTE: This section needs much more explanation and examples.]

  • Records are very convenient for communicating data in a distributed system (client-server and server-server). It is also useful for returning multiple results from an async method.
  • "Views", or user-written operator "is", is useful for treating, for example, json as if it is an application-specific data structure. Pattern matching is very convenient for dispatching in an actors framework.

Drawbacks

Why should we not do this?

Alternatives

What other designs have been considered? What is the impact of not doing this?

Unresolved questions

Open questions are described in the proposal, inline

Design meetings

Link to design notes that affect this proposal, and describe in one sentence for each what changes they led to.