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Abolish ImplicitlyUnwrappedOptional type


This proposal seeks to remove the ImplicitlyUnwrappedOptional type from the Swift type system and replace it with an IUO attribute on declarations. Appending ! to the type of a Swift declaration will give it optional type and annotate the declaration with an attribute stating that it may be implicitly unwrapped when used.

Swift-evolution thread: "Abolish IUO Type"


The ImplicitlyUnwrappedOptional ("IUO") type is a valuable tool for importing Objective-C APIs where the nullability of a parameter or return type is unspecified. It also represents a convenient mechanism for working through definite initialization problems in initializers. However, IUOs are a transitional technology; they represent an easy way to work around un-annotated APIs, or the lack of language features that could more elegantly handle certain patterns of code. As such, we would like to limit their usage moving forward, and introduce more specific language features to take their place. Except for a few specific scenarios, optionals are always the safer bet, and we’d like to encourage people to use them instead of IUOs.

This proposal seeks to limit the adoption of IUOs to places where they are actually required, and put the Swift language on the path to removing implicitly unwrapped optionals from the system entirely when other technologies render them unnecessary. It also completely abolishes any notion of IUOs below the type-checker level of the compiler, which will substantially simplify the compiler implementation.

Proposed solution

In this proposal, we continue to use the syntax T! for declaring implicitly unwrapped optional values in the following locations:

  • property and variable declarations
  • initializer declarations
  • function and method declarations
  • subscript declarations
  • parameter declarations (with the exception of vararg parameters)

However, the appearance of ! at the end of a property or variable declaration's type no longer indicates that the declaration has IUO type; rather, it indicates that (1) the declaration has optional type, and (2) the declaration has an attribute indicating that its value may be implicitly forced. (No human would ever write or observe this attribute, but we will refer to it as @_autounwrapped.) Such a declaration is referred to henceforth as an IUO declaration.

Likewise, the appearance of ! at the end of the return type of a function indicates that the function has optional return type and its return value may be implicitly unwrapped. The use of init! in an initializer declaration indicates that the initializer is failable and the result of the initializer may be implicitly unwrapped. In both of these cases, the @_autounwrapped attribute is attached to the declaration.

A reference to an IUO variable or property prefers to bind to an optional, but may be implicitly forced (i.e. converted to the underlying type) when being type-checked; this replicates the current behavior of a declaration with IUO type. Likewise, the result of a function application or initialization where the callee is a reference to an IUO function declaration prefers to retain its optional type, but may be implicitly forced if necessary.

If the expression can be explicitly type checked with a strong optional type, it will be. However, the type checker will fall back to forcing the optional if necessary. The effect of this behavior is that the result of any expression that refers to a value declared as T! will either have type T or type T?. For example, in the following code:

let x: Int! = 5
let y = x
let z = x + 0

… x is declared as an IUO, but because the initializer for y type checks correctly as an optional, y will be bound as type Int?. However, the initializer for z does not type check with x declared as an optional (there's no overload of + that takes an optional), so the compiler forces the optional and type checks the initializer as Int.

This model is more predictable because it prevents IUOs from propagating implicitly through the codebase, and converts them to strong optionals, the safer option, by default.

An IUO variable may still be converted to a value with non-optional type, through either evaluating it in a context which requires the non-optional type, explicitly converting it to a non-optional type using the as operator, binding it to a variable with explicit optional type, or using the force operator (!).

Because IUOs are an attribute on declarations rather than on types, the ImplicitlyUnwrappedOptional type, as well as the long form ImplicitlyUnwrappedOptional<T> syntax, is removed. Types with nested IUOs are no longer allowed. This includes types such as [Int!] and (Int!, Int!).

Type aliases may not have IUO information associated with them. Thus the statement typealias X = Int! is illegal. This includes type aliases resulting from imported typedef statements. For example, the Objective-C type declaration

typedef void (^ViewHandler)(NSView *);

... is imported as the Swift type declaration

typealias ViewHandler = (NSView?) -> ()

Note that the parameter type is NSView?, not NSView!.


func f() -> Int! { return 3 } // f: () -> Int?, has IUO attribute
let x1 = f() // succeeds; x1: Int? = 3
let x2: Int? = f() // succeeds; x2: Int? = .some(3)
let x3: Int! = f() // succeeds; x3: Int? = .some(3), has IUO attribute
let x4: Int = f() // succeeds; x4: Int = 3
let a1 = [f()] // succeeds; a: [Int?] = [.some(3)]
let a2: [Int!] = [f()] // illegal, nested IUO type
let a3: [Int] = [f()] // succeeds; a: [Int] = [3]

func g() -> Int! { return nil } // f: () -> Int?, has IUO attribute
let y1 = g() // succeeds; y1: Int? = .none
let y2: Int? = g() // succeeds; y2: Int? = .none
let y3: Int! = g() // succeeds; y3: Int? = .none, has IUO attribute
let y4: Int = g() // traps
let b1 = [g()] // succeeds; b: [Int?] = [.none]
let b2: [Int!] = [g()] // illegal, nested IUO type
let b3: [Int] = [g()] // traps

func p<T>(x: T) { print(x) }
p(f()) // prints "Optional(3)"; p is instantiated with T = Int?

if let x5 = f() {
  // executes, with x5: Int = 3
if let y5 = g() {
  // does not execute

Impact on existing code

These changes will break existing code; as a result, I would like for them to be considered for inclusion in Swift 3. This breakage will come in two forms:

  • Variable bindings which previously had inferred type T! from their binding on the right-hand side will now have type T?. The compiler will emit an error at sites where those bound variables are used in a context that demands a non-optional type and suggest that the value be forced with the ! operator.

  • Explicitly written nested IUO types (like [Int!]) will have to be rewritten to use the corresponding optional type ([Int?]) or non-optional type ([Int]) depending on what's more appropriate for the context. However, most declarations with non-nested IUO type will continue to work as they did before.

  • Unsugared use of the ImplicitlyUnwrappedOptional type will have to be replaced with the postfix ! notation.

It will still be possible to declare IUO properties, so the following deferred initialization pattern will still be possible:

struct S {
  var x: Int!
  init() {}
  func initLater(x someX: Int) { x = someX }

I consider the level of breakage resulting from this change acceptable. Types imported from Objective-C APIs change frequently as those APIs gain nullability annotations, and that occasionally breaks existing code too; this change will have similar effect.

Alternatives considered

  • Continue to allow IUO type, but don't propagate it to variables and intermediate values without explicit type annotation. This resolves the issue of IUO propagation but still allows nested IUO types, and doesn't address the complexity of handling IUOs below the Sema level of the compiler.

  • Remove IUOs completely. Untenable due to the prevalence of deferred initialization and unannotated Objective-C API in today's Swift ecosystem.