C#7 – Design Meeting Notes for Jan 21, 2015

Working with data

Today’s programs are connected and trade in rich, structured data: it’s what’s on the wire, it’s what apps and services produce, manipulate and consume.

Traditional object-oriented modeling is good for many things, but in many ways it deals rather poorly with this setup: it bunches functionality strongly with the data (through encapsulation), and often relies heavily on mutation of that state. It is “behavior-centric” instead of “data-centric”.

Functional programming languages are often better set up for this: data is immutable (representing information, not state), and is manipulated from the outside, using a freely growable and context-dependent set of functions, rather than a fixed set of built-in virtual methods. Let’s continue being inspired by functional languages, and in particular other languages – F#, Scala, Swift – that aim to mix functional and object-oriented concepts as smoothly as possible.

Here are some possible C# features that belong under this theme:

  • pattern matching
  • tuples
  • “denotable” anonymous types
  • “records” – compact ways of describing shapes
  • working with common data structures (List/Dictionary)
  • extension members
  • slicing
  • immutability
  • structural typing/shapes?

A number of these features focus on the interplay between “kinds of types” and the ways they are used. It is worth thinking of this as a matrix, that lets you think about language support for e.g. denoting the types (type expressions), creating values of them (literals) and consuming them with matching (patterns)

Features

The Matrix above represents a feature set that’s strongly connected, and should probably be talked about together: we can add kinds of types (e.g. tuples, records), we can add syntax for representing those types or creating instances of them, and we can add ways to match them as part of a greater pattern matching scheme.

Pattern matching

Core then is to have a pattern matching framework in the language: A way of asking if a piece of data has a particular shape, and if so, extracting pieces of it.

if (o is Point(var x, 5)) ...

There are probably at least two ways you want to use “patterns”:

  1. As part of an expression, where the result is a bool signaling whether the pattern matched a given value, and where variables in the pattern are in scope throughout the statement in which the pattern occurs.
  2. As a case in a switch statement, where the case is picked if the pattern matches, and the variables in the pattern are in scope throughout the statements of that case.

A strong candidate syntax for the expression syntax is a generalization of the is expression: we consider the type in an is expression just a special case, and start allowing any pattern on the right hand side. Thus, the following would be valid is expressions:

if (o is Point(*, 5) p) Console.WriteLine(o.x);
if (o is Point p) Console.WriteLine(p.x);
if (p is (var x, 5) ...

Variable declarations in an expression would have the same scope questions as declaration expressions did.

A strong candidate for the switch syntax is to simply generalize current switch statements so that

  • the switch expression can be any type
  • the case labels can contain patterns, not just constants
  • the cases are checked in order of appearance, since they can now overlap
switch (o) {
case string s:
    Console.WriteLine(s);
    break;
case int i:
    Console.WriteLine($"Number {i}");
    break;
case Point(int x, int y):
    Console.WriteLine("({x},{y})");
    break;
case null:
    Console.WriteLine("<null>);
    break
}

Other syntaxes you can think of:

Expression-based switch: An expression form where you can have multiple cases, each producing a result value of the same type.

Unconditional deconstruction: It might be useful to separate the deconstruction functionality out from the checking, and be able to unconditionally extract parts from a value that you know the type of:

(var x, var y) = getPoint();

There is a potential issue here where the value could be null, and there’s no check for it. It’s probably ok to have a null reference exception in this case.

It would be a design goal to have symmetry between construction and deconstruction syntaxes.

Patterns at least have type testing, value comparison and deconstruction aspects to them.

There may be ways for a type to specify its deconstruction syntax.

In addition it is worth considering something along the lines of “active patterns”, where a type can specify logic to determine whether a pattern applies to it or not.

Imagine positional deconstruction or active patterns could be expressed with certain methods:

class Point {
    public Point(int x, int y) {...}
    void Deconstruct(out int x, out int y) { ... }
    static bool Match(Point p, out int x, out int y) ...
    static bool Match(JObject json, out int x, out int y) ...
}

We could imagine separate syntax for specifying this.

One pattern that does not put new requirements on the type is matching against properties/fields:

if (o is Point { X is var x, Y is 0 }) ...

Open question: are the variables from patterns mutable?

This has a strong similarity to declaration expressions, and they could coexist, with shared scope rules.

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