C#7: Pattern Matching

So far in this series on C#7, we have looked at some nice new things, including out variables, new expression-bodied members, throw expressions, and binary numeric literals. These are all great little additions, but this week, we get to a truly cool and long-awaited feature; pattern matching. But, before we get into that, here is the usual summary of what I am covering.

Pattern Matching

I will admit that I was a tad confused as to why this is called "pattern matching". I read the Wikipedia article1. I expect I would understand this more if I were a Computer Science major instead of Computer Systems Engineering2. According to Wikipedia:

In computer science, pattern matching is the act of checking a given sequence of tokens for the presence of the constituents of some pattern.

The What's New in C#7 documentation explains:

Pattern matching is a feature that allows you to implement method dispatch on properties other than the type of an object.

While I now understand the academic concept of pattern matching, I think we may regret using the term to specifically reference the features that are under its umbrella for C#7. I would have preferred it if these features had been introduced using already widely understood and consistent nomenclature. I think the official documentation agrees with me, since it almost immediately splits the feature into two pieces; is expressions and switch expressions. However, I am going to draw the line that divides the parts of pattern matching in a different place and call the two parts cast-conditional variables and case filters, because that fits better with my understanding of what they do.

Cast-conditional Variables

Many of us know the following code:

This is the efficient way of verifying a value is a given type and then consuming it as that type since we cast just once3. However, with the new cast-conditional feature, we can condense this down to:

The cast and the check of its success have been condensed into a single, easily understood statement.  We can use this cast-conditional variable syntax in any place where we might otherwise but a boolean expression:

This feels like a great improvement to me and fits really well with the similar out variable feature, however it is only a new way of writing something we could already do. When extended to the cases in switch statements (albeit with a slightly different syntax), this gives us a brand new ability; switching based on variable type:

Now you can iterate over that array of object values and have a nice, succinct way of processing the contents by type. Not only that, but with case filters, you can craft even finer conditions for your switches.

Case Filters

C#6 introduced the when keyword as a modifier to catch expressions so that we could finally utilize exception filters from C#. Now, the when keyword gets a similar job in switch statements as a modifier to case statements. Like in exception filters, the when expression is a condition that must be met for the case to be a match. For example, we could create an IsNumber method and use when to filter cases like Infinity and NaN:

Prior to C#7, this code would look something like this:

Not only was there more typing before C#7, but I think the code was more repetitive and harder to scan. This may be a convoluted example, but I hope it illustrates how valuable this new language syntax can be.

In Conclusion

Naming disagreements aside, the new pattern matching in C#7 is powerful. With that power comes responsibility; the responsibility to use it wisely and to call out others who do not, for there is surely great room for abuse with this feature. I envisage frequent and appropriate use of cast-conditional variables in if statements since the scenarios to which that caters are widespread. However, the filtering added to switch statements brings something entirely new and so, I do not see it being as widely adopted not as appropriately used; time will tell.

Overall, I love this addition to C#7 even though I do not like the name. What do you think? Does "pattern matching" make sense or should it be something like "cast-conditional variables" and "case filters" instead? Will you use this feature a lot? When might you find pattern matching useful? Sound off in the comments and discuss.

 


  1. that's a lie; I read parts of it until I came to the conclusion that it was not helping 

  2. Is this a theory versus practice issue again? I face those often in this field 

  3. Using the is condition and then casting inside the if statement would cause two casts; one for the is and another for the cast 

C#6: Collection Initializers

Patterns and Collection Initializers

Some of the cool parts of C# are pattern-based, rather than type-based as one might expect. For example, foreach does not need the enumerated type to implement IEnumerable in order to work, it just requires that it has a GetEnumerator() method. Another place where pattern-based compilation occurs that also happens to illustrate how useful this pattern-based approach can be is in collection initializers like this:

When this gets compiled, for each value in the initializer the C# compiler1 looks for an Add() method on the collection type with an appropriate number of arguments of the appropriate types, which it then calls for that value. The benefit to using a pattern-based approach is that the compiler does not need to know about every possible compatible type up front or what Add() methods it might support. It only enforces that the type derives from IEnumerable and that it has an Add() method that matches the initializer values. This allows us to create a collection types that can support a variety of different ways to add values without needing the compiler to know our type will ever exist. For example, we could create a collection of names with Add() methods that take one or two strings and then initialize elements with either just the surname or first name and surname2.

Collection initializers in C#6

In C#6, a new collection initializer syntax has been added and the way the compiler interprets the existing syntax has been modified. Before we look at the newly added syntax, let us look at how the compilation of the existing syntax has been changed. To do so, consider a collection of DateTimeOffset values where we want to simplify adding dates and times from parsable string values. To support this we could implement an entire new type with the appropriate calls or we could derive from an existing collection type List<DateTimeOffset> and then implement a new Add() method to support string.

Of course, not all collections are open for extension and creating new types for this is cumbersome since we want a list of DateTimeOffset we just happen to want to initialize it from another type. To get around sealed types and the need to implement wrapper types or derivations, VB.NET has supported using extension methods to expand the Add() options on a type. I like this idea since, in the previous example, our list is really still of DateTimeOffset and we want others to see it that way, we just happen to support adding string values; why should we be forced to use a different type for that? Alas ((Cue Top Gear voice style)), this feature was not included in C#…until now. As of C#6, this disparity between VB.NET and C# is no more; the compiler will use a matching Add() extension method in lieu of an appropriate Add() method on the type itself.

Interestingly, this change to how C# resolves overloaded methods is very specific in that it only supports Add() extension methods and not extension methods in other pattern-based scenarios like GetEnumerator. I am not certain why this so, since I can imagine some cases where enumerating an existing non-enumerated type might be quite nice3, though I expect is is because it would not be clear what was going to get enumerated and therefore, the code would be ambiguous and hard to follow4. The Add() method usage in an initializer does not have this ambiguity as the compiler makes it clear if it found a suitable Add method that matches both the collection type and the type of the element being added.

Index Initializers

The other change to collection initializers in C#6 is the introduction of index intializer syntax. This new syntax is similar to the existing collection initializer syntax we have discussed, except that instead of using Add() methods, it uses indexers. With index-based collection initialization we can specify values for specific indices in a collection. This works for any indexer that a collection implements. Traditionally, we might initialize a Dictionary<string,string> using the Add() method pattern like this:

But with the index initializer syntax, we can make it clear that one string indexes the other to make this much more readable as:

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I think this really makes the code easier to read. Note, however, that this new index syntax cannot be mixed with traditional initializer syntax; for example, the following is invalid:

I think it is okay that they cannot be mixed. One way is using Add() method overload resolution to set values and the other is using indexers; these use different semantics and often have different implementations and connotations. By mixing them, the code becomes muddled and loses meaning; are we specifying records in a collection or are we mapping specific indexes to their records?

In Conclusion

Both of these changes to collection initialization are reasonably subtle. Of all the features C#6 brings us, these are perhaps going to be used the least. In fact, when I started writing this post I was unsure of their value. However, as I wrote and thought of usage examples, I came to the realisation that although they cater to perhaps infrequent scenarios, these changes to collection initializers each provide nice additions to the C# language. Index initializers remove a little ambiguity from the initialization of indexed collections, such as dictionaries, whereas the expansion of Add() method overload resolution to include extension methods reduces the number of frivolous types we have to create. In short, they allow us to write simpler, clearer code, and that is a beautiful thing.


  1. pre-C#6 

  2. A contrived example to be sure, but illustrative none-the-less 

  3. Such as enumerating the lines from a file stream 

  4. Much clearer to write a LineEnumerator wrapper for FileStream and use it explicitly 

C#6: The nameof Operator

Before discussing the nameof operator in C#6, I want us to consider why nameof exists at all. So, let's head back ten years to the heady days of 2005.

Wayne's World Flashback

When version 2.0 of the .NET framework arrived, it transitioned the fledgling platform from a sketch of what might be to a fully-formed platform that could support ongoing and future desktop and web development. Since then, each release of the framework and its associated languages have added a variety of bells and whistles that simplify and enhance the way we develop. Among many of the concepts and types introduced by .NET 2.0 was System.ComponentModel.INotifyPropertyChanged, part of the enhanced data binding introduced to Windows Forms development. This interface turned out to be a workhorse and introduced many developers to a new problem; making sure the string that named a variable matched the name of an actual variable.

Now, you may well object to this claim since various versions of ArgumentException already demanded this of developers, but I think we both know that until our tooling got smarter (like FxCop and Resharper), many of us just did not fill that argument out if we could help it. After all, the stack trace would tell us where the crash happened, we could put something meaningful in the exception message, and keeping that variable name up-to-date after refactoring was a pain. With the advent of INotifyPropertyChanged the benefit of putting the variable name in a string started to outweigh the costs. Quickly, patterns emerged to try and simplify this, from dubiously performant uses of reflection to build-time code generation. As tools matured, we could get refactorings that took these strings into account and warnings that could shout at us if a variable was mentioned that didn't exist. Few of these were particularly elegant or entirely foolproof, and none were both1. In addition to ArgumentException and INotifyPropertyChanged, property names would be used for logging and debugging.

In the Name of Progress

There were calls for a new operator to accompany typeof; the new operator, infoof2 would provide the corresponding reflection information of a particular code construct (like MethodInfo or PropertyInfo), simplifying not just obtaining the name of something, but also any reflection operation involving that something. All this use and discussion of meta-information did not go unnoticed. Eric Lippert blogged about infoof and why it would be useful, why it was so difficult to implement, and indirectly foreshadowed where we would be today. However, amid the discusson, there was little action.

In 2012, .NET 4.5 brought us the CallerMemberNameAttribute type and its siblings, CallerLineNumberAttribute and CallerFilePathAttribute. These new attributes enabled developers to decorate method arguments, indicating that the appropriate piece of information was to be injected into that argument when the method was called. This fell short of an infoof operator, but it greatly simplified use of INotifyPropertyChanged (and INotifyPropertyChanging, introduced in .NET 3.5). Alas, argument exceptions, logging, debugging, and other uses of method, variable, and property names were left as they were, often leading to mismatched error messages, obscure data binding bugs, and other problems.

That changed in 2015 with the new releases of both .NET and C#, and the new nameof operator in C#6. The nameof operator is sublimely simple; in fact, its concept seems so obvious that it's a wonder it took so long to appear3. Using nameof, we can inject the names of variables, types, methods, events, and properties into all sorts of places at compile-time4, knowing that if we change the name, our refactoring tools can update all references with confidence. Not only that, but our intent is clear; we want the name of this thing to be here and not just some string that happens to look like the name of some thing. While the nameof operator does not replace CallerMemberNameAttribute, which so deftly simplified INotifyPropertyChanged5, it does simplify other scenarios like throwing ArgumentException, logging errors, and outputting debug information.

In Conclusion

When I first contemplated writing a whole blog entry dedicated to nameof, I thought it was too simple a feature to warrant such focus; now I have finished, I believe nameof to be entirely worthy of the attention. Along with the fantastic string interpolation in C#6, I believe nameof is one of the simplest and most useful additions to the C#6 language. Like many C# and .NET features we now take for granted, nameof is a beautifully simple concept that we will come to rely upon. I believe it will save us countless hours of fixing erroneous refactoring, arguing over coding style and code reviews, and head-scratching at spurious errors.


  1. IMHO 

  2. pronounced, "Info Of" 

  3. As is often the case in software development, we were all too busy discussing the most complex use-case we could think of rather than the one that really needed solving 

  4. unlike reflection-based solutions that do all the work at run-time 

  5. nameof does provide an alternative, more wordy alternative for that scenario 

C#6: Exception Filters

The for the last six1 releases the C# compiler has been keeping part of the .NET Framework secret from us2; exception filters. It turns out that the .NET Framework has supported exception filters since the very beginning, there was just no way to express them using C# until now.

C#6 adds the when keyword for use in try/catch blocks to specify exception filters. An exception filter is a predicate method that takes the thrown exception and returns true when the exception should be caught or false when it should not. If the filter says the exception should not be caught, the underlying system can continue to throw it.

This allows us to reduce the complexity in our code as we can put multiple catch statements with different filtering rules in the same try/catch block. This gives a switch style approach to exception handling that is supported at the lowest level, reducing the need to rethrow exceptions (or to remember the difference between throw; and throw exceptionVar;)3.

Here is a try/catch block showing an example of exception filtering:

Before I continue, I must state that this is a completely contrived example for demonstrable purposes; your filters would probably act on more than just the value of a string, the two filters shown would use the same code, and the handling would involve different things in each catch4.

Now, some things to note. First, the parentheses around the when condition are mandatory; you don't need to remember this as the compiler and syntax highlighting will remind you. Second, the content of the when condition must evaluate to bool; you cannot specify a lambda expression here. I am certain most of you already assumed that, but for some reason, I felt like that should be possible. However, when is akin to if or while, so it makes sense that a lambda expression would not work.

The example above provides three different catch blocks for the exact same exception type, ArgumentException. Each filter is evaluated in the order specified, so, if CallSomething() threw an ArgumentException with ParamName set to param2, the when condition on the first catch would reject it, but the second filter would catch it and handle accordingly. A ParamName value filtered out of the first two catch blocks would fall into the last.

In conclusion

Exception filtering is a useful and simple concept that should help to make exception handling easier to write. While some kind of filtering could be achieved before using conditions and throw inside of catch blocks, this language support now means that exception handlers (the content of catch blocks) have a single responsibility and the catch statements themselves are entirely responsible for declaring what must be caught. It also means that the exception handling within the .NET framework can be entirely responsible for routing exceptions in C#-implemented applications.

Exception filters have been supported by VB.NET and .NET-supporting variants of C++ since the versions released alongside .NET Framework 1.1; now, as of C#6, they are supported by C# too.


  1. 1.0, 1.2, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0 

  2. Actually, it's been keeping several, but we can't have everything 

  3. The first rethrows the original exception with the stack unchanged, the second throws a new exception and resets the stack 

  4. otherwise, why filter? 

C#6: Support for .NET Framework 2.0 to 4.5

A colleague of mine, Eric Charnesky, asked me if C#6 language features would work in .NET Framework versions other than 4.6. I was pretty confident that the features were almost all1 just syntactical seasoning, I thought I would find out.

The TL;DR is yes, C#6 features will work when compiled against .NET 2.0 and above, with a few caveats.

  1. Async/await requires additional classes to be defined since the Task Parallel Library, IAwaitable and other types were not part of .NET 2.0.
  2. The magic parts of string interpolation need some types to be defined (thanks to Thomas Levesque for catching this oversight).
  3. Extension methods need the declaration of System.Runtime.CompilerServices.ExtensionAttribute so that the compiler can mark static methods as extension methods.

Rather than just try .NET 4.5, I decided to go all the way back to .NET 2.0 and see if I could write and execute a console application that used all the following C#6 features:

The code I used is not really important, though I have included it at the end of this post if you want to see what I did. The only mild stumbling block was the lack of obvious extension method support in .NET 2.0. However, extension methods are a language-only feature; all that is needed to make it work is an attribute that the compiler can use to mark methods as extension methods. Since .NET 2.0 doesn't have this attribute, I added it myself.

Exclusions

You might have noticed that I did not verify a couple of things. First, I left out the use of await in try/catch blocks. This is because .NET 2.0 does not include the BCL classes that the compiler expects when generating the state machines that drive async code. You might be able to find a third-party implementation that would add support, but my brief3 search was fruitless. That said, this feature will definitely work in .NET 4.5 as it is an update to how the compiler builds the code.

Second, I did not intentionally test the improved overload resolution. The improvements mostly seem to relate to resolution involving overloads that take method groups and nullable types. Unfortunately, in .NET 2.0 there was were no Func delegate types nor nullable value types (UPDATE: Nullable types totally existed in .NET 2.0 and C#2; thanks to Thomas Levesque for pointing out my strange oversight here – I blame the water), making it difficult to craft an example that would demonstrate this improvement. However, overload resolution affects how the compiler selects which method to use for a particular call site. Once the compiler has made the selection, it is fixed within the compiled output and as such, the version of the .NET framework has no bearing on whether the resolution is correct4.

Did it work?

With the test code written, I compiled and ran it. A console window flickered and Visual Studio returned. The code had run but I had forgotten to put anything in there that would give me chance to read the output. So, I dropped a breakpoint in at the end, and then ran it under the debugger. As I had suspected it might, everything worked.

Testing under .NET 2.0 runtime on Windows XP
Testing under .NET 2.0 runtime on Windows XP

Then I realised I was still executing it on a machine that had .NET 4.6 and therefore the .NET 4 runtime; would it still work under the .NET 2 runtime? So, I cracked open5 a Windows XP virtual machine from modern.ie and ran it again. It didn't work, because Windows XP did not come with .NET 2.0 installed (it wasn't even included in any of the service packs), so I installed it and tried once more. As I had suspected it might, everything worked.

In conclusion

If you find yourself still working with old versions of the .NET framework or the .NET runtime, you can still use and benefit from most features of C#6. I hope my small effort here is helpful. If you have anything to add, please comment.

Here Lies The Example Code6

 


  1. Async/await requires the TPL classes in the BCL, extension methods need the ExtensionAttribute, and exception filters require some runtime support 

  2. The Elvis's 

  3. very brief 

  4. I realise many of the C#6 features could be left untested for similar reasons since almost all are compiler changes that do not need framework support, but testing it rather than assuming it is kind of the point 

  5. Waited an hour for the IE XP virtual machine to download and then get it running 

  6. Demonstrable purposes only; if you take this into production, on your head be it