Monthly Archives: May 2008

Collection initializer expressions, redux

WARNING: This is a speculative post. Caveat emptor.

When we last left collection initializers, we were discussing default types for collection initializers. Since then we’ve thought further about the feature and are considering changing the design. The problem is that as nice as type inference is, as we started to dig into what that practically meant it started to become more and more difficult to figure out what a particular collection initializer might mean. Because the meaning of the initializer in the original design depends on the context, it’s meaning could change dramatically in different contexts. Of particular difficulty was figuring out just how a collection initializer would participate in generic method type inference (i.e. inferring the type arguments to a generic method)–an important topic given how much generic methods are used in LINQ.

Without going into too much detail, what we’re considering is significantly simplifying the design. Instead of inferring the meaning of a collection initializer from context, a standalone collection initializer will always infer an array type. So {1, 2, 3, 4} will always be a single dimensional array of Integer. If you want to initialize a collection type, you use an initializer similar to object member initializers (the initializer that uses “With”). For example:

Dim x = New List(Of Integer)() From { 1, 2, 3, 4 }

The use of the “From” keyword is provisional. It may be the right keyword, it might not, we’ll have to think further on that one. However, you get the idea. The downside of the new design is that it’s more typing in the situation where you were initializing a collection in a context like argument passing (although in the case of List, you could also say {1, 2, 3, 4}.ToList()) where you weren’t going to say the type at all. The upside is that it removes significant ambiguity–when you see “Foo({1, 2, 3, 4})” you know what you’re passing and in the case of generic methods, you aren’t going to get surprising results. This also makes the feature work more like the way C#’s anonymous arrays and collection initializers work, for those of you who care about that kind of thing.


Reserved words: what are they good for? (Absolutely nothing?)

Random musing for the day: I was thinking about reserved words in programming languages and whether they’re really necessary at a lexical level. As you know, most programming languages define in their lexical grammar a set of words that cannot be used anywhere in the language except when explicitly specified in the grammar. For example, VB reserves the word “Object”. So you can’t just say:

    ' Error: Keyword is not valid as an identifier.
    Sub Object()
    End Sub

Many languages (such as VB) allow you to work around this by providing some sort of lexical escape that suppresses the reserved nature of the word. So you can say in VB:

    Sub [Object]()
    End Sub

Confusingly, many keywords that we’ve been adding to VB lately haven’t been reserved words, to reduce the need to modify people’s code when they upgrade. Instead, they’ve been contextual keywords, that is to say they’re only reserved in certain syntatic contexts. For example, From is not a reserved word in VB in the lexical grammar, but if you start an expression with From and then follow it with an identifier, we say “Oh, yes, you’re starting a query…” For example:

    Dim From As Integer = 10
    ' OK: Unambiguously the local variable
    Dim x = From + 10
    ' OK: Unambiguously a query
    Dim y = From a In New Integer() {1, 2, 3, 4}

Which leads me to wonder: why bother with lexically reserved words at all? Why not just make all of your keywords contextual? When I started on VB, I guess I just accepted the practice since that’s what the language did before I showed up, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe there’s some blindingly obvious reason that I’m not seeing (probably there is). I can think of some historical reasons why keywords weren’t all contextual:

  1. Maybe it simplified writing a parser in “the old days,” or it simplified building a parser generator.
  2. Maybe it was because people were writing code in editors that didn’t have syntax coloring. “int int = 5; int = (int)int * (int)int / (int)int” looks pretty nonsensical if you don’t have nice coloring to tell you which are the keywords and which aren’t.
  3. Maybe there were grammatical problems with doing it? The previous example makes me wonder about whether C could handle it; I’m not an expert on how the C grammar handles the cast operator.

Anyway, it’s not extremely relevant at the moment–we’re not going to just start unreserving all the keywords in VB–but just something interesting to think about…

Collection initializer expressions

WARNING: This is a speculative post. Caveat emptor.

Well, I appear to be on a rhythm of about once a month posts, which seems OK for the moment. Moving on to another “future” topic, one of the most annoying things that we cut (at least, from my perspective) from VB 2008 was collection initializers. Collection initializers were a little different than the corresponding C# feature, because our plan was to introduce stand-alone initializers that didn’t have any intrinsic type. Instead the initializers “snap to” a particular type when they’re converted to it, just like lambdas and AddressOf expressions. For example:

' This works since VB 7.0!
Dim a() As Integer = {1, 2, 3, 4}
' This now creates a list.
Dim b() As List(Of Integer) = {1, 2, 3, 4}
' This assigns a new list to b.
b = {5, 6, 7, 8}

' If M takes Integer(), that's what it'll get. If it takes List(Of Integer), that's what it'll get.
M({1, 2, 3, 4, 5})

This is kind of nice, in that you can initialize collection types and arrays without having to state a type at all. We do the same trick C# does about looking for an Add method on a object that implements IEnumerable, so you can also use this syntax to initialize dictionaries:

Dim d As Dictionary(Of Integer, String) = {{1, "One"}, {2, "Two"}, {3, "Three"}}

All this is pretty straightforward, but there is some discussion about what type you should get if there is an absence of a target type. For example, assuming that local type inference is on, what should the following be typed as?

Dim x = {1, 2, 3, 4}

Our initial thought was that we should just infer the dominant type of the initializer and then create an array of that type. So the above example would type x as Integer(). And then the following:

Dim y = {{1, 2}, {3, 4}, {5, 6}}

Would infer a type of Integer(,), a two-dimensional array of Integer. With more nesting, you’d get more dimensional arrays. However, as we talked about it more, it seemed like maybe it might be more useful to infer List(Of T) for the 1-dimensional initalizer, Dictionary(Of K, V) for the 2-dimensional initializer, and nothing for more dimensions. So the type of x would instead be List(Of Integer) and the type of y would be Dictionary(Of Integer, Integer).

Both seem reasonable, so I’m curious what people would think. Remember, we will only fill in a type if we’re in a context (like type inference) where there’s no target type to use. We’ll always use a target type if there is one.