Pattern Matching in a Dynamic OOP Language

January 16, 2011 c code js language magpie

Another long weekend and another fun milestone for Magpie. I’ve finally managed to pull off something that I’ve wanted to support for a long time: real destructuring pattern matching. Even more awesome, it uses patterns not just in the basic match expression, but also for exception-handling catch clauses, variable declarations, and function type declarations.

This is great because it means we can use the same concept to support a lot of the language’s semantics. There are fewer things for a user to learn, and if I make that one concept more powerful, the effect is magnified across more of the language. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Pattern what?

If you’ve never ventured into the realm of static functional languages, it’s entirely likely you’ve never heard of pattern matching, or if you have, it was describing something else. I wrote a really long introduction to it a while back, but I’ll do the super science breakdown here.

What I think you’ll find is that you do know what it is, you just don’t know you know it. Here’s some examples:


Consider the humble switch statement in Ye Olde Imperative Language:

switch (i) {
  case 1:  printf("first"); break;
  case 2:  printf("second"); break;
  case 3:  printf("third"); break;
  default: printf("uh..."); break;

Pretty straightforward. The key bits are, we have a value being tested (here just i), a series of clauses, and a default clause. Each clause has a body and a thing being compared against, which I’ll call the pattern.

The semantics are equally straightforward. First, we evaluate the value expression, then we walk down the clauses. For each one, we see if the pattern matches the value. If so, we execute the body and end (we’ll ignore fallthrough here). “Match” is a pretty fuzzy term. In the context of a switch statement in C, all it means is equivalence. Two values match if they’re the same value.


Now let’s switch gears and take a look a catch blocks in everyone’s favorite Big Enterprise Language:

try {
  // Do something crazy...
} catch (ParseException ex) {
  System.out.println("Parse error!");
} catch (IOException ex) {
  System.out.println("IO error!");
} catch (Exception ex) {

When an exception gets thrown in the try block, we start working through the catch blocks. The key bits here are: we have a value being tested (the thrown exception) and a series of clauses (the catch blocks). Each clause has a body and an exception type being compared against, which we’ll again call the pattern.

Sound familiar? Aside from syntax, the only real difference between exception handling and switch statements is that catch clauses match on the exception’s type instead of its value. All of the other machinery is the same.


Last example, and a different one from the previous two. Let’s take a look at the Hot New Language. The latest Mozilla-specific version that no one actually uses (not that I’m bitter or anything) introduced a new feature called destructuring assignment. It looks like this:

var point = [1, 2];
var [x, y] = point; // Destructure point.
alert(x + ", " y);

You can probably infer what’s going on here. The second line declares two new variables, a and b and initializes them by pulling elements out of the array that point was initialized with.

There’s no flow control going on, but this does have some features in common with the previous two examples. First, we have a value: point. And we have a pattern that it’s being matched against: [x, y]. In this case, we don’t use the pattern to test the value, we use it to pull data out of it.

Actually, that destructuring part isn’t so different from one of our examples after all. The exception-handling code does something very similar. When it finds a matching catch block, it does bind the caught exception to a new variable—the one declared in the catch block’s type signature.

Patterns in Magpie

There are some other details, but what you’ve just seen covers 90% of the awesomeness that is pattern-matching in the ML family of languages. The only problem is that in the languages we’ve looked at, those features are all split across unrelated constructs. A switch can’t match on types, nor can it destructure an array. A catch block can’t choose to only catch an exception if it has a certain value (like maybe a specific error message).

All the pieces are there, but they’re scattered across the language. Let’s bring them together. We’ll do this by making patterns a first-class feature of the language. A pattern needs to support a couple of operations:

  1. Test to see if the pattern matches the value.

  2. Bind new variables by pulling data out of the value.

Just like how expressions in the language work, we’ll define a couple of core types of patterns, and then let users compose them to their heart’s content. In Magpie, those are:

Value patterns

The simplest pattern is just an expression that evaluates to a value. These are like the literals after the case in a switch statement, but Magpie lets you use pretty much any expression. These are valid value patterns:

"a string"
3 + 5

Testing against a value is simple: it’s an equality check. A 2 pattern matches if the value is also 2. Magpie does this by just calling the == operator, so it’s even possible to use your own types here.

Value patterns don’t bind any new variables, so that bit’s easy too.

Tuple patterns

This is one of two patterns that has subpatterns. With this, you can start composing bigger patterns that do more stuff. A tuple pattern is just like a tuple expression: it’s a series of patterns separated by commas. For example:

3, "four", false

Here we have a tuple of three value patterns. A tuple pattern matches if all of its fields match the value’s fields. In other words, the interpreter walks through the field patterns while walking through the fields of the tuple value in parallel. It’s this symmetry which makes patterns so intuitive to use.

A tuple pattern by itself doesn’t bind any variables, but it does recursively give the patterns of its fields the chance to do so.

Record patterns

The twin brother to tuple patterns, a record pattern does the same thing, but for a named record (or any other type with named members). Here’s one:

x: 1, y: 2

That pattern matches any object with an x field whose value is 1, and a y field whose value is 2.

Variable patterns

Finally, the most important pattern, and the one where Magpie makes the greatest departure from ML. A variable pattern has a name and an optional type annotation. The name can be _ if you don’t care to bind a variable. Here are some examples:

_              // No name or type.
a              // Name but no type.
position Point // Name and type.
_ Int | String // No name but type.

A variable pattern matches if the type of the value matches the variable pattern’s type. If the pattern doesn’t have a type, the match always succeeds.

Variable patterns also perform the magic of creating new variables. When a variable pattern matches, it creates a new variable with the given name whose value is the matched value. When you combine that with tuple and record patterns, you get destructuring automagically. If we take this value:

name: "Dan", pals: ("Sam", "Ed")

And match it against this pattern:

name: n, pals: (a, b)

The match will succeed, and n will be "Dan", a will be "Sam", and b will be "Ed".

Now what?

Now we’ve got these pattern things, where can we use them? It turns out, lots of places. We’ll start with the most obvious one: match expressions— Magpie’s souped-up version of switch. Our first example looks like this in Magpie:

match i
    case 1 then print("first")
    case 2 then print("second")
    case 3 then print("third")
    case _ then print("uh...")

The semantics are what you expect. It tests each pattern (the bit between case and then) in turn. When a pattern matches, it binds any pattern variables in a new scope, and executes the expression after then in it. A richer example showing all of the fun stuff looks like:

match name: "Dan", pals: ("Sam", "Ed")
  case name: "Dave" then "don't care about Dave's friends"
  case name: a, pals: nothing then a ~ " has no friends"
  case name: n, pals: (a, b) then
      n ~ " is pals with " ~ a ~ " and " ~ b

Pretty handy, but we’re just getting started.


Since we can also match on type, that gives us all we need to use patterns for selecting an appropriate catch clause when an error is thrown. The exception example up there becomes:

  // Do something crazy...
catch ex ParseException then print("Parse error!")
catch ex IOException    then print("IO error!")
catch _                 then print("Uh-oh!")


Since patterns give us a way to bind variables, do we really need to have a separate special case var expression that just creates a single named variable? Nope. We can just make it take a single pattern. If the pattern is a variable pattern with no type, it degenerates to a regular variable declaration like:

var i = "the queen of France"

But you can also use tuple and record patterns to destructure:

var name: n, pals: (a, b) = name: "Dan", pals: ("Sam", "Ed")
print(n) // "Dan"
print(a) // "Sam"
print(b) // "Ed"

So now we’ve got destructuring for free. Swell!

Function parameters

There’s one last trick up our sleeve. If you look at the exception example there, it looks an awful lot like a function type declaration. That’s not a coincidence either. We can now just use a pattern to define a function’s parameter type, like so:

def foo(name: n String, pals: (a String, b String))
  print(n) // "Dan"
  print(a) // "Sam"
  print(b) // "Ed"

The syntax of variable patterns was designed specifically around this. My goal was to make the patterns used for function parameters look familiar to someone new to the language while hiding greater flexibility under the surface. I think most programmers can figure out what this means:

def sayAge(name String, age Int)
    print(name ~ " is " ~ age ~ " years old")

without ever realizing the name String, age Int is something special.

Using patterns for function types also plays really nicely with Magpie’s static typing. By adding support for evaluating the type of a pattern, we can use that to type check a pattern anywhere it appears. For example:

match "not an int"
  case 1 then "match a string with an int?"

The interpreter can statically tell that this is an error because the pattern type doesn’t match the value. And using that exact same code, we can also tell that this is an error:

def expectInt(i Int) print(i)
expectInt("not an int")

The end result of all of this is that the total amount of code in the interpreter has gone down, there are fewer distinct concepts to learn in the language, and at the same time I’ve added new functionality that wasn’t there before. Or, in the words of the immortal John “Hannibal” Smith, “I love it when a plan comes together.”