Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Extending Swift generic types

TL;DR - Generic Swift types such as Array or Dictionary can be easily extended to provide methods to specific types by making their associated type(s) either conform to a protocol or inherit from a class
Back in the days of Objective-C it was very common to extend NSArray using a category to add convenience methods. However, as far as I know since Objective-C did not have generics it was not possible to constrain these category method to a specific type of NSArray. In Swift, typed arrays are the norm and sometimes it's necessary and very useful to extend these typed arrays to suit own needs. This post looks at how can Swift generic types be extended.

Extending an array of strings (i.e. Array<String>)

A few weeks ago I wanted to add a convenience method to an array of strings for a project I was working on. The first thing that came to my mind was to literally constrain the Array to a String. However, the moment I did this I got the following error: Same-type requirement makes generic parameter 'Element' non-generic.

 Back to the drawing board then...
What this is error is saying is that we cannot make an associated type non-generic because Swift does not support this. Presumably, this is because it would defeat the purpose of having an associated type originally. This error can be reproduce by the following code:
protocol MyGenericProtocol {
  associatedtype MyGenericProtocolType  //typealias in swift 2.1 and below

struct MyGenericStruct<MyGenericStructType>: MyGenericProtocol {
  typealias MyGenericProtocolType = MyGenericStructType

extension MyGenericStruct where MyGenericStructType == String {} // compiler error
The only way to constrain an extension for Array is either through a protocol or class and not a struct. An associated type can be constrained by inheritance or conformance but not equality because that would mean it would cease to be an associated type.

Naturally we cannot inherit from a struct

Attempting to constrain an Array by inheriting from a struct would look something like this:
struct MyStruct {}

extension Array where Element: MyStruct {
  // Functions that should only work for an array of MyStruct
Annoyingly, attempting to do this throws a compiler error but it's only shown when used on an Xcode project and not a playground. Not even the line of code of the error is marked. This code produces this error: Type 'Element' constrained to non-protocol type 'MyStruct'.
Therefore, the following are valid cases to constrain an Array:

1. By constraining the Element so that it conforms to a protocol:

protocol MyProtocol {}

extension Array where Element: MyProtocol {
  // Functions that should only work for an array of MyProtocol

2.a. By constraining the Element so that it inherits from a class:

class MyClass {}

extension Array where Element: MyClass {
  // Functions that should only work for an array of MyClass

2.b. The Element can also be constrained to an Element that inherits from a root final class

This is unusually valid, considering the original compiler error, Same-type requirement makes generic parameter 'Element' non-generic. Unless I'm missing something, by constraining an Array to a final class it means that the Element in the Array is no longer generic. Hence, maybe the error should say something about equality not being allowed:
final class MyRootFinalClass {}

extension Array where Element: MyRootFinalClass {
  // Functions that should only work for an array of MyRootFinalClass

3. By constraining the Element so that it inherits from a class and conforms to a protocol

class MyClass {}

protocol MyProtocol {}

extension Array where Element: MyClass, Element: MyProtocol {
  // Functions that should only work for an array of MyClass objects that conform to MyProtocol

Practical example

Using what we learned, we can now solve the original problem. The first thing would be to create a custom protocol, StringProtocol, to be used to extend our Array. Within the protocol we need to declare the functions we need to use inside our extension. Finally, we need to declare that String conforms to StringProtocol.
protocol StringProtocol {
  func hasPrefix(prefix: String) -> Bool

extension String : StringProtocol {}

extension Array where Element: StringProtocol {
  func filterByPrefix(prefix: String) -> [Element] {
    return filter { (element) -> Bool in

let strings = ["aa", "ab", "bc"]
strings.filterByPrefix("a") // ["aa", "ab"]

Dictionary example

A similar and also highly useful scenario is about constraining a Dictionary for JSON decoding as it's the case of version 2.x of JSONUtilities. With a simple extension we can use type inference to decode a JSON that has a String key to the correctly inferred type. For example, for decoding a String from a dictionary of weakly typed AnyObjects:
protocol StringProtocol {}
extension String : StringProtocol {}

// Error enum for handling missing mandatory keys
enum Error : ErrorType {
  case NoValueForKey(StringProtocol)

public protocol DecodingSupportedType {}
extension String : DecodingSupportedType {}

extension Dictionary where Key: StringProtocol {
  func decodingKey<ReturnType : DecodingSupportedType>(key: Key) throws -> ReturnType {
    guard let value = self[key] as? ReturnType else {
      throw Error.NoValueForKey(key)
    return value
  func decodingKey<ReturnType : DecodingSupportedType>(key: Key) -> ReturnType? {
    return self[key] as? ReturnType
This Dictionary extension could then be easily using to decode a [String: AnyObject]while keeping the type safety.
let dictionary: [String: AnyObject] = ["key": "value"]

/// Type inference from variable type
let mandatoryValue: String = try! dictionary.decodingKey("key") //"value\n"
let optionalValue: String? = try? dictionary.decodingKey("key") //"Optional("value")\n"

// Handling failures with mandatory keys
do {
  let mandatoryValue: String = try dictionary.decodingKey("otherkey")
} catch let error {
  print(error) // "NoValueForKey("otherkey")\n"


It's certainly not immediately obvious how to extend an Array, a Dictionary or any generic type for that matter. However, by understanding these simple concepts it's possible to create highly reusable and strongly type functions that only work for the type you expect.


  1. Oh! That is s good thing to have such a site at hand and use it any time.

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  3. Nice article, I've been fiddling around with generics but have not found a way to make the generic type conform to protocol by extending it. In the previous examples contraints are only imposed on the type parameter not the generic type itself.

    Do you know if it is currently possible to extend the generic type by making it conform to a protocol?

  4. Great stuff. I remember looking into this once, and giving up. This is brilliant - it is actually super useful to extend both Array and Dictionary, and without the type kung-fu here it's impossible.

    Apple's documentation on the syntax and use of generics is severely lacking!

    Thank you!

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