C#

C# 6.0 – String Interpolation

[7/30/2015] This article was written against a pre-release version of C# 6.0. Be sure to check out the list of my five favorite C# 6.0 features for content written against the release!

I really debated about whether I should write about C#’s upcoming string interpolation feature yet. On one hand it’s an interesting feature that I’m looking forward to. On the other hand, it has already been announced that the feature is going to change from its implementation in the current preview. With that in mind I decided that it’s interesting enough to go ahead and write about it using the current syntax but highlight how it will change, much like how it has been done in the feature description document.

When I first heard that string interpolation was coming to C# I immediately experienced flashbacks to the very early days of my career when I was working with some Perl scripts. I really hated working with the language but something that always stuck with me and I missed when jumping to other languages was its string interpolation feature.

At a glance, Perl’s string interpolation feature let us embed variable names inside string literals and the compiler would handle the details of replacing the variable name with the value. My Perl is rusty to say the least but a simple example would essentially look like this:

my $name = "Dave";
print "My name is $name";

Upon execution, the script would write out the following text:

My name is Dave

Side note: I think this is the first time Perl has appeared on this blog. Hopefully it’ll be the last!

Perl’s implementation is more advanced than I’ve shown in this example but it clearly shows the usefulness of the feature. When .NET finally came along and I learned about String.Format I had hopes that it could evolve into something like the Perl feature described above. String.Format is certainly a useful method but it can quickly become a maintenance headache.

Traditional format strings have a number of problems each stemming from the index-based hole approach. First, each value must be supplied in the order that corresponds to the index which isn’t necessarily the order that the values appear in the string. Next, as the number of holes increases, it can be difficult to discern what each hole represents. This isn’t normally a problem for strings with only a few holes but consider the nightmare of keeping indices straight on a format string with more than 50 holes like I once encountered. Finally, String.Format validates only that enough values were supplied to fill each of the holes but if values were provided than there are holes there’s not even a compiler warning. Combine this with one of those 57-hole strings and good luck finding which indices are off or which values should be removed.

C#’s string interpolation aims to fix each of the aforementioned problems. The current implementation uses a slightly clunky version of the traditional format string syntax in that each hole must be prefixed with a backslash. Here’s how the previous example would be written in C# 6.0 using the syntax that’s in the current preview:

var name = "Dave";
WriteLine("My name is \{name}");

Just as in the Perl example, the compiler will resolve the name and fill the hole with the appropriate value. What’s more is that the compiler also verifies that each name exists in the current context and flags anything it can’t resolve as an error.

Per the upcoming features document, this syntax will be changed to something a bit friendlier. Rather than prefixing each hole with a backslash, the string will be identified as an interpolated string by prefixing it with a dollar sign like this:

var name = "Dave";
WriteLine($"My name is {name}");

In this trivial example the net effect on the code is moving and replacing a single character but it’s easy to imagine more complex interpolated strings becoming significantly shorter. (There will also be a FormattedString class added to the System.Runtime.CompilerServices namespace to facilitate custom formatting via the IFormattable interface but I won’t cover that in this article).

That interpolated strings (in either form) closely resemble traditional format strings is not entirely coincidental because ultimately, each interpolated string is syntactic sugar for invoking String.Format. Essentially, the compiler replaces each of the named holes with indexed holes and constructs the value array from the provided names. The benefit of this is that anything you can do with traditional format strings such as including alignment and format specifiers also is also possible with interpolated strings. For instance, we could easily represent a date in ISO 8601 format as follows:

"Current Date and Time (UTC): \{DateTime.UtcNow:o}"

So that’s C#’s string interpolation feature in a nutshell and I’m pretty excited about the direction it’s going because it’ll gradually clean up a lot of code. Since the feature is still under development there’s an active discussion in progress over on the Roslyn site. If you’re interested in seeing some of the thought process behind where this feature is going I encourage you to check it out.

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C# 6.0 – nameof Expressions

[7/30/2015] This article was written against a pre-release version of C# 6.0. Be sure to check out the list of my five favorite C# 6.0 features for content written against the release!

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve needed to pass along the name of something be it a property, method, or type. Historically we’ve relied on hard-coded strings to convey this information but as we’re all too well aware, relying on strings in such a manner is just asking for future problems. For a prime example, we need look no further than our old friend INotifyPropertyChanged.

Consider the following Circle class which typifies the basic INotifyPropertyChanged implementation pattern:

public class Circle
  : INotifyPropertyChanged
{
  public event PropertyChangedEventHandler PropertyChanged;

  private double _radius;
  public double Radius
  {
    get { return _radius; }
    set
    {
      _radius = value;
      RaisePropertyChanged("Radius");
    }
  }

  private void RaisePropertyChanged(string propertyName)
  {
    if (PropertyChanged == null) return;

    PropertyChanged(this, new PropertyChangedEventArgs(propertyName));
  }
}

Although this class is pretty boilerplate, it highlights the problem well. First, we’ve violated the DRY principle by encoding a member name in a string. Next, we’ve introduced fragility by relying on the string always reflecting the property name exactly; should the property name ever change we need to remember to change the string as well lest we waste some cycles tracking down why an event handler isn’t picking up the property change. What’s worse is that by encoding the name within a string, we get no compile-time support alerting us to the discrepancy.

The story around INotifyPropertyChanged and other similar scenarios has improved over the years as people have come up with some creative solutions. For instance, I’m particularly fond of the expression tree approach because despite its added complexity, it adds the compile-time support lacking in the string-based approach and ties in nicely to Visual Studio’s built-in refactoring capabilities.

.NET 4.5 improved the story a bit more by introducing a few attributes we could apply to optional parameters to get information about the method caller with CallerMemberNameAttribute being the most notable for this discussion. By decorating a parameter with CallerMemberNameAttribute as shown in the revised RaisePropertyChanged method that follows we’re instructing the compiler to inject the name of the member that invoked the method.

private void RaisePropertyChanged([CallerMemberName] string propertyName = "")
{
  if (PropertyChanged == null) return;

  PropertyChanged(this, new PropertyChangedEventArgs(propertyName));
}

With this revised version, we could simply invoke the method without passing the name and the compiler would resolve the name for us. The problem with this approach is that there’s nothing in IntelliSense to inform us that the parameter is decorated with the attribute and there’s nothing stopping us from providing a value. In fact, the compiler won’t even warn that a name won’t be resolved if we do provide a value. Furthermore, while CallerMemberNameAttribute works nicely for this example, it’s only useful when we need the caller name so it won’t help us if we need the name of anything else such as a parameter name. That’s where the new nameof operator comes in.

C# 6.0’s nameof operator is used to resolve the name of an item at compile-time, essentially inserting the string into the compiled code. What’s really great about it is that it’s simple to use and works on any symbol.

In keeping with the INotifyPropertyChanged example, in C# 6.0 we can add compile-time safety to the original example code simply by replacing:

RaisePropertyChanged("Radius");

with:

RaisePropertyChanged(nameof(Radius));

There are plenty of other places I can see the nameof operator coming in handy. For instance, I often like to use a Guard class to perform a variety of pre-condition checks against method parameter values. Such a class typically looks a bit like this:

public sealed class Guard
{
  private static Lazy<Guard> _against = new Lazy<Guard>();

  public static Guard Against { get { return _against.Value; } }

  public void Null(string arg, object value)
  {
    if (value == null) throw new ArgumentNullException(arg);
  }

  // additional guard methods here
}

I generally create the Guard class as a sealed singleton class rather than as a static class to not only create a more English-like API, but also to allow extension methods in certain scenarios. I also like defining the Guard class methods as a fluent interface but omitted that for brevity.

Given that the Guard class operates off of arguments rather than callers, adding parameters decorated with CallerMemberNameAttribute clearly won’t work in this scenario. Instead we can simply update calls to the various methods to use the nameof operator instead of a hard-coded string and our code will immediately be less fragile.

Fun with Code Diagnostic Analyzers

A few days ago I posted an article detailing how to construct a code diagnostic analyzer and code fix provider to detect if..else statements that simply assign a variable or return a value and replace the statements with a conditional operator. You know, the kind of things that code diagnostic analyzers and code fix providers are intended for. As I was developing those components I got to thinking about what kind of fun I could have while abusing the feature. More specifically, I wondered whether could I construct a code diagnostic analyzer such that it would highlight every line of C# code as a warning and recommend using F# instead.

It turns out, it’s actually really easy. The trick is to register a syntax tree action rather than a syntax node action and always report the diagnostic rule at the tree’s root location. For an extra bit of fun, I also set the diagnostic rule’s help link to fsharp.org so that clicking the link in the error list directs the user to that site.

Here’s the analyzer’s code listing in its entirety:

using Microsoft.CodeAnalysis;
using Microsoft.CodeAnalysis.Diagnostics;
using System.Collections.Immutable;

namespace UseFSharpAnalyzer
{
    [DiagnosticAnalyzer(LanguageNames.CSharp)]
    public class UseFSharpAnalyzerAnalyzer : DiagnosticAnalyzer
    {
        internal static DiagnosticDescriptor Rule =
            new DiagnosticDescriptor(
                "UseFSharpAnalyzer",
                "Use F#",
                "You're using C#; Try F# instead!",
                "Language Choice",
                DiagnosticSeverity.Warning,
                isEnabledByDefault: true,
                helpLink: "http://fsharp.org");

        public override ImmutableArray<DiagnosticDescriptor> SupportedDiagnostics { get { return ImmutableArray.Create(Rule); } }

        public override void Initialize(AnalysisContext context)
        {
            context.RegisterSyntaxTreeAction(AnalyzeTree);
        }

        private static void AnalyzeTree(SyntaxTreeAnalysisContext context)
        {
            var rootLocation = context.Tree.GetRoot().GetLocation();
            var diag = Diagnostic.Create(Rule, rootLocation);

            context.ReportDiagnostic(diag);
        }
    }
}

When applied to a C# file, the result is as follows:

Use F# Analyzer

This is clearly an example of what not to do with code analyzers but it was fun to put together and see the result nonetheless. If you’ve thought of any other entertaining uses for code analyzers, I’d love to hear about them!

I Can Analyze Code, And So Can You

[12 December 2014 – Update 1] Upon setting up a new VM I realized that I missed a prerequisite when writing this post. The Visual Studio 2015 Preview SDK is also required. This extension includes the VSIX project subtype required by the Diagnostic and Code Fix template used for the example. I’ve included a note about installing the SDK in the prerequisites section below.

[12 December 2014 – Update 2] The github project has moved under the .NET Analyzers organization. This organization is collecting diagnostics, code fixes, and refactorings like to showcase the capabilities of this technology. The project link has been updated accordingly.

Over the past several years, Microsoft has been hard at work on the .NET Compiler Platform (formerly Roslyn). Shipping with Visual Studio 2015 the .NET Compiler Platform includes a complete rewrite of the C# and Visual Basic compilers intended to bring features that developers have come to expect from modern compilers. In addition to the shiny new compilers the .NET Compiler Platform introduces a rich set of APIs that we can harness to build custom code diagnostic analyzers and code fix providers thus allowing us to detect and correct issues in our code.

When trying to decide on a useful demonstration for these features I thought of one of my coding pet peeves: using an if..else statement to conditionally set a variable or return a value. I prefer treating these scenarios as an expression via the conditional (ternary) operator and I often find myself refactoring these patterns in legacy code. It certainly would be nice to automate that process. It turns out that this is exactly the type of task at which diagnostic analyzers and code fix providers excel and we’ll walk through the process of creating such components in this post. (more…)

Musings on C#’s Evolution

Since completing my series on likely C# 6.0 features and reviewing the draft spec for record classes and pattern matching in C#, I’ve had some time to reflect on how C# has evolved and think about where it’s going from a more holistic perspective.

I’ve been working with C# for approximately 12 years. It was the language of choice at the beginning of my career so, in a sense, C# and I have grown up together. During that time I’ve watched what was essentially a Java clone grow into the powerhouse it is today. It’s a bit cliché, but when I started working with C# it didn’t have many of the features I now take for granted. Things like generics, the null coalescing operator, lambda expressions, extension methods, anonymous types, dynamics, and async/await were in their infancy with some as much as a decade away. It seems that every major release has brought a slew of compelling new features that have dramatically improved the language.

As I look at the code I write today I often wonder how C# developers managed without generics. I remember the headaches of dealing with ArrayList and its early kin and having to trust that the objects in the collections were actually the types we thought they were. Today I often look at blocks of imperative code (typically loops) that see that they’re doing nothing more than explicitly filtering, mapping, and reducing sequences. I immediately think how much cleaner the code would be with LINQ. And in today’s world of connected mobile devices where application responsiveness is of primary importance, async/await make asynchronous development accessible to the masses. These are all incredible tools we have at our disposal and are all among the reasons I’ve stuck with .NET development for so long.

C# 6 is different. With C# 6, the language enhancement is the Roslyn compiler. Roslyn promises to bring modern compilation strategies to C#. This is a huge undertaking and heavily impacts how we’ll interact with code through Visual Studio and other tools. I haven’t looked at Roslyn nearly as much as I’d like but I do believe the new compiler is long overdue and will pay dividends in the long run for developers and Microsoft alike. That said, the actual changes to the C# language itself seem to range from lackluster to pointless.

I’m not saying that the language features are all bad; several of them will likely be welcome additions to the language. Enhancements such as primary constructors, auto-implemented property initializers, and using static are each things that can have an immediate impact on developer productivity and are by far my favorites of the lot. Other features, such as index initializers, params IEnumerable<T>, and expression-bodied members don’t really seem to add much to the language due to either existing syntactic constructs or other limitations of the language.

Is initializing dictionary elements with [7] = "seven" really any better than with { 7, "seven" }? All the index initializer achieves is trading a pair of curly braces and a comma for a pair of square brackets and an assignment operator, respectively. How is params IEnumerable<int> better than params int[] if the argument list is still converted to an array at the call site and no other usage requires defining the parameter with the params modifier? Finally, expression-bodied members could be a great feature if C# was an expression-based language but it’s not – it’s statement-based. The proposed semicolon operator could greatly increase the usefulness of expression-bodied members but at the time of this writing, it’s still listed as “Maybe” on the Language Feature Implementation Status page. Even then, the semicolon operator feels like an attempt to coerce C# into being expression-based when it was never intended to be treated as such. In the meantime, there’s already a perfectly viable alternative – write a function!

Looking further into the future brings us to the draft spec for record classes and pattern matching. (Please note that since this spec is a draft, everything here is subject to change; whatever does get implemented, if anything, may or may not look like this proposal.) If you haven’t read the draft (and I highly recommend that you do), it proposes a new record modifier for class definitions. This modifier would instruct the compiler to generate an immutable class with built-in structural equality and an is operator (if not provided). The is operator can then be used in if and switch statements for type checking and value extractions.

For example, we could define a class like this (example taken from the proposal):

public record class Cartesian(double x: X, double y: Y);

…then use pattern matching constructs like this (adapted from the proposal):

if (expr is Cartesian c)
{
  // code using c
}

My initial reaction when I heard about these features was excitement but the more I read and the more I think about it, the less I like them, pattern matching in particular. I’ll be the last person to argue against immutability and pattern matching, especially when looking at them from a functional programming mindset. I do like the simplicity of the immutable record classes and I don’t mind that pattern matching is essentially an extension of the is operator.

The reason I don’t like these features as proposed is that they don’t feel like they belong in C#. I feel like this for a few reasons. First, pattern matching can improve code’s expressiveness but merely adding it to a language that wasn’t constructed with pattern matching in mind severely limits its usefulness. Second, the overall expressiveness is again limited by the fact that C# isn’t an expression-based language; pattern matching might make if statements and switch statements more concise, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re still statements!

Let’s contrast the proposal with an expression-based language where pattern matching is already a central concept: F#. As an expression-based language, virtually everything in F# is an expression. This includes familiar constructs like ifs and matches. By definition, as expressions these constructs return values – there’s no need to rely on mutability or wrap the behavior within a separate function, returning from each branch as we must in a statement-based language. For example, this is valid F#:

let x = if System.Random().Next(10) % 2 = 0 then "even" else "odd"

You could correctly argue that C# provides the conditional operator for this scenario but that doesn’t change the fact that in C#, if is a statement whereas in F# it’s an expression. Furthermore, what’s probably not apparent here if you’re not familiar with F# is that binding x is a pattern match. You can see this in action by replacing x with an underscore (F#’s wildcard pattern matches everything and tosses out the result) as follows:

let _ = if System.Random().Next(10) % 2 = 0 then "even" else "odd"

If you evaluate the expression in F# Interactive (FSI) you’ll see that it executes successfully but no value is bound as we’d expect due to the wildcard. For further proof, this is also how tuple binding works as evidenced here:

let value, category =
  let r = System.Random().Next(10)
  r, if r % 2 = 0 then "even" else "odd"

The expression following the assignment in the above snippet returns a tuple containing a random value and whether that value is even or odd. The tupled items are then bound to value and category respectively by using pattern matching.

Pattern matching completely permeates F#. It’s not restricted to match expressions or inline bindings; it even works in function signatures and as a filter in looping constructs! The C# proposal doesn’t talk about pattern matching outside the context of if statements and switches so discussing whether C# will embrace pattern matching as fully as F# is pure speculation but it certainly doesn’t sound particularly promising at this point. Even if pattern matching is supported outside of if and switch statements, it’s still the same underlying statement-based language.

My point in writing all of this is that for years C# has been becoming increasingly functional, with the strongest push coming in version 3 and subsequent releases building upon that foundation. Many of the features in C# 6.0 continue even further down that path by elevating expressions an even more important concept within the language. Finally, a future incarnation of the language will likely include some form of immutable class syntax and pattern matching. If this is the direction that C# is going, my question is this: Why wait for it? Why not learn a functional language to at least supplement the object-oriented language you already know?

The C# of the future is already here and it’s called F#. F# already has a modern compiler; it already supports many of the things slowly making their way into C# and much, much more. In other words, there’s no reason to wait for these things to make it into C# because F# already does them! Incorporating F# into your existing solutions isn’t a mutually exclusive proposition. As a CLR language, F# compiles to the same IL, targets the same runtimes (with few exceptions), and uses the same libraries with which you’re already familiar. In many cases it’s a perfect complement to or replacement for existing C# code.

I challenge you to try F#. Experiment with the features; see how many things you can spot that are “recent” additions to C#, making their way to C#, or not possible at all. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how adopting an expression-based, functional-first language can change the way you think, improve the quality of your code, and make you more productive. If you accept this challenge, I recommend checking out my book or any of the great resources listed on my Learning F# page to get you started.

C# 6.0 – Expression-bodied Members

[7/30/2015] This article was written against a pre-release version of C# 6.0. Be sure to check out the list of my five favorite C# 6.0 features for content written against the release!

Expression-bodied members are another set of features that simply add some syntactic convenience to C# to continue streamlining type definitions. C# type definitions have always been a bit tedious, requiring us to provide curly braces and explicit returns even when the function consists of only a single line. Lambda expressions have spoiled us by abstracting away most of the syntax that’s typically associated with functions and finally making delegation feel like a natural part of the language. Expression-bodied members extend the convenience of lambda expressions to type members… to an extent.

According to the Visual Studio “14” CTP3 notes, expression-bodied members can be used for methods, user-defined operators, type conversions, and read-only properties including indexers (although expression-bodied indexers don’t work properly in the CTP).

To demonstrate the feature, I’ll define a custom RgbColor class and using expression-bodied members for both a hexadecimal formatting method and a custom negation operator.

public class RgbColor(int r, int g, int b)
{
  public int Red { get; } = r;
  public int Green { get; } = g;
  public int Blue { get; } = b;

  public string ToHex() =>
    string.Format("#{0:X2}{1:X2}{2:X2}", Red, Green, Blue);

  public static RgbColor operator - (RgbColor color) =>
    new RgbColor(
      color.Red ^ 0xFF,
      color.Green ^ 0xFF,
      color.Blue ^ 0xFF
    );
}

As convenient as expression-bodied members appear on the surface, they seem rather limited in their utility since their very nature requires expressions. This fact is compounded by the fact that C# isn’t an expression-based language; if it were (as F# is) we could get away with defining more complex bodies including some intermediate values such as a regular expression match result. As it stands today it’s not possible to do this without first defining that logic in a separate method that can be invoked from the expression-bodied member but that seems to defeat the purpose. Perhaps this would be a good use for the semicolon operator since we can’t even include that logic within curly braces as we could with a lambda expression.

C# 6.0 – Params IEnumerable

[7/30/2015] This article was written against a pre-release version of C# 6.0 and didn’t make it into the final product. Be sure to check out the list of my five favorite C# 6.0 features for content written against the release!

One of the items currently listed as “planned” on the Language Feature Implementation Status page is params IEnumerable. This is one of those features that I’ve thought could be nice but I’ve never really felt strongly about it one way or another mainly because I avoid params arrays whenever possible. I think the only time I actually use them consistently is with String.Format and its cousin methods. Before diving into the new feature, let’s revisit params arrays so I can better explain why I avoid them and why I’m so apathetic about this proposed feature.

The idea behind params arrays is that they let us pass an arbitrary number of arguments to a method by defining said method such that its final parameter is an array modified by the params keyword. When we invoke the function, the compiler implicitly creates an array from the final parameters and is then passed to the method. In the method body, we typically access those values through the array. The following function shows this in action:

string MyStringFormat(string format, params string[] tokens)
{
  return
    Regex.Replace(
      format,
      @"\{(?<index>\d+)\}",
      m => tokens[Int32.Parse(m.Groups["index"].Value)].ToString());
}

We could then invoke this function as follows:

var format = "[{0}] Hello, {1}.";
var time = DateTime.Now.ToShortTimeString();
var name = "Guest";

var str = MyStringFormat(format, time, name);
// [10:35 PM] Hello, Guest.

Back in the early days of the .NET Framework, before we had collection initializers, the above was far more convenient than using an array directly. Now that collection initializers let us define arrays inline, we can simply write this:

var str = MyStringFormat(format, new [] { time, name });
// [10:35 PM] Hello, Guest.

Arguably, the former is a bit cleaner than the later because of the inline array definition but I have two problems with it. First, it masks the fact that an array is involved, and second, params arrays can really wreak havoc on overload resolution if you’re not careful with them. Assume we need to overload the MyStringFormat method to accept another string that will control some formatting options. We can’t tack the string on to the end of the parameter list because params arrays must appear last so we insert it at the front like this:

Note: I’m using string constants here for illustration purposes. A less contrived example would likely use an enum, thus avoiding the problem.

static class StringTransform
{
  public const string Uppercase = "Uppercase";
  public const string Lowercase = "Lowercase";
}

string MyStringFormat(string transformation, string format, params string[] tokens)
{
  var str = MyStringFormat(format, tokens);
  
  switch (transformation)
  {
    case StringTransform.Uppercase: return str.ToUpper();
    case StringTransform.Lowercase: return str.ToLower();
  }      

  return str;
}

Now we can invoke this new overload as follows:

var str = MyStringFormat(StringTransform.Uppercase, format, time, name);

…and the result would be as we would expect:

[12:30 AM] HELLO, GUEST.

But now that we have two overloads (each accepting an indeterminate number of strings) the compiler cannot always properly determine which overload to invoke. Let’s see what happens when we supply only three arguments as we did in the first example.

var str = MyStringFormat(format, time, name);

Now the result is:

12:30 AM

What happened? The compiler recognized that there are multiple candidate overloads so it took a greedy approach, selecting the overload with the most explicit parameters. As a result, each of the arguments were essentially shifted to the left of what we expected. In other words, what should have been the format parameter was treated as the transformation parameter, the first of the token values was treated as the format parameter, and so on. To force the compiler to use the correct overload, we can just be explicit with the array as we saw in the second example above:

var str = MyStringFormat(format, new [] { time, name });

So what does all of this have to do with params IEnumerable? Params IEnumerable is an extension of the core idea; rather than treating the last arguments as an array within the method, we’d treat them as a sequence. That is, in our MyStringFormat method, we’d define the final parameter as params IEnumerable<string> tokens rather than params string[] tokens.

This change makes sense from a language perspective especially since params arrays were implemented long before IEnumerable<T> was a central concept within the framework. But, as the May 21st design notes state, when the method is used as a params method (rather than by passing an explicit sequence), the compiler will still generate an array at the call site. For all other cases, passing a sequence will behave no differently than if the parameter had been defined without the params modifier.

Given that:

  • it’s so easy to define sequences inline
  • using params arrays can easily confuse the overload resolver
  • params IEnumerable will only hide the sequence’s details from the method implementation but otherwise have no effect on the code

…I don’t see myself ever using this feature. I’ll likely continue designing methods to accept IEnumerable<T> without including the params modifier to avoid the problems and be more specific about what the method is expected to do.