Pro Pattern-Matching in Swift

Nick Teissler

9 min read

Aug 20, 2018

Pro Pattern-Matching in Swift

The switch statement is an indubitable strength of the Swift language. Behind
the switch statement is Swift’s pattern-matching, which makes for more readable,
safer code. It is possible to take the switch’s pattern-matching readability
and power and apply it elsewhere in your code.

The Swift language reference
specifies eight different varieties of patterns. It can be hard to know the
right syntax to use in a pattern match expression. In a typical use-case you
might need to know type information, to unwrap a variable, or to simply confirm
an optional is non-nil. Using the right pattern, you can avoid awkward unwraps
and unused variables.

There are two participants in a pattern match: the pattern and the value. The
value is the expression that follows the switch keyword, or the = operator
if the value is being tested outside a switch statement. The pattern is the
expression that follows a case label. The pattern and value are evaluated
against each other using rules of the Swift language. As of July
15th, 2018 the reference
contains some errors about how and where patterns can be used in the prose, but
these can be discovered with some experimentation.[1]

We’ll look at applying patterns in if, guard, and while statements, but
before we do, let us warm up with some non-vanilla uses of the switch statement.

Matching only non-nil Variables

If the value trying to be matched is possibly nil, we can use an Optional
to only match the value if it is non-nil and, as a bonus, unwrap it.
This is especially useful when dealing with legacy (and some not-so-legacy)
Objective-C methods and functions. As of Swift 4.2 with the
reimplementation of IUOs ! will be a
synonym for ?. For Objective-C functions without nullable
, you may have to
handle this behavior.

The example here is especially trivial as this new behavior can be unintuitive
coming from Swift < 4.2. Take this Objective-C function:

- (NSString *)aLegacyObjcFunction {
    return @"I haven't been updated with modern obj-c annotations!";

The Swift signature will be: func aLegacyObjcFunction() -> String!, and in
Swift 4.1, this function will compile:

func switchExample() -> String {
    switch aLegacyObjcFunction() {
    case "okay":
       return "fine"
    case let output:
        return output  // implicitly unwrap the optional, producing a String

In Swift 4.2, you’ll get an error: “Value of optional type ‘String?’ not
unwrapped; did you mean to use ‘!’ or ‘?’?”. case let output is a simple
variable-assignment pattern match. It will match the String? type returned
by aLegacyObjcFunction without unwrapping the value. The unintuitive part is that
return aLegacyObjcFunction() will compile because it skips the variable
assignment (pattern match), and with it, the type inference so the returned type is
a String! and treated as such by the compiler. We should handle this more gracefully, especially if the Objective-C
function in question actually can return nil.

func switchExample2() -> String {
    switch aLegacyObjcFunction() {
    case "okay":
        return "fine"
    case let output?:
        return output 
    case nil:
        return "Phew, that could have been a segfault."

This time, we are handling the optionality intentionally. Notice that we don’t
have to use if let to unwrap the return value of aLegacyObcFunction. The nil
pattern match case let output?: handles that for us; output is a String.

Catching Custom Error Types with Precision

Pattern-matching can be extremely useful and expressive when catching custom
error types. A common design pattern is to define custom error types with
enums. This works especially well in Swift, as it’s easy to attach associated
values to enum cases to provide more detail about an error.

Here we use two flavors of the Type-Casting Pattern as well as two flavors of
the Enumeration Case Pattern to handle any errors that may be thrown:

enum Error: Swift.Error {
    case badError(code: Int)
    case closeShave(explanation: String)
    case fatal
    case unknown

enum OtherError: Swift.Error { case base }

func makeURLRequest() throws { ... }

func getUserDetails() {
    do {
        try makeURLRequest()
    // Enumeration Case Pattern: where clause
    catch Error.badError(let code) where code == 50 {
         print("(code)") }
    // Enumeration Case Pattern: associated value
     catch Error.closeShave(let explanation) {
         print("There's an explanation! (explanation)")
     // Type Matching Pattern: variable binding
     catch let error as OtherError {
         print("This (error) is a base error")
     // Type Matching Pattern: only type check
     catch is Error {
         print("We don't want to know much more, it must be fatal or unknown")
     // is Swift.Error. The compiler gives us the variable error for free here
     catch {

Above in each catch, we have matched and caught only as much information as we
needed, and nothing extra. Now to move on from switch and see where else we
can use pattern-matching.

The One-Off Match

There are many times when you might want to do a one-off pattern match. Possibly
a change should only be applied given a single enumeration value and you don’t
care about the others. At that point, the beautifully readable switch statement
suddenly becomes cumbersome boilerplate.

We can use if case to unpack a tuple value only if it is non-nil:

if case (_, let value?) = stringAndInt {
    print("The int value of the string is (value)")

The above uses three patterns in one statement! At the top is a Tuple Pattern
containing an Optional Pattern (not unlike the one above in Matching a
non-nil Variable
), and a sneaky Wildcard Pattern, the _. Had we
used switch stringAndInt { ... }, the compiler would have forced us to handle
all possible cases explicitly, or with a default label.

Alternatively, if a guard case suits your purposes better, there’s not much to

guard case (_, let value?) = stringAndInt else {
    print("We have no value, exiting early.")

You can use patterns to define stopping conditions of while loops and for-in
loops. This can be useful with ranges. An Expression Pattern allows us to
avoid the traditional variable >= 0 && variable <= 10 construct[2]:

var guess: Int = 0

while case 0...10 = guess  {
    print("Guess a number")
    guess = Int(readLine()!)!
print("You guessed a number out of the range!")

In all of these examples, the pattern immediately follows the case label and
the value comes after the =. The only time syntax departs from this is when
there is an is, as, or in keyword in the expression. In those situations,
the structure is the same if you think of those keywords as a substitute
for the =. Remembering this, and with nudges from the compiler, you can
use all 8 varieties of patterns without having to consult the language

There is something unique about the Range matching Expression Pattern above
that we haven’t seen so far in previous examples: its pattern-matching
implementation is not a built-in feature, at least not built-in to the compiler.
The Expression Pattern uses the Swift Standard Library ~=
The ~= operator is a free, generic function defined as:

func ~= <T>(a: T, b: T) -> Bool where T : Equatable

You can see the Swift Standard Library Range type overrides this

to provide a custom behavior that checks if the particular value is within the
given range.

Matching Regular Expressions

Let’s create a Regex type that implements the ~= operator. It will be a
paper-thin wrapper around
that uses pattern-matching to make for more readable regex code, something we
should always be interested in when working with the arcane regular expression.

struct Regex: ExpressibleByStringLiteral, Equatable {

    fileprivate let expression: NSRegularExpression

    init(stringLiteral: String) {
        do {
            self.expression = try NSRegularExpression(pattern: stringLiteral, options: [])
        } catch {
            print("Failed to parse (stringLiteral) as a regular expression")
            self.expression = try! NSRegularExpression(pattern: ".*", options: [])

    fileprivate func match(_ input: String) -> Bool {
        let result = expression.rangeOfFirstMatch(in: input, options: [],
                                range NSRange(input.startIndex..., in: input))
        return !NSEqualRanges(result, NSMakeRange(NSNotFound, 0))

There’s our Regex struct. It has a single NSRegularExpression property. It
can be initialized as a string literal, with the consequence that if we fail to
pass a valid regular expression, we’ll get a failure message and a match-all
regex instead. Next, we implement the pattern-matching operator, nesting it in
an extension so it’s clear where we want the operator to be used.

extension Regex {
    static func ~=(pattern: Regex, value: String) -> Bool {
        return pattern.match(value)

We want this struct to be useful out of the box, so I’ll define two class
constants that can handle some common regex validation needs. The email regex
was borrowed from Matt Gallagher’s Cocoa with

article and checks email addresses as defined in RFC

If you’re working with regular expressions in Swift, you can’t simply copy-pasta
from your choice of Stack Overflow Regex posts. Swift strings define escape
sequences like the newline (n), tab (t), and unicode scalars
(u{1F4A9}). These clash with the syntax of regular expressions which is heavy
with backslashes and all types of brackets. Other languages like python have
convenient raw string syntax. A raw string will take every character literally
and does not parse escape sequences, so regular expressions can be inserted in
their “pure” form. In Swift, any lone backslashes in a string indicate an escape
sequence, so for the compiler to accept most regular expressions, you will need
to escape the escape sequences, as well as a few other special characters. There
was an
to bring raw strings to Swift that fizzled out. It’s possible that as Swift
continues to become a multi-platform, multi-purpose language, interest will be
renewed in this feature. Until then, the already complex email-matching regular
expression, becomes this ascii art monster:

static let email: Regex = """

We can use a simpler expression to match phone numbers, borrowed from Stack

and double escaped as previously described:

static let phone: Regex = "^(+d{1,2}s)?(?d{3})?[s.-]?d{3}[s.-]?d{4}$"

Now we can identify phone numbers or emails with our handy, readable pattern

let input = Bool.random() ? "" : "(770) 817-6373"
switch input {
        print("Send (input) and email!")
        print("Give Big Nerd Ranch a call at (input)")
        print("An unknown format.")

You might be wondering why you don’t see the ~= operator above. It’s an
implementation detail of the Expression Pattern and is used implicitly.

Remember the Basics!

With all these fancy patterns, we shouldn’t forget
ways we can use the classic switch. When the pattern-matching ~= operator is
not defined, Swift falls back to using the == operator in switch statements.
To reiterate, we are no longer in the domain of pattern-matching.

Below is an example. The switch statement here is being used as a
demultiplexer for delegate
callbacks. It switches over the textField variable, a subclass of NSObject.
Equality is therefore defined as identity comparison, which will check if the
pointer values of the two variables are equal. As an example, take an object
which serves as the delegate for three UITextFields. Each text field needs to
validate its text in a different way. The delegate will receive the same
callback for each text field when a user edits text

func textFieldShouldEndEditing(_ textField: UITextField) -> Bool {
    switch textField {
        case emailTextField:
            return validateEmail()
        case phoneTextField:
            return validatePhone()
        case passwordTextField:
            return validatePassword()
            preconditionFailure("Unaccounted for Text Field")

And can validate each text field differently.


We looked at a few of the patterns available in Swift and
examined the structure of pattern-matching syntax. With this knowledge, all of
the 8 varieties of patterns are available to use! Patterns come with many
benefits and they are an indispensable part of any Swift developer’s toolbox.
There is still content this post didn’t cover, like the niceties of compiler
checked exhaustive

and patterns combined with where clauses.

Thank you to Erica Sadun for introducing me to the guard case syntax in her
blog post, Afternoon
which inspired this one.

All of the examples for this post can be found in this
gist. The
code can be run as a playground or picked through to suit your needs.

[1] The guide claims for enums with associated values, “the corresponding
enumeration case pattern must specify a tuple pattern that contains one element
for each associated value.” Just including the enum case without any associated
values compiles and matches assuming you don’t need the associated value.

Another small correction is that the custom expression operator (~=) may “appear
only in switch statement case labels”. Above, we use it in an if statement as
well. The language

specifies both of the above usages correctly, and the error only exists in the

[2] The readLine function won’t work in a playground. If you want to run this
example, try it from a macOS command-line application.

Angie Terrell

Reviewer Big Nerd Ranch

Angie joined BNR in 2014 as a senior UX/UI designer. Just over a year later she became director of design and instruction leading a team of user experience and interface designers. All told, Angie has over 15 years of experience designing a wide array of user experiences

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