As I have been trying to learn more about Scala, there have been several paths that I’ve had to follow.  One is getting acquainted with the state of Java development, since ultimately Scala exists within the Java ecosystem.  Another is finding my way around the Scala libraries, tools, and idioms.  But there is a third that seems to be somewhat deeper, and that is coming to grips with the functional nature of the language.

Being a hybrid object-oriented/functional language means that for people used to imperative development, you can start with the idioms you already know, and add in the things you don’t.  In my case I’m really comfortable with OO programming, and I’ve gotten over the initial paradigm shift that C#/.Net 3.5 brought in with Lambdas, Closures, and Linq-style functional composition.  With that I could quickly latch on to some of the basics in Scala, like using the map method on a list to transform it, since it is effectively the same as select in C#.

Thing began to get a little shakier once I started digging deeper into some of the functional aspects of the language.  List Comprehensions in Scala took me rather off-guard until I realized that in .Net, list comprehensions are called “Linq queries”, though the syntax was still tripping me up.  I also started digging in to Higher Kinded Types aka Type Constructor Polymorphism, and in looking for examples inevitably I was led to more functional constructs.  Eventually I found myself looking at things like Functors, Monoids, and the dreaded Monad. The problem I ran into, though, was that for the most part, these concepts were described in the various blogs in terms of their equivalents from purely functional languages, and the most often cited purely functional language was Haskell.

Clearly the only way I was really going to understand these concepts was to learn Haskell….if nothing else I needed to at least be able to understand those crazy type signatures with all of their arrows pointing all over the place. Almost against my own will I’ve been forced to read a lot about Haskell, and to be honest I’m really glad that I did.

As strange as functional concepts are when coupled with the already familiar Object Oriented world, getting your head around a purely functional language is harder.  You have to forget about things like “classes” for containing data, and encapsulation within objects, not to mention polymorphism via sub-classes (or interfaces).  The concepts of encapsulation and polymorphism still exist in Haskell, they’re just different.  More importantly there are elements of the language that are brilliantly simple and elegant (at least to me).  The default style seems to be taking small pieces of functionality, and composing them to make something that is powerful (something of the holy grail in the OO space).  The downside to this is that you can have very small segments of code which are extremely dense, and as a noob it’s difficult to understand why some things happen in the way they do.  But things are getting easier with more exposure.

At this point I’m wanting to really grok the language and the idioms used to build software in a purely functional way, and I’ve gone well beyond just learning enough to understand references in blog posts about Scala.  As such I’ve set myself a goal of completing a project in Haskell that I’m keeping under my hat for the time being…mostly because I don’t know that I’ll ever actually finish it.  One of the more interesting aspect of this for me is the fact that I really don’t know where to begin to build something in Haskell.  Normally I would start thinking about objects and relationships, and that doesn’t apply here.  It’s an interesting state to be in.

So now the question is “do I abandon Scala/C#/Wahtever?”  Of course not.  As impressive and powerful as Haskell is (and trust me, it is a lot of both), and in spite of the fact that there are native compilers for every platform known to man (more or less), and the libraries available are extensive, it doesn’t seem to have a huge footprint.  It’s kind of a shame, since there are things like STM and compile-time parallelization (yes, that’s right), and seems like a good fit distributed computing in general.  For now I’ll let it open the door to new and different ways of solving problems….and maybe eventually see if I can sneak something small into production.

Continuing our journey down the path from the familiar to the down-right bizarre, we find ourselves at Pattern Matching.  This is a feature of the Scala language that shows it’s functional side in a strong way.  Pattern Matching is a fundamental part of functional languages in general, and provides a way to write very concise and expressive code.  On the surface, pattern matching in Scala looks an awful lot like switch statements in C# (and Java for that matter), but you shouldn’t cling too hard to that association.

The Basics

Let’s start with a basic example that mimics the behavior of a switch statement.  Here is a quick sample entered directly into the Scala interpreter:

scala> val x = "Hi"
x: java.lang.String = Hi
scala> x match {
     | case "Hi" => "Hi yourself"
     | case "Ho" => "Am Not!"
     | case _ => "What?"
     | }
res1: java.lang.String = Hi yourself

Yes, this looks really boring…but the syntax should be clear. The Pattern Match is invoked using the match keyword, followed by a block containing case expressions. It’s worth pointing out at this point that the match is an expression, which means it has a value when evaluated (which is why the result from the interpreter is a string, and we don’t have/need any return statements). This means that the results of the match can be assigned to a variable, or used as the return value of a function. The case statements in this example are simple, they match against string literals. The exception being the last, which uses the special wildcard match expression _.  As may be expected, evaluation happens in order, and the first expression which contains a matching pattern is the one that is executed.  Had the previous example placed the wildcard pattern first, then that would be evaluated every time, regardless of what value is passed in.

Now if this is all you could do with Pattern Matching, it wouldn’t be all that interesting, and I probably wouldn’t be sharing it with you.  The cool thing about Pattern Matching expressions is that you are not limited to literals or enum values like you are with C#.  One of the things you can do is match based on type:

x match {
    case x:String  => "You gave me a string: "+x
    case x:Int     => "You gave me a number: "+x.toString
    case x:MyThing => "You gave me some thing: "+x.toStirng

A contrived example to be sure, but as you can see it is really easy to handle different types using the standard Scala type notations.  The return value of the match expression will be the most specific type that is the result of all possible expressions.  You need to be a little careful with this, since if a match expression appears at the end of a function, then the function’s return value will be the same as the match expressions.


Now, type based matching is pretty cool, and honestly I’ve wished for this kind of functionality in C# before, but there is more.  One of the primary uses for Pattern Matching in purely functional is for deconstruction of data structures.  By this I mean extracting values from data structures so you can use the data elements directly.  A quick example using a basic tuple would look like:

x match {
    case (y,z) => "A tuple with "+y+" and "+z
    case _     => "Something else"

If x is a tuple, then this expression will print the values of both elements. The pattern (in this case (y,z)) binds the variable y to the first element in the tuple, and z to the second. If, for example, you didn’t care about the value of the second element in the tuple, then you could use the wildcard character in the pattern:

x match {
    case (y,_) => "The first element from the tuple is "+y
    case _     => "Something else"

A common use for Pattern Matching in functional languages is to split a list into it’s head (fist element) and tail (every other element). You can do this in Scala with a pattern that looks like:

list match {
    case Nil      => "Empty list"
    case x :: Nil => "Single element list: "+x
    case x :: xs  => "List has a head of "+x +" and tail: " + ","+ _)
    case _        => "Not a list"

Looking at the patterns here, we have some interesting options. The first matches agains Nil, which is an empty list. The second uses the pattern x :: Nil, which is a list with a single element (and binds that element to x). The next pattern x :: xs divides the list into head (bound to x) and tail (bound to xs) segments. These are the standard three types of matches you see when pattern matching against lists.


This ability to deconstruct objects is not limited to standard built-in types.  Scala has a generalized pattern called Extractor Objects which provide a way to create objects that can be used in Pattern Matching.  Lets put together another cheesy example to demonstrate this:

class MyThing(val one:Int, val two:String)

object MyThing {
    def apply(thing1:Int,thing2:String) = {
        new MyThing(thing1,thing2)
    def unapply(x:MyThing):Option[(Int,String)] = {

val m = MyThing(2,"one")

m match {
    case MyThing(y,z) => "MyThing with two items: "+y+" and "+z
    case _            => "Not a MyThing"

For sake of completeness I’ve included the apply method, which (you may recall) is how you create objects in Scala. It also provides some context for the unapply method so things are a little less confusing  Since Pattern Matching performs deconstruction, it seems only logical that the method that does this work is called unapply. This method may look a little funny, but basically this is what happens. The item you are doing the match against is passed into the unapply method. If the method returns a Some value, then that is the expression that is evaluated, otherwise it moves on to the next. Also, if the item doesn’t match the type of the argument to the unapply method, then it will skip that expression. If you’re unapply returns a Some[x] then that value gets bound to the variables. In this case we have two, so we’re returning them in a tuple.

Case Classes

Now, this is cool, but there is a lot of typing involved. Scala has a handy-dandy short-cut for doing this sort of thing called Case Classes. A Case Class allows you to define a basic class, and it automatically adds the companion object type with apply and unapply methods, along with accessesors for any constructor arguments. So, using Case Classes we can rewrite the previous example as:

case class MyThing(one:Int, two:String)

val m = MyThing(2,"one")

m match {
    case MyThing(y,z) => "MyThing with two items: "+y+" and "+z
    case _            => "Not a MyThing"

As you can see, this removed the need for the companion object all together. Granted, all of the code is still there after the magic from the compiler, but there is way less typing involved.


As if Pattern Matching wasn’t cool enough, you can further refine results from the match using Guards. This basically gives you a way to add additional conditions to a pattern using standard expressions which evaluate to a bool. Building on our previous example, we can do some more complex matching on the individual properties of the object within the pattern. It looks something like this:

x match {
    case MyThing(y,z) if y > 10 => " is more than 10"
    case MyThing(y,z) if y > 5  => " is more than 5"
    case _                      => "MyThing doesn't meet criteria"

The if right after the pattern defines the guard. You can use standard boolean operators like || or && as well, but the more complex things get the less readable things tend to be.

Hopefully I’ve given at least a little glimpse into the coolness of Pattern Matching in Scala.  The coolness of patterns is used in several different places in the language, including in the Regular Expression library, which gives a really easy way to check against regex matches, and extract elements from the regex if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.  We’ll be seeing more Pattern Matching as we start delving into more functional aspects of Scala.  Hopefully you’ll be able to appreciate the elegance and simplicity it can provide.