Daniel Duan

List Comprehension In Swift

Let’s explore ways to add list comprehension to Swift.


List comprehension should be no stranger to a Python or (and?) Haskell user. It’s a really compact syntax that deals with Cartesian product of lists. In the case of Python, it’s probably responsible for the lack of evolution of lambda expressions, since it’s much nicer to write one-liners with it in place of maps and filters.

Here’s an example of an list comprehension in Haskell from Wikipedia:

a = [(x,y) | x <- [1..5], y <- [3..5]]
-- [(1,3),(1,4),(1,5),(2,3),(2,4) ...

In this example, a list of pair of integers is constructed from 2 lists of integers.

Here is what that example would be in Python:

a = [(x, y) for x in range(1,6) for y in range(3, 6)]
# [(1, 3), (1, 4), (1, 5), (2, 3), (2, 4) ...

Here’s what it would be in mathematics (except we are dealing with sets, not lists, but I’ll only refer to lists from here on.):

Let (a, b) be an ordered list of elements

{(x, y)|x ∈ {1,2,3,4,5}, y ∈ {3,4,5}}

One can filter out unwanted elements with predicates, and apply arbitrary functions to elements of the result. Let’s say we only want even numbers from the first list, and we want the sum of x and y, continuing on our examples:

a = [x+y | x <- [1..5], y <- [3..5], x `mod` 2 == 0]
a = [x + y for x in range(1,6) for y in range(3, 6) if x % 2 == 0]
{x+y|x ∈ {1,2,3,4,5}, y ∈ {3,4,5}, x is even}

In theory, this syntax can be applied to an arbitrary number of lists. Putting aside how often this need comes up in day-to-day programming in your domain, it should be obvious that it’s alternative, be it nested loops or maps and filters, is pretty clumsy in comparison.

Adding List Comprehension in Swift

A comprehension can be considered in 3 parts:

  1. some lists, each may contain a different type of elements.
  2. a predicate (or a series of them joined logically) to filter out elements.
  3. a function to process the combination of elements into results.

In Swift, if our input is only one list, there’s a pretty sweet way to achieve that:


To make comprehension work with more lists, we have some syntax options.

Option One

The “brute force” option would be a function that parameterize all 3 parts of the comprehension. Such as

// going with order of appearance in Python/Haskell syntax
func comprehension<Element, List, Result>(
    predicate: (Element) -> Bool,
    list: List,
    processor: (Element) -> Result
) where
    List: Sequence, List.Element == Element

    // implementation

To supporting more than one list, just add more parameters to both types and the function itself.

(Can’t wait until we can have variadic generic parameters!)

Option Two

Deploy more syntax tricks. Somehow make it visually similar to the math/Haskell/Python notation. If we can accept some temporary data structure and introduce/implement some operators, there’d be many possibilities.

/// Just an example of the infinite possibilities.
processor | list0 &&& list1 | predicate

I’ll leave the implementation of this example as an exercise to the reader.

Option That I Like

I spent quite some time exploring the realm of possibilities in “option two”. However, introducing data structures and custom operators just to do what “option one” offers seems really unappealing. It’s not entirely clear that doing so would be “Swift-y” anyways! Eventually, I did find an arrangement that fits in Swift, and requires no fancy syntax trickery.

The result of list comprehension is a list. The goal of this operation is to construct a list. Yep, thinking along this line, it became obvious that using a “list”’s initializer is just natural:

let a = Array(1..<5, 3..<5, where: { n, _ in n % 2 == 0 }) { ($0, $1) }
// [(2,3),(2,4),(2,5) ...

The processing function is at the end to take advantage of the trailing closure syntax. It’s nicer when there’s not predicate:

let a = Array(1..<5, 3..<5) { ($0, $1) }
// [(1,3),(1,4),(1,5),(2,3),(2,4) ...

This syntax seems both succinct and Swift-y.

I put an implementation on github, in case you find it useful.

Parting Thoughts

There’s no doubt that the conclusion in this post is imperfect. Though it feels more Swift-y, it deviates from the mathematical syntax by a lot. We can only implement it for finite number of lists. When many lists are involved, using a embedded closure as the predicate would make the compiler complain that the expression is too complex. We suffer from the normal woes with Swift closures where anonymous arguments ($0, $1, etc) won’t work unless the last one is mentioned in the closure’s body. Overloading Array initializer may negatively affect compilation speed in large projects.

Not all of these issues are temporary.

Does list comprehension warrant a language change in Swift? Can you think of better ways to implement it with the current compiler?