Friday 22 March 2019

User-defined literals in Java?

Java has a number of literals for creating values, but wouldn't it be nice if we had more?

Current literals

These are some of the literals we can write in Java today:

  • integer - 123, 12s, 1234L, 0xB8E817, 077, 0b1011_1010
  • floating point - 45.6f, 56.7d, 7.656e6
  • string - "Hello world"
  • char - 'a'
  • boolean - true, false
  • null - null

Project Amber is also considering adding multi-line and/or raw string literals.

But there are many other data types that would benefit from literals, such as dates, regex and URIs.

User-defined literals

In my ideal future, I'd like to see Java extended to support some form of user-defined literals. This would allow the author of a class to provide a mechanism to convert a sequence of characters into an instance of that class. It may be clearer to see some examples using one possible syntax (using backticks):

 Currency currency = `GBP`;
 LocalDate date = `2019-03-29`;
 Pattern pattern = `strata\.\w+`;
 URI uri = ``;

A number of semantic features would be required:

  • Type inference
  • Raw processing
  • Validated at compile-time
Type inference

Type inference is of course a key aspect of literals. It would have to work in a similar way to the existing literals, but with a tweak to handle the new var keyword. ie. these two would be equivalent:

 LocalDate date = `2019-03-29`;
 var date = LocalDate`2019-03-29`;

The type inference would also work with methods (compile error if ambiguous):

 boolean inferior = isShortMonth(`2019-04-12`);

 public boolean isShortMonth(LocalDate date) { return date.lengthOfMonth() < 31; }
Raw processing

Processing of the literal should not be limited by Java's escape mechanisms. User-defined literals need access to the raw string. Note that this is especially useful for regex, but would also be useful for files on Windows:

 // user-defined literals
 var pattern = Pattern`strata\.\w+`;
 // today
 var pattern = Pattern.compile("strata\\.\\w+");

Today, the `\` needs to be escaped, making the regex difficult to read.

Clearly, the problem with parsing raw literals is that there is no mechanism to escape. But the use cases for user-defined literals tend to have constrained formats, eg. a date doesn't contain random characters. So, although there might be edge cases where this would be a problem, they would vert much be edge cases.

Validated at Compile-time

A key feature of literals is that they are validated at compile-time. You can't use an integer literal to create an int if the value is larger than the maximum allowed integer (2^31).

User-defined literals also need to be parsed and validated at compile-time too. Thus this code would not compile:

 LocalDate date = `2019-02-31`;

Most types which would benefit from literals only accept specific input formats, so being able to check this at compile time would be beneficial.

How would it be implemented?

I'm pretty confident that there are various ways it could be done. I'm not going to pick an approach, as ultimately those that control the JVM and language are better placed to decide. Clearly though, there is going to need to be some form of factory method on the user class that performs the parse, with that method invoked by the compiler. And ideally, the results of the parse would be stored in the constant pool rather than re-parsed at runtime.

What I would say is that user-defined literals would almost be a requirement for making value types usable, so something like this may be on the way anyway.


I like literals. And I would really like to be able to define my own!

Any thoughts?