Language Design: Generics

Published on 2017-07-21.

Achieving a language design sweet-spot for the syntax of generics requires two, interconnected design decisions:

  1. The ident: Type syntax allows consistent and straight-forward placement of generics, compared to languages which use Type ident1:
    Generics ([T]) always follow the name of a class or a method, both at the definition-site and at the use-site.
  2. A differentiated use of brackets results in a more regular, easier to understand syntax and has superior readability compared to languages which overload <> to stand for generics as well as comparisons and bitshifts, or use [] to stand for operations on arrays2:
    • [] encloses types: everything inbetween is either a type parameter or a type argument
    • () groups: for instance a single expression, a parameter list or a tuple
    • {} sequences: for instance a block that can contain multiple statements and definitions

This means that generics do not need to be treated as an “advanced” language concept.

Instead, the mental model becomes so simple that every class or method can be thought of having …

  • zero or one parameter lists for types, followed by
  • zero or more parameter lists for values.


class Foo[T](val bar: String) {
  def foo[T] = ???
}

def main() {
  val instance = new Foo[String]("abc")
  instance.foo[String]
}

And that’s all there is to it!