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A Peculiar (But Possibly Cunning?) Kotlin Language Feature

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A Peculiar (But Possibly Cunning?) Kotlin Language Feature

The Kotlin language has loads of features. Check out this odd feature that removes language-based constructs, and learn why it may be useful

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This caught me by surprise. After studying the Kotlin language to learn about how to best leverage it for jOOQ, I stumbled upon this puzzler. What do you think the following program will print?

fun main(args: Array) {
    (1..5).forEach {
        if (it == 3)
            return
        print(it)
    }

    print("done")
}

Well… You might have guessed wrong. The above will print:

12

It will NOT print what most people might expect:

1245done

The syntactical reason is explained in this section of the Kotlin manual.

In lambdas/closures, the return statement will not (necessarily) return from the lambda / closure, but from the immediate enclosing scope of the lambda / closure. The rationale has been kindly given to me by Dmitry Jemerov from JetBrains in two tweets:

@lukaseder@kotlin reason is very simple: we want to have lambdas that work exactly like built-in language features (e.g. synchronised)

— Dmitry Jemerov (@intelliyole) February 22, 2016

@lukaseder therefore ‘return’ in a lambda passed to ‘synchronised’ function must do the same as a ‘return’ in a Java ‘synchronised’ block

— Dmitry Jemerov (@intelliyole) February 22, 2016

Cunningly, the Kotlin language has removed language-based support for Java constructs like try-with-resources, or the synchronized statement. That’s very reasonable, because these language constructs don’t necessarily belong in the language (as we’ve previously claimed in another blog post), but could be moved to libraries instead. For example:

// try-with-resources is emulated using an
// extension function "use"
OutputStreamWriter(r.getOutputStream()).use {
    it.write('a')
}

(criticism here)

Or:

// Synchronized is a function!
val x = synchronized (lock, { computation() })

See also:
https://kotlinlang.org/api/latest/jvm/stdlib/kotlin/synchronized.html

After all, even in Java the language feature only works because the language depends on library types, like Iterable (foreach), AutoCloseable (try-with-resources), or JVM features (monitor on each reference for synchronized)

So, what’s the deal with return?

Along the lines of the above rationale, when language designers want to avoid language constructs for things that can be implemented with libraries, but still want you to feel like these were language constructs, then the only reasonable meaning of return inside of such a “construct-ish” lambda / closure is to return from the outer scope. So, when you write something like:

fun main(args : Array) {
    val lock = Object()
    val x = synchronized(lock, {
        if (1 == 1)
            return

        "1"
    })

    print(x)
}

The real intention is for this to be the equivalent of the following Java code:

public static void main(String[] args) {
    Object lock = new Object();
    String x;

    synchronized (lock) {
        if (1 == 1)
            return;

        x = "1";
    }

    System.out.println(x);
}

In the Java case, obviously, the return statement exits the main() method, because there is no other reasonable stack frame to return from. Unlike in Kotlin, where one might argue the lambda / closure would produce its own stack frame.

But it really doesn’t. The reason for this is the inline modifier on the synchronized function:

public inline fun <R> synchronized(lock: Any, block: () -> R): R {
    monitorEnter(lock)
    try {
        return block()
    }
    finally {
        monitorExit(lock)
    }
}

See also:
https://kotlinlang.org/docs/reference/inline-functions.html

Which means that the block closure passed as an argument isn’t really a pure lambda expression, but just syntactic sugar embedded in the call-site’s scope.

Weird. Cunning. Clever. But a bit unexpected.

Is this a good idea? Or will the language designers regret this later on? Are all lambdas / closures potentially “language construct-ish”, where such a return statement is expected to leave the outer scope? Or are there clear cases where this inline behaviour just makes total sense?

We’ll see. In any case, it is very interesting for a language to have chosen this path.

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Topics:
kotlin ,language constructs

Published at DZone with permission of Lukas Eder, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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