Ranges

Summary

This feature is about delivering two new operators that allow constructing System.Index and System.Range objects, and using them to index/slice collections at runtime.

Overview

Well-known types and members

To use the new syntactic forms for System.Index and System.Range, new well-known types and members may be necessary, depending on which syntactic forms are used.

To use the "hat" operator (^), the following is required

namespace System
{
    public readonly struct Index
    {
        public Index(int value, bool fromEnd);
    }
}

To use the System.Index type as an argument in an array element access, the following member is required:

int System.Index.GetOffset(int length);

The .. syntax for System.Range will require the System.Range type, as well as one or more of the following members:

namespace System
{
    public readonly struct Range
    {
        public Range(System.Index start, System.Index end);
        public static Range StartAt(System.Index start);
        public static Range EndAt(System.Index end);
        public static Range All { get; }
    }
}

The .. syntax allows for either, both, or none of its arguments to be absent. Regardless of the number of arguments, the Range constructor is always sufficient for using the Range syntax. However, if any of the other members are present and one or more of the .. arguments are missing, the appropriate member may be substituted.

Finally, for a value of type System.Range to be used in an array element access expression, the following member must be present:

namespace System.Runtime.CompilerServices
{
    public static class RuntimeHelpers
    {
        public static T[] GetSubArray<T>(T[] array, System.Range range);
    }
}

System.Index

C# has no way of indexing a collection from the end, but rather most indexers use the "from start" notion, or do a "length - i" expression. We introduce a new Index expression that means "from the end". The feature will introduce a new unary prefix "hat" operator. Its single operand must be convertible to System.Int32. It will be lowered into the appropriate System.Index factory method call.

We augment the grammar for unary_expression with the following additional syntax form:

unary_expression
    : '^' unary_expression
    ;

We call this the index from end operator. The predefined index from end operators are as follows:

    System.Index operator ^(int fromEnd);

The behavior of this operator is only defined for input values greater than or equal to zero.

Examples:

var thirdItem = list[2];                // list[2]
var lastItem = list[^1];                // list[Index.CreateFromEnd(1)]

var multiDimensional = list[3, ^2]      // list[3, Index.CreateFromEnd(2)]

System.Range

C# has no syntactic way to access "ranges" or "slices" of collections. Usually users are forced to implement complex structures to filter/operate on slices of memory, or resort to LINQ methods like list.Skip(5).Take(2). With the addition of System.Span<T> and other similar types, it becomes more important to have this kind of operation supported on a deeper level in the language/runtime, and have the interface unified.

The language will introduce a new range operator x..y. It is a binary infix operator that accepts two expressions. Either operand can be omitted (examples below), and they have to be convertible to System.Index. It will be lowered to the appropriate System.Range factory method call.

-We replace the C# grammar rules for multiplicative_expression with the following (in order to introduce a new precedence level):

range_expression
    : unary_expression
    | range_expression? '..' range_expression?
    ;

multiplicative_expression
    : range_expression
    | multiplicative_expression '*' range_expression
    | multiplicative_expression '/' range_expression
    | multiplicative_expression '%' range_expression
    ;

All forms of the range operator have the same precedence. This new precedence group is lower than the unary operators and higher than the mulitiplicative arithmetic operators.

We call the .. operator the range operator. The built-in range operator can roughly be understood to correspond to the invocation of a built-in operator of this form:

    System.Range operator ..(Index start = 0, Index end = ^0);

Examples:

var slice1 = list[2..^3];               // list[Range.Create(2, Index.CreateFromEnd(3))]
var slice2 = list[..^3];                // list[Range.ToEnd(Index.CreateFromEnd(3))]
var slice3 = list[2..];                 // list[Range.FromStart(2)]
var slice4 = list[..];                  // list[Range.All]

var multiDimensional = list[1..2, ..]   // list[Range.Create(1, 2), Range.All]

Moreover, System.Index should have an implicit conversion from System.Int32, in order not to need to overload for mixing integers and indexes over multi-dimensional signatures.

Adding Index and Range support to existing library types

Implicit Index support

The language will provide an instance indexer member with a single parameter of type Index for types which meet the following criteria:

  • The type is Countable.
  • The type has an accessible instance indexer which takes a single int as the argument.
  • The type does not have an accessible instance indexer which takes an Index as the first parameter. The Index must be the only parameter or the remaining parameters must be optional.

A type is Countable if it has a property named Length or Count with an accessible getter and a return type of int. The language can make use of this property to convert an expression of type Index into an int at the point of the expression without the need to use the type Index at all. In case both Length and Count are present, Length will be preferred. For simplicity going forward, the proposal will use the name Length to represent Count or Length.

For such types, the language will act as if there is an index member of the form T this[Index index] where T is the return type of the int based indexer including any ref style annotations. The new member will have the same get and set members with matching accessibility as the int indexer.

The new indexer will be implemented by converting the argument of type Index into an int and emitting a call to the int based indexer. For discussion purposes, lets use the example of receiver[expr]. The conversion of expr to int will occur as follows:

  • When the argument is of the form ^expr2 and the type of expr2 is int, it will be translated to receiver.Length - expr2.
  • Otherwise, it will be translated as expr.GetOffset(receiver.Length).

This allows for developers to use the Index feature on existing types without the need for modification. For example:

List<char> list = ...;
var value = list[^1]; 

// Gets translated to 
var value = list[list.Count - 1]; 

The receiver and Length expressions will be spilled as appropriate to ensure any side effects are only executed once. For example:

class Collection {
    private int[] _array = new[] { 1, 2, 3 };

    int Length {
        get {
            Console.Write("Length ");
            return _array.Length;
        }
    }

    int this[int index] => _array[index];
}

class SideEffect {
    Collection Get() {
        Console.Write("Get ");
        return new Collection();
    }

    void Use() { 
        int i = Get()[^1];
        Console.WriteLine(i);
    }
}

This code will print "Get Length 3".

Implicit Range support

The language will provide an instance indexer member with a single parameter of type Range for types which meet the following criteria:

  • The type is Countable.
  • The type has an accessible member named Slice which has two parameters of type int.
  • The type does not have an instance indexer which takes a single Range as the first parameter. The Range must be the only parameter or the remaining parameters must be optional.

For such types, the language will bind as if there is an index member of the form T this[Range range] where T is the return type of the Slice method including any ref style annotations. The new member will also have matching accessibility with Slice.

When the Range based indexer is bound on an expression named receiver, it will be lowered by converting the Range expression into two values that are then passed to the Slice method. For discussion purposes, lets use the example of receiver[expr].

The first argument of Slice will be obtained by converting the typed expression in the following way:

  • When expr is of the form expr1..expr2 (where expr2 can be omitted) and expr1 has type int, then it will be emitted as expr1.
  • When expr is of the form ^expr1..expr2 (where expr2 can be omitted), then it will be emitted as receiver.Length - expr1.
  • When expr is of the form ..expr2 (where expr2 can be omitted), then it will be emitted as 0.
  • Otherwise, it will be emitted as expr.Start.GetOffset(receiver.Length).

This value will be re-used in the calculation of the second Slice argument. When doing so it will be referred to as start. The second argument of Slice will be obtained by converting the range typed expression in the following way:

  • When expr is of the form expr1..expr2 (where expr1 can be omitted) and expr2 has type int, then it will be emitted as expr2 - start.
  • When expr is of the form expr1..^expr2 (where expr1 can be omitted), then it will be emitted as (receiver.Length - expr2) - start.
  • When expr is of the form expr1.. (where expr1 can be omitted), then it will be emitted as receiver.Length - start.
  • Otherwise, it will be emitted as expr.End.GetOffset(receiver.Length) - start.

The receiver, Length and expr expressions will be spilled as appropriate to ensure any side effects are only executed once. For example:

class Collection {
    private int[] _array = new[] { 1, 2, 3 };

    int Length {
        get {
            Console.Write("Length ");
            return _array.Length;
        }
    }

    int[] Slice(int start, int length) { 
        var slice = new int[length];
        Array.Copy(_array, start, slice, 0, length);
        return slice;
    }
}

class SideEffect {
    Collection Get() {
        Console.Write("Get ");
        return new Collection();
    }

    void Use() { 
        var array = Get()[0..2];
        Console.WriteLine(array.length);
    }
}

This code will print "Get Length 2".

The language will special case the following known types:

  • string: the method Substring will be used instead of Slice.
  • array: the method System.Reflection.CompilerServices.GetSubArray will be used instead of Slice.

Alternatives

The new operators (^ and ..) are syntactic sugar. The functionality can be implemented by explicit calls to System.Index and System.Range factory methods, but it will result in a lot more boilerplate code, and the experience will be unintuitive.

IL Representation

These two operators will be lowered to regular indexer/method calls, with no change in subsequent compiler layers.

Runtime behavior

  • Compiler can optimize indexers for built-in types like arrays and strings, and lower the indexing to the appropriate existing methods.
  • System.Index will throw if constructed with a negative value.
  • ^0 does not throw, but it translates to the length of the collection/enumerable it is supplied to.
  • Range.All is semantically equivalent to 0..^0, and can be deconstructed to these indices.

Considerations

Detect Indexable based on ICollection

The inspiration for this behavior was collection initializers. Using the structure of a type to convey that it had opted into a feature. In the case of collection initializers types can opt into the feature by implementing the interface IEnumerable (non generic).

This proposal initially required that types implement ICollection in order to qualify as Indexable. That required a number of special cases though:

  • ref struct: these cannot implement interfaces yet types like Span<T> are ideal for index / range support.
  • string: does not implement ICollection and adding that interface has a large cost.

This means to support key types special casing is already needed. The special casing of string is less interesting as the language does this in other areas (foreach lowering, constants, etc ...). The special casing of ref struct is more concerning as it's special casing an entire class of types. They get labeled as Indexable if they simply have a property named Count with a return type of int.

After consideration the design was normalized to say that any type which has a property Count / Length with a return type of int is Indexable. That removes all special casing, even for string and arrays.

Detect just Count

Detecting on the property names Count or Length does complicate the design a bit. Picking just one to standardize though is not sufficient as it ends up excluding a large number of types:

  • Use Length: excludes pretty much every collection in System.Collections and sub-namespaces. Those tend to derive from ICollection and hence prefer Count over length.
  • Use Count: excludes string, arrays, Span<T> and most ref struct based types

The extra complication on the initial detection of Indexable types is outweighed by its simplification in other aspects.

Choice of Slice as a name

The name Slice was chosen as it's the de-facto standard name for slice style operations in .NET. Starting with netcoreapp2.1 all span style types use the name Slice for slicing operations. Prior to netcoreapp2.1 there really aren't any examples of slicing to look to for an example. Types like List<T>, ArraySegment<T>, SortedList<T> would've been ideal for slicing but the concept didn't exist when types were added.

Thus, Slice being the sole example, it was chosen as the name.

Index target type conversion

Another way to view the Index transformation in an indexer expression is as a target type conversion. Instead of binding as if there is a member of the form return_type this[Index], the language instead assigns a target typed conversion to int.

This concept could be generalized to all member access on Countable types. Whenever an expression with type Index is used as an argument to an instance member invocation and the receiver is Countable then the expression will have a target type conversion to int. The member invocations applicable for this conversion include methods, indexers, properties, extension methods, etc ... Only constructors are excluded as they have no receiver.

The target type conversion will be implemented as follows for any expression which has a type of Index. For discussion purposes lets use the example of receiver[expr]:

  • When expr is of the form ^expr2 and the type of expr2 is int, it will be translated to receiver.Length - expr2.
  • Otherwise, it will be translated as expr.GetOffset(receiver.Length).

The receiver and Length expressions will be spilled as appropriate to ensure any side effects are only executed once. For example:

class Collection {
    private int[] _array = new[] { 1, 2, 3 };

    int Length {
        get {
            Console.Write("Length ");
            return _array.Length;
        }
    }

    int GetAt(int index) => _array[index];
}

class SideEffect {
    Collection Get() {
        Console.Write("Get ");
        return new Collection();
    }

    void Use() { 
        int i = Get().GetAt(^1);
        Console.WriteLine(i);
    }
}

This code will print "Get Length 3".

This feature would be beneficial to any member which had a parameter that represented an index. For example List<T>.InsertAt. This also has the potential for confusion as the language can't give any guidance as to whether or not an expression is meant for indexing. All it can do is convert any Index expression to int when invoking a member on a Countable type.

Restrictions:

  • This conversion is only applicable when the expression with type Index is directly an argument to the member. It would not apply to any nested expressions.

Decisions made during implementation

  • All members in the pattern must be instance members
  • If a Length method is found but it has the wrong return type, continue looking for Count
  • The indexer used for the Index pattern must have exactly one int parameter
  • The Slice method used for the Range pattern must have exactly two int parameters
  • When looking for the pattern members, we look for original definitions, not constructed members

Design Meetings

Questions