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Scala 3 — Book

Functions Are Values


While every programming language ever created probably lets you write pure functions, a second important Scala FP feature is that you can create functions as values, just like you create String and Int values.

This feature has many benefits, the most common of which are (a) you can define methods to accept function parameters, and (b) you can pass functions as parameters into methods. You’ve seen this in multiple places in this book, whenever methods like map and filter are demonstrated:

val nums = (1 to 10).toList

val doubles = * 2)           // double each value
val lessThanFive = nums.filter(_ < 5)   // List(1,2,3,4)

In those examples, anonymous functions are passed into map and filter.

Anonymous functions are also known as lambdas.

In addition to passing anonymous functions into filter and map, you can also supply them with methods:

// two methods
def double(i: Int): Int = i * 2
def underFive(i: Int): Boolean = i < 5

// pass those methods into filter and map
val doubles = nums.filter(underFive).map(double)

This ability to treat methods and functions as values is a powerful feature that functional programming languages provide.

Technically, a a function that takes another function as an input parameter is known as a Higher-Order Function. (If you like humor, as someone once wrote, that’s like saying that a class that takes an instance of another class as a constructor parameter is a Higher-Order Class.)

Functions, anonymous functions, and methods

As you saw in those examples, this is an anonymous function:

_ * 2

As shown in the higher-order functions discussion, that’s a shorthand version of this syntax:

(i: Int) => i * 2

Functions like these are called “anonymous” because they don’t have names. If you want to give one a name, just assign it to a variable:

val double = (i: Int) => i * 2

Now you have a named function, one that’s assigned to a variable. You can use this function just like you use a method:

double(2)   // 4

In most scenarios it doesn’t matter if double is a function or a method; Scala lets you treat them the same way. Behind the scenes, the Scala technology that lets you treat methods just like functions is known as Eta Expansion.

This ability to seamlessly pass functions around as variables is a distinguishing feature of functional programming languages like Scala. And as you’ve seen in the map and filter examples throughout this book, the ability to pass functions into other functions helps you create code that is concise and still readable—expressive.

If you’re not comfortable with the process of passing functions as parameters into other functions, here are a few more examples you can experiment with:

List("bob", "joe").map(_.toUpperCase)   // List(BOB, JOE)
List("bob", "joe").map(_.capitalize)    // List(Bob, Joe)
List("plum", "banana").map(_.length)    // List(4, 6)

val fruits = List("apple", "pear")       // List(APPLE, PEAR)
fruits.flatMap(_.toUpperCase)   // List(A, P, P, L, E, P, E, A, R)

val nums = List(5, 1, 3, 11, 7) * 2)         // List(10, 2, 6, 22, 14)
nums.filter(_ > 3)      // List(5, 11, 7)
nums.takeWhile(_ < 6)   // List(5, 1, 3)
nums.sortWith(_ < _)    // List(1, 3, 5, 7, 11)
nums.sortWith(_ > _)    // List(11, 7, 5, 3, 1)

nums.takeWhile(_ < 6).sortWith(_ < _)   // List(1, 3, 5)

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