How do I find what some symbol means or does?


We can divide the operators in Scala, for the purpose of teaching, into four categories:

  • Keywords/reserved symbols
  • Normal methods or values
  • Methods provided by implicit conversion
  • Syntactic sugars/composition

And let’s see some arbitrary examples:

<-    // Keyword
->    // Method provided by implicit conversion
<=    // Common method
++=   // Can be a common method or syntactic sugar involving ++ method
::    // Common method or object
_+_   // Not really a single operator; it's parsed as _ + _

The exact meaning of most of these methods depends on the class they are defined on. For example, <= on Int means “less than or equal to”, but it might mean something else in another class. :: in an expression is probably the method of the class List but it can also refer to the object of the same name (and in a pattern it definitely does).

So, let’s discuss these categories.

Keywords/reserved symbols

There are a few symbols in Scala that are special and cannot be defined or used as method names. Two of them are considered proper keywords, while others are just “reserved”. They are:

// Keywords
<-  // Used on for-comprehensions, to separate pattern from generator
=>  // Used for function types, function literals and import renaming

// Reserved
( )        // Delimit expressions and parameters
[ ]        // Delimit type parameters
{ }        // Delimit blocks
.          // Method call and path separator
// /* */   // Comments
#          // Used in type notations
:          // Type ascription or context bounds
<: >:      // Upper and lower bounds
<%         // View bounds (deprecated)
" """      // Strings
'          // Indicate symbols and characters
@          // Annotations and variable binding on pattern matching
`          // Denote constant or enable arbitrary identifiers
,          // Parameter separator
;          // Statement separator
_*         // vararg expansion
_          // Many different meanings

These are all part of the language, and, as such, can be found in any text that properly describe the language, such as Scala Specification(PDF) itself.

The last one, the underscore, deserve a special description, because it is widely used, and has different meanings depending on the context. Here’s a sample:

import scala._    // Wild card -- all of Scala is imported
import scala.{ Predef => _, _ } // Exclusion, everything except Predef
def f[M[_]]       // Higher kinded type parameter
def f(m: M[_])    // Existential type
_ + _             // Anonymous function placeholder parameter
m _               // Eta expansion of method into method value
m(_)              // Partial function application
_ => 5            // Discarded parameter
case _ =>         // Wild card pattern -- matches anything
f(xs: _*)         // Sequence xs is passed as multiple parameters to f(ys: T*)
case Seq(xs @ _*) // Identifier xs is bound to the whole matched sequence

Common methods

Many symbols are simply methods of a class, a trait, or an object. For instance, if you do

List(1, 2) ++ List(3, 4)

You’ll find the method ++ right on the Scaladoc for List. However, there’s one convention that you must be aware when searching for methods. Methods ending in colon (:) bind to the right instead of the left. In other words, while the above method call is equivalent to:

List(1, 2).++(List(3, 4))

If I had, instead 1 :: List(2, 3), that would be equivalent to:

List(2, 3).::(1)

So you need to look at the type found on the right when looking for methods ending in colon. Consider, for instance:

1 +: List(2, 3) :+ 4

The first method (+:) binds to the right, and is found on List. The second method (:+) is just a normal method, and binds to the left – again, on List.

If the name ends in =, look for the method called the same without = and read the last section.

If you aren’t sure what the type of the receiver is, you can look up the symbol on the Scaladoc index page for identifiers not starting with letters (for standard Scala library; of course, third-party libraries can add their own symbolic methods, for which you should look at the corresponding page of their Scaladoc).

Types and objects can also have symbolic names; in particular, it should be mentioned that for types with two type parameters the name can be written between parameters, so that e.g. Int <:< Any is the same as <:<[Int, Any].

Methods provided by implicit conversion

If you did not find the symbol you are looking for in the list of reserved symbols, then it must be a method, or part of one. But, often, you’ll see some symbol and the documentation for the class will not have that method. When this happens, either you are looking at a composition of one or more methods with something else, or the method has been imported into scope, or is available through an imported implicit conversion.

These can also be found in Scaladoc’s index, as mentioned above.

All Scala code has three automatic imports:

// Not necessarily in this order
import java.lang._
import scala._
import scala.Predef._

The first two only make classes and singleton objects available, none of which look like operators. Predef is the only interesting one for this post.

Looking inside Predef shows some symbolic names:

class <:<
class =:=
object =:=
object <%< // removed in Scala 2.10
def ???

There is also ::, which doesn’t appear in the Scaladoc, but is mentioned in the comments. In addition, Predef makes some methods available through implicit conversions. Just look at the methods and classes with implicit modifier that receive, as parameter, an object of type that is receiving the method. For example, consider "a" -> 1. We need to look for an implicit which works on "a", and so it can take String, one of its supertypes (AnyRef or Any) or a type parameter. In this case, we find implicit final class ArrowAssoc[A](private val self: A) which makes this implicit available on all types.

Other implicit conversions may be visible in your scope depending on imports, extended types or self-type annotations. See Finding implicits for details.

Syntactic sugars/composition

So, here’s a few syntactic sugars that may hide a method:

class Example(arr: Array[Int] = Array.fill(5)(0)) {
  def apply(n: Int) = arr(n)
  def update(n: Int, v: Int) = arr(n) = v
  def a = arr(0); def a_=(v: Int) = arr(0) = v
  def b = arr(1); def b_=(v: Int) = arr(1) = v
  def c = arr(2); def c_=(v: Int) = arr(2) = v
  def d = arr(3); def d_=(v: Int) = arr(3) = v
  def e = arr(4); def e_=(v: Int) = arr(4) = v
  def +(v: Int) = new Example(arr map (_ + v))
  def unapply(n: Int) = if (arr.indices contains n) Some(arr(n)) else None

val ex = new Example
println(ex(0))  // means ex.apply(0)
ex(0) = 2       // means ex.update(0, 2)
ex.b = 3        // means ex.b_=(3)
val ex(c) = 2   // calls ex.unapply(2) and assigns result to c, if it's Some; throws MatchError if it's None
ex += 1         // means ex = ex + 1; if Example had a += method, it would be used instead

The last one is interesting, because any symbolic method can be combined with = in that way.

And, of course, all of the above can be combined in various combinations, e.g.

(_+_) // An expression, or parameter, that is an anonymous function with
      // two parameters, used exactly where the underscores appear, and
      // which calls the "+" method on the first parameter passing the
      // second parameter as argument.

This answer was originally submitted in response to this question on Stack Overflow.

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