Object Subscripting

Written by Mattt Thompson on

Xcode 4.4 quietly introduced a syntactic revolution to Objective-C. Like all revolutions, however, its origins and agitators require some effort to trace: Xcode 4.4 shipped with Apple LLVM Compiler 4.0, which incorporated changes effective in the Clang front-end as of version 3.1.

For the uninitiated, Clang is the open source C language family front end to the LLVM compiler. Clang is responsible for all of the killer language features in Objective-C going back a few years, such as "Build & Analyze", ARC, blocks, and a nearly 3× performance boost when compiling over GCC.

Clang 3.1 added three features to Objective-C whose aesthetic & cosmetic impact is comparable to the changes brought about in Objective-C 2.0: NSNumber Literals, Collection Literals, and Object Subscripting.

In a single Xcode release, Objective-C went from this:

NSDictionary *dictionary = [NSDictionary dictionaryWithObject:[NSNumber numberWithInteger:42] forKey:@"foo"];
id value = [dictionary objectForKey:@"foo"];

...to this:

NSDictionary *dictionary = @{@"foo": @42};
id value = dictionary[@"foo"];

Concision is the essence of clarity.

Shorter code means typing less, but it also means understanding more. Even a sprinkle of syntactic sugar can be enough to transform a language, and unlock new design patterns.

Collection literals become preferable to property lists for configuration.
Single-element array parameters become more acceptable.
APIs requiring boxed numeric values become more palatable.

However, what remains relatively under-utilized even now—a year after the these language features were added—is object subscripting. Perhaps after reading the rest of this article, though, you'll help to change this.


Elements in a C array are laid out contiguously in memory, and is referenced by the address of its first element. To get the value at a particular index, one would offset this address by the size of an array element, multiplied by the desired index. This pointer arithmetic is provided by the [] operator.

Over time, scripting languages began to take greater liberties with this familiar convention, expanding its role to get & set values in arrays, as well as hashes and objects.

With Clang 3.1, everything has come full-circle: what began as a C operator and co-opted by scripting languages, has now been rolled back into Objective-C. And like the aforementioned scripting languages of yore, the [] subscripting operator in Objective-C has been similarly overloaded to handle both integer-indexed and object-keyed accessors.

dictionary[@"foo"] = @42;
array[0] = @"bar"

If Objective-C is a superset of C, how can Object Subscripting overload the [] C operator? The modern Objective-C runtime prohibits pointer arithmetic on objects, making this semantic pivot possible.

Where this really becomes interesting is when you extend your own classes with subscripting support:

Custom Indexed Subscripting

To add custom-indexed subscripting support to your class, simply declare and implement the following methods:

- (id)objectAtIndexedSubscript:(NSUInteger)idx;
- (void)setObject:(id)obj atIndexedSubscript:(NSUInteger)idx;

Custom Keyed Subscripting

Similarly, custom-keyed subscripting can be added to your class by declaring and implementing these methods:

- (id)objectForKeyedSubscript:(id <NSCopying>)key;
- (void)setObject:(id)obj forKeyedSubscript:(id <NSCopying>)key;

Custom Subscripting as DSL

The whole point in describing all of this is to encourage unconventional thinking about this whole language feature. At the moment, a majority of custom subscripting in classes is used as a convenience accessor to a private collection class. But there's nothing to stop you from, for instance, doing this:

routes[@"GET /users/:id"] = ^(NSNumber *userID){
  // ...
}

...or this:

id piece = chessBoard[@"E1"];

...or this:

NSArray *results = managedObjectContext[@"Product WHERE stock > 20"];

Because of how flexible and concise subscripting is, it is extremely well-purposed for creating DSLs. When defining custom subscripting methods on your own class, there are no restrictions on how they are implemented. You can use this syntax to provide a shorthand for defining application routes, search queries, compound property accessors, or plain-old KVO.


This is, of course, dangerous thinking. Subscripting isn't your new bicycle. It isn't a giant hammer. Hell, it isn't even a giant screwdriver! If there is one thing Object Subscripting DSLs are, it's trouble. Here be dragons.

That said, it does open up some interesting opportunities to bend syntactic conventions to useful ends.

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