Programming is about typing. And programming languages are typically judged by how much they make you type — in both senses of the word.

Swift is beloved for being able to save us a few keystrokes without compromising safety or performance, whether it’s through implicit typing or automatic synthesis of protocols like Equatable and Hashable. But the OG ergonomic feature of Swift is undoubtedly automatic synthesis of RawRepresentable conformance for enumerations with raw types. You know… the language feature that lets you do this:

enum Greeting: String {
    case hello = "hello"
    case goodbye // implicit raw value of "goodbye"

enum SortOrder: Int {
    case ascending = -1
    case same // implicit raw value of 0
    case descending  // implicit raw value of 1

Though “enum + RawValue” has been carved into the oak tree of our hearts since first we laid eyes on that language with a fast bird, few of us have had occasion to consider what RawRepresentable means outside of autosynthesis. This week, we invite you to do a little extra typing and explore some untypical use cases for the RawRepresentable protocol.

In Swift, an enumeration can be declared with raw value syntax.

According to the documentation:

For any enumeration with a string, integer, or floating-point raw type, the Swift compiler automatically adds RawRepresentable conformance.

When developers first start working with Swift, they inevitably run into situations where raw value syntax doesn’t work:

  • Enumerations with raw values other than Int or String
  • Enumerations with associated values

Upon seeing those bright, red error sigils, many of us fall back to a more conventional enumeration, failing to realize that what we wanted to do wasn’t impossible, but rather just slightly beyond what the compiler can do for us.

RawRepresentable with C Raw Value Types

The primary motivation for raw value enumerations is to improve interoperability. Quoting again from the docs:

Using the raw value of a conforming type streamlines interoperation with Objective-C and legacy APIs.

This is true of Objective-C frameworks in the Apple SDK, which declare enumerations with NS_ENUM. But interoperability with other C libraries is often less seamless.

Consider the task of interfacing with libcmark, a library for working with Markdown according to the CommonMark spec. Among the imported data types is cmark_node_type, which has the following C declaration:

typedef enum {
  /* Error status */

  /* Block */


} cmark_node_type;

We can immediately see a few details that would need to be ironed out along the path of Swiftification — notably, 1) the sentinel NONE value, which would instead be represented by nil, and 2) the aliases for the first and last block values, which wouldn’t be encoded by distinct enumeration cases.

Attempting to declare a Swift enumeration with a raw value type of cmark_node_type results in a compiler error.

enum NodeType: cmark_node_type {} // Error

However, that doesn’t totally rule out cmark_node_type from being a RawValue type. Here’s what we need to make that happen:

enum NodeType: RawRepresentable {
    case document
    case blockQuote

    init?(rawValue: cmark_node_type) {
        switch rawValue {
        case CMARK_NODE_DOCUMENT: self = .document
        case CMARK_NODE_BLOCK_QUOTE: self = .blockQuote
            return nil

    var rawValue: cmark_node_type {
        switch self {
        case .document: return CMARK_NODE_DOCUMENT
        case .blockQuote: return CMARK_NODE_BLOCK_QUOTE

It’s a far cry from being able to say case document = CMARK_NODE_DOCUMENT, but this approach offers a reasonable solution that falls within the existing semantics of the Swift standard library.

That debunks the myth about Int and String being the only types that can be a raw value. What about that one about associated values?

RawRepresentable and Associated Values

In Swift, an enumeration case can have one or more associated values. Associated values are a convenient way to introduce some flexibility into the closed semantics of enumerations and all the benefits they confer.

As the old adage goes:

There are three numbers in computer science: 0, 1, and N.

enum Number {
    case zero
    case one
    case n(Int)

Because of the associated value on n, the compiler can’t automatically synthesize an Int raw value type. But that doesn’t mean we can’t roll up our sleeves and pick up the slack.

extension Number: RawRepresentable {
    init?(rawValue: Int) {
        switch rawValue {
        case 0: self = .zero
        case 1: self = .one
        case let n: self = .n(n)

    var rawValue: Int {
        switch self {
        case .zero: return 0
        case .one: return 1
        case let .n(n): return n

Number(rawValue: 1) // .one

Another myth busted!

Let’s continue this example to clear up a misconception we found in the documentation.

RawRepresentable as Raw Values for Another Enumeration

Consider the following from the RawRepresentable docs:

For any enumeration with a string, integer, or floating-point raw type, the Swift compiler automatically adds RawRepresentable conformance.

This is, strictly speaking, true. But it actually under-sells what the compiler can do. The actual requirements for raw values are as follows:

  • The raw value type must be Equatable
  • The raw value type must be ExpressibleByIntegerLiteral, ExpressibleByFloatLiteral, or ExpressibleByStringLiteral
  • The raw value for each enumeration case must be a literal (or unspecified, in which case the value is inferred)

Let’s see what happens if we satisfy that for our Number type from before.

extension Number: Equatable {} // conformance is automatically synthesized

extension Number: ExpressibleByIntegerLiteral {
    init(integerLiteral value: Int) {
        self.init(rawValue: value)!

-1 as Number // .n(-1)
0 as Number // .zero
1 as Number // .one
2 as Number // .n(2)

If we declare a new enumeration, (literally “Number”) with a Number raw value…

enum : Number {
    case  = 1
    case  = 2
    case  = 3

. // 二
..rawValue // .n(2)
..rawValue.rawValue // 2

Wait, that actually works? Neat!

What’s really interesting is that our contrived little enumeration type benefits from the same, small memory footprint that you get from using enumerations in more typical capacities:

MemoryLayout.size(ofValue: .) // 1 (bytes)
MemoryLayout.size(ofValue: ..rawValue) // 9 (bytes)
MemoryLayout.size(ofValue: ..rawValue.rawValue) // 8 (bytes)

If raw values aren’t limited to String or Int, as once believed, you may start to wonder: How far can we take this?

RawRepresentable with Metatype Raw Values

Probably the biggest selling point of enumerations in Swift is how they encode a closed set of values.

enum Element {
    case earth, water, air, fire

Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent way to “close off” which types conform to a protocol.

public protocol Elemental {}
public struct Earth: Elemental {}
public struct Water: Elemental {}
public struct Air: Elemental {}
public struct Fire: Elemental {}

Without built-in support for type unions or an analog to the open access modifier for classes, there’s nothing that an API provider can do, for example, to prevent a consumer from doing the following:

struct Aether: Elemental {}

Any switch statement over a type-erased Elemental value using is checks will necessarily have a default case.

Until we have a first-class language feature for providing such guarantees, we can recruit enumerations and raw values for a reasonable approximation:

extension Element: RawRepresentable {
    init?(rawValue: Elemental.Type) {
        switch rawValue {
        case is Earth.Type:
            self = .earth
        case is Water.Type:
            self = .water
        case is Air.Type:
            self = .air
        case is Fire.Type:
            self = .fire
            return nil

    var rawValue: Elemental.Type {
        switch self {
        case .earth: return Earth.self
        case .water: return Water.self
        case .air: return Air.self
        case .fire: return Fire.self

Returning one last time to the docs, we’re reminded that:

With a RawRepresentable type, you can switch back and forth between a custom type and an associated RawValue type without losing the value of the original RawRepresentable type.

From the earliest days of the language, RawRepresentable has been relegated to the thankless task of C interoperability. But looking now with a fresh set of eyes, we can now see it for in all its injective glory.

So the next time you find yourself with an enumeration whose cases broker in discrete, defined counterparts, consider adopting RawRepresentable to formalize the connection.


Questions? Corrections? Issues and pull requests are always welcome.

This article uses Swift version 5.1. Find status information for all articles on the status page.

Written by Mattt

Mattt (@mattt) is a writer and developer in Portland, Oregon.

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