Ranges in Swift 3


  1. Sep 14, 2016
    Added a mention of the new collection indexing model introduced with SE-0065.

This is a short excerpt from the Collections chapter in Advanced Swift, slightly amended for the blog. Chris Eidhof and I are almost done updating the book for Swift 3 (and improving it in the process). It will be out soon.

A range is an interval of values, defined by its lower and upper bounds. You create ranges with the two range operators: ..< for half-open ranges that do not include their upper bound, and ... for closed ranges that include both bounds:

// 0 to 9, 10 is not included
let singleDigitNumbers = 0..<10

// "z" is included
let lowercaseLetters = Character("a")...Character("z")

Ranges seem like a natural fit to be sequences or collections, so it may surprise you to learn that they are neither. At least not all of them are.

In Swift 2, ranges were closely connected to collections. A range’s element type had to be an index type, and ranges themselves were also collections. This model underwent significant changes in Swift 3 as part of the new collection indexing model. Because the old index protocols no longer exist, the only constraint on a range’s element type is now Comparable conformance. And since the range elements now can no longer advance themselves, it follows that Range can’t be a Collection anymore, at least not without additional constraints. As a matter of fact, the Range type in Swift 3 is closer in concept to what used to be called intervals in Swift 2.1

Range types

There are now four range types in the standard library. They can be classified in a 2-by-2 matrix as follows:

Half-open range Closed range
Elements are Comparable Range Closed​Range
Elements are Strideable (with integer steps) Countable​Range Countable​Closed​Range
Range types in the Swift 3 standard library.

The columns correspond to the two range operators we saw above, which create a [Countable]Range (half-open) or a [Countable]ClosedRange (closed), respectively. Half-open and closed ranges both have their place:

  • Only half-open ranges can represent empty intervals (when the lower and upper bounds are equal, as in 5..<5).
  • Only a closed range can contain the maximum value its element type can represent (e.g. 0...Int.max). A half-open range always requires at least one representable value that is greater than the highest value in the range.2

Countable vs. non-countable

The rows in the matrix distinguish between “normal” ranges whose element type only conforms to the Comparable protocol (which is the minimum requirement), and ranges over types that are Strideable and use integer steps between elements. Only the latter ranges are random-access collections, inheriting all the great functionality of the Sequence and Collection protocols.

Swift calls these more capable ranges countable because only they can be iterated over. Valid bounds for countable ranges include integer and pointer types, but not floating-point types because of the integer constraint on the type’s Stride. If you need to iterate over consecutive of floating-point values, you can use the stride(from:to:by) and stride(from:through:by) functions to create such a sequence.

This means that you can iterate over some ranges but not others. For example, the range of Character values we defined above is not a sequence, so this won’t work:

for char in lowercaseLetters {
    // ...
// Error: Type 'ClosedRange<Character>' does not conform to protocol 'Sequence'

(You might expect that this should work because stepping through some simple ASCII characters is straightforward. But as we saw in the article about strings, Swift’s Character type can actually hold complete grapheme clusters and not just a single code point. And that means a character does not necessarily have a well-defined successor anymore. Thanks Unicode.)

Whereas the following is no problem because an integer range is a countable range and thus a collection:

singleDigitNumbers.map { $0 * $0 }
// → [0, 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64, 81]

Conditional protocol conformance

The standard library currently has to have separate types for countable ranges, CountableRange and CountableClosedRange. Ideally, these would not be distinct types but rather extensions on Range and ClosedRange that added RandomAccessCollection conformance on the condition that the generic parameters meet the required constraints. It would look like this:

// Invalid in Swift 3
extension Range: RandomAccessCollection
    where Bound: Strideable, Bound.Stride: SignedInteger
    // Implement RandomAccessCollection

Alas, Swift 3’s type system cannot express this idea, so separate types are needed. Support for conditional conformance is one of the main goals for Swift 4 (or earlier?), and CountableRange and CountableClosedRange will be folded into Range and ClosedRange when it lands.

Converting between half-open and closed ranges

The distinction between the half-open Range and the closed ClosedRange will likely remain, and it can sometimes make working with ranges harder than it used to be. Say you have a function that takes a Range<Character> and you want to pass it the closed character range we created above:

func doSomething(with range: Range<Character>) {
    // ...

doSomething(with: lowercaseLetters)
// Error: Cannot convert value of type 'ClosedRange<Character>'
// to expected argument type 'Range<Character>'

Not only isn’t there an automatic conversion between closed and half-open ranges, there appears to be no way to do this at all! But why? Well, to turn a closed range into an equivalent half-open range, you would have to find the element that comes after the original range’s upper bound. And that is simply not possible unless the element is Strideable, which is only guaranteed for countable ranges (and countable ranges do provide initializers to convert between the two).

This means the caller of such a function will have to provide the correct type. If the function expects a Range, you can’t use the ... operator to create it. We’re not sure how big of a limitation this is in practice since most ranges are likely integer-based. But it definitely is unintuitive.

  1. Please refer to my earlier article about Ranges and Intervals in Swift 2 to learn more about the distinction between ranges and intervals in Swift 2. ↩︎

  2. In Swift 2, all ranges were technically half-open, even if they were created with the ... operator. As a result, no range could contain a value like Int.max. The standard library used to have additional types, HalfOpenInterval and ClosedInterval, to remedy this. They have been removed in Swift 3. ↩︎

If you liked this article, I bet you’ll also like Advanced Swift, the book I wrote together with Chris Eidhof and Airspeed Velocity.

The second edition, fully updated for Swift 3, is out now.

Advanced Swift is available as a DRM-free e-book (including the full book for Swift Playgrounds on iPad) and in print.