Why Dictionary sometimes encodes itself as an array


  1. Dec 6, 2017
    Mentioned a “workaround” at the end. Fixed some typos.
  2. May 29, 2018
    Updated the code snippet from the standard library to Swift 4.1 now that the standard library types conditionally conform to Codable. Added a link to a Swift forums post where this issue is being discussed.

This is a writeup of a Twitter conversation.

You may have noticed that some dictionaries encode themselves as arrays in Swift’s Codable system — or more precisely, as unkeyed containers, which is Codable lingo for an array-like data structure. This is quite surprising; a keyed container sounds like a much better match for a dictionary.

Here’s an example. Note that the dictionary’s Key type is a String-backed enum:

enum Color: String, Codable {
    case red
    case green
    case blue

let dict: [Color : String] = [
    .red: "ff0000",
    .green: "00ff00",
    .blue: "0000ff"

import Foundation
let encoder = JSONEncoder()
encoder.outputFormatting = [.prettyPrinted, .sortedKeys]
let encoded = try! encoder.encode(dict)
let jsonText = String(decoding: encoded, as: UTF8.self)

This produces a JSON array containing both keys and values in alternating order, and not an object/dictionary of key-value pairs, as I would have expected:


Not all dictionaries behave this way, though. If we replace the enum keys with plain strings, the encoder produces a proper JSON object.

So Dictionary seems to behave differently depending on its Key type, even though the enum values are ultimately encoded as strings. What’s going on here? We can find the answer in Dictionary’s implementation for the Encodable protocol. The code looks like this:

extension Dictionary : Encodable where Key : Encodable, Value : Encodable {
    /// Encodes the contents of this dictionary into the given encoder.
    /// If the dictionary uses `String` or `Int` keys, the contents are encoded
    /// in a keyed container. Otherwise, the contents are encoded as alternating
    /// key-value pairs in an unkeyed container.
    /// This function throws an error if any values are invalid for the given
    /// encoder's format.
    /// - Parameter encoder: The encoder to write data to.
    public func encode(to encoder: Encoder) throws {
        if Key.self == String.self {
            // Since the keys are already Strings, we can use them as keys directly.
            var container = encoder.container(keyedBy: _DictionaryCodingKey.self)
            for (key, value) in self {
                let codingKey = _DictionaryCodingKey(stringValue: key as! String)!
                try container.encode(value, forKey: codingKey)
        } else if Key.self == Int.self {
            // Since the keys are already Ints, we can use them as keys directly.
            var container = encoder.container(keyedBy: _DictionaryCodingKey.self)
            for (key, value) in self {
                let codingKey = _DictionaryCodingKey(intValue: key as! Int)!
                try container.encode(value, forKey: codingKey)
        } else {
            // Keys are Encodable but not Strings or Ints, so we cannot arbitrarily
            // convert to keys. We can encode as an array of alternating key-value
            // pairs, though.
            var container = encoder.unkeyedContainer()
            for (key, value) in self {
                try container.encode(key)
                try container.encode(value)

There are three branches: only if the dictionary’s key type is String or Int does it use a keyed container. Any other key type triggers results in an unkeyed container of alternating keys and values.

String and Int get special treatment because those are the two valid coding key types in the Codable world. Any other coding key is ultimately lowered to a String or Int.1 Since the dictionary has no way to tell how other types encode themselves, it has no choice but to resort to an unkeyed container.

And the fact that our custom enum is backed by String (and thus produces String values when encoded) doesn’t matter. The standard library can’t use a rule like “use a keyed container if Key: RawRepresentable, Key.RawValue == String” because, however unlikely, the type may have overridden the default compiler-synthesized Codable implementation to encode itself differently — there’s no practical way for the standard library to tell.

Update May 29, 2018: Itai Ferber, one of the developers of the Codable system confirmed in a post on the Swift forums that he sees this as more a bug than a feature:

This was an oversight in the implementation as far as I’m concerned. Something that is RawRepresentable as a String or Int encodes as a String or Int by default everywhere else, and I don’t think this should be different.

The one thing we need to figure out is how bad the regression would be if we changed behavior, as we would introduce incompatibility in the other direction.

Until Swift changes the behavior (if ever), I don’t think there’s a simple fix for this, short of manually converting any dictionary to String or Int keys before encoding. Here’s how you could do this for the example dictionary (this works for any RawRepresentable dictionary with a RawValue of String or Int):

let stringKeyedDict = Dictionary(
    dict.map { ($0.key.rawValue, $0.value) },
    uniquingKeysWith: { $1 }

This creates a new dictionary from a sequence of key-value pairs. We create this sequence by mapping over the source dictionary and using the key’s rawValue property to produce the string keys.

  1. You may wonder why Int is a valid key type when JSON requires string keys. But we’re on a more generic level here. The dictionary doesn’t know it’s being encoded into JSON, it only knows about the generic Encoder interface. And all compatible encoders must be able to handle String and Int keys. It’s then the JSONEncoder’s task to convert any integer keys it receives into strings. ↩︎

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 third edition, fully updated for Swift 4, is out now.

Advanced Swift is available as a DRM-free e-book (including Xcode playgrounds) and in print.