Structs and mutation in Swift

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love mutating

Note : This post is a draft-version of a new section in our book Advanced Swift. We’re currently updating the book for Swift 3. It’ll be a free update for everyone who has bought a digital version of the book. Thanks to Ole Begemann for suggestions and improvements.

Value types imply that whenever a variable is copied, the value itself — and not just a reference to the value — is copied. For example, in almost all programming languages, scalar types are value types. This means that whenever a value is assigned to a new variable, it is copied rather than passed by reference:

var a = 42
var b = a
b += 1

After the code above executes, the value of b will be 43, but a will still be 42. This is so natural that it seems like stating the obvious. However, in Swift, all structs behave this way, not just scalar types.

Let’s start with a simple struct that describes a Point. This is similar to CGPoint, except that it contains Ints, whereas CGPoint contains CGFloats.

struct Point {
    var x: Int
    var y: Int

For structs, Swift automatically adds a memberwise initializer. This means we can now initialize a new variable:

let origin = Point(x: 0, y: 0)

Because structs in Swift have value semantics, we cannot change any of the properties of a struct variable that’s defined using let. For example, the following code will not work:

origin.x = 10 // error

Even though we defined x within the struct as a var property, we cannot change it, because origin is defined using let. This has some major advantages. For example, if you read a line like let point = ..., and you know that point is a struct variable, then you also know that it will never, ever, change. This is a great help when reading through code.

To create a variable that we can mutate, we need to create it using var:

var otherPoint = Point(x: 0, y: 0)
otherPoint.x += 10

Once we create a variable using var, we can mutate it. However, unlike with objects, every struct variable is unique. For example, we can create a new variable thirdPoint, and assign the value of origin to it. Now we can change thirdPoint, but origin (which we defined as an immutable variable using let) will not change.

var thirdPoint = origin
thirdPoint.x += 10

Once you assign a struct to a new variable, Swift automatically makes a copy. Even though this sounds very expensive, many of the copies can be optimized away by the compiler, and Swift tries hard to make the copies very cheap. In fact, many structs in the standard library are implemented using a technique called copy-on-write, which we will look at later.

If we have struct values that we plan to use more often, we can define them in an extension as a static property. For example, we can define an origin property on Point, so that we can write Point.origin everywhere we need it:

extension Point {
    static let origin = Point(x: 0, y: 0)

Structs can also contain other structs. For example, if we define a Size struct, we can create a Rect struct which is composed out of a point and a size:

struct Size {
    var width: Int
    var height: Int

struct Rectangle {
    var origin: Point
    var size: Size

Just like before, we get a memberwise initializer for Rectangle. The order of the parameters matches the order of the property definitions:

Rectangle(origin: Point.origin, 
          size: Size(width: 320, height: 480))

If we want a custom initializer for our struct, we can add it directly inside the struct definition. However, if the struct definition contains a custom initializer, Swift does not generate a memberwise initializer. By defining our custom initializer in an extension, we also get to keep the memberwise initializer.

extension Rectangle {
    init(x: Int = 0, y: Int = 0, width: Int, height: Int) {
        origin = Point(x: x, y: y)
        size = Size(width: width, height: height)

Instead of setting origin and size directly, we could have also called self.init(origin:size:).

If we define a mutable variable screen, we can add a didSet block that gets executed whenever screen changes. This didSet works for every definition of a struct, be it in a playground, in a class or when defining a global variable.

var screen = Rectangle(width: 320, height: 480) {
    didSet {
        print("Screen changed! \(screen)")

Maybe somewhat surprisingly, even if we change something deep inside the struct, this will get triggered:

screen.origin.x = 10

Understanding why this works is key to understanding value types. Mutating a struct variable is semantically the same as assigning a new value to it. When we mutate something deep inside the struct, it still means we are mutating the struct, so didSet still needs to get triggered.

With regular structs, the compiler will mutate the value in place, and not actually make a copy. With copy-on-write structs (which we’ll discuss later), this works differently.

It would make sense to add two Points together. We can use the + operator for this, add both members, and return a new Point.

func +(lhs: Point, rhs: Point) -> Point {
    return Point(x: lhs.x + rhs.x, y: lhs.y + rhs.y)
screen.origin + Point(x: 10, y: 10)

We could also lift this operation to rectangles, and add a translate method which moves the rectangle by a given offset. Our first attempt doesn’t work:

extension Rectangle {
    func translate(by offset: Point) {
        origin = origin + offset

The compiler tells us that we cannot assign to the origin property, because self is immutable (writing origin = is shorthand for self.origin =). We could think of self as an extra, implicit parameter that gets passed to every method on Rectangle. You never have to pass the parameter, but it’s always there inside the method body. And it’s defined as let by default. The reason this let restriction exists is so that value semantics can be guaranteed. If we want to be able to mutate self, or any property of self, or even nested properties (e.g. self.origin.x), we need to mark our method as mutating:

extension Rectangle {
    mutating func translate(by offset: Point) {
        origin = origin + offset
screen.translate(by: Point(x: 10, y: 10))

The compiler enforces the mutating keyword. Unless we use it, we are not allowed to mutate anything inside the method. By marking the method as mutating, we change the behavior of self. Instead of it being a let, it now works like a var: we can freely change any property. (To be precise, it’s not even a var, but we will get to that in a little bit).

If we define a Rectangle variable using let, we cannot call translate on it, because the only Rectangles that are mutable are the ones defined using var:

let otherScreen = screen
otherScreen.translate(by: Point(x: 10, y: 10)) // error

Thinking back to the collections chapter, we can now see how the difference between let and var applies to our collections as well. The append method on arrays is defined as mutating, and therefore we are not allowed to call it on an array defined with let.

Likewise, if we think about a property setter on a struct, it makes sense that they are mutating. Because Swift automatically marks every setter as mutating, you cannot call a setter on a let variable.

let point = Point.origin
// doesn't work, because the setter is mutating.
point.x = 10 

In many cases, it makes sense to have both a mutating and a non-mutating variant of the same method. For example, arrays have both a sort() method (which is mutating and sorts in place) and a sorted() method (which returns a new array). We can also add a non-mutating variant of our translate(by:_) method. Instead of mutating self, we create a copy, mutate that, and return a new Rectangle:

extension Rectangle {
    func translated(by offset: Point) -> Rectangle {
        var copy = self
        copy.translate(by: offset)
        return copy
screen.translated(by: Point(x: 20, y: 20))

The names sort and sorted are not chosen at random, but are names that conform to the Swift API Design Guidelines. Likewise, we applied these guidelines to translate and translated. There is even specific documentation for methods that have a mutating and a non-mutating variant: because translate has a side-effect, it should read as an imperative verb phrase. The non-mutating variant should have a -ed or -ing suffix.

In functional programming, side-effects are often considered bad, because they might influence your code in unexpected ways. For example, if an object is referenced in multiple places, every change automatically happens in every place. As we have seen in the introduction, when dealing with multi-threaded code, this can easily lead to bugs: because the object you are just checking can be modified from a different thread, all your assumptions might be invalid.

With Swift structs, mutating does not have the same problems. The mutation of the struct is a local side-effect, and only applies to the current struct variable. Because every struct variable is unique (or in other words: every struct value has exactly one owner), it’s almost impossible to introduce bugs this way. Unless you’re referring to a global struct variable across threads, that is.

To understand how the mutating keyword works, we can look at the behavior of inout. In Swift, we can mark function parameters as inout. Before we do that, let’s define a free function that moves a rectangle by ten points on both axes. We cannot simply call translate directly on the rectangle parameter, because all function parameters are immutable by default. In order to change it, we create a mutable copy using var, call translate and return the changed value. Then we need to re-assign it to screen:

func moveByTenTen(rectangle: Rectangle) -> Rectangle {
    var changed = rectangle
    changed.translate(by: Point(x: 10, y: 10))
    return changed
screen = moveByTenTen(rectangle: screen)

How could we write a function that changes the rectangle in place? Thinking back, the mutating keyword did exactly that. It makes the implicit self parameter mutable, and it changes the value of the variable.

In functions, we can mark parameters as inout. Just like with a regular parameter, a copy of the value gets passed in to the function. However, we can change the copy (it’s as if it were defined as a var). And once the function returns, the original value gets overwritten:

func moveByTwentyTwenty(rectangle: inout Rectangle) {
    rectangle.translate(by: Point(x: 20, y: 20))
moveByTwentyTwenty(rectangle: &screen)

The moveByTwentyTwenty function takes the screen rectangle, changes it locally, and copies the new value back (overriding the previous value of screen). This behavior is exactly the same as a mutating method. In fact, mutating methods are just like regular methods on struct, except that self is marked as inout.

Just to make sure, we cannot call moveByTwentyTwenty on a rectangle that’s defined using let. We can only use it with mutable values:

let immutableScreen = screen
moveByTwentyTwenty(rectangle: &immutableScreen) // error

Now it also makes sense how we could define a mutating operator like +=. Such operators modify the left-hand side by adding the right-hand side:

func +=(lhs: inout Point, rhs: Point) {
    lhs = lhs + rhs
var myPoint = Point.origin
myPoint += Point(x: 10, y: 10)

In the Functions chapter, we will go into more detail about inout. For now, it suffices to say that inout is in lots of places. For example, it’s now easy to understand how modifying a subscript works:

var array = [Point(x: 0, y: 0), Point(x: 10, y: 10)]
array[0] += Point(x: 100, y: 100)

The expression array[0] is automatically passed in as an inout variable. In the Functions chapter, we will look in more detail at inout parameters, and see why we can use expressions like array[0] as an inout parameter.