Another tour of Scala


Scala Object

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The Gist

The Scala Tour doesn’t officially call out this feature.

My Interpretation

In Scala, classes have no static members (as they can in Java and Ruby). Instead, Scala provides a means to create singleton objects. These are, essentially, global variables (although it is only global to the scope in which it is included via import). However, by judicious use of naming, these objects can make your code more readable, especially with respect to PatternMatching.

Also recall that creating a case class automatically creates a singleton object of the same name that can be used to create and “de-create” (in a case statement) instances of that class.

This ties together the two main purposes of a singleton object: as a factory and as an extractor.


Suppose we want to be able to create a Person object from either a known first name and last name, or a “friendly” string that takes a full name. In Java, you might create multiple constructors. While you can also do so in Scala, multiple constructors are a bit cumbersome, syntax-wise, so a factory is a bit easier (as an aside, Ruby does not allow multiple constructors, so you would need this pattern there as well).

Note that this is almost entirely convention. The only real compiler “magic” that happens is in Scala’s special treatment of the apply() method. Given a reference xxx, Scala treats xxx(yyy) the same as xxx.apply(yyy). In this case, the object Person has two apply methods, each returning an instance of Person.

That the object called Person has the same name as the class called Person is coincidental and purely for our own benefit. We could define a class Cat that extends Person (since all cats seem to think they are people), who gets his last name from his owner’s last name, and modify our Person object to render Cat objects sometimes:


The more powerful use of objects is via a companion method to apply, called unapply, which Scala treats specially in a case statement. We saw in CaseClasses that you can “extract” the elements of an object as part of a case statement. In those examples, we created case classes using the case keyword. This tells Scala to automatically create some canonical structures for us. We could create those ourselves, however.

Suppose we extends our Person class to have an optional middle name:

class Person(val last:String, val first:String, val middle:String)

Now, suppose we wanted to match on people without a middle name:

person match {
     case Person(last,first,middle) => println("has middle name")
     case PersonNoMiddle(last,first) => println("no middle name")

With ordinary case classes, we cannot do this. But it is possible by understanding how case classes work. The expression between case and => in the code above is telling Scala to call the unapply method of the Person object (or of the PersonNoMiddle object).

When Scala encounters the first case statement, it reads it as “if there is a method of Person that takes a Person and returns a Tuple3[String,String,String], call that method and if the Option it returns is not None, set the tuple’s values to last, first, and middle and execute the code to the right of the =>. Otherwise, proceed to the next case statement and start over”.

That’s quite a handful. And it may take a second to sink in, but this is what’s going on under the covers of Scala’s powerful case classes and PatternMatching.

Fortunately, you don’t need to implement a lot of unapply methods; rather you take advantage of the case keyword creating them for you.

My Interpretation of This Feature

While this is a pretty advance concept that might smack of a bit too much “magic”, it is actually quite logical and, more importantly, highly useful and in aid of readable code.

It was hard to come up with succinct example that wasn’t artifical, but this is more of a “how does this work” type of concept than a “you need to know how to do this regularly”.

Last Updated 08/19/2009 at 11:42:36 PM by davec

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