Mastering FP and OO with Scala

Making use of functional and object-oriented programming on JVM

How Much One Ought to Know Eta Expansion

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Have you ever wondered how much you should understand the concept of eta expansion to master Scala? I have and hence the page in which I’m going to collect the wisdom (dug out of Internet) with its applications.

NOTE: The page is supposed to be a Wiki page not a blog post. It’s therefore subject to change without notice. When I find out how to use Jekyll and GitHub Pages to power a Wiki-like system, I’ll migrate it there right away.

Eta expansion? Uh, oh, are we in trouble?

Quoting the answer to What is the difference between a method and a function on StackOverflow:

A function is a piece of code that is called by name. It can be passed data to operate on (ie. the parameters) and can optionally return data (the return value).

All data that is passed to a function is explicitly passed.

A method is a piece of code that is called by name that is associated with an object. In most respects it is identical to a function except for two key differences.

1. It is implicitly passed the object for which it was called

2. It is able to operate on data that is contained within the class (remembering that an object is an instance of a class - the class is the definition, the object is an instance of that data)"

Let’s start with the following example.

scala> def foo = 5
foo: Int

scala> val f = foo _
f: () => Int = <function0>

Do you happen to know the name of the (implicit) conversion when the underscore is applied to a method (as if it stood for its parameters) and you eventually end up with a value - a function (that some call a function value)? That’s eta expansion which is a means of coercing (converting) methods into functions in Scala.

f is a value of () => Int type or an instance of <function0>. It may have been written as:

scala> def foo() = 5
foo: ()Int


Can you spot the difference between these three definitions: def foo = 5 and def foo() = 5 and val f = foo _?

In Scala, a function is always a (object) value of a function type that’s a syntactic sugar for a Function trait, e.g. Int => Boolean corresponds to Function1[Int, Boolean]. As a value the function value can be assigned to a name, i.e. can be named.

On the other hand, a method of a class is always a member of the type the class represents and as such doesn’t have its own type. It has a signature, though, e.g. ()Int that looks like a function type, e.g. () => Int.

A method always belongs to an instance of a class yet looks similar to a function signature-wise.

Think of a method, say foo, that accepts a value of a function type.

scala> def foo(bar: () => Int) = bar()
baz: (bar: () => Int)Int

scala> object A {
     |   def baz() = 5
     | }
defined module A

scala> foo(A.baz)
res13: Int = 5

scala> val ff = A.baz _
ff: () => Int = <function0>

scala> foo(ff)
res14: Int = 5

During compilation the call foo(A.baz) was transformed to a call to a function value that in turn calls the method baz on the A sole object. It may have been written as:

scala> val fv: () => Int = () => A.baz()
fv: () => Int = <function0>

scala> foo(fv)
res15: Int = 5

The function value fv is of Function0[Int] type.

scala> val fv: Function0[Int] = new Function0[Int] {
     |   def apply() = A.baz()
     | }
fv: () => Int = <function0>

scala> foo(fv)
res17: Int = 5

Quoting the answer to When do I have to treat my methods as partially applied functions in Scala? on StackOverflow:

You have to write the _ whenever the compiler is not explicitly expecting a Function object.

scala> def foo(n: Int) = n
foo: (n: Int)Int

scala> val bar = foo
<console>:8: error: missing arguments for method foo;
follow this method with `_' if you want to treat it as a partially applied function
       val bar = foo

scala> val bar: Int => Int = foo
bar: Int => Int = <function1>

Uniform access principle

Interestingly, uniform access principle makes understanding eta expansion a bit tricker.

scala> object A {
     |   def foo(bar: () => Int) = 1
     |   def foo(n: Int) = 2
     | }
defined module A

scala> def f() = 4
f: ()Int

scala> def baz() = 4
baz: ()Int

Guess what happens when you execute

res0: Int = 2

What about calling with baz _?

scala> _)
res1: Int = 1

Can you explain why? Visit Eta-expansion between methods and functions with overloaded methods in Scala on StackOverflow for more information.

There’s another example that is not easy to explain.

scala> def fm: Map[Int, String] = Map(0 -> "zero")
fm: Map[Int,String]

scala> fm.isInstanceOf[Function1[Int, String]]
res15: Boolean = true

scala> def g: Int => String = fm
g: Int => String

Since fm is of the Map[Int, String] type and scala.collection.immutable.Map inherits from scala.Function1, one can assign fm to g. That works fine.

Can you explain why the following sample doesn’t work?

scala> def fm(): Map[Int, String] = Map(0 -> "zero")
fm: ()Map[Int,String]

scala> def g: Int => String = fm
<console>:8: error: type mismatch;
 found   : () => Map[Int,String]
 required: Int => String
       def g: Int => String = fm

Note that fm got merely the brackets and they’re indeed equal.

scala> fm() == fm
res16: Boolean = true

See SI-7187 eta expansion should not precede empty application.

Eta expansion and overloaded methods

When there’s an object of a type with overloaded methods the underscore _ may yield different results.

It may resolve to a one-or-more-argument method.

scala> object A {
     |   def foo = 5
     |   def foo(n: Int) = 10
     | }
defined module A

scala> _
res6: () => Int = <function0>

The underscore insists on specifying the type of a function value when there’s ambiguity regarding the method it should be applied to. And it doesn’t matter what the order of parameter types in the overloaded methods is.

scala> object A {
     |   def foo(n: Int) = 5
     |   def foo(s: String, n: Int) = 10
     | }
defined module A

scala> _
<console>:9: error: ambiguous reference to overloaded definition,
both method foo in object A of type (n: Int, m: Int)Int
and  method foo in object A of type (n: Int)Int
match expected type ?

scala> _ : ((Int, Int) => Int)
res5: (Int, Int) => Int = <function2>

Interestingly, the underscore is more forgiving (regarding the explicit type of the function value) when there are two overloaded methods of which one accepts a single parameter of the type AnyRef. In such case, the other method - the no-AnyRef method is chosen.

scala> object A {
     |   def foo(a: AnyRef) = 5
     |   def foo(s: String, n: Int) = 10
     | }
defined module A

scala> _
res5: (String, Int) => Int = <function2>

Use case - Abstracting over arity

With eta expansion you may forget about the arity of a method.

scala> class A {
     |   def foo(x: Int, y: Int, z: Int) = 5
     | }
defined class A

scala> def bar(x: A) = _
bar: (x: A)(Int, Int, Int) => Int

It’s certainly far simpler (and still type-safe) than doing it explicitly.

scala> def bar(x: A) =, _, _)
bar: (x: A)(Int, Int, Int) => Int

When there is another three-argument method in the A class, you’d need to specify the parameter types explicitly that makes using the approach even more troublesome.

scala> def bar(x: A) = Int, _: Int, _: Int)
bar: (x: A)(Int, Int, Int) => Int

Scala Specification about Eta Expansion

In 6.26.5 Eta Expansion Scala Language Specification (PDF) says:

Eta-expansion converts an expression of method type to an equivalent expression of function type.

The section belongs to 6.26 Implicit Conversions that gives another perspective on what eta expansion is - it’s an implicit converstion.

In 6.26 Implicit Conversions the Scala Language Specification says:

Implicit conversions can be applied to expressions whose type does not match their expected type, to qualifiers in selections, and to unapplied methods.

It goes further into when a type is compatible to another.

We say, a type T is compatible to a type U if T conforms to U after applying eta-expansion (§6.26.5) and view applications (§7.3).

In 6.26.2 Method Conversions the Scala Language Specification says:

Eta Expansion. Otherwise, if the method is not a constructor, and the expected type pt is a function type (Ts') => T', eta-expansion (§6.26.5) is performed on the expression e.

References (where wisdom came from)