Match Expressions

In the previous section we saw the match expression

count match {
  case 0 => Image.empty
  case n => aBox.beside(boxes(n-1))

How are we to understand this new kind of expression, and write our own? Let's break it down.

The very first thing to say is that match is indeed an expression, which means it evaluates to a value. If it didn't, the boxes method would not work!

To understand what it evaluates to we need more detail. A match expression in general has the shape

<anExpression> match {
  case <pattern1> => <expression1>
  case <pattern2> => <expression2>
  case <pattern3> => <expression3>

<anExpression>, concretely count in the case above, is the expression that evaluates to the value we're trying to match against the patterns. The patterns <pattern1> and so on are tried in order from top to bottom. The right-hand side expression, <expression1> and so on, of the first matching pattern is evaluated, and the overall result is the result of the right-hand side expression that is evaluated. So far we've seen two kinds of patterns:

Finally, the right-hand side expressions, <expression1> and so on, are just expressions like any other we've written so far. The entire match expression evaluates to the value of the right-hand side expression of the first pattern that matches. So when we call boxes(0) both patterns will match (because the wildcard matches anything), but because the literal pattern comes first the expression Image.empty is the one that is evaluated.

A match expression that checks for all possible cases is called an exhaustive match. The match in boxes is exhaustive because it has a wildcard pattern.

Once we're comfortable with match expressions we need to look at the structure of the natural numbers before we can explain structural recursion over them.

@exercise(Guess the Result)

Let's check our understanding of match by guessing what each of the following expressions evaluates to, and why.

"abcd" match {
  case "bcde" => 0
  case "cdef" => 1
  case "abcd" => 2
1 match {
  case 0 => "zero"
  case 1 => "one"
  case 1 => "two"
1 match {
  case n => n + 1
  case 1 => 1000
1 match {
  case a => a
  case b => b + 1
  case c => c * 2


The first example evaluates to 2, as the pattern "abcd" is the only match for the literal "abcd" amongst the patterns.

The second example evaluates to "one", because the first matching case is the one that is evaluated.

The third example evaluates to 2, because case n defines a wildcard pattern that matches anything.

The final example evaluates to 1 because the first matching case is evaluated.

Exercise: No Match

What happens if no pattern matches in a match expression? Take a guess, then write a match expression that fails to match and see if you managed to guess correctly. (At this point we have no reason to expect any particular behavior so any reasonable guess will do.)

Here are three reasonable possibilities I can think of; perhaps you came up with something else?

  • The expression could evaluate to some default, like Image.empty (but how should Scala pick the right default?)
  • The Scala compiler should just not let you write code like that.
  • The match expression will fail at runtime.

Here's a match expression that doesn't match.

2 match {
  case 0 => "zero"
  case 1 => "one"
// scala.MatchError: 2 (of class java.lang.Integer)
// 	at repl.MdocSession$MdocApp.$init$$$anonfun$1(

The correct answer is one of the last two possibilities, failing to compile or failing at runtime. In this example we have an error at runtime. The exact answer depends on how Scala is configured (we can tell the compiler to refuse to compile matches that it can show are not exhaustive, but this is not the default behavior).