Pattern matching in Golang

Frank Moreno
5 min readJul 28, 2022

Golang syntax was designed to be easy to learn having a few set of keywords, but the reduced syntax generates repeated boilerplate for complex solutions.

Some issues are resolved generating code, but code generators not always are the solution, then we have to be creative to use the language in our advantage, then join me to hack the language.

Goal

The idea is to have two or more structs and being able to use the following syntax:

type Deg { V: float32 } // Degrees
type Rad { V: float32 } // Radians
someDegOrRad := Deg { V: 60.0 }formattedAngle := matchAngle(
someDegOrRad, // only accept Deg or Rad
func (deg) { return deg.FormatString() }
func (rad) { return rad.FormatString() }
}

In other words, the goal is to have pattern matching in Golang with a taste of unions (unfortunately, Golang doesn’t support this feature).

In addition, if we try to provide a angle that is not a Deg or Rad, the syntax analyzer must to show a warning or error message in compile time instead of runtime.

Then, both Deg and Rad must satisfice an type Angle interface , and this must to be closed for more implementations, thus we have a constrained union.

Why? (What problems do we want to solve?)

Let’s imagine that we have a complex application that verifies which implementation is used to decide which logic to use. That code could be implemented on with the following snippet:

switch v := angle.(type) {
case Deg:
// some logic with a Deg struct
case Rad:
// some logic with a Rad struct
}
panic("The angle type is not supported")

This code pattern looks easy, but if we add an extra type during the evolution of our code, we will need to find every place where the switch is used to add the extra case and the syntax analyzer won’t be able to alert us, i.e. if we forget to add the case somewhere, it will crash in runtime despite it is compiled.

type Deg { V: float32 } // Sexagesimal Degrees: 0 - 360.0
type Rad { V: float32 } // Radians: 0 - 2*pi
type Cent { V: float32 } // Centesimal Degrees: Tau: 0 - 400.0
someDegOrRad := Deg { V: 60.0 }formattedAngle := matchAngle(
someDegOrRad, // only accept Deg or Rad
func (deg) { return FormatDeg(deg) }
func (rad) { return FormatRad(rad) }
func (cent) { return FormatCent(cent) }
}

If a function needs a new argument, the syntax analyzer will highlight all places we need to update, then we will be confident that it won’t crash in runtime because of a missing case.

A primitive implementation

Let’s create an Angle interface:

type Angle interface {
// private to avoid new implementation
angle()
}
type Deg { V: float32 }
type Rad { V: float32 }
func (d Deg) angle() {}
func (r Rad) angle() {}
func MatchAngleToString(
angle Matcher[Angle],
deg func(*Deg) String,
rad func(*Rad) String,
) R {
switch v := angle.(type) {
case Deg:
return deg(&v)
case Rad:
return rad(&v)
}
panic("MatchAngle: angle type not supported")
}

The angle() method is private to make the Angle interface closed for more implementations outside the scope. But here there are many scalable issues with this implementation.

No generic implementation for MatchAngle

Since Golang 1.18 it is posible to use generics, then the MatchAngleToString can be generalized:

func MatchAngle[R any](
angle Angle,
deg func(*Deg) R,
rad func(*Rad) R,
) R {
switch v := angle.(type) {
case Deg:
return deg(&v)
case Rad:
return rad(&v)
}
panic("MatchAngle: angle type not supported")
}

Too much boilerplate for implementing Angle

Let’s create an private struct and use composition:

type Angle interface {
angle() _Angle
}
type _Angle struct {}
func (a _Angle) angle() { return a}
type Deg { _Angle, V: float32 }
type Rad { _Angle, V: float32 }
func MatchAngle[R any](
angle Angle,
deg func(*Deg) R,
rad func(*Rad) R,
) R {
switch v := angle.(type) {
case Deg:
return deg(&v)
case Rad:
return rad(&v)
}
panic("MatchAngle: angle type not supported")
}

Adding a new case to the union

Then it is easier to add the Cent case:

type Angle interface {
angle() _Angle
}
type _Angle struct {}
func (a _Angle) angle() { return a}
type Deg { _Angle, V: float32 }
type Rad { _Angle, V: float32 }
type Cent { _Angle, V: float32 }
func MatchAngle[R any](
angle Angle,
deg func(*Deg) R,
rad func(*Rad) R,
cent func(*cent) R,
) R {
switch v := angle.(type) {
case Deg:
return deg(&v)
case Rad:
return rad(&v)
case Cent:
return cent(&v)
}
panic("MatchAngle: angle type not supported")
}

Further reducing of the boilerplate

Golang Generics comes to the rescue, but first, les’t define the API for defining unions/matchables:

// private for avoiding new implementations
type _Angle struct {}
type Angle Matcher[_Angle]
// or with more methods
// type Angle interface {
// Matcher[_Angle]
// ToDeg()
// ToRad()
// ToCent()
// }
type Deg ValuedMatchable[_Angle, float32]
type Rad ValuedMatchable[_Angle, float32]
type Cent ValuedMatchable[_Angle, float32]
func MatchAngle[R any](
angle Matcher[Angle],
deg func(*Deg) R,
rad func(*Rad) R,
cent func(*cent) R,
) R {
switch v := angle.(type) {
case Deg:
return deg(&v)
case Rad:
return rad(&v)
case Cent:
return cent(&v)
}
panic("MatchAngle: angle type not supported")
}

The question is “how must ValuedMatchable and Matcher be implemented?”.

// Struct base for implementing composition
type matchable[M ~struct{}] struct{}
type Matcher[M ~struct{}] interface {
matcher() matchable[M]
}
// implementation of Matcher for matchable[M]
func (m matchable[M]) matcher() matchable[M] {
return m
}
// Public Matchable without value.
// Allows to compose or subtyping without losing the
// Matcher implementation
//
// example: type NoneAngle Matchable[_Angle]
type Matchable[M ~struct{}] struct{ matchable[M] }
// An implementation with a value
type ValuedMatchable[M ~struct{}, V any] struct {
matchable[M]
Val V
}

Conclusions

The manual implementation of MatchAngle can not be avoided, it’s implemented once with the benefit of compile safe union handling.

Generics in Golang are not so powerful as in other languages, but we can find tricks for making syntax tools for maintainable code.

Additional comments

If you want to use this as a package, it is published in pkg.go.dev :

Or you see the code

If you want to see other projects, you can see my GitHub

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Frank Moreno

Rust, Node.js, Go and Flutter developer. I want to create tools for better developer experience with good performance.