Kotlin Help

Generics: in, out, where

Classes in Kotlin can have type parameters, just like in Java:

class Box<T>(t: T) { var value = t }

To create an instance of such a class, simply provide the type arguments:

val box: Box<Int> = Box<Int>(1)

But if the parameters can be inferred, for example, from the constructor arguments, you can omit the type arguments:

val box = Box(1) // 1 has type Int, so the compiler figures out that it is Box<Int>


One of the trickiest aspects of Java's type system is the wildcard types (see Java Generics FAQ). Kotlin doesn't have these. Instead, Kotlin has declaration-site variance and type projections.

Variance and wildcards in Java

Let's think about why Java needs these mysterious wildcards. First, generic types in Java are invariant, meaning that List<String> is not a subtype of List<Object>. If List were not invariant, it would have been no better than Java's arrays, as the following code would have compiled but caused an exception at runtime:

// Java List<String> strs = new ArrayList<String>(); // Java reports a type mismatch here at compile-time. List<Object> objs = strs; // What if it didn't? // We would be able to put an Integer into a list of Strings. objs.add(1); // And then at runtime, Java would throw // a ClassCastException: Integer cannot be cast to String String s = strs.get(0);

Java prohibits such things to guarantee runtime safety. But this has implications. For example, consider the addAll() method from the Collection interface. What's the signature of this method? Intuitively, you'd write it this way:

// Java interface Collection<E> ... { void addAll(Collection<E> items); }

But then, you would not be able to do the following (which is perfectly safe):

// Java // The following would not compile with the naive declaration of addAll: // Collection<String> is not a subtype of Collection<Object> void copyAll(Collection<Object> to, Collection<String> from) { to.addAll(from); }

That's why the actual signature of addAll() is the following:

// Java interface Collection<E> ... { void addAll(Collection<? extends E> items); }

The wildcard type argument ? extends E indicates that this method accepts a collection of objects of E or a subtype of E, not just E itself. This means that you can safely read E's from items (elements of this collection are instances of a subclass of E), but cannot write to it as you don't know what objects comply with that unknown subtype of E. In return for this limitation, you get the desired behavior: Collection<String> is a subtype of Collection<? extends Object>. In other words, the wildcard with an extends-bound (upper bound) makes the type covariant.

The key to understanding why this works is rather simple: if you can only take items from a collection, then using a collection of Strings and reading Objects from it is fine. Conversely, if you can only put items into the collection, it's okay to take a collection of Objects and put Strings into it: in Java there is List<? super String>, which accepts Strings or any of its supertypes.

The latter is called contravariance, and you can only call methods that take String as an argument on List<? super String> (for example, you can call add(String) or set(int, String)). If you call something that returns T in List<T>, you don't get a String, but rather an Object.

Joshua Bloch, in his book Effective Java, 3rd Edition, explains the problem well (Item 31: "Use bounded wildcards to increase API flexibility"). He gives the name Producers to objects you only read from and Consumers to those you only write to. He recommends:

He then proposes the following mnemonic: PECS stands for Producer-Extends, Consumer-Super.

Declaration-site variance

Let's suppose that there is a generic interface Source<T> that does not have any methods that take T as a parameter, only methods that return T:

// Java interface Source<T> { T nextT(); }

Then, it would be perfectly safe to store a reference to an instance of Source<String> in a variable of type Source<Object> - there are no consumer-methods to call. But Java does not know this, and still prohibits it:

// Java void demo(Source<String> strs) { Source<Object> objects = strs; // !!! Not allowed in Java // ... }

To fix this, you should declare objects of type Source<? extends Object>. Doing so is meaningless, because you can call all the same methods on such a variable as before, so there's no value added by the more complex type. But the compiler does not know that.

In Kotlin, there is a way to explain this sort of thing to the compiler. This is called declaration-site variance: you can annotate the type parameter T of Source to make sure that it is only returned (produced) from members of Source<T>, and never consumed. To do this, use the out modifier:

interface Source<out T> { fun nextT(): T } fun demo(strs: Source<String>) { val objects: Source<Any> = strs // This is OK, since T is an out-parameter // ... }

The general rule is this: when a type parameter T of a class C is declared out, it may occur only in the out-position in the members of C, but in return C<Base> can safely be a supertype of C<Derived>.

In other words, you can say that the class C is covariant in the parameter T, or that T is a covariant type parameter. You can think of C as being a producer of T's, and NOT a consumer of T's.

The out modifier is called a variance annotation, and since it is provided at the type parameter declaration site, it provides declaration-site variance. This is in contrast with Java's use-site variance where wildcards in the type usages make the types covariant.

In addition to out, Kotlin provides a complementary variance annotation: in. It makes a type parameter contravariant, meaning it can only be consumed and never produced. A good example of a contravariant type is Comparable:

interface Comparable<in T> { operator fun compareTo(other: T): Int } fun demo(x: Comparable<Number>) { x.compareTo(1.0) // 1.0 has type Double, which is a subtype of Number // Thus, you can assign x to a variable of type Comparable<Double> val y: Comparable<Double> = x // OK! }

The words in and out seem to be self-explanatory (as they've already been used successfully in C# for quite some time), and so the mnemonic mentioned above is not really needed. It can in fact be rephrased at a higher level of abstraction:

The Existential Transformation: Consumer in, Producer out!:-)

Type projections

Use-site variance: type projections

It is very easy to declare a type parameter T as out and avoid trouble with subtyping on the use site, but some classes can't actually be restricted to only return T's! A good example of this is Array:

class Array<T>(val size: Int) { operator fun get(index: Int): T { ... } operator fun set(index: Int, value: T) { ... } }

This class can be neither co- nor contravariant in T. And this imposes certain inflexibilities. Consider the following function:

fun copy(from: Array<Any>, to: Array<Any>) { assert(from.size == to.size) for (i in from.indices) to[i] = from[i] }

This function is supposed to copy items from one array to another. Let's try to apply it in practice:

val ints: Array<Int> = arrayOf(1, 2, 3) val any = Array<Any>(3) { "" } copy(ints, any) // ^ type is Array<Int> but Array<Any> was expected

Here you run into the same familiar problem: Array<T> is invariant in T, and so neither Array<Int> nor Array<Any> is a subtype of the other. Why not? Again, this is because copy could have an unexpected behavior, for example, it may attempt to write a String to from, and if you actually pass an array of Int there, a ClassCastException will be thrown later.

To prohibit the copy function from writing to from, you can do the following:

fun copy(from: Array<out Any>, to: Array<Any>) { ... }

This is type projection, which means that from is not a simple array, but is rather a restricted (projected) one. You can only call methods that return the type parameter T, which in this case means that you can only call get(). This is our approach to use-site variance, and it corresponds to Java's Array<? extends Object> while being slightly simpler.

You can project a type with in as well:

fun fill(dest: Array<in String>, value: String) { ... }

Array<in String> corresponds to Java's Array<? super String>. This means that you can pass an array of CharSequence or an array of Object to the fill() function.


Sometimes you want to say that you know nothing about the type argument, but you still want to use it in a safe way. The safe way here is to define such a projection of the generic type, that every concrete instantiation of that generic type will be a subtype of that projection.

Kotlin provides so-called star-projection syntax for this:

  • For Foo<out T : TUpper>, where T is a covariant type parameter with the upper bound TUpper, Foo<*> is equivalent to Foo<out TUpper>. This means that when the T is unknown you can safely read values of TUpper from Foo<*>.

  • For Foo<in T>, where T is a contravariant type parameter, Foo<*> is equivalent to Foo<in Nothing>. This means there is nothing you can write to Foo<*> in a safe way when T is unknown.

  • For Foo<T : TUpper>, where T is an invariant type parameter with the upper bound TUpper, Foo<*> is equivalent to Foo<out TUpper> for reading values and to Foo<in Nothing> for writing values.

If a generic type has several type parameters, each of them can be projected independently. For example, if the type is declared as interface Function<in T, out U> you could use the following star-projections:

  • Function<*, String> means Function<in Nothing, String>.

  • Function<Int, *> means Function<Int, out Any?>.

  • Function<*, *> means Function<in Nothing, out Any?>.

Generic functions

Classes aren't the only declarations that can have type parameters. Functions can, too. Type parameters are placed before the name of the function:

fun <T> singletonList(item: T): List<T> { // ... } fun <T> T.basicToString(): String { // extension function // ... }

To call a generic function, specify the type arguments at the call site after the name of the function:

val l = singletonList<Int>(1)

Type arguments can be omitted if they can be inferred from the context, so the following example works as well:

val l = singletonList(1)

Generic constraints

The set of all possible types that can be substituted for a given type parameter may be restricted by generic constraints.

Upper bounds

The most common type of constraint is an upper bound, which corresponds to Java's extends keyword:

fun <T : Comparable<T>> sort(list: List<T>) { ... }

The type specified after a colon is the upper bound, indicating that only a subtype of Comparable<T> can be substituted for T. For example:

sort(listOf(1, 2, 3)) // OK. Int is a subtype of Comparable<Int> sort(listOf(HashMap<Int, String>())) // Error: HashMap<Int, String> is not a subtype of Comparable<HashMap<Int, String>>

The default upper bound (if there was none specified) is Any?. Only one upper bound can be specified inside the angle brackets. If the same type parameter needs more than one upper bound, you need a separate where-clause:

fun <T> copyWhenGreater(list: List<T>, threshold: T): List<String> where T : CharSequence, T : Comparable<T> { return list.filter { it > threshold }.map { it.toString() } }

The passed type must satisfy all conditions of the where clause simultaneously. In the above example, the T type must implement both CharSequence and Comparable.

Definitely non-nullable types

To make interoperability with generic Java classes and interfaces easier, Kotlin supports declaring a generic type parameter as definitely non-nullable.

To declare a generic type T as definitely non-nullable, declare the type with & Any. For example: T & Any.

A definitely non-nullable type must have a nullable upper bound.

The most common use case for declaring definitely non-nullable types is when you want to override a Java method that contains @NotNull as an argument. For example, consider the load() method:

import org.jetbrains.annotations.*; public interface Game<T> { public T save(T x) {} @NotNull public T load(@NotNull T x) {} }

To override the load() method in Kotlin successfully, you need T1 to be declared as definitely non-nullable:

interface ArcadeGame<T1> : Game<T1> { override fun save(x: T1): T1 // T1 is definitely non-nullable override fun load(x: T1 & Any): T1 & Any }

When working only with Kotlin, it's unlikely that you will need to declare definitely non-nullable types explicitly because Kotlin's type inference takes care of this for you.

Type erasure

The type safety checks that Kotlin performs for generic declaration usages are done at compile time. At runtime, the instances of generic types do not hold any information about their actual type arguments. The type information is said to be erased. For example, the instances of Foo<Bar> and Foo<Baz?> are erased to just Foo<*>.

Generics type checks and casts

Due to the type erasure, there is no general way to check whether an instance of a generic type was created with certain type arguments at runtime, and the compiler prohibits such is-checks such as ints is List<Int> or list is T (type parameter). However, you can check an instance against a star-projected type:

if (something is List<*>) { something.forEach { println(it) } // The items are typed as `Any?` }

Similarly, when you already have the type arguments of an instance checked statically (at compile time), you can make an is-check or a cast that involves the non-generic part of the type. Note that angle brackets are omitted in this case:

fun handleStrings(list: MutableList<String>) { if (list is ArrayList) { // `list` is smart-cast to `ArrayList<String>` } }

The same syntax but with the type arguments omitted can be used for casts that do not take type arguments into account: list as ArrayList.

The type arguments of generic function calls are also only checked at compile time. Inside the function bodies, the type parameters cannot be used for type checks, and type casts to type parameters (foo as T) are unchecked. The only exclusion is inline functions with reified type parameters, which have their actual type arguments inlined at each call site. This enables type checks and casts for the type parameters. However, the restrictions described above still apply for instances of generic types used inside checks or casts. For example, in the type check arg is T, if arg is an instance of a generic type itself, its type arguments are still erased.

//sampleStart inline fun <reified A, reified B> Pair<*, *>.asPairOf(): Pair<A, B>? { if (first !is A || second !is B) return null return first as A to second as B } val somePair: Pair<Any?, Any?> = "items" to listOf(1, 2, 3) val stringToSomething = somePair.asPairOf<String, Any>() val stringToInt = somePair.asPairOf<String, Int>() val stringToList = somePair.asPairOf<String, List<*>>() val stringToStringList = somePair.asPairOf<String, List<String>>() // Compiles but breaks type safety! // Expand the sample for more details //sampleEnd fun main() { println("stringToSomething = " + stringToSomething) println("stringToInt = " + stringToInt) println("stringToList = " + stringToList) println("stringToStringList = " + stringToStringList) //println(stringToStringList?.second?.forEach() {it.length}) // This will throw ClassCastException as list items are not String }

Unchecked casts

Type casts to generic types with concrete type arguments such as foo as List<String> cannot be checked at runtime.
These unchecked casts can be used when type safety is implied by the high-level program logic but cannot be inferred directly by the compiler. See the example below.

fun readDictionary(file: File): Map<String, *> = file.inputStream().use { TODO("Read a mapping of strings to arbitrary elements.") } // We saved a map with `Int`s into this file val intsFile = File("ints.dictionary") // Warning: Unchecked cast: `Map<String, *>` to `Map<String, Int>` val intsDictionary: Map<String, Int> = readDictionary(intsFile) as Map<String, Int>

A warning appears for the cast in the last line. The compiler can't fully check it at runtime and provides no guarantee that the values in the map are Int.

To avoid unchecked casts, you can redesign the program structure. In the example above, you could use the DictionaryReader<T> and DictionaryWriter<T> interfaces with type-safe implementations for different types. You can introduce reasonable abstractions to move unchecked casts from the call site to the implementation details. Proper use of generic variance can also help.

For generic functions, using reified type parameters makes casts like arg as T checked, unless arg's type has its own type arguments that are erased.

An unchecked cast warning can be suppressed by annotating the statement or the declaration where it occurs with @Suppress("UNCHECKED_CAST"):

inline fun <reified T> List<*>.asListOfType(): List<T>? = if (all { it is T }) @Suppress("UNCHECKED_CAST") this as List<T> else null

Underscore operator for type arguments

The underscore operator _ can be used for type arguments. Use it to automatically infer a type of the argument when other types are explicitly specified:

abstract class SomeClass<T> { abstract fun execute() : T } class SomeImplementation : SomeClass<String>() { override fun execute(): String = "Test" } class OtherImplementation : SomeClass<Int>() { override fun execute(): Int = 42 } object Runner { inline fun <reified S: SomeClass<T>, T> run() : T { return S::class.java.getDeclaredConstructor().newInstance().execute() } } fun main() { // T is inferred as String because SomeImplementation derives from SomeClass<String> val s = Runner.run<SomeImplementation, _>() assert(s == "Test") // T is inferred as Int because OtherImplementation derives from SomeClass<Int> val n = Runner.run<OtherImplementation, _>() assert(n == 42) }
Last modified: 17 January 2024