Mislav Javor

Swift Enums Are 'Sum' Types. That Makes Them Very Interesting

Algebraic types - what are they?

Algebraic types… seems like the kind of math-y word Haskell programmers would use. But in reality you don’t need to know type theory or have a PhD in mathematics to understand them. Algebraic types arent new types. They are simply a new way of thinking about the types you already know about.

There are many different algebraic types - in fact - all of the types you currently use are algebraic as well. Here, we’ll two basic algebraic types

So let’s start with the familiar stuff.

Product types

Product types are nothing more that Swift struct types, or Java class types.
They are called product types because the number of possible values they can have is the product of the number of possible values of their constituent parts

struct ProductExample {
  let a: Bool
  let b: Bool

So a Bool type can have 2 possible values. ProductExample has 2 Bool types. We can get the number of possible values of ProductExample by multiplying the number of possible values of Bool a with the number of possible values of Bool b. So the number of possible values of ProductExample is which is

This is evident with all the possible instances of the type:

let first = ProductExample(a: true, b: true)
let second = ProductExample(a: true, b: false)
let third = ProductExample(a: false, b: true)
let fourth = ProductExample(a: false, b: false)

Let’s look at another example:

struct ProductExampleTwo {
  let a: Bool
  let b: Int8

Now our type ProductExampleTwo has the number of possible values which is a multiple of Bool and Int8. Int8 has possible values, Bool has possible values. So our ProductExampleTwo has possible values.

In general, without going into type theory notation, we can define a function which for a given type - returns the number of possible values that type has. So:

\[ N_{pv}(Bool) = 2 \] \[ N_{pv}(Int8) = 256 \] \[ N_{pv}(String) = \infty \]

The conclusion that has certain implications in the way we think about types, but those can be omitted for the current article without compromising the general message

If we use the function - we can express a general case for all product types.

Let’s assume there exists type which has constituent parts . can be considered a product type if:

\[ N_{pv}(T) = N_{pv}(T_1) \times N_{pv}(T_2) \times N_{pv}(T_3) \times … \times N_{pv}(T_n) \]

Or in a more proper notation:

\[ N_{pv}(T) = \prod_{i = 1}^{n}N_{pv}(T_i) \]

Sum types

If you’re, by any chance, unfamiliar with enum syntax - there is a quick and dirty intro at the bottom of the article.

So if struct-s were product types - then what are sum types?
Simple - Sum types (in swift) are enums!

Number of possible values of a sum type is the sum of the number of possible values of it’s constituent parts

Now that we know how to deal with the algebraic view of types, and have our function handy - let’s explore the world of sum types with examples.

enum SumExample {
  case a(Bool)
  case b(Bool)

Let’s see all the different ways we can instantiate the SumExample enum.

let first = SumExample.a(true)
let second = SumExample.b(true)
let third = SumExample.a(false)
let fourth = SumExample.b(false)

There are ways to instantiate the SumExample enum. This number comes from the fact that and that SumExample contains two Bool types and that

Let’s examine a different example:

enum SumExampleTwo {
  case a(Bool)
  case b(Int8)

Now what is the number of possible values of SumExampleTwo? It’s the sum of possible values of Bool and Int8. So

\[ N_{pv}(Bool) = 2 \] \[ N_{pv}(Int8) = 256 \] \[ N_{pv}(SumExampleTwo) = N_{pv}(Bool) + N_{pv}(Int8) \] \[ N_{pv}(SumExampleTwo) = 2 + 256 \] \[ N_{pv}(SumExampleTwo) = 258 \]

Expressing a general case:

Let’s assume there exists a type with constituent parts . can be considered a sum type if:

\[ N_{pv}(T) = N_{pv}(T_1) + N_{pv}(T_2) + N_{pv}(T_3) + … + N_{pv}(T_n)

or in a more proper notation:

\[ N_{pv}(T) = \sum_{i = 1}^{n}N_{pv}(T_i) \]

How can I use it to write better code?

All this theoretical stuff is fine and dandy - but let’s see a little bit of practical examples.

So in general you want to follow the mantra:
The number of possible values of your type should be equal to the number of possible values of your use case.

1. Result enum

So what does this mean?

Let’s assume you’re making a REST call and you’re getting back some String as a result. A bad way to write this would be:

typealias Handler = (String?, Error?) -> Void

func getUser(from: URL, completionHandler: Handler) {
  // function implementation

getUser(from: someUrl) { result, error in
  if let result = result {
    // Handle result
  if let error = error {
    // Handle error

Why is this a bad option? Because our use case has two possible values:

And our implementation has four possible values:

result = nil, error = not nil // Case 1
result = not nil, error = nil  // Case 2
result = not nil, error = not nil // Case 3
result = nil, error = nil // Case 4

We have to think about the semantics of this approach. We are actually counting only on two cases the Case 1 and Case 2. What does it mean when both result and error are nil? Or when they’re both not nil.

The problem is - we’re using a product type where we should be using a sum type. The solution?

enum Result {
    case success(String)
    case error(Error)

typealias Handler = (Result) -> Void

func getUser(from: URL, completionHandler: (Handler)) {
  // implementation

getUser(from: someUrl) { response in
    switch response {
    case .success(let result):
    case .error(let error):

We’ve created a sum type called Result and we’re using it to distinguish between two possibilities. Our use case matches our implementation and all is good.

2. Optional enum

You might not have known that Swift has an inbuilt sum type that we use almost all of the time - Optional.

The optionals we know and love (or sometimes hate) are implemented inside of the Swift language as an enum

enum Optional<T> {
  case some(T)
  case none

so a let a: String? = "Hello" wold just be shorthand syntax for let a = Optional.some("Hello").

Good thing is that swift has some neat syntax sugar to help us out on our distinguishing of sum types - the if let and guard let constructs.


let a: String? = "Hello"

if let a = a {
} else {

is equivalent to this:

let a = Optional.some("Hello")

switch a {
case .some(let res):
case .none:

3. Router and theme patterns

Some things in your apps have a finite number of possibilities and are ultra easy to express as sum types. Like for example API endpoint router.

enum Router {
    case user(id: Int)
    case weather(day: Day)

extension Router {
    var url: String {
        switch self {
        case .user(let id):
            return "\(App.BaseUrl)/user/\(id)"
        case .weather(let day):
            return "\(App.BaseUrl)/weather/\(day.rawValue)"

Your router could use this pattern to expose everything from parameters, headers, request types, etc…

And now a theme patten if you need themes:

struct AppThemeModel {
    let baseColor: UIColor
    let backgroundColor: UIColor
    let accentColor: UIColor
    let baseFont: UIFont

enum AppTheme {
    case dark
    case light

    var model: AppThemeModel {
      switch self {
      case .dark:
        return AppThemeModel(
          baseColor: .red
          backgroundColor: .darkRed
          accentColor: .yellow
          baseFont: .systemFontOfSize(12)
      case .light:
          baseColor: .white
          backgroundColor: .gray
          accentColor: .blue
          baseFont: .systemFontOfSize(13)

// During app init
var currentAppTheme = AppTheme.dark

3. Implementing data structures

Implementing trees and linked lists using sumt types in swift is ultra easy

indirect enum Tree<T> {
    case node(T, l: Tree, r: Tree)
    case leaf(T)

    var l: Tree? {
      switch self {
      case .node(_, l: let l, _):
        return l
      case .leaf(_):
        return nil

    var r: // equivalent implementation to l

    var value: T {
      switch self {
      case .node(let val, _, _):
        return val
      case .leaf(let val):
        return val

let tree = Tree.node(12, l: Tree.leaf(11),
                         r: Tree.node(34, l: Tree.leaf(34),
                                          r: Tree.leaf(55)))

Enums syntax quick & dirty

Swift enums can be written like this:

enum Foo {
  case a
  case b

let sth = Foo.a
let oth = Foo.b

But can be also written like this:

enum Foo {
  case a(String)
  case b(isEnabled: Bool)

let sth = Foo.a("Hello")
let oth = Foo.b(isEnabled: false)

Mislav Javor

I'm an entrepreneur and a software developer. CEO of a blockchain startup aiming to simplify buying and selling of electricity. Actively participating in the proliferation of healthy (technology oriented) blockchain culture. Organizer of Blockchain Development Meetup Zagreb, lectured at HUB385 Academy and University of Osijek on topics of smart comtract development. In my free time, I'm a singer and a guitar/piano player. Contact at mislav@ampnet.io

Follow me on Twitter