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Pattern Matching - C# Guide

Written at 2019-04-12,
68 paragraphs,
135 sentences,
1927 words.

Learn about pattern matching expressions in C#

Pattern Matching

Patterns test that a value has a certain shape, and can extract information from the value when it has the matching shape. Pattern matching provides more concise syntax for algorithms you already use today. You already create pattern matching algorithms using existing syntax. You write if or switch statements that test values. Then, when those statements match, you extract and use information from that value. The new syntax elements are extensions to statements you're already familiar with: is and switch. These new extensions combine testing a value and extracting that information.

In this article, we'll look at the new syntax to show you how it enables readable, concise code. Pattern matching enables idioms where data and the code are separated, unlike object-oriented designs where data and the methods that manipulate them are tightly coupled.

To illustrate these new idioms, let's work with structures that represent geometric shapes using pattern matching statements. You're probably familiar with building class hierarchies and creating virtual methods and overridden methods to customize object behavior based on the runtime type of the object.

Those techniques aren't possible for data that isn't structured in a class hierarchy. When data and methods are separate, you need other tools. The new pattern matching constructs enable cleaner syntax to examine data and manipulate control flow based on any condition of that data. You already write if statements and switch that test a variable's value. You write is statements that test a variable's type. Pattern matching adds new capabilities to those statements.

In this article, you'll build a method that computes the area of different geometric shapes. But, you'll do it without resorting to object-oriented techniques and building a class hierarchy for the different shapes. You'll use pattern matching instead. As you go through this sample, contrast this code with how it would be structured as an object hierarchy. When the data you must query and manipulate isn't a class hierarchy, pattern matching enables elegant designs.

Rather than starting with an abstract shape definition and adding different specific shape classes, let's start instead with simple data only definitions for each of the geometric shapes:


From these structures, let's write a method that computes the area of some shape.

The is type pattern expression

Before C# 7.0, you'd need to test each type in a series of if and is statements:


That code above is a classic expression of the type pattern: You're testing a variable to determine its type and taking a different action based on that type.

This code becomes simpler using extensions to the is expression to assign a variable if the test succeeds:


In this updated version, the is expression both tests the variable and assigns it to a new variable of the proper type. Also, notice that this version includes the Rectangle type, which is a struct. The new is expression works with value types as well as reference types.

Language rules for pattern matching expressions help you avoid misusing the results of a match expression. In the example above, the variables s, c, and r are only in scope and definitely assigned when the respective pattern match expressions have true results. If you try to use either variable in another location, your code generates compiler errors.

Let's examine both of those rules in detail, beginning with scope. The variable c is in scope only in the else branch of the first if statement. The variable s is in scope in the method ComputeAreaModernIs. That's because each branch of an if statement establishes a separate scope for variables. However, the if statement itself doesn't. That means variables declared in the if statement are in the same scope as the if statement (the method in this case.) This behavior isn't specific to pattern matching, but is the defined behavior for variable scopes and if and else statements.

The variables c and s are assigned when the respective if statements are true because of the definitely assigned when true mechanism.

[!TIP] The samples in this topic use the recommended construct where a pattern match is expression definitely assigns the match variable in the true branch of the if statement. You could reverse the logic by saying if (!(shape is Square s)) and the variable s would be definitely assigned only in the false branch. While this is valid C#, it is not recommended because it is more confusing to follow the logic.

These rules mean that you're unlikely to accidentally access the result of a pattern match expression when that pattern wasn't met.

Using pattern matching switch statements

As time goes on, you may need to support other shape types. As the number of conditions you're testing grows, you'll find that using the is pattern matching expressions can become cumbersome. In addition to requiring if statements on each type you want to check, the is expressions are limited to testing if the input matches a single type. In this case, you'll find that the switch pattern matching expressions becomes a better choice.

The traditional switch statement was a pattern expression: it supported the constant pattern. You could compare a variable to any constant used in a case statement:


The only pattern supported by the switch statement was the constant pattern. It was further limited to numeric types and the string type. Those restrictions have been removed, and you can now write a switch statement using the type pattern:

[!code-csharpSwitch Type Pattern]

The pattern matching switch statement uses familiar syntax to developers who have used the traditional C-style switch statement. Each case is evaluated and the code beneath the condition that matches the input variable is executed. Code execution can't "fall through" from one case expression to the next; the syntax of the case statement requires that each case end with a break, return, or goto.

[!NOTE] The goto statements to jump to another label are valid only for the constant pattern (the classic switch statement).

There are important new rules governing the switch statement. The restrictions on the type of the variable in the switch expression have been removed. Any type, such as object in this example, may be used. The case expressions are no longer limited to constant values. Removing that limitation means that reordering switch sections may change a program's behavior.

When limited to constant values, no more than one case label could match the value of the switch expression. Combine that with the rule that every switch section must not fall through to the next section, and it followed that the switch sections could be rearranged in any order without affecting behavior. Now, with more generalized switch expressions, the order of each section matters. The switch expressions are evaluated in textual order. Execution transfers to the first switch label that matches the switch expression.
The default case will only be executed if no other case labels match. The default case is evaluated last, regardless of its textual order. If there's no default case, and none of the other case statements match, execution continues at the statement following the switch statement. None of the case labels code is executed.

when clauses in case expressions

You can make special cases for those shapes that have 0 area by using a when clause on the case label. A square with a side length of 0, or a circle with a radius of 0 has a 0 area. You specify that condition using a when clause on the case label:


This change demonstrates a few important points about the new syntax. First, multiple case labels can be applied to one switch section. The statement block is executed when any of those labels is true. In this instance, if the switch expression is either a circle or a square with 0 area, the method returns the constant 0.

This example introduces two different variables in the two case labels for the first switch block. Notice that the statements in this switch block don't use either the variables c (for the circle) or s (for the square). Neither of those variables is definitely assigned in this switch block. If either of these cases match, clearly one of the variables has been assigned. However, it's impossible to tell which has been assigned at compile time, because either case could match at runtime. For that reason, most times when you use multiple case labels for the same block, you won't introduce a new variable in the case statement, or you'll only use the variable in the when clause.

Having added those shapes with 0 area, let's add a couple more shape types: a rectangle and a triangle:


This set of changes adds case labels for the degenerate case, and labels and blocks for each of the new shapes.

Finally, you can add a null case to ensure the argument isn't null:


The special behavior for the null pattern is interesting because the constant null in the pattern doesn't have a type but can be converted to any reference type or nullable type. Rather than convert a null to any type, the language defines that a null value won't match any type pattern, regardless of the compile-time type of the variable. This behavior makes the new switch based type pattern consistent with the is statement: is statements always return false when the value being checked is null. It's also simpler: once you've checked the type, you don't need an additional null check. You can see that from the fact that there are no null checks in any of the case blocks of the samples above: they aren't necessary, since matching the type pattern guarantees a non-null value.

var declarations in case expressions

The introduction of var as one of the match expressions introduces new rules to the pattern match.

The first rule is that the var declaration follows the normal type inference rules: The type is inferred to be the static type of the switch expression. From that rule, the type always matches.

The second rule is that a var declaration doesn't have the null check that other type pattern expressions include. That means the variable may be null, and a null check is necessary in that case.

Those two rules mean that in many instances, a var declaration in a case expression matches the same conditions as a default expression. Because any non-default case is preferred to the default case, the default case will never execute.

[!NOTE] The compiler does not emit a warning in those cases where a default case has been written but will never execute. This is consistent with current switch statement behavior where all possible cases have been listed.

The third rule introduces uses where a var case may be useful. Imagine that you're doing a pattern match where the input is a string and you're searching for known command values. You might write something like:


The var case matches null, the empty string, or any string that contains only white space. Notice that the preceding code uses the ?. operator to ensure that it doesn't accidentally throw a <xref:System.NullReferenceException>. The default case handles any other string values that aren't understood by this command parser.

This is one example where you may want to consider a var case expression that is distinct from a default expression.


Pattern Matching constructs enable you to easily manage control flow among different variables and types that aren't related by an inheritance hierarchy. You can also control logic to use any condition you test on the variable. It enables patterns and idioms that you'll need more often as you build more distributed applications, where data and the methods that manipulate that data are separate. You'll notice that the shape structs used in this sample don't contain any methods, just read-only properties. Pattern Matching works with any data type. You write expressions that examine the object, and make control flow decisions based on those conditions.

Compare the code from this sample with the design that would follow from creating a class hierarchy for an abstract Shape and specific derived shapes each with their own implementation of a virtual method to calculate the area. You'll often find that pattern matching expressions can be a very useful tool when you're working with data and want to separate the data storage concerns from the behavior concerns.