Saturday, 7 July 2012

Item 27: Favor generic methods

Just as classes can benefit from generification, so can methods. Static utility methods are particularly good candidates for generification. All of the “algorithm” methods in Collections (such as binarySearch and sort) have been generified.

Writing generic methods is similar to writing generic types. Consider this method, which returns the union of two sets:

// Uses raw types - unacceptable! (Item 23)
public static Set union(Set s1, Set s2) {
Set result = new HashSet(s1);
return result;

This method compiles, but with two warnings: warning: [unchecked] unchecked call to
HashSet(Collection<? extends E>) as a member of raw type HashSet
Set result = new HashSet(s1);
^ warning: [unchecked] unchecked call to
addAll(Collection<? extends E>) as a member of raw type Set

To fix these warnings and make the method typesafe, modify the method declaration to declare a type parameter representing the element type for the three sets (two arguments and the return value) and use the type parameter in the method. The type parameter list, which declares the type parameter, goes between the method’s modifiers and its return type. In this example, the type parameter list is <E> and the return type is Set<E>. The naming conventions for type parameters are the same for generic methods as for generic types (Items 26, 44):

// Generic method
public static <E> Set<E> union(Set<E> s1, Set<E> s2) {
Set<E> result = new HashSet<E>(s1);
return result;

Here’s a simple program to exercise our method. The program contains no casts and compiles without errors or warnings:

// Simple program to exercise generic method
public static void main(String[] args) {
Set<String> guys = new HashSet<String>(
Arrays.asList("Tom", "Dick", "Harry"));
Set<String> stooges = new HashSet<String>(
Arrays.asList("Larry", "Moe", "Curly"));
Set<String> aflCio = union(guys, stooges);

A limitation of the union method is that the types of all three sets (both input parameters and the return value) have to be the same. You can make the method more flexible by using bounded wildcard types (Item 28).

In the case of the program above, the compiler sees that both arguments to union are of type Set<String>, so it knows that the type parameter E must be String. This process is called type inference.

// Parameterized type instance creation with constructor
Map<String, List<String>> anagrams =
new HashMap<String, List<String>>();

To eliminate this redundancy, write a generic static factory method corresponding to each constructor that you want to use. For example, here is a generic static factory method corresponding to the parameterless HashMap constructor:

// Generic static factory method
public static <K,V> HashMap<K,V> newHashMap() {
return new HashMap<K,V>();

With this generic static factory method, you can replace the repetitious declaration above with this concise one:

// Parameterized type instance creation with static factory
Map<String, List<String>> anagrams = newHashMap();

It would be nice if the language did the same kind of type inference when invoking constructors on generic types as it does when invoking generic methods. Someday it might, but as of release 1.6, it does not.

A related pattern is the generic singleton factory. On occasion, you will need to create an object that is immutable but applicable to many different types. Because generics are implemented by erasure (Item 25), you can use a single object for all required type parameterizations, but you need to write a static factory method to repeatedly dole out the object for each requested type parameterization. This pattern is most frequently used for function objects (Item 21) such as Collections.reverseOrder, but it is also used for collections such as Collections.emptySet.

Suppose you have an interface that describes a function that accepts and returns a value of some type T:

public interface UnaryFunction<T> {
T apply(T arg);

Now suppose that you want to provide an identity function. It would be wasteful to create a new one each time it’s required, as it’s stateless. If generics were reified, you would need one identity function per type, but since they’re erased you need only a generic singleton. Here’s how it looks:

// Generic singleton factory pattern
private static UnaryFunction<Object> IDENTITY_FUNCTION =
new UnaryFunction<Object>() {
public Object apply(Object arg) { return arg; }
// IDENTITY_FUNCTION is stateless and its type parameter is
// unbounded so it's safe to share one instance across all types.
public static <T> UnaryFunction<T> identityFunction() {
return (UnaryFunction<T>) IDENTITY_FUNCTION;

The cast of IDENTITY_FUNCTION to (UnaryFunction<T>) generates an unchecked cast warning, as UnaryFunction<Object> is not a UnaryFunction<T> for every T.

Here is a sample program that uses our generic singleton as a UnaryFunction< String> and a UnaryFunction<Number>. As usual, it contains no casts and compiles without errors or warnings:

// Sample program to exercise generic singleton
public static void main(String[] args) {
String[] strings = { "jute", "hemp", "nylon" };
UnaryFunction<String> sameString = identityFunction();
for (String s : strings)
Number[] numbers = { 1, 2.0, 3L };
UnaryFunction<Number> sameNumber = identityFunction();
for (Number n : numbers)

It is permissible, though relatively rare, for a type parameter to be bounded by some expression involving that type parameter itself. This is what’s known as a recursive type bound. The most common use of recursive type bounds is in connection with the Comparable interface, which defines a type’s natural ordering:

public interface Comparable<T> {
int compareTo(T o);

The type parameter T defines the type to which elements of the type implementing Comparable<T> can be compared.

There are many methods that take a list of elements that implement Comparable, in order to sort the list, search within it, calculate its minimum or maximum, and the like. To do any of these things, it is required that every element in the list be comparable to every other element in the list, in other words, that the elements of the list be mutually comparable. Here is how to express that constraint:

// Using a recursive type bound to express mutual comparability
public static <T extends Comparable<T>> T max(List<T> list) {...}

The type bound <T extends Comparable<T>> may be read as “for every type T that can be compared to itself,” which corresponds more or less exactly to the notion of mutual comparability.

Here is a method to go with the declaration above. It calculates the maximum value of a list according to its elements’ natural order, and it compiles without errors or warnings:

// Returns the maximum value in a list - uses recursive type bound
public static <T extends Comparable<T>> T max(List<T> list) {
Iterator<T> i = list.iterator();
T result =;
while (i.hasNext()) {
T t =;
if (t.compareTo(result) > 0)
result = t;
return result;

In summary, generic methods, like generic types, are safer and easier to use than methods that require their clients to cast input parameters and return values. Like types, you should make sure that your new methods can be used without casts, which will often mean making them generic. And like types, you should generify your existing methods to make life easier for new users without breaking existing clients (Item 23).

Reference: Effective Java 2nd Edition by Joshua Bloch