TIL: when is "when" exhaustive?

20 July 2018

Kotlin’s when works similarly to Java’s switch. Once upon a time, I heard that when forces you to specify all the branches (when all the branches can be known by the compiler, with enums or sealed-classes), but I didn’t find this to be the case.

IDEs like Android Studio might be able to give you a hint (as it did with switch cases), reminding you to be explicit:

“when” block with hints to add “else” branch or add remaining branches

But the documentation for when makes it clearer:

If [when] is used as an expression, the value of the satisfied branch becomes the value of the overall expression [… and] the else branch is mandatory, unless the compiler can prove that all possible cases are covered with branch conditions

So, if we use it as an expression, we get a compiler error!

“when” block being assigned to a value as an expression, with error telling us to add the remaining branches or an “else” branch

Sometimes you don’t want to use it as an expression but you still want to explicitly handle all the cases. With switch, we’d often use the default case to express our intent:

void onNext(Result result) {
    switch (result.type) {
        case COMPLETE:
        case LOADING:
        case ERROR:
            throw new IllegalArgumentException("unknown result type: " + result);

If we later update the Result.Type enum without updating this logic, we’ll crash. This is preferable to unexpected behaviour.

In Kotlin, we have the else branch instead of a default case, so we could do the same thing with an Exception there.

However, we can make it a compile-time check if we treat the when as an expression with an empty let block:

“when” block, with error telling us to add the remaining branches or an “else” branch, because we’re trying to use the block as an expression with our empty “let”

This doesn’t look great though, and it’s not clear what we’re doing — if I were to read this in the future, I’d probably delete the .let {} thinking it’s doing nothing!

Instead, you can add an extension property with a name that helps explain the purpose:

val <T> T.exhaustive: T
    get() = this

This property has a custom getter which returns the object itself, so if we use it on a when block, it’s treated as an expression and the compiler will force us to specify all cases.

“when” block, with error telling us to add the remaining branches or an “else” branch, because we added `.exhaustive` making the compiler think we’re using it as an expression

I learned this from the Plaid 2.0 project, which is currently under a re-write effort.

Thanks to the team for being patient with my comments and questions!