Special Scala methods

Scala has a number of methods for which it defines special syntactic sugar. Some are well known, such as apply or update, but the interraction of + and += is somewhat less famous. This post details the special methods I know about.


The apply method is special in that it allows instances of classes that have it to be treated as functions and applied directly.

For example:

object ApplyDemo {
  def apply(a: Int, b: String) = b * a

// The following calls are strictly equivalent:
ApplyDemo.apply(5, "ha")
ApplyDemo(5, "ha")

This is typically used with functions, where the name probably originated from: you apply a function to its parameter list and get a result.

Another use is for data structures, such as lists (retrieve element at index i) or maps (retrieve value for key k).

While really rather nice, the apply method can sometimes have unexpected side-effects if one is not careful, as in the (somewhat contrived) following example:

object ApplyDemo2 {
  def list: List[Int] = List(1, 2, 3)
  def list(index: Int): Int = index * 4

The following line is ambiguous and will be refused by the compiler. Are we calling:



The update method, when it has exactly two parameters, can be written in “array modification” notation:

object UpdateDemo {
  def update(i: Int, v: String): String = v

The following calls are strictly equivalent:

scala> UpdateDemo.update(0, "poney")
res4: String = poney

scala> UpdateDemo(0) = "poney"
res5: String = poney

This is convenient when creating data structures, especially when coupled with apply, as it allows you to write very natural-looking code. This is what the Map class does, for example.

Return value

The return value of update can be whatever you wish, but there’s not very many acceptable choices:

I don’t believe there’s a general rule there but most of the code I’ve seen uses the third alternative (Unit), and I find that this is what makes the most sense.

Update and set

Scala has special handling for the +=, -=, *= and /= operators: when used on a variable (a var, not a val) that doesn’t define it explicitely but does define the corresponding operator (+, -, *, /), they will be replaced by a call to the corresponding operator followed by an affectation to the variable.

For example, with +=:

case class PlusEq(var value: Int = 0) {
  def +(inc: Int): PlusEq = PlusEq(value + inc)

var p = PlusEq()

The following calls are equivalent, except in their return values (+= returns Unit):

scala> p += 10

scala> p = p.+(10)
p: PlusEq = PlusEq(20)

Unary operators

Scala has special support for the +, -, ! and ~ unary operators, allowing developers to write code such as -v + !c.

Implementing one of these operators is done by defining the correspoding unary_ method: unary_+, unary_-, unary_! and unary_~.

For example:

object UnaryDemo {
  def unary_+ = 4
  def unary_- = -4
  def unary_! = false
  def unary_~ = "~"

This allows us to write:

scala> +UnaryDemo
res7: Int = 4

scala> -UnaryDemo
res8: Int = -4

scala> !UnaryDemo
res9: Boolean = false

scala> ~UnaryDemo
res10: String = ~

Field wrappers

Finally, Scala allows you to write methods that wrap, or simulate, an existing field:

object FieldDemo {
  private var _x = 0

  def x = _x
  def x_=(i: Int) = _x = i

FieldDemo can now be used as:

scala> FieldDemo.x = 10
FieldDemo.x: Int = 10

scala> FieldDemo.x
res11: Int = 10

This can be useful in classes that used to expose a mutable field but that, for one reason or another, had to add logic when it was being modified.

Say, for example, that you start off with:

object FieldDemo {
  var x = 0

It has later become crucial to log something whenever x is modified. x_= allows us to do so without changing FieldDemo’s interface:

object FieldDemo {
  private var _x = 0

  def x = _x
  def x_=(i: Int) = {
    println("x is set to " + i)
    _x = i

Code that used the older version of FieldDemo will still compile against this one, even though under the hood, a method is being called rather than a field being set.