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On Scala’s parenthesis convention for no-arg functions

One might be confused or even angered when they learn about Scala’s convention regarding parenthesis usage for no-arg functions.

The convention is this: given a no-arg function, you use put parentheses next to the function call only if the function has side effects. So, you would invoke a function named printCurrentState by writing printCurrentState(), since printCurrentState has the side effect of printing output to the console. On the other hand, you would invoke a function named getCurrentState by simply writing getCurrentState, since getCurrentState presumably just returns a value and does nothing else.

But why? Here, I’ll present a quick analysis to convince you of why this convention makes sense.

Let’s consider an arbitrary no-arg function. An arbitrary no-arg function falls into one of the following categories:

  • void methods

    • with side effects (“no-arg subroutine”)

    • with no side effects (“useless method”)

  • methods with a return value

    • with no side effects (“a method that philosophically represents a variable”, i.e. a “getter method”)

    • with side effects (“variable retrieval and subroutine”).

If we ignore the possibility of “useless methods”, then we can rearrange the remaining three options to see that any given no-arg method is either

  • a void method with side effects

  • a method with a return value and no side effects

  • a method with a return value and side effects.

That is, every no-arg method is in practice either

  • a method with side effects

  • a method with a return value and no side effects, i.e., a “getter method.”

“Getter methods” in a philosophical sense “almost variables” because it is not completely inaccurate to think of their invocations as peeks into the state of reality rather than as a value returned by work done behind-the-scenes.

Since every no-arg method is either a “getter method” or not, it is syntactically unambiguous to establish the convention of invoking “getter methods” without parentheses (). More importantly, it is pleasing, as the removal of parentheses emphasizes the interpretation of “getter methods” as being variables.

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Ross Grogan-Kaylor

Ross Grogan-Kaylor is a Technical Consultant at Perficient’s Minneapolis office. He enjoys engaging with structural patterns in the syntax and in the high-level ideas of software development.

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