Implicit conversion to the Unit type in Scala

In Scala, you have a few ways to express that a function returns the Unit type.[1] A common way is to use the function syntax and specify a result type of Unit:

def foo: Unit = ...

Like for any result type, the type annotation is not necessary if the function body already returns the expected type, as in:

def newline = println()


trait Foo {
  def log = ()

The type annotation is useful not only for documentation purposes, but also in case the last expression of the function body happens to return a result of a type which is not Unit:

def focus(): Boolean = ...    // function with side effect but which also returns a value
def justFocus: Unit = focus() // function with side effect returning Unit

Now you might wonder, as @avernet and I did yesterday, how this last bit can work! How does the compiler, with an expected type of Unit on one hand, and an actual expression type of Boolean on the other hand, reconcile the two?

This is not done via subtyping, because Unit is not a supertype of Boolean: instead Unit is a subtype of AnyVal and at the same level as Boolean in the Scala type hierarchy.

The answer is that there is an implicit conversion taking place.[3] The Scala language specification specifies this conversion in section 6.26.1:

Value Discarding. If e has some value type and the expected type is Unit, e is converted to the expected type by embedding it in the term { e; () }.

In case you are wondering, here value type does not mean a subtype of AnyVal. This can be a bit misleading, especially with the introduction in Scala 2.10 of value classes, which do derive from AnyVal. Instead, a value type is just a type which can have concrete values, as explained in chapter 3 of the spec:

A subset of first-order types called value types represents sets of (first-class) values. […] Non-value types capture properties of identifiers that are not values (§3.3). For example, a type constructor (§3.3.3) does not directly specify a type of values."

In short the spec mandates that any value returned by an expression is implicitly converted to Unit by the compiler when the expected type is Unit. This applies in particular to functions, where the expression is the function body and the expected type is determined with the Unit type annotation.

So now we all know how it works!

  1. Unit is similar to the void of C or Java, but a bit fancier. For example you can have variables of type Unit, and pass a value of type Unit around)  ↩

  2. Note the syntax for the Unit value: ().  ↩

  3. This doesn’t mean that the implicit conversion is actually defined in the Predef object with the implicit keyword. It could possibly be implemented that way, but as of Scala 2.10 this is not the case. So it’s probably done by compiler magic.  ↩