Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Creating custom operator
    1. Operator overload (The bad)
    2. Operator overload (The good)
    3. Custom Operator
      1. Normal composition
      2. Direct composition
      3. Left to Right application operator
    4. Creating Custom Operator |>
  3. 3 Q’s before introducing custom operator
  4. Custom operator for map
    1. fmap or map
    2. |» operator
  5. Conclusion


Operator (+, -, >) are just normal functions. Treated a bit differently (syntatically) by the compiler.

    func +(_ lhs: Int, _ rhs: Int) -> Int
    // it could have been
    func add(_ lhs: Int, _ rhs: Int) -> Int
    // usasge
    1 + 2

Operators help convey fundamental intent in universally accepted syntax. Even a non programmer can spot 1 + 2 is addition. + is both a fundamental operation and universally (+ mathematically) known syntax. It makes the code clear, concise and conveys intent.

And yet, we rarely use custom operator. Engineers are biased to not use them. Today, we will explore this territory. See where custom operators makes sense and where it doesn’t. I will provide my 3 questions to ask before creating custom operator. Lets get started!

Creating custom operator

  1. Can be named with special characters only
  2. Can be infix, postfix or prefix but not ternary
  3. Defaults to DefaultPrecedenceGroup

Operator overload (The bad)

Please don’t do this. This is how one can overload + for Int and do nasty thing. This is what people refer to when they complain about custom operator and operator overloads being bad.

    extension Int {
        static func +(_ lhs: Int, _ rhs: Int) -> Int {
            return lhs - rhs
    1 + 2  // -1 when it should be 3

Operator overload (The good)

Say we are working extensively with graphs and graphics. Its handy to be able to add 2 points.

    // Given 2 points we want to add
    let point1 = CGPoint(x: 12, y: 12)
    let point2 = CGPoint(x: 12, y: 100)
    // `+`
    extension CGPoint {
        static func +(_ lhs: CGPoint, _ rhs: CGPoint) -> CGPoint {
            return CGPoint(x: lhs.x + rhs.x, y: lhs.y + rhs.y)
    point1 + point2

This can however be done with named function.

    extension CGPoint {
        func add(_ anotherPoint: CGPoint) -> CGPoint {
            return CGPoint(x: x + anotherPoint.x, y: y + anotherPoint.y)
    // Which one would you prefer?
    point1.add(point2).add(point1)  // OO way
    point1 + point2 + point1        // Operator way

Surely the operator looks nice and conveys the addition intent.

Custom Operator

Lets see a normal use case. [This code below is a example code. It can span across service, interactor and presenter]. Say you have there 3 methods to convert, transform and load the view with viewModel.

    func convert(_ json: JSON) -> PersonModel {
    func transform(_ model: PersonModel) -> PersonViewModel {
    func load(_ viewModel: PersonViewModel) {
    // How can we use the above methods here
    func loadContents(with json: JSON) {
        //.. lets focus here

Normal composition

We love composing by temporarily assigning into variables. This makes for readable code. We do it all the times. Let see if there is a better way.

    func loadContents(with json: JSON) {
        let model = convert(json)
        let viewModel = transform(model)

Direct composition

    func loadContents(with json: JSON) {

The above is directly equivalent to the previous normal composition. If you look closely, convert(:) is the first method to be evaluated before evaluating transform. The code reads from inside to outside. Not left to right as we want. That is precisely why we favor the normal composition with temporary variable assignment.

Can we somehow get rid of intermediate variable assignment while composing left to right; like we read.

Left to Right application operator

The below code is what we want. Its easy to comprehend. |> is just like Unix pipe |. We can’t use | as they it is reserved for bitwise OR.

    func loadContents(with json: JSON) {
        json |> convert |> transform |> load
  1. |> is the UNIX pipe. Output from left is applied to the function on right.
  2. Code reads from input to function to function. Left to right.
  3. There are no intermediate variables associated. Code is smaller looks its nice (hehe)!

Now lets see how can we create such operator.

Creating Custom Operator |>

    infix operator |>: ApplyPrecedenceGroup     // We will see this below
    // Note that you can use lowercased T, U for type signature. 
    // Its not encouraged but just to let you know. 
    func |><t,u>(_ value: t, _ function: (t) -> u) -> u {
        return function(value)

We need the precedencegroup to help compiler resolve how to evaluate this piece of code.

    a |> fa |> fb 
    // () are evaluated first. Like in the old maths
    // 1. This is left associativity
    (a |> fa) |> fb
    //Or 2. This is right associativity
    a |> (fa |> fb)

And we need it to differentiate which operator needs to be evaluated first. Do we evaluate + first or |> first. higher priority operators are evaluated first. For instance which operator takes priority in this code snippet.

    a |> fa + fb |> fc

Lets write our precedence group.

    precedencegroup ApplyPrecedenceGroup {
        associativity: left
        higherThan: AssignmentPrecedence

That’s it. Now the operator can be used and our initial code json |> convert |> transform |> load will work. Now the question is When does it make sense to create custom operator? Importantly when it doesnot?

3 Q’s before introducing custom operator

I always try to ask myself these 3 questions before creating custom operator. Maybe this will help you guide too. I recently watched video on free function and they Stephen and Brandon descirbed a similar approach which I totally agree. I recommend you guys check their video talks especially if you lurking into functional programming.

  1. Operator is a function. Make sure you need to use that function all over the place.
  2. Operator changes syntax. Make sure the operator is widely used symbol; look out for examples in functional programming languages. I tend to look into Haskell. It has tons of operator; for better good.
  3. Make sure operator enables more concise and readable code. Don’t just use a operator for the cuteness of the symbol. P.S. don’t override standard operators.

Let me provide a horrible idea of overrideing + operator defined on Int.

    // IMP: Dont override std lib defined operators. Please!
    extension Int {
        static func +(_ lhs: Int, _ rhs: Int) -> Int {
            return lhs - rhs
    1 + 2  // -1 rather than 3

Yes you need to be cautious. If you work in a team, make sure your team is educated about the use, misuse and provide examples or work session before you make a pull request with a fancy operator. People sometimes are super defensive to introduce custom operator with the fact that new hires will find hard to navigate the code-base. Its only true if you don’t follow above 3 rules. If you do, its a good addition and just useful function.

Custom operator for map

Functional programming has embraced the idea of operator but also provides a associated named function. For instance in Haskell, fmap is the same as <$>. Just different names.

    fmap (+ 2) [1,2,3]   -- [3,4,5]
    (+ 2) <$> [1,2,3]    -- [3,4,5] ;; this is infix
    (+ 2) <$> (Just 12)  -- Just 12 is the same as Optional<Int>.some(12)

fmap or map

The fmap I showed above is exactly the map method on Array or Optional in swift.

    extension Array {
        func map<T>(_ transform: (Element) -> T) -> [T] { .. }

|» operator

In swift <$> cannot be used as custom operator as $ is not a special character. I know few people use <^> but I don’t prefer this symbol. I rather like |>>. The extra > symbol signals that operator will work on Functor types.

    precedencegroup MapPrecedenceGroup {
        associativity: left
        higherThan: ApplyPrecedenceGroup
    infix operator |>>: MapPrecedenceGroup
    func |>><T,U>(_ value: [T], _ transform: (T) -> U) -> [U] {
    // usage 
    [1,2,3] |>> { $0 + 2 }     //  [3,4,5]

Then you can define the same operator function for Optional and Result type. 

    func |>><T,U>(_ value: Optional<T>, _ transform: (T) -> U) -> Optional<U> {
    // usage 
    let labelO: UILabel? = UILabel()
    // We dont have to if let or explicit map on optonals. It certainly looks nice. 
    labelO |>> view.addSubview

As swift protocol are incapable to model Functor, we have to implement this operator on instance of each Functor. This is tedious. A Functor is a contextual type that lets you map over. To read more head over to this Functor blog.


Don’t fear the custom operator. They can be make code elegant and even improve readability when used wisely. And I have outlined my top 3 question to ask before including custom operator in your code. I hope you will make use of it in the days to come.

As per the second operator, |>>, I don’t have a strong opinion. I used it in my Result<T> module. I like to use |> for function application. In Haskell (blank space) is the equivalent of this operator (with right associativity). In swift it is the () parens.

I hope you enjoyed this post and learned something new. I had fun explaining custom operators. I would love to know how you use custom operators and which kinds? If you have any questions or suggestions; feel free to DM me on @kandelvijaya or comment down below. Happy coding and enjoy your weekend.

comments powered by Disqus