Generic Optional Handling in Swift

Sometimes you want to write a generic algorithm working on any Optional type no matter what actual type is wrapped inside. Ok, this can be easily done with a free generic function, but what if you want to write a Sequence extension to remove all nil values for example?

Things get a little bit complicated here since Optional is not a protocol but a concrete type and so it can’t be used as a generic type constraint.

Generic protocols and concrete types in Swift serve different purposes: we create instances and declare variables of concrete types while protocols can be used as a generic type constraints.

Type erasure is a technique used in case we want to declare a variable able to hold any concrete type conforming to a specific protocol. What we want here instead is another part of the same puzzle, we need a protocol allowing us to use the concrete generic type as a constraint.

This may sound complicated in English but, as it usually happens, looks much simpler when written in plain Swift 😄

public protocol OptionalType: ExpressibleByNilLiteral {
    associatedtype WrappedType
    var asOptional: WrappedType? { get }

extension Optional: OptionalType {
    public var asOptional: Wrapped? {
        return self

So here we just define an OptionalType protocol declaring WrappedType associated type and conform Optional enum to it. Note that generic type parameters do not automatically fulfill protocol requirements, but we have type inference covering us here.

In order to make the protocol useful we expose some basic Optional functionality:

  • asOptional property gives us an access to the optional binding syntax.

  • ExpressibleByNilLiteral conformance allows us to use nil for initialization.

Having done that, we can now use OptionalType as a generic constraint:

public extension Sequence where Self.Iterator.Element: OptionalType {
    public func removingNils() -> [Self.Iterator.Element.WrappedType] {
        return flatMap { $0.asOptional }

If you are looking for more tricks that can be done with the Optional enum, you should check an excellent article by Russ Bishop.