(return to home)

The expression problem

The Expression problem is a new name to an old problem.

In my opinon, you probably do not care about it until know it. This article tries make a little and practical introduction to expression problem situations and explain how them can be elegantly solved using clojure polymorphic constructions. Concretely, protocols.

A little introduction

Let start with an hypotetical exercise: we are developing an xmpp client, using third party XMPP library for connect to xmpp server. XMPP has different entities, but for our example we will use this two: RosterItem and Jid.

Here a little description of these two types:

  • The RosterItem represents an entry in the address book.
  • The Jid represents a user identity.

Both them shares almost all fields and represents a User entity. In the XMPP terminology they have different semantics but for out purposes is a simply User and we use it in interchangeably way.

Here a hypothetical data type (class) that represents a RosterItem

public class RosterItem {
  public String name // "niwi"
  public String domain // "niwi.be"
  public SubscriptionType subscriptionType

Here a hypothetical data type (class) that represents a Jid

public class Jid {
  public String local // "niwi"
  public String domain // "niwi.be"
  public String resource // "mypc"

And there are our constraints:

  • We need treat that data types like a User data type in almost all out code base.
  • We need interact in a simply way with the third party library.
  • We need a common abstraction for access in a "polymorphic way" to properties.
  • We can not change the source code, because is a third party library.

Potential solutions

Inheritance from common superclass

The traditional object-oriented solution to problems of this sort is to leverage subtype polymorphism — that is, inheritance.

We need that our user can be represented in two different ways: bare and full. For it, ideally, both classes would implement an interface like this:

public interface IUser {
  public String getName()
  public String getBare()
  public String getFull()

But it is not an option because we need modify the source code of third party library. Obviously we can create a subclass that extends the library types and implement the desired interface, but this not solves that the library stills returning own types and not your subtypes.

Multiple inheritance

Another approach to the Expression Problem is multiple inheritance, in which one subclass can extend many superclasses.

Here a pseudocode:

public User extends RosterItem, Jid implements IUser {
  public String getName() { /* implementation */ }
  public String getBare() { /* implementation */ }
  public String getFull() { /* implementation */ }

But we known that multiple inheritance has its own problems. It leads to complex and sometimes unpredictable class hierarchies, and in my opinion should be avoided. Additionally, is not very common feature in programming languages, that limits a lot the usage of that technique.

Concretelly, java and jvm languages does not support for multiple inheritance. Because of it, this is also not an solution for out problem.


This is a one of the most popular solutions for handle the expression problem in object oriented languages and sometimes is treated as "the solution".

Let see an example using groovy language:

// MyRosterItem.groovy
public class MyRosterItem implements IUser {
  final private RosterItem rosterItem
  public MyRosterItem(final RosterItem rosterItem) { this.rosterItem = rosterItem }
  public String getName() { /* implementation */ }
  public String getBare() { /* implementation */ }
  public String getFull() { /* implementation */ }
// MyJid.groovy
public class MyJid implements IUser {
  final private Jid jid
  public MyJid(final Jid jid) { this.jid = jid }
  public String getName() { /* implementation */ }
  public String getBare() { /* implementation */ }
  public String getFull() { /* implementation */ }

But this solution has a huge number of inconveniences:

  • It breaks the identity. You can not use an instance of your roster item as parameter to the third party library that you are using for connect with XMPP. You should constanctly wrapping and unwrapping, and this adds a lot of additional accidental complexity.
  • You can't compare a MyJid with Jid with == operator.
  • You can't use Object.equals because it should be symetric. If you want compate an MyJid instance with some other Jid instance, you should explicitly wrap the second one for make the compatation.
  • If you want that you MyJid type behaves exactly that Jid, you should implement a proxy for all public methods of Jid class. That can be very tedious if Jid implements something like List interface (or any other with huge number of methods).

In my opinion, wrappers is not good solution for expression problem and requires a lot of unnecesary work.

Open Classes

Consists in that a class can be reopened by anyone and at any time to add new methods.

This approach is popularized mainly by Ruby and JavaScript languages and it has similar problems that multiple inheritance: not all languages supports it.

Example of open classes using ruby language:

class String
  def write_size
puts "hello".write_size

This approach also solves the problem, but in my opinion adds more problems that solves:

  • It breaks namespacing (like any other solution exposed previously)
  • Easy name clashing. You have no way of knowing that some other user of that class won't define a different and incompatible method with same name.

This technique is also known as "Monkey patching" and is well known that is not a good design pattern for your software.


This is very very similar to openclasses, the unique difference is that is more safe. Because if name clashing is happens, the compiller will notify about it and will abort the compilation.

Here an example of traits usage using rust language:

struct Dog { name: &'static str }

trait Animal {
    fn noise(&self) -> &'static str;

impl Animal for Dog {
    fn noise(&self) -> &'static str {

Static methods with conditionals

This is other most common approaches to the expression problem. It consists in create a helper class with static methods that uses conditionals (on type).

public class Utils {
  public static String getName(final Object data) {
    if (source instanceof RosterItem) { /* implementation */ }
    else if (source instanceof Jid) { /* implementation */ }
    else { throw IllegalArgumentException("Invalid source."); }

But in this case, we are not extending the type. We simply create a simple static funcion that works on concrete type. This approach tends to grow into not maintainable code and obliges modify the defined func in case you want extend it with new cases.

Additionally, it not performs very well.

Static methods with overloading

This is an improvement over the previous case. Consists on using overloads instead of conditionals.

public class Utils {
  public static String getName(final RosterItem data) { /* implementation */ }
  public static String getName(final Jid data) { /* implementation */ }

This approach solves the performance problem and add an other: it becomes unpredictable in the face of complex inheritance hierarchies.

The clojure approach

Clojure is designed and written in terms of abstractions and in difference with java or other popular languages, has different approach for work with abstractions. Like haskell (and maybe other funcional languages), it has clear separation between types (data), abstraction (protocol), and implementation.

Protocols are conceptually very similar to java "interfaces" but only supports the best parts of them. They provides a high-performance, dynamic polymorphism construct with ability to extend type out of design time.

This is a possible aspect of our abstraction represented using a clojure protocol:

(ns myapp.protocols)

(defprotocol IUser
  "Common abstraction for access to user like objects."
  (get-name [_] "Get user name.")
  (get-bare [_] "Get bare representation of user")
  (get-full [_] "Get full representation of user"))

The next step consists in add an implementation of this protocol for our hypothetical types. This can be done using extend-type function. Clojure also exposes other helpers but for our purposes extend-type fits perfectly.

(ns myapp.core
  (:require [myapp.protocols :as impl])
  (:import somelib.roster.RosterItem

(extend-type RosterItem
  (get-name [o] (.-name o))
  (get-bare [o] (str (.-name o) "@" (.-domain o)))
  (get-full [o] (str (.-name o) "@" (.-domain o))))

(extend-type Jid
  (get-name [o] (.-local o))
  (get-bare [o] (str (.-local o) "@" (.-domain o)))
  (get-full [o] (str (.-local o) "@" (.-domain o) "/" (.-resource o))))

As I have said previously, protocols exposes a namespaced functions. This avoid completely the risk of name clashing if some other have implemented one method with same name. And the best part: no identity lose, you can work over your abstractions together with thrird party types without modifying them.

(let [jid (Jid. "niwi" "niwi.be" "mypc")]
  (println "Result: " (impl/get-bare jid)))

(let [ritem (RosterItem. "niwi2" "niwi.be" :both)]
  (println "Result: " (impl/get-bare ritem)))

Clojure offers very flexible polymorphic constructions that makes the code more expressive without additional accidental complexity. If protocols seems limited for you, let try use multimethods.