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Constraints on Type Parameters (C# Programming Guide)

When you define a generic class, you can apply restrictions to the kinds of types that client code can use for type arguments when it instantiates your class. If client code attempts to instantiate your class with a type that is not allowed by a constraint, the result is a compile-time error. These restrictions are called constraints. Constraints are specified using the where contextual keyword. The following table lists the six types of constraints:

Constraint Description

where T: struct

The type argument must be a value type. Any value type except Nullable can be specified. See Using Nullable Types (C# Programming Guide) for more information.

where T : class

The type argument must be a reference type, including any class, interface, delegate, or array type. (See note below.)

where T : new()

The type argument must have a public parameterless constructor. When used in conjunction with other constraints, the new() constraint must be specified last.

where T : <base class name>

The type argument must be or derive from the specified base class.

where T : <interface name>

The type argument must be or implement the specified interface. Multiple interface constraints can be specified. The constraining interface can also be generic.

where T : U

The type argument supplied for T must be or derive from the argument supplied for U. This is called a naked type constraint.

NoteNote

In the .NET Framework 2.0, recursively defined generic type constraints may in some cases result in a BadImageFormatException at runtime. The workaround is to remove the where T : class constraint on the enclosing type. For more information, see Feedback ID #93389 on the Microsoft Connect web site and Microsoft Knowledge Base article 940164.

If you want to examine an item in a generic list to determine whether it is valid or to compare it to some other item, the compiler must have some guarantee that the operator or method it needs to call will be supported by any type argument that might be specified by client code. This guarantee is obtained by applying one or more constraints to your generic class definition. For example, the base class constraint tells the compiler that only objects of this type or derived from this type will be used as type arguments. Once the compiler has this guarantee, it can allow methods of that type to be called within the generic class. Constraints are applied using the contextual keyword where. The following code example demonstrates the functionality we can add to the GenericList<T> class (in Introduction to Generics (C# Programming Guide)) by applying a base class constraint.

public class Employee
{
    private string name;
    private int id;

    public Employee(string s, int i)
    {
        name = s;
        id = i;
    }

    public string Name
    {
        get { return name; }
        set { name = value; }
    }

    public int ID
    {
        get { return id; }
        set { id = value; }
    }
}

public class GenericList<T> where T : Employee
{
    private class Node
    {
        private Node next;
        private T data;

        public Node(T t)
        {
            next = null;
            data = t;
        }

        public Node Next
        {
            get { return next; }
            set { next = value; }
        }

        public T Data
        {
            get { return data; }
            set { data = value; }
        }
    }

    private Node head;

    public GenericList() //constructor
    {
        head = null;
    }

    public void AddHead(T t)
    {
        Node n = new Node(t);
        n.Next = head;
        head = n;
    }

    public IEnumerator<T> GetEnumerator()
    {
        Node current = head;

        while (current != null)
        {
            yield return current.Data;
            current = current.Next;
        }
    }

    public T FindFirstOccurrence(string s)
    {
        Node current = head;
        T t = null;

        while (current != null)
        {
            //The constraint enables access to the Name property.
            if (current.Data.Name == s)
            {
                t = current.Data;
                break;
            }
            else
            {
                current = current.Next;
            }
        }
        return t;
    }
}

The constraint enables the generic class to use the Employee.Name property since all items of type T are guaranteed to be either an Employee object or an object that inherits from Employee.

Multiple constraints can be applied to the same type parameter, and the constraints themselves can be generic types, as follows:

class EmployeeList<T> where T : Employee, IEmployee, System.IComparable<T>, new()
{
    // ...
}

By constraining the type parameter, you increase the number of allowable operations and method calls to those supported by the constraining type and all types in its inheritance hierarchy. Therefore, when designing generic classes or methods, if you will be performing any operation on the generic members beyond simple assignment or calling any methods not supported by System.Object, you will need to apply constraints to the type parameter.

When applying the where T : class constraint, it is recommended that you do not use the == and != operators on the type parameter because these operators will test for reference identity only, not for value equality. This is the case even if these operators are overloaded in a type used as an argument. The following code illustrates this point; the output is false even though the String class overloads the == operator.

public static void OpTest<T>(T s, T t) where T : class
{
    System.Console.WriteLine(s == t);
}
static void Main()
{
    string s1 = "foo";
    System.Text.StringBuilder sb = new System.Text.StringBuilder("foo");
    string s2 = sb.ToString();
    OpTest<string>(s1, s2);
}

The reason for this behavior is that, at compile time, the compiler only knows that T is a reference type, and therefore must use the default operators that are valid for all reference types. If you need to test for value equality, the recommended way is to also apply the where T : IComparable<T> constraint and implement that interface in any class that will be used to construct the generic class.

Type parameters that have no constraints, such as T in public class SampleClass<T>{}, are called unbounded type parameters. Unbounded type parameters have the following rules:

  • The != and == operators cannot be used because there is no guarantee that the concrete type argument will support these operators.

  • They can be converted to and from System.Object or explicitly converted to any interface type.

  • You can compare to null. If an unbounded parameter is compared to null, the comparison will always return false if the type argument is a value type.

When a generic type parameter is used as a constraint, it is called a naked type constraint. Naked type constraints are useful when a member function with its own type parameter needs to constrain that parameter to the type parameter of the containing type, as shown in the following example:

class List<T>
{
    void Add<U>(List<U> items) where U : T {/*...*/}
}

In the previous example, T is a naked type constraint in the context of the Add method, and an unbounded type parameter in the context of the List class.

Naked type constraints can also be used in generic class definitions. Note that the naked type constraint must also have been declared within the angle brackets along with any other type parameters:

//naked type constraint
public class SampleClass<T, U, V> where T : V { }

The usefulness of naked type constraints with generic classes is very limited because the compiler can assume nothing about a naked type constraint except that it derives from System.Object. Use naked type constraints on generic classes in scenarios in which you wish to enforce an inheritance relationship between two type parameters.

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