JEP draft: Unnamed Variables and Patterns

OwnerAngelos Bimpoudis
Componentspecification / language
Discussionamber dash dev at openjdk dot org
Reviewed byBrian Goetz
Created2023/07/10 16:17
Updated2023/09/11 14:56


Enhance the Java language with unnamed variables, which can be initialized but not used, and unnamed patterns, which match a record component without stating the component's name or type. Both are denoted by an underscore character, _.




For various reasons, Java developers will sometimes declare a variable that they do not intend to use. While such design intent may be known at the time the code is written, without capturing this intent, maintainers of this code may accidentally use the variable and violate its design intent. By making it impossible to accidentally use such variables, code is made more informative and readable, and less error-prone.

Unused variables

In traditional imperative code, most developers have encountered the situation of declaring a variable they did not intend to use, whether for reasons of code style, or because the language requires a variable declaration in certain contexts, especially those whose side-effect is more important than its result. For example:

Here is an example where the side effect of q.remove() is more important than its result, leading to an unused variable. The following code dequeues data but only needs two out of every three elements:

Queue<Integer> q = ... // x1, y1, z1, x2, y2, z2 .. 
while (q.size() >= 3) {
   int x = q.remove();
   int y = q.remove();
   int z = q.remove(); // z is unused
    ... new Point(x, y) ...

The third call to remove() has the desired side effect — dequeuing an element — regardless of whether its result is assigned to a variable, so the declaration of z could be elided. However, for maintainability, the developer may wish to consistently denote the result of remove() by declaring a variable. Authors of this code currently have a choice of bad options: don't declare the variable z, which leads to an asymmetry and possibly a static analysis warning about ignoring the return value, or declare a variable that will not be used and possibly getting a static analysis warning about unused variables

Another example where the side effect of an expression is more important than its result, leading to an unused variable, comes from the enhanced-for loop where the local variable in its header is not needed. For example, the following code calculates total as the side effect of a loop, without using the loop variable order:

static int count(Iterable<Order> orders) {
    int total = 0;
    for (Order order : orders) // order is unused
    return total;

The prominence of order's declaration is unfortunate, given that order is not used. The declaration can be shortened to var order, but there is no way to avoid giving this variable a name. The name itself can be shortened to, e.g., o, but this syntactic trick does not communicate the semantic intent that the variable will go unused. In addition, static analysis tools typically complain about unused variables, even when the developer intends non-use and may not have a way to silence the warnings.

Unused lambda parameters

Even code without side effects must sometimes declare unused variables. For example:,
                                   v -> "NODATA"));

This code generates a map which maps each key to the same placeholder value. Since the lambda parameter v is not used, its name is irrelevant.

In all these scenarios where variables are unused and their names are irrelevant, it would be better if we could simply declare variables with no name. This would free maintainers from having to understand irrelevant names, and would avoid false positives on non-use from static analysis tools.

The kinds of variables that can reasonably be declared with no name are those which have no visibility outside a method: local variables, exception parameters, and lambda parameters, as shown above. These kinds of variables can be renamed or made unnamed without external impact. In contrast, fields — even if they are private — communicate the state of an object across methods, and unnamed state is neither helpful nor maintainable.

Unused Pattern Variables

Type patterns match selector expressions by specifying a type name and a binding name. For example, consider the following Ball class, and a switch that explores the type of the ball:

sealed abstract class Ball permits RedBall, BlueBall, GreenBall { }
final  class RedBall   extends Ball { }
final  class BlueBall  extends Ball { }
final  class GreenBall extends Ball { }

Ball ball = ...
switch (ball) {
    case RedBall   red   -> process(ball);
    case BlueBall  blue  -> process(ball);
    case GreenBall green -> stopProcessing();

Each case examines the type of a Ball while the binding variables red, blue, and green are not used. Since the variables introduced by the type patterns are not used, this code would be more clear if we could elide their names.

As developers increasingly use records and their companion mechanism, sealed classes (JEP 409), we expect that pattern matching over complex data structures will become commonplace. Frequently, the shape of a structure will be just as important as the individual data items within it. Assume a switch that explores the content of a Box which can be any of the previous Ball types with also an additional case when the content is null:

record Box<T extends Ball>(T content) { }

Box<? extends Ball> box = ...
switch (box) {
    case Box(RedBall   red)     -> processBox(box);
    case Box(BlueBall  blue)    -> processBox(box);
    case Box(GreenBall green)   -> stopProcessing();
    case Box(var       itsNull) -> pickAnotherBox();

Similarly, those type patterns in nested positions also introduce bindings variables that are not used. Since this switch is more involved than the previous one, eliding the names of the unused bindings in nested type patterns would further increase readability.

Multiple unused pattern variables

Even if we could elide the names of unused pattern variables in the previous Ball and Box examples, they still contain duplicated code on the right-hand side for the corresponding red and blue cases. If the switches were refactored to group the first two patterns in one case label:

case RedBall red, BlueBall blue -> process(ball); // compile error


case Box(RedBall red), Box(BlueBall blue) -> processBox(box); // also compile error

then it would be erroneous to name the components: Neither of the names in each occasion is usable on the right-hand side because either of the patterns on the left-hand side can match. Since the names are unusable it would be better if we could elide them.

Unused nested patterns

Records (JEP 395) and record patterns (JEP 440) work together to streamline data processing. A record class aggregates the components of a data item into an instance, while code that receives an instance of a record class uses pattern matching to disaggregate the instance into its components. For example:

record Point(int x, int y) { }
enum Color { RED, GREEN, BLUE }
record ColoredPoint(Point p, Color c) { }

... new ColoredPoint(new Point(3,4), Color.GREEN) ...

if (r instanceof ColoredPoint(Point p, Color c)) {
    ... p.x() ... p.y() ...

In this code, one part of the program creates a ColoredPoint instance while another part uses pattern matching with instanceof to test whether a variable is a ColoredPoint and, if so, extract its two components.

Record patterns such as ColoredPoint(Point p, Color c) are pleasingly descriptive, but it is common for programs to need only some of the components for further processing. For example, the code above needs only p in the if block, not c. It is laborious to write out all the components of a record class every time we do such pattern matching. Furthermore, it is not visually clear that the entire Color component is irrelevant; this makes the condition in the if block harder to read, too. This is especially evident when record patterns are nested to extract data within components, such as:

if (r instanceof ColoredPoint(Point(int x, int y), Color c)) {
    ... x ... y ...

We can use var to reduce the visual cost of the unnecessary component Color c, e.g., ColoredPoint(Point(int x, int y), var c), but it would better to reduce the cost even further by omitting unnecessary components altogether. This would both simplify the task of writing record patterns and improve readability, by removing clutter from the code.


An unnamed variable is declared when either the local variable in a local variable declaration statement, or an exception parameter in a catch clause, or a lambda parameter in a lambda expression, or a pattern variable in a type pattern is denoted by an underscore. The underscore allows the identifier which follows the type or var in the statement or expression to be elided. In the case of type patterns, the unnamed variable is called unnamed pattern variable.

Underscore is commonly used in other languages such as Scala and Python, to declare a variable with no name. Since underscore was valid as an identifier in Java 1.0, Java 8 (2014) initiated a long-term process to reclaim it, issuing compile-time warnings, which was completed in Java 9 (2017, JEP 213) by turning those warnings into errors.

The ability to use underscore in identifiers of length two or more is unchanged, since underscore remains a Java letter and a Java letter-or-digit. For example, identifiers such as _age and MAX_AGE and __ (two underscores) continue to be legal.

The ability to use underscore as a digit separator is unchanged. For example, numeric literals such as 123_456_789 and 0b1010_0101 continue to be legal.

The unnamed pattern is denoted by an underscore character _ (U+005F) and is equivalent to the type pattern var _. It allows the type and name of a record component to be elided in pattern matching.

Unnamed variables

The following kinds of declarations can introduce either a named variable (denoted by an identifier) or an unnamed variable (denoted by an underscore):

(The possibility of an unnamed local variable being declared by a pattern, i.e., a pattern variable (JLS 14.30.1), was covered above.)

Declaring an unnamed variable does not place a name in scope, so the variable cannot be written or read after it has been initialized. An initializer must be provided for an unnamed variable in each kind of declaration above.

An unnamed variable never shadows any other variable, since it has no name, so multiple unnamed variables can be declared in the same block.

Here are the examples from the Motivation, modified to use unnamed variables.

Unnamed pattern variables

An unnamed pattern variable can appear in any type pattern, including "var" type patterns, whether the type pattern appears at the top level or is nested in a record pattern. For example the Ball example can now be written:

switch (ball) {
    case RedBall _   -> process(ball);
    case BlueBall _  -> process(ball);
    case GreenBall _ -> stopProcessing();

and the Box example:

switch (box) {
    case Box(RedBall _)   -> processBox(box);
    case Box(BlueBall _)  -> processBox(box);
    case Box(GreenBall _) -> stopProcessing();
    case Box(var _)       -> pickAnotherBox();

By allowing us to elide names, unnamed pattern variables make run-time data exploration based on type patterns visually clearer, both in switch statements and expressions, and in instanceof.

Multiple unnamed pattern variables

Unnamed pattern variables are particularly helpful when a switch executes the same action for multiple cases. For example, the earlier Ball code snippet can be rewritten as:

switch (ball) {
    case RedBall _, BlueBall _ -> process(ball);
    case GreenBall _           -> stopProcessing();

The first two cases use top-level unnamed pattern variables because their right-hand sides do not use the bindings. Similarly, the Box and Ball code snippet can also be rewritten as:

switch (box) {
    case Box(RedBall _), Box(BlueBall _) -> processBox(box);
    case Box(GreenBall _)                -> stopProcessing();
    case Box(var _)                      -> pickAnotherBox();

All cases use unnamed pattern variables because their right-hand sides do not use the Box's component.

A case label with multiple patterns can have a guard. A guard governs the case as a whole, rather than the individual patterns. For example, assuming that there is an int variable x, the first case of the previous example could be further constrained:

case Box(RedBall _), Box(BlueBall _) when x == 42 -> processBox(b);

Pairing a guard with each pattern is not allowed, so this is prohibited:

case Box(RedBall _) when x == 0, Box(BlueBall _) when x == 42 -> processBox(b);

The unnamed pattern

The unnamed pattern is an unconditional pattern which binds nothing. Like the var _ type pattern, the unnamed pattern is usable in a nested context of a record pattern, but not at the top level of an instanceof or case.

Consequently, the earlier example can omit the type pattern for the Color component entirely:

if (r instanceof ColoredPoint(Point(int x, int y), _)) { ... x ... y ... }

Likewise, we can extract the Color component while eliding the record pattern for the Point component:

if (r instanceof ColoredPoint(_, Color c)) { ... c ... }

In deeply nested positions, using the unnamed pattern improves the readability of code that does complex data extraction. For example:

if (r instanceof ColoredPoint(Point(int x, _), _)) { ... x ... }

This code extracts the x coordinate of the nested Point while omitting both the y and Color components.

Turning to the previous example with multiple unnamed pattern variables, since var _ in a nested position is equivalent to the unnamed pattern, the switch can use unnamed pattern variables as explaind previously but also an unnamed pattern instead of var _ for the last case:

switch (box) {
    case Box(RedBall _), Box(BlueBall _) -> processBox(box);
    case Box(GreenBall _)                -> stopProcessing();
    case Box(_)                          -> pickAnotherBox();

Risks and Assumptions