Why Doesn’t C# Implement “Top Level” Methods?

C# requires that every method be in some class, even if it is a static method in a static class in the global namespace. Other languages allow “top level” functions. A recent stackoverflow post asks why that is.

I am asked “why doesn’t C# implement feature X?” all the time. The answer is always the same: because no one ever designed, specified, implemented, tested, documented and shipped that feature. All six of those things are necessary to make a feature happen. All of them cost huge amounts of time, effort and money. Features are not cheap, and we try very hard to make sure that we are only shipping those features which give the best possible benefits to our users given our constrained time, effort and money budgets.

I understand that such a general answer probably does not address the specific question.

In this particular case, the clear user benefit was in the past not large enough to justify the complications to the language which would ensue. By restricting how different language entities nest inside each other we (1) restrict legal programs to be in a common, easily understood style, and (2) make it possible to define “identifier lookup” rules which are comprehensible, specifiable, implementable, testable and documentable.

By restricting method bodies to always be inside a struct or class, we make it easier to reason about the meaning of an unqualified identifier used in an invocation context; such a thing is always an invocable member of the current type (or a base type).

Now, JScript.NET has this feature. (And in fact, JScript.NET goes even further; you can have program statements “at the top level” too.) A reasonable question is “why is this feature good for JScript but bad for C#?”

First off, I reject the premise that the feature is “bad” for C#. The feature might well be good for C#, just not good enough compared to its costs (and to the opportunity cost of doing that feature instead of a more valuable feature.) The feature might become good enough for C# if its costs are lowered, or if the compelling benefit to customers becomes higher.

Second, the question assumes that the feature is good for JScript.NET. Why is it good for JScript.NET?

It’s good for JScript.NET because JScript.NET was designed to be a “scripty” language as well as a “large-scale development” language. “JScript classic”‘s original design as a scripting language requires that “a one-line program actually be one line”. If your intention is to make a language that allows for rapid development of short, simple scripts by novice developers then you want to minimize the amount of “ritual incantations” that must happen in every program. In JScript you do not want to have to start with a bunch of using clauses and define a class and then put stuff in the class and have a Main routine and blah blah blah, all this ritual just to get Hello World running.

C# was designed to be a large-scale application development language geared towards pro devs from day one; it was never intended to be a scripting language. It’s design therefore encourages enforcing the immediate organization of even small chunks of code into components. C# is a component-oriented language. We therefore want to encourage programming in a component-based style and discourage features that work against that style.

This is changing. “REPL” languages like F#, long popular in academia, are increasing in popularity in industry. There’s a renewed interest in “scripty” application programmability via tools like Visual Studio Tools for Applications. These forces cause us to re-evaluate whether “a one line program is one line” is a sensible goal for hypothetical future versions of C#. Hitherto it has been an explicit non-goal of the language design.

(As always, whenever I discuss the hypothetical “next version of C#”, keep in mind that we have not announced any next version, that it might never happen, and that it is utterly premature to think about feature sets or schedules. All speculation about future versions of unannounced products should be taken as “for entertainment purposes only” musings, not as promises about future offerings.)

We are therefore considering adding this feature to a hypothetical future version of C#, in order to better support “scripty” scenarios and REPL evaluation. When the existence of powerful new tools is predicated upon the existence of language features, that is points towards getting the language features done.

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Why is deriving a public class from an internal class illegal?

In C# it is illegal to declare a class D whose base class B is in any way less accessible than D. I’m occasionally asked why that is. There are a number of reasons; today I’ll start with a very specific scenario and then talk about a general philosophy.

Suppose you and your coworker Alice are developing the code for assembly Foo, which you intend to be fully trusted by its users. Alice writes:

public class B
{
public void Dangerous() {…}
}

And you write

public class D : B
{
… other stuff …
}

Later, Alice gets a security review from Bob, who points out that method Dangerous could be used as a component of an attack by partially-trusted code, and who further points out that customer scenarios do not actually require B to be used directly by customers in the first place; B is actually only being used as an implementation detail of other classes. So in keeping with the principle of least privilege, Alice changes B to:

internal class B
{
public void Dangerous() {…}
}

Alice need not change the accessibility of Dangerous, because of course “public” means “public to the people who can see the class in the first place”.

So now what should happen when Alice recompiles before she checks in this change? The C# compiler does not know if you, the author of class D, intended method Dangerous to be accessible by a user of public class D. On the one hand, it is a public method of a base class, and so it seems like it should be accessible. On the other hand, the fact that B is internal is evidence that Dangerous is supposed to be inaccessible outside the assembly. A basic design principle of C# is that when the intention is unclear, the compiler brings this fact to your attention by failing. The compiler is identifying yet another form of the Brittle Base Class Failure, which long-time readers know has shown up in numerous places in the design of C#.

Rather than simply making this change and hoping for the best, you and Alice need to sit down and talk about whether B really is a sensible base class of D; it seems plausible that either (1) D ought to be internal also, or (2) D ought to favour composition over inheritance. Which brings us to my more general point:

More generally: the inheritance mechanism is, simply the fact that all heritable members of the base type are also members of the derived type. But the inheritance relationship semantics are intended to model the “is a kind of” relationship. It seems reasonable that if D is a kind of B, and D is accessible at a location, then B ought to be accessible at that location as well. It seems strange that you could only use the fact that “a Giraffe is a kind of Animal” at specific locations.

In short, this rule of the language encourages you to use inheritance relationships to model the business domain semantics rather than as a mechanism for code reuse.

Finally, I note that as an alternative, it is legal for a public class to implement an internal interface. In that scenario there is no danger of accidentally exposing dangerous functionality from the interface to the implementing type because of course the interface is not associated with any functionality in the first place; an interface is logically “abstract”. Implementing an internal interface can be used as a mechanism that allows public components in the same assembly to communicate with each other over “back channels” that are not exposed to the public.