Language terseness: comparing Java and Scala

Martin Odersky claims in his book Programming in Scala1 that Scala is terser than Java. Practice confirms this claim as comparable listings tend to be a half or a third of what you need on Java (but your mileage may vary).

Let’s look at an example to find out what is the cause of such big difference. The following code is the result of a TDD tutorial by Uncle Bob2 consisting in creating a name-inverter function able to discard honorifics (e.g. Mr. or Ms.), retain post-nominals and cover several border cases. For example, we should get Odersky, Martin from Martin Odersky.

This is the production code followed by the list of test cases:

After watching the TDD tutorial and following the same practices but using Scala and ScalaTest instead of Java and JUnit I got the following result:

Line counts meets our expectations. This is explained in Odersky’s book by simply stating that Scala is higher-level than Java but, in my opinion, we can be more precise by looking at the code from different angles:

  • In Java, it is common to pass null when a value is missing. That forces defensive code with null checks all over the place as it is motivated by the first test case of the Java version. In Scala, the ubiquitous use of the Option type for this purpose make this unnecessary. This removes a test case and a conditional for free!

  • Both JUnit and ScalaTest are internal DSLs with the advantage of not needing a different compiler than the production code and the inconvenience of abusing the host language syntax. Since Scala offers lots of configurable syntax sugar such as implicit conversions, operators, infix notation and so on, the results are much more terse. The JUnit version encodes each test case into a method annotated with @Test while ScalaTest leverages higher-order functions to define the test cases.

  • All exceptions are unchecked in Scala so there is no need but API documentation to annotate them. This adds some noise to the JUnit version that needs to accept any exceptions to maximize test independence.

  • Primitives and objects are two different kinds of animals in Java, being the former second class citizens unable to participate on all the things that the latter can. For instance, you cannot create a List<int> you should use a wrapper class for primitives, List<Integer>.

    More relevant to the code we are studying, primitive arrays are not part of the collections framework and conversions as cumbersome and wordy as you can see in splitNames ( Scala designers pushed for a unified class hierarchy and collection framework in which all the types can play all the roles. Such uniformity promotes orthogonality and you need to type toList no matter what collection you start with. Compare with new ArrayList<String>(Arrays.asList(x)).

  • When functions are first class and you can create functions literals cheaply and pass them as arguments, lots of common collection manipulation patterns can be abstracted and reused. For example, removing the honorifics is implemented with a conditional that removes elements of a collection in the Java version. A simple dropWhile(isHonorific) can do the job in Scala.

  • Pattern matching is used in swapFirstAndLast (NameInverter.scala:8) to deconstruct the list in two ways (first-second-rest and any-other-list) and manipulate them accordingly. This is very data-centric and easy to grasp visually (to the trained eye, as everything!).

  • Other source of verbosity in Java comes from the lack of some methods in their APIs. In this case the lack of something similar to mkString forces you to write loops, using String.format or recurring to Apache Commons or Guava for alternatives.

Most of the reviewed points to the elements of programming as explained in the timeless SICP3:

A powerful programming language is more than just a means for instructing a computer to perform tasks. The language also serves as a framework within which we organize our ideas about processes. Thus, when we describe a language, we should pay particular attention to the means that the language provides for combining simple ideas to form more complex ideas. Every powerful language has three mechanisms for accomplishing this:

  • “primitive expressions” which represent the simplest entities the language is concerned with,

  • “means of combination” by which compound elements are built from simpler ones, and

  • “means of abstraction” by which compound elements can be named and manipulated as units.

While Scala and Java have very similar primitive expressions their main differences come from the available means of combination and abstraction. Richer means of combination like higher-order functions lead to terser code just by allowing for easier composition of more versatile modules. Richer means of abstraction allow for terser code as you don’t need to deal with irrelevant details such as looping a list to selecting some elements.

In my opinion the Java-Scala contrast is a wonderful setting for measuring the relative merits of the functional-language features that are slowly pouring unto the mainstream.

  1. Programming in Scala, Odersky et al, Artima. Available at Amazon. 

  2. Clean Code Episode 19, Part I: Advanced TDD The whole video series is very interesting and funny to watch! 

  3. Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, Abelson, H. and Sussman, G.J. Full text for free at