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C# is not type-safe

Posted on Thursday, September 08, 2011, at 2:12:00 AM UTC

C# is usually touted as a type-safe language.  However, it is not actually fully type-safe!

To examine this claim, we must first provide a strict definition of type-safety. 
Wikipedia says:

In computer science, type safety is the extent to which a programming language discourages or prevents type errors. A type error is erroneous or undesirable program behavior caused by a discrepancy between differing data types.

To translate this to C#, full type-safety means that any expression that compiles is guaranteed to work at runtime, without causing any invalid cast errors.

Obviously, the cast (and as) operator is an escape hatch from type safety.  It tells the compiler that “I expect this value to actually be of this type, even though you can’t prove it.  If I’m wrong, I’ll live with that”.  Therefore, to be fully type-safe, it must be impossible to get an InvalidCastException at runtime in C# code that does not contain an explicit cast.

Note that parsing or conversion errors (such as any exception from the Convert class) don’t count.  Parsing errors aren’t actually invalid cast errors (instead, they come from unexpected strings), and conversion errors from from cast operations inside the Convert class.  Also, null reference exceptions aren’t cast errors. 

So, why isn’t C# type-safe?

MSDN says that InvalidCastException is thrown in two conditions:

  • For a conversion from a Single or a Double to a Decimal, the source value is infinity, Not-a-Number (NaN), or too large to be represented as the destination type.

  • A failure occurs during an explicit reference conversion.

Both of these conditions can only occur from a cast operation, so it looks like C# is in fact type safe.

Or is it?

IEnumerable numbers = new int[] { 1, 2, 3 };

foreach(string x in numbers) 

This code compiles (!). Running it results in

InvalidCastException: Unable to cast object of type 'System.Int32' to type 'System.String'.

On the foreach line.

Since we don’t have any explicit cast operations (The implicit conversion from int[] to IEnumerable is an implicit conversion, which is guaranteed to succeed) , this proves that C# is not type-safe.

What happened?

The foreach construct comes from C# 1.0, before generics existed.  It worked with untyped collections such as ArrayList or IEnumerable.  Therefore, the IEnumerator.Current property that gets assigned to the loop variable would usually be of type object.   (In fact, the foreach statement is duck-typed to allow the enumerator to provide a typed Current property, particularly to avoid boxing). 

Therefore, you would expect that almost all (non-generic) foreach loops would need to have the loop variable declared as object, since that’s the compile-time type of the items in the collection.  Since that would be extremely annoying, the compiler allows you to use any type you want, and will implicitly cast the Current values to the type you declared.  Thus, mis-declaring the type results in an InvalidCastException.

Note that if the foreach type isn’t compatible at all with the type of the Current property, you will get a compile-time error (just like (string)42 doesn’t compile).  Therefore, if you stick with generic collections, you’re won’t get these runtime errors (unless you declare the foreach as a subtype of the item type).

C# also isn’t type-safe because of array covariance.

string[] strings = new string[1];
object[] arr = strings;
arr[0] = 7;

This code compiles, but throws “ArrayTypeMismatchException: Attempted to access an element as a type incompatible with the array.” at run-time.

As Eric Lippert explains, this feature was added in order to be more compatible with Java.

Categories: C#, .Net, type-safety Tweet this post

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