Implicit Creation

Author: eernst@.

Version: 0.7 (2018-04-10)

Status: Background material, normative language now in dartLangSpec.tex.

This document is an informal specification of the implicit creation feature. The feature adds support for omitting some occurrences of the reserved words new and const in instance creation expressions.

This feature specification was written with a combined proposal as the starting point. That proposal presents optional new and optional const together with several other features.


In Dart without implicit creation, the reserved word new is present in almost all expressions whose evaluation invokes a constructor at run time, and const is present in the corresponding constant expressions. These expressions are known as instance creation expressions. If new or const is removed from such an instance creation expression, the remaining phrase is still syntactically correct in most cases. This feature specification updates the grammar to make them all syntactically correct.

With that grammar update, all instance creation expressions can technically omit new or const because tools (compilers, analyzers) are able to parse these expressions. The tools are able to recognize that these expressions denote instance creations (rather than, say, static function invocations), because the part before the arguments is statically known to denote a constructor.

For instance, may resolve statically to a constructor named foo in a class C imported with prefix p. Similarly, D may resolve to a class, in which case D(42) is statically known to be a constructor invocation because the other interpretation is statically known to be incorrect (that is, cf. section ‘16.14.3 Unqualified Invocation’ in the language specification, evaluating (D)(42): (D) is an instance of Type which is not a function type and does not have a method named call, so we cannot call (D)).

In short, even without the keyword, we can still unambiguously recognize the expressions that create objects. In that sense, the keywords are superfluous.

For human readers, however, it may be helpful to document that a particular expression will yield a fresh instance, and this is the most common argument why new should not be omitted: It can be good documentation. But Dart already allows instance creation expressions to invoke a factory constructor, which is not guaranteed to return a newly created object, so Dart developers never had any firm local guarantees that any particular expression would yield a fresh object. This means that it may very well be justified to have an explicit new, but it will never be a rigorous guarantee of freshness.

Similarly, it may be important for developers to ensure that certain expressions are constant, because of the improved performance and the guaranteed canonicalization. This is a compelling argument in favor of making certain instance creation expressions constant: It is simply a bug for that same expression to have new because object identity is an observable characteristic, and it may be crucial for performance that the expression is constant.

In summary, both new and const may always be omitted from an instance creation expression, but it is useful and reasonable to allow an explicit new, and it is necessary to allow an explicit const. Based on that line of reasoning, we've decided to make them optional. It will then be possible for developers to make many expressions considerably more concise, and they can still enforce the desired semantics as needed.

Obviously, this underscores the importance of the default: When a given instance creation expression omits the keyword, should it be const or new?

As a general rule const is used whenever it is required, and otherwise new is used. This requirement arises from the syntactic context, based on the fact that a non-constant expression would be a compile-time error.

In summary, the implicit creation feature allows for concise construction of objects, and it still allows developers to explicitly specify new or const, whenever needed and whenever it is considered to be good documentation.


The syntax changes associated with this feature are the following:

postfixExpression ::=
    assignableExpression postfixOperator |
    constructorInvocation selector* |  // NEW
    primary selector*
constructorInvocation ::=  // NEW
    typeName typeArguments '.' identifier arguments
assignableExpression ::=
    SUPER unconditionalAssignableSelector |
    constructorInvocation assignableSelectorPart+ |  // NEW
    identifier |
    primary assignableSelectorPart+
assignableSelectorPart ::=
    argumentPart* assignableSelector

Static analysis

We specify a type directed source code transformation which eliminates the feature by expressing the same semantics with different syntax. The static analysis proceeds to work on the transformed program.

This means that the feature is “static semantic sugar”. We do not specify the dynamic semantics for this feature, because the feature is eliminated in this transformation step.

We need to treat expressions differently in different locations, hence the following definition: An expression e is said to occur in a constant context,

  • if e is an element of a constant list literal, or a key or value of an entry of a constant map literal.
  • if e is an actual argument of a constant object expression or of a metadata annotation.
  • if e is the initializing expression of a constant variable declaration.
  • if e is a switch case expression.
  • if e is an immediate subexpression of an expression e1 which occurs in a constant context, unless e1 is a throw expression or a function literal.

This roughly means that everything which is inside a syntactically constant expression or declaration is in a constant context. Note that a const modifier which is introduced by the source code transformation does not create a constant context, it is only the explicit occurrences of const in the program that create a constant context. Also note that a throw expression is currently not allowed in a constant expression, but extensions affecting that status may be considered. A similar situation arises for function literals.

A formal parameter may have a default value, which must be a constant expression. We have chosen to not put such default values into a constant context. They must be constant, and it may be necessary to add the keyword const in order to make them so. This may seem inconvenient at times, but the rationale is that it allows for future generalizations of default value expressions allowing them to be non-constant. Still, there is no guarantee that such features will be added to Dart.

For a class which contains a constant constructor and an instance variable which is initialized by an expression e, it is a compile-time error if e is not constant. We have chosen to not put such initializers into a constant context, and hence an explicit const may be required. This may again seem inconvenient at times, but the rationale is that the reason for the constancy requirement is non-local (the constant constructor declaration may be many lines away from the instance variable declaration); it may break programs in surprising and confusing ways if a constructor is changed to be constant; and it may cause subtle bugs at run time due to the change in identity, if such a change is made and it does not cause any compile-time errors.

We define new/const insertion as the following transformation, which will be applied to specific parts of the program as specified below:

  • if the expression e occurs in a constant context, replace e by const e,
  • otherwise replace e by new e.

Note that new/const insertion is just a syntactic transformation, it is specified below where to apply it, including which syntactic constructs may play the role of e.

Also note that the outcome of new/const insertion may have static semantic errors, e.g., actual arguments to a constructor invocation may have wrong types because that's how the program was written, or a const list may have elements which are not constant expressions. In such cases, tools like analyzers and compilers should emit diagnostic messages that are meaningful in relation to the original source of the program, which might mean that the blame is assigned to a larger syntactic construct than the one that directly has a compile-time error after the transformation.

We specify the transformation as based on a depth-first traversal of an abstract syntax tree (AST). This means that the program is assumed to be free of syntax errors, and when the current AST is, e.g., a postfixExpression, the program as a whole has such a structure that the current location was parsed as a postfixExpression. This is different from the situation where we just require that a given subsequence of the tokens of the program allows for such a parsing in isolation. For instance, an identifier like x parses as an assignableExpression in isolation, but if it occurs in the context var x = 42; or var y = x; then it will not be parsed as an assignableExpression, it will be parsed as a plain identifier which is part of a declaredIdentifier in the first case, and as a primary which is a postfixExpression, which is a unaryExpression, etc., in the second case. In short, we are transforming the AST of the program as a whole, not isolated snippets of code.

In scientific literature, this kind of transformation is commonly specified as an inductive transformation where [[e1 e2]] = [[e1]] [[e2]] when the language supports a construct of the form e1 e2, etc. The reader may prefer to view the transformation in that light, and we would then say that we have omitted all the congruence rules.

For the purposes of describing the transformation on assignable expressions we need the following syntactic entity:

assignableExpressionTail ::=
    arguments assignableSelector assignableSelectorPart*

The transformation proceeds as follows, with three groups of situations where a transformation is applied:

  1. With a postfixExpression e,

    • if e is of the form constructorInvocation selector*, i.e., typeName typeArguments '.' identifier arguments selector* then perform new/const insertion on the initial constructorInvocation.
    • if e is of the form typeIdentifier arguments where typeIdentifier denotes a class then perform new/const insertion on e.
    • if e is of the form identifier1 '.' identifier2 arguments where identifier1 denotes a class and identifier2 is the name of a named constructor in that class, or identifier1 denotes a prefix for a library L and identifier2 denotes a class exported by L, perform new/const insertion on e.
    • if e is of the form identifier1 '.' typeIdentifier '.' identifier2 arguments where identifier1 denotes a library prefix for a library L, typeIdentifier denotes a class C exported by L, and identifier2 is the name of a named constructor in C, perform new/const insertion on e.
  2. With an assignableExpression e,

    • if e is of the form constructorInvocation assignableSelectorPart+ then perform new/const insertion on the initial constructorInvocation.
    • if e is of the form typeIdentifier assignableExpressionTail where typeIdentifier denotes a class then perform new/const insertion on the initial typeIdentifier arguments.
    • if e is of the form typeIdentifier '.' identifier assignableExpressionTail where typeIdentifier denotes a class and identifier is the name of a named constructor in that class, or typeIdentifier denotes a prefix for a library L and identifier denotes a class exported by L then perform new/const insertion on the initial typeIdentifier '.' identifier arguments.
    • if e is of the form typeIdentifier1 '.' typeIdentifier2 '.' identifier assignableExpressionTail where typeIdentifier1 denotes a library prefix for a library L, typeIdentifier2 denotes a class C exported by L, and identifier is the name of a named constructor in C then perform new/const insertion on the initial typeIdentifier1 '.' typeIdentifier2 '.' identifier arguments.
  3. If e is a literal list or a literal map which occurs in a constant context and does not have the modifier const, it is replaced by const e.

In short, const is added implicitly in almost all situations where it is required by the context, and in other situations new is added on instance creations. It is easy to verify that each of the replacements can be derived from postfixExpression via primary selector* and similarly for assignableExpression. Hence, the transformation preserves syntactic correctness.

Dynamic Semantics

There is no dynamic semantics to specify for this feature, because it is eliminated by the code transformation.


  • 0.7 (2018-04-10) Clarified the structure of the algorithm. Added commentary about cases where there is no constant context even though a constant expression is required, with a motivation for why it is so.

  • 0.6 (2018-04-06) Removed “magic const” again, due to the risks associated with this feature (getting it specified and implemented robustly, in time).

  • 0.5 (2018-01-04) Rewritten to use const whenever possible (aka “magic const”) and adjusted to specify optional const as well as optional new together, because they are now very closely connected. This document was renamed to ‘’, and the document ‘’ was deleted.

  • 0.4 (2017-10-17) Reverted to use ‘immediate subexpression’ again, for correctness. Adjusted terminology for consistency. Clarified the semantics of the transformation.

  • 0.3 (2017-09-08) Included missing rule for transformation of composite literals (lists and maps). Eliminated the notion of an immediate subexpression, for improved precision.

  • 0.2 (2017-07-30) Updated the document to specify the previously missing transformations for assignableExpression, and to specify a no-magic approach (where no const is introduced except when forced by the syntactic context).

  • 0.1 (2017-08-15) Stand-alone informal specification for optional new created, using version 0.8 of the combined proposal as the starting point.