Helper types

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Helper types allow you to extend the scope which the compiler uses to search symbols for. This is useful if you can't extend a class because it's sealed or you can't control of which final type the class instance is (e.g. Lines/Items properties in various LCL components are presented as TStrings, but could be every TStrings descendant). This page describes helper types in Object Pascal. For the equivalent in Objective Pascal see here.

General

Class and Record helpers are available since FPC 2.6 release, Type helpers since FPC 3.0 release.

Declaration

Helper types allow you to extend a given class, record or (primitive) type with methods that add more functionality to that type. So you can add default properties, enumerators and wrappers for existing functionality.

Syntax

Currently helper types can be used to extend classes (class helper), records (record helper) and (primitive) types (type helper) as those are supported by Delphi as well. In theory they could be extended to support interfaces or objects.

The general syntax for helper types is the following:

HelperName = class|record|type helper[(BaseHelper)] for ExtendedType
  [properties, procedures, functions, constructors]
end [hint modifiers];

The sequence class helper declares a helper for a class, record helper declares a helper for a record while type helper declares a helper for a primitive type. The inheritance (BaseHelper) is optional.

HelperName, BaseHelper and ExtendedType have to be valid Pascal identifiers. In case of a class helper ExtendedType must be a class and BaseHelper must be another class helper that extends either the same class as ExtendedType or a parent class of it. For record helpers ExtendedType must be a record and BaseHelper must be a record helper that extend the same record type. The declarations inside a helper are very similiar to the declaration of a normal class, but you must not use fields, destructors and class constructors/destructors.

Note: In mode ObjFPC record helpers need the modeswitch advancedrecords to be declared; in mode Delphi no further modeswitch is necessary. For type helpers the modeswitch typehelpers is required.

Implementation

The rules when implementing a helper are a bit differently then when implementing a normal class or record. First of the type of Self is always of the type of the extended type (e.g. TObject in case of a helper declared as class helper for TObject). If a method is not defined in the helper type itself or it's prepended by "inherited", it is first searched in the extended type, then in all the parent helpers of the current helper and then (for class helpers) in the parent classes of the extended class. Please note that in the last case helpers for the parent classes are available as well.

Restrictions

A helper type may not

  • contain (class) destructors
  • contain class constructors
  • contain (class) fields
  • contain abstract methods
  • "override" virtual methods of the extended class (they can be hidden by the helper though)
  • for record helpers: contain constructors (this is not a restriction of helper types themselves, but of FPC, as constructors are not yet supported inside advanced records)

Methods of the extended type can be overloaded (thus they are not hidden by the helper) by using the overload keyword.

Example:

{$mode objfpc}
{$MODESWITCH ADVANCEDRECORDS}
 
TObjectHelper = class helper for TObject
  function ToString(const aFormat: String): String; overload;
end;
 
function TObjectHelper.ToString(const aFormat: String): String;
begin
  Result := Format(aFormat, [ToString]);
end;
 
var
  o: TObject;
begin
  Writeln(o.ToString('The object''s name is %s'));
end.

Inheritance

Inheritance for helper types fulfills two purposes:

  • use the methods of multiple helpers at once
  • (class helpers only) bring methods that were added to a parent class to the topmost visibility (because equally named methods of helpers are hidden by subclasses)

class helper

A class helper can inherit from another class helper if it extends a subclass of the class or the same class which is extend by the parent class helper.

Example:

TObjectHelper = class helper for TObject
  procedure SomeMethod;
end;
 
TFoo = class(TObject)
end;
 
TFooHelper = class helper(TObjectHelper) for TFoo
end;

record helper

A record helper can inherit from another record helper if it extends the same record which is extend by the parent record helper. Important: Inheritance for record helpers is not enabled in mode Delphi, because there this is not allowed.

Example:

TTest = record
end;
 
TTestHelper = record helper for TTest
  procedure SomeMethod;
end;
 
TTestHelperSub = record helper(TTestHelper) for TTest
end;

type helper

A type helper can inherit from another type helper if it extends the same type which is extended by the parent type helper.

{$MODESWITCH TYPEHELPERS}
 
TTypeHelper = type helper for Integer
  procedure SetZero;
end;
 
TTypeHelperSub = type helper(TTypeHelper) for integer
end;
 
implementation
 
procedure TTypeHelper.SetZero;
begin
  self:= 0;
end;

Since the introduction, type helpers can for example be found in section type helpers of unit sysutils.

Example

A simple example for extending existing functionality is the following: The LCL's TCheckListBox, which is a list with checkboxes, does not provide a property to get the count of all checked items. Using a class helper this can be added rather easily.

type
  TCheckListBoxHelper = class helper for TCheckListBox
  private
    function GetCheckedCount: Integer;
  public
    property CheckedCount: Integer read GetCheckedCount;
  end;
 
function TCheckListBoxHelper.GetCheckedCount: Integer;
var
  i: Integer;
begin
  Result := 0;
  for i := 0 to Items.Count - 1 do
    if Checked[i] then
      Inc(Result);
end;
 
// somewhere else (TCheckListBoxHelper needs to be in scope)
if MyCheckList.CheckedCount > 0 then ...

Please note that it's not trivial to implement a cached variation, as helper types can't introduce fields.

Usage

Scope

The methods declared inside the helper are always available once it is in scope and can be called as if they'd belong to the extended type.

Example:

type
  TObjectHelper = class helper for TObject
    function TheAnswer: Integer;
  end;
 
function TObjectHelper.TheAnswer: Integer;
begin
  Result := 42;
end;
 
begin
  o := TObject.Create;
  o.TheAnswer;
end.

Because of Delphi compatibility only one helper type can be active for a type at the same time. This helper is always the last one that is in scope (which follows the usual rules of Pascal).

Example:

type
  TTestRecord = record
  end;
  TTestClass = class
  end;
 
  TTestRecordHelper = record helper for TTestRecord
    procedure Test;
  end;
 
  TTestClassHelper1 = class helper for TTestClass
    procedure Test1;
  end;
 
  TTestClassHelper2 = class helper for TTestClass
    procedure Test2;
  end;
 
var
  tr: TTestRecord;
  tc: TTestClass;
begin
  tr.Test; // this compiles
  tc.Test1; // this won't compile
  tc.Test2; // this compiles
end.

Method hiding

The methods of helper types hide the methods declared in the extended type as long as they are not declared with "overload".

If a class helper is in scope for a parent class then only the methods of the parent class are hidden while the methods of the subclass will stay visible.

Example:

type
  TTest = class
    procedure Test;
  end;
  TTestSub = class(TTest)
    procedure Test;
  end;
 
  TTestHelper = class helper for TTest
    procedure Test;
  end;
 
var
  t: TTest;
  ts: TTestSub;
begin
  t.Test; // this calls "Test" of the helper
  ts.Test; // this calls "Test" of TTestSub
end.

Restrictions

You can not reference helper types anywhere in the code except for the following cases:

  • inheriting from one
  • using one in (Bit)SizeOf
  • using one in TypeInfo

Differences

Differences between mode Delphi and ObjFPC

In mode Delphi you can use virtual, dynamic, override and message identifiers. As the concepts behind those identifiers (virtual methods, message dispatching) isn't applicable for helpers, those keywords are ignored in mode Delphi and not allowed in mode ObjFPC.

In mode Delphi you can't inherit a record helper from another one and you can not use the "inherited" keyword (not even to call the method of the extended record).

Differences between Delphi and FPC

While the helper feature was implemented as Delphi compatible as possible there is one difference between the two:
In Delphi a helper is basically a class which inherits from a class TClassHelperBase (both class and record helpers) which in turn inherits from TInterfacedObject. In FPC helpers are a type for themselves and don't have a basetype.
As this difference is only visible in the RTTI (which is seldom used for helpers) this difference was considered neglectable.

Because helper are their own type in FPC they also have a custom type kind (tkHelper) and their own fields in TTypeData:

  • HelperParent: a PTypeInfo field that points to the type info of the parent helper (can be nil)
  • ExtendedInfo: a PTypeInfo field that points to the type info of the extended type
  • HelperProps: contains the count of the (published) properties the helper contains
  • HelperUnit: contains the name of the unit the helper is defined in

The usual RTTI methods can be used to query for properties of the helper.

Note: ExtendedInfo and HelperUnit don't have a Delphi equivalent.

Example:

type
  TObjectHelper = class helper for TObject
  end;
 
var
  ti: PTypeInfo;
  td: PTypeInfo;
begin
  ti := TypeInfo(TObjectHelper);
  td := GetTypeData(ti);
{$ifdef fpc}
// you must use this in FPC
if ti^.Kind = tkHelper then begin
  if Assigned(td^.HelperParent) then
    Writeln(td^.HelperParent^.Name)
  else
    Writeln('no helper parent');
  Writeln(td^.ExtendedInfo^.Name);
  Writeln(td^.HelperProps);
  Writeln(td^.HelperUnit);
end;
{$else}
// you must use this in Delphi
if ti^.Kind = tkHelper then begin
  if td^.ParentInfo <> TypeInfo(TClassHelperBase) then
    Writeln(td^.HelperParent^.Name)
  else
    Writeln('no helper parent');
  Writeln(td^.PropCount);
end;
{$endif}  
end.

Code examples

The following table lists some examples for class helpers found on the web and whether they work with the current implementation.

URL State
Class helper to add for ... in support for TComponent.Components / ComponentCount ok
Class helper for Delphi's TStrings: Implemented Add(Variant) ok