Reflection - The Go Programming Language (2016)

The Go Programming Language (2016)

12. Reflection

Go provides a mechanism to update variables and inspect their values at run time, to call their methods, and to apply the operations intrinsic to their representation, all without knowing their types at compile time. This mechanism is called reflection. Reflection also lets us treat types themselves as first-class values.

In this chapter, we’ll explore Go’s reflection features to see how they increase the expressiveness of the language, and in particular how they are crucial to the implementation of two important APIs: string formatting provided by fmt, and protocol encoding provided by packages likeencoding/json and encoding/xml. Reflection is also essential to the template mechanism provided by the text/template and html/template packages we saw in Section 4.6. However, reflection is complex to reason about and not for casual use, so although these packages are implemented using reflection, they do not expose reflection in their own APIs.

12.1 Why Reflection?

Sometimes we need to write a function capable of dealing uniformly with values of types that don’t satisfy a common interface, don’t have a known representation, or don’t exist at the time we design the function—or even all three.

A familiar example is the formatting logic within fmt.Fprintf, which can usefully print an arbitrary value of any type, even a user-defined one. Let’s try to implement a function like it using what we know already. For simplicity, our function will accept one argument and will return the result as a string like fmt.Sprint does, so we’ll call it Sprint.

We start with a type switch that tests whether the argument defines a String method, and call it if so. We then add switch cases that test the value’s dynamic type against each of the basic types—string, int, bool, and so on—and perform the appropriate formatting operation in each case.

func Sprint(x interface{}) string {

type stringer interface {

String() string


switch x := x.(type) {

case stringer:

return x.String()

case string:

return x

case int:

return strconv.Itoa(x)

// ...similar cases for int16, uint32, and so on...

case bool:

if x {

return "true"


return "false"


// array, chan, func, map, pointer, slice, struct

return "???"



But how do we deal with other types, like []float64, map[string][]string, and so on? We could add more cases, but the number of such types is infinite. And what about named types, like url.Values? Even if the type switch had a case for its underlying type map[string][]string, it wouldn’t match url.Values because the two types are not identical, and the type switch cannot include a case for each type like url.Values because that would require this library to depend upon its clients.

Without a way to inspect the representation of values of unknown types, we quickly get stuck. What we need is reflection.

12.2 reflect.Type and reflect.Value

Reflection is provided by the reflect package. It defines two important types, Type and Value. A Type represents a Go type. It is an interface with many methods for discriminating among types and inspecting their components, like the fields of a struct or the parameters of a function. The sole implementation of reflect.Type is the type descriptor (§7.5), the same entity that identifies the dynamic type of an interface value.

The reflect.TypeOf function accepts any interface{} and returns its dynamic type as a reflect.Type:

t := reflect.TypeOf(3) // a reflect.Type

fmt.Println(t.String()) // "int"

fmt.Println(t) // "int"

The TypeOf(3) call above assigns the value 3 to the interface{} parameter. Recall from Section 7.5 that an assignment from a concrete value to an interface type performs an implicit interface conversion, which creates an interface value consisting of two components: its dynamic typeis the operand’s type (int) and its dynamic value is the operand’s value (3).

Because reflect.TypeOf returns an interface value’s dynamic type, it always returns a concrete type. So, for example, the code below prints "*os.File", not "io.Writer". Later, we will see that reflect.Type is capable of representing interface types too.

var w io.Writer = os.Stdout

fmt.Println(reflect.TypeOf(w)) // "*os.File"

Notice that reflect.Type satisfies fmt.Stringer. Because printing the dynamic type of an interface value is useful for debugging and logging, fmt.Printf provides a shorthand, %T, that uses reflect.TypeOf internally:

fmt.Printf("%T\n", 3) // "int"

The other important type in the reflect package is Value. A reflect.Value can hold a value of any type. The reflect.ValueOf function accepts any interface{} and returns a reflect.Value containing the interface’s dynamic value. As with reflect.TypeOf, the results of reflect.ValueOf are always concrete, but a reflect.Value can hold interface values too.

v := reflect.ValueOf(3) // a reflect.Value

fmt.Println(v) // "3"

fmt.Printf("%v\n", v) // "3"

fmt.Println(v.String()) // NOTE: "<int Value>"

Like reflect.Type, reflect.Value also satisfies fmt.Stringer, but unless the Value holds a string, the result of the String method reveals only the type. Instead, use the fmt package’s %v verb, which treats reflect.Values specially.

Calling the Type method on a Value returns its type as a reflect.Type:

t := v.Type() // a reflect.Type

fmt.Println(t.String()) // "int"

The inverse operation to reflect.ValueOf is the reflect.Value.Interface method. It returns an interface{} holding the same concrete value as the reflect.Value:

v := reflect.ValueOf(3) // a reflect.Value

x := v.Interface() // an interface{}

i := x.(int) // an int

fmt.Printf("%d\n", i) // "3"

A reflect.Value and an interface{} can both hold arbitrary values. The difference is that an empty interface hides the representation and intrinsic operations of the value it holds and exposes none of its methods, so unless we know its dynamic type and use a type assertion to peer inside it (as we did above), there is little we can do to the value within. In contrast, a Value has many methods for inspecting its contents, regardless of its type. Let’s use them for our second attempt at a general formatting function, which we’ll call format.Any.

Instead of a type switch, we use reflect.Value’s Kind method to discriminate the cases. Although there are infinitely many types, there are only a finite number of kinds of type: the basic types Bool, String, and all the numbers; the aggregate types Array and Struct; the reference types Chan, Func, Ptr, Slice, and Map; Interface types; and finally Invalid, meaning no value at all. (The zero value of a reflect.Value has kind Invalid.)

package format

import (




// Any formats any value as a string.

func Any(value interface{}) string {

return formatAtom(reflect.ValueOf(value))


// formatAtom formats a value without inspecting its internal structure.

func formatAtom(v reflect.Value) string {

switch v.Kind() {

case reflect.Invalid:

return "invalid"

case reflect.Int, reflect.Int8, reflect.Int16,

reflect.Int32, reflect.Int64:

return strconv.FormatInt(v.Int(), 10)

case reflect.Uint, reflect.Uint8, reflect.Uint16,

reflect.Uint32, reflect.Uint64, reflect.Uintptr:

return strconv.FormatUint(v.Uint(), 10)

// ...floating-point and complex cases omitted for brevity...

case reflect.Bool:

return strconv.FormatBool(v.Bool())

case reflect.String:

return strconv.Quote(v.String())

case reflect.Chan, reflect.Func, reflect.Ptr, reflect.Slice, reflect.Map:

return v.Type().String() + " 0x" +

strconv.FormatUint(uint64(v.Pointer()), 16)

default: // reflect.Array, reflect.Struct, reflect.Interface

return v.Type().String() + " value"



So far, our function treats each value as an indivisible thing with no internal structure—hence formatAtom. For aggregate types (structs and arrays) and interfaces it prints only the type of the value, and for reference types (channels, functions, pointers, slices, and maps), it prints the type and the reference address in hexadecimal. This is less than ideal but still a major improvement, and since Kind is concerned only with the underlying representation, format.Any works for named types too. For example:

var x int64 = 1

var d time.Duration = 1 * time.Nanosecond

fmt.Println(format.Any(x)) // "1"

fmt.Println(format.Any(d)) // "1"

fmt.Println(format.Any([]int64{x})) // "[]int64 0x8202b87b0"

fmt.Println(format.Any([]time.Duration{d})) // "[]time.Duration 0x8202b87e0"

12.3 Display, a Recursive Value Printer

Next we’ll take a look at how to improve the display of composite types. Rather than try to copy fmt.Sprint exactly, we’ll build a debugging utility function called Display that, given an arbitrarily complex value x, prints the complete structure of that value, labeling each element with the path by which it was found. Let’s start with an example.

e, _ := eval.Parse("sqrt(A / pi)")

Display("e", e)

In the call above, the argument to Display is a syntax tree from the expression evaluator in Section 7.9. The output of Display is shown below:

Display e (

e.fn = "sqrt"

e.args[0].type = eval.binary

e.args[0].value.op = 47

e.args[0].value.x.type = eval.Var

e.args[0].value.x.value = "A"

e.args[0].value.y.type = eval.Var

e.args[0].value.y.value = "pi"

Where possible, you should avoid exposing reflection in the API of a package. We’ll define an unexported function display to do the real work of the recursion, and export Display, a simple wrapper around it that accepts an interface{} parameter:

func Display(name string, x interface{}) {

fmt.Printf("Display %s (%T):\n", name, x)

display(name, reflect.ValueOf(x))


In display, we’ll use the formatAtom function we defined earlier to print elementary values—basic types, functions, and channels—but we’ll use the methods of reflect.Value to recursively display each component of a more complex type. As the recursion descends, the pathstring, which initially describes the starting value (for instance, "e"), will be augmented to indicate how we reached the current value (for instance, "e.args[0].value").

Since we’re no longer pretending to implement fmt.Sprint, we will use the fmt package to keep our example short.

func display(path string, v reflect.Value) {

switch v.Kind() {

case reflect.Invalid:

fmt.Printf("%s = invalid\n", path)

case reflect.Slice, reflect.Array:

for i := 0; i < v.Len(); i++ {

display(fmt.Sprintf("%s[%d]", path, i), v.Index(i))


case reflect.Struct:

for i := 0; i < v.NumField(); i++ {

fieldPath := fmt.Sprintf("%s.%s", path, v.Type().Field(i).Name)

display(fieldPath, v.Field(i))


case reflect.Map:

for _, key := range v.MapKeys() {

display(fmt.Sprintf("%s[%s]", path,

formatAtom(key)), v.MapIndex(key))


case reflect.Ptr:

if v.IsNil() {

fmt.Printf("%s = nil\n", path)

} else {

display(fmt.Sprintf("(*%s)", path), v.Elem())


case reflect.Interface:

if v.IsNil() {

fmt.Printf("%s = nil\n", path)

} else {

fmt.Printf("%s.type = %s\n", path, v.Elem().Type())

display(path+".value", v.Elem())


default: // basic types, channels, funcs

fmt.Printf("%s = %s\n", path, formatAtom(v))



Let’s discuss the cases in order.

Slices and arrays: The logic is the same for both. The Len method returns the number of elements of a slice or array value, and Index(i) retrieves the element at index i, also as a reflect.Value; it panics if i is out of bounds. These are analogous to the built-in len(a) and a[i]operations on sequences. The display function recursively invokes itself on each element of the sequence, appending the subscript notation "[i]" to the path.

Although reflect.Value has many methods, only a few are safe to call on any given value. For example, the Index method may be called on values of kind Slice, Array, or String, but panics for any other kind.

Structs: The NumField method reports the number of fields in the struct, and Field(i) returns the value of the i-th field as a reflect.Value. The list of fields includes ones promoted from anonymous fields. To append the field selector notation ".f" to the path, we must obtain thereflect.Type of the struct and access the name of its i-th field.

Maps: The MapKeys method returns a slice of reflect.Values, one per map key. As usual when iterating over a map, the order is undefined. MapIndex(key) returns the value corresponding to key. We append the subscript notation "[key]" to the path. (We’re cutting a corner here. The type of a map key isn’t restricted to the types formatAtom handles best; arrays, structs, and interfaces can also be valid map keys. Extending this case to print the key in full is Exercise 12.1.)

Pointers: The Elem method returns the variable pointed to by a pointer, again as a reflect.Value. This operation would be safe even if the pointer value is nil, in which case the result would have kind Invalid, but we use IsNil to detect nil pointers explicitly so we can print a more appropriate message. We prefix the path with a "*" and parenthesize it to avoid ambiguity.

Interfaces: Again, we use IsNil to test whether the interface is nil, and if not, we retrieve its dynamic value using v.Elem() and print its type and value.

Now that our Display function is complete, let’s put it to work. The Movie type below is a slight variation on the one in Section 4.5:

type Movie struct {

Title, Subtitle string

Year int

Color bool

Actor map[string]string

Oscars []string

Sequel *string


Let’s declare a value of this type and see what Display does with it:

strangelove := Movie{

Title: "Dr. Strangelove",

Subtitle: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb",

Year: 1964,

Color: false,

Actor: map[string]string{

"Dr. Strangelove": "Peter Sellers",

"Grp. Capt. Lionel Mandrake": "Peter Sellers",

"Pres. Merkin Muffley": "Peter Sellers",

"Gen. Buck Turgidson": "George C. Scott",

"Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper": "Sterling Hayden",

`Maj. T.J. "King" Kong`: "Slim Pickens",


Oscars: []string{

"Best Actor (Nomin.)",

"Best Adapted Screenplay (Nomin.)",

"Best Director (Nomin.)",

"Best Picture (Nomin.)",



The call Display("strangelove", strangelove) prints:

Display strangelove (display.Movie):

strangelove.Title = "Dr. Strangelove"

strangelove.Subtitle = "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"

strangelove.Year = 1964

strangelove.Color = false

strangelove.Actor["Gen. Buck Turgidson"] = "George C. Scott"

strangelove.Actor["Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper"] = "Sterling Hayden"

strangelove.Actor["Maj. T.J. \"King\" Kong"] = "Slim Pickens"

strangelove.Actor["Dr. Strangelove"] = "Peter Sellers"

strangelove.Actor["Grp. Capt. Lionel Mandrake"] = "Peter Sellers"

strangelove.Actor["Pres. Merkin Muffley"] = "Peter Sellers"

strangelove.Oscars[0] = "Best Actor (Nomin.)"

strangelove.Oscars[1] = "Best Adapted Screenplay (Nomin.)"

strangelove.Oscars[2] = "Best Director (Nomin.)"

strangelove.Oscars[3] = "Best Picture (Nomin.)"

strangelove.Sequel = nil

We can use Display to display the internals of library types, such as *os.File:

Display("os.Stderr", os.Stderr)

// Output:

// Display os.Stderr (*os.File):

// (*(*os.Stderr).file).fd = 2

// (*(*os.Stderr).file).name = "/dev/stderr"

// (*(*os.Stderr).file).nepipe = 0

Notice that even unexported fields are visible to reflection. Beware that the particular output of this example may vary across platforms and may change over time as libraries evolve. (Those fields are private for a reason!) We can even apply Display to a reflect.Value and watch it traverse the internal representation of the type descriptor for *os.File. The output of the call Display("rV", reflect.ValueOf(os.Stderr)) is shown below, though of course your mileage may vary:

Display rV (reflect.Value):

(*rV.typ).size = 8

(*rV.typ).hash = 871609668

(*rV.typ).align = 8

(*rV.typ).fieldAlign = 8

(*rV.typ).kind = 22

(*(*rV.typ).string) = "*os.File"

(*(*(*rV.typ).uncommonType).methods[0].name) = "Chdir"

(*(*(*(*rV.typ).uncommonType).methods[0].mtyp).string) = "func() error"

(*(*(*(*rV.typ).uncommonType).methods[0].typ).string) = "func(*os.File) error"


Observe the difference between these two examples:

var i interface{} = 3

Display("i", i)

// Output:

// Display i (int):

// i = 3

Display("&i", &i)

// Output:

// Display &i (*interface {}):

// (*&i).type = int

// (*&i).value = 3

In the first example, Display calls reflect.ValueOf(i), which returns a value of kind Int. As we mentioned in Section 12.2, reflect.ValueOf always returns a Value of a concrete type since it extracts the contents of an interface value.

In the second example, Display calls reflect.ValueOf(&i), which returns a pointer to i, of kind Ptr. The switch case for Ptr calls Elem on this value, which returns a Value representing the variable i itself, of kind Interface. A Value obtained indirectly, like this one, may represent any value at all, including interfaces. The display function calls itself recursively and this time, it prints separate components for the interface’s dynamic type and value.

As currently implemented, Display will never terminate if it encounters a cycle in the object graph, such as this linked list that eats its own tail:

// a struct that points to itself

type Cycle struct{ Value int; Tail *Cycle }

var c Cycle

c = Cycle{42, &c}

Display("c", c)

Display prints this ever-growing expansion:

Display c (display.Cycle):

c.Value = 42

(*c.Tail).Value = 42

(*(*c.Tail).Tail).Value = 42

(*(*(*c.Tail).Tail).Tail).Value = 42 infinitum...

Many Go programs contain at least some cyclic data. Making Display robust against such cycles is tricky, requiring additional bookkeeping to record the set of references that have been followed so far; it is costly too. A general solution requires unsafe language features, as we will see in Section 13.3.

Cycles pose less of a problem for fmt.Sprint because it rarely tries to print the complete structure. For example, when it encounters a pointer, it breaks the recursion by printing the pointer’s numeric value. It can get stuck trying to print a slice or map that contains itself as an element, but such rare cases do not warrant the considerable extra trouble of handling cycles.

Exercise 12.1: Extend Display so that it can display maps whose keys are structs or arrays.

Exercise 12.2: Make display safe to use on cyclic data structures by bounding the number of steps it takes before abandoning the recursion. (In Section 13.3, we’ll see another way to detect cycles.)

12.4 Example: Encoding S-Expressions

Display is a debugging routine for displaying structured data, but it’s not far short of being able to encode or marshal arbitrary Go objects as messages in a portable notation suitable for inter-process communication.

As we saw in Section 4.5, Go’s standard library supports a variety of formats, including JSON, XML, and ASN.1. Another notation that is still widely used is S-expressions, the syntax of Lisp. Unlike the other notations, S-expressions are not supported by the Go standard library, not least because they have no universally accepted definition, despite several attempts at standardization and the existence of many implementations.

In this section, we’ll define a package that encodes arbitrary Go objects using an S-expression notation that supports the following constructs:

42 integer

"hello" string (with Go-style quotation)

foo symbol (an unquoted name)

(1 2 3) list (zero or more items enclosed in parentheses)

Booleans are traditionally encoded using the symbol t for true, and the empty list () or the symbol nil for false, but for simplicity, our implementation ignores them. It also ignores channels and functions, since their state is opaque to reflection. And it ignores real and complex floating-point numbers and interfaces. Adding support for them is Exercise 12.3.

We’ll encode the types of Go using S-expressions as follows. Integers and strings are encoded in the obvious way. Nil values are encoded as the symbol nil. Arrays and slices are encoded using list notation.

Structs are encoded as a list of field bindings, each field binding being a two-element list whose first element (a symbol) is the field name and whose second element is the field value. Maps too are encoded as a list of pairs, with each pair being the key and value of one map entry. Traditionally, S-expressions represent lists of key/value pairs using a single cons cell (key . value) for each pair, rather than a two-element list, but to simplify the decoding we’ll ignore dotted list notation.

Encoding is done by a single recursive function, encode, shown below. Its structure is essentially the same as that of Display in the previous section:

func encode(buf *bytes.Buffer, v reflect.Value) error {

switch v.Kind() {

case reflect.Invalid:


case reflect.Int, reflect.Int8, reflect.Int16,

reflect.Int32, reflect.Int64:

fmt.Fprintf(buf, "%d", v.Int())

case reflect.Uint, reflect.Uint8, reflect.Uint16,

reflect.Uint32, reflect.Uint64, reflect.Uintptr:

fmt.Fprintf(buf, "%d", v.Uint())

case reflect.String:

fmt.Fprintf(buf, "%q", v.String())

case reflect.Ptr:

return encode(buf, v.Elem())

case reflect.Array, reflect.Slice: // (value ...)


for i := 0; i < v.Len(); i++ {

if i > 0 {

buf.WriteByte(' ')


if err := encode(buf, v.Index(i)); err != nil {

return err




case reflect.Struct: // ((name value) ...)


for i := 0; i < v.NumField(); i++ {

if i > 0 {

buf.WriteByte(' ')


fmt.Fprintf(buf, "(%s ", v.Type().Field(i).Name)

if err := encode(buf, v.Field(i)); err != nil {

return err





case reflect.Map: // ((key value) ...)


for i, key := range v.MapKeys() {

if i > 0 {

buf.WriteByte(' ')



if err := encode(buf, key); err != nil {

return err


buf.WriteByte(' ')

if err := encode(buf, v.MapIndex(key)); err != nil {

return err





default: // float, complex, bool, chan, func, interface

return fmt.Errorf("unsupported type: %s", v.Type())


return nil


The Marshal function wraps the encoder in an API similar to those of the other encoding/... packages:

// Marshal encodes a Go value in S-expression form.

func Marshal(v interface{}) ([]byte, error) {

var buf bytes.Buffer

if err := encode(&buf, reflect.ValueOf(v)); err != nil {

return nil, err


return buf.Bytes(), nil


Here’s the output of Marshal applied to the strangelove variable from Section 12.3:

((Title "Dr. Strangelove") (Subtitle "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo

ve the Bomb") (Year 1964) (Actor (("Grp. Capt. Lionel Mandrake" "Peter Sell

ers") ("Pres. Merkin Muffley" "Peter Sellers") ("Gen. Buck Turgidson" "Geor

ge C. Scott") ("Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper" "Sterling Hayden") ("Maj. T.J. \

"King\" Kong" "Slim Pickens") ("Dr. Strangelove" "Peter Sellers"))) (Oscars

("Best Actor (Nomin.)" "Best Adapted Screenplay (Nomin.)" "Best Director (N

omin.)" "Best Picture (Nomin.)")) (Sequel nil))

The whole output appears on one long line with minimal spaces, making it hard to read. Here’s the same output manually formatted according to S-expression conventions. Writing a pretty-printer for S-expressions is left as a (challenging) exercise; the download from includes a simple version.

((Title "Dr. Strangelove")

(Subtitle "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb")

(Year 1964)

(Actor (("Grp. Capt. Lionel Mandrake" "Peter Sellers")

("Pres. Merkin Muffley" "Peter Sellers")

("Gen. Buck Turgidson" "George C. Scott")

("Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper" "Sterling Hayden")

("Maj. T.J. \"King\" Kong" "Slim Pickens")

("Dr. Strangelove" "Peter Sellers")))

(Oscars ("Best Actor (Nomin.)"

"Best Adapted Screenplay (Nomin.)"

"Best Director (Nomin.)"

"Best Picture (Nomin.)"))

(Sequel nil))

Like the fmt.Print, json.Marshal, and Display functions, sexpr.Marshal will loop forever if called with cyclic data.

In Section 12.6, we’ll sketch out the implementation of the corresponding S-expression decoding function, but before we get there, we’ll first need to understand how reflection can be used to update program variables.

Exercise 12.3: Implement the missing cases of the encode function. Encode booleans as t and nil, floating-point numbers using Go’s notation, and complex numbers like 1+2i as #C(1.0 2.0). Interfaces can be encoded as a pair of a type name and a value, for instance ("[]int" (1 2 3)), but beware that this notation is ambiguous: the reflect.Type.String method may return the same string for different types.

Exercise 12.4: Modify encode to pretty-print the S-expression in the style shown above.

Exercise 12.5: Adapt encode to emit JSON instead of S-expressions. Test your encoder using the standard decoder, json.Unmarshal.

Exercise 12.6: Adapt encode so that, as an optimization, it does not encode a field whose value is the zero value of its type.

Exercise 12.7: Create a streaming API for the S-expression decoder, following the style of json.Decoder (§4.5).

12.5 Setting Variables with reflect.Value

So far, reflection has only interpreted values in our program in various ways. The point of this section, however, is to change them.

Recall that some Go expressions like x, x.f[1], and *p denote variables, but others like x + 1 and f(2) do not. A variable is an addressable storage location that contains a value, and its value may be updated through that address.

A similar distinction applies to reflect.Values. Some are addressable; others are not. Consider the following declarations:

x := 2 // value type variable?

a := reflect.ValueOf(2) // 2 int no

b := reflect.ValueOf(x) // 2 int no

c := reflect.ValueOf(&x) // &x *int no

d := c.Elem() // 2 int yes (x)

The value within a is not addressable. It is merely a copy of the integer 2. The same is true of b. The value within c is also non-addressable, being a copy of the pointer value &x. In fact, no reflect.Value returned by reflect.ValueOf(x) is addressable. But d, derived from c by dereferencing the pointer within it, refers to a variable and is thus addressable. We can use this approach, calling reflect.ValueOf(&x).Elem(), to obtain an addressable Value for any variable x.

We can ask a reflect.Value whether it is addressable through its CanAddr method:

fmt.Println(a.CanAddr()) // "false"

fmt.Println(b.CanAddr()) // "false"

fmt.Println(c.CanAddr()) // "false"

fmt.Println(d.CanAddr()) // "true"

We obtain an addressable reflect.Value whenever we indirect through a pointer, even if we started from a non-addressable Value. All the usual rules for addressability have analogs for reflection. For example, since the slice indexing expression e[i] implicitly follows a pointer, it is addressable even if the expression e is not. By analogy, reflect.ValueOf(e).Index(i) refers to a variable, and is thus addressable even if reflect.ValueOf(e) is not.

To recover the variable from an addressable reflect.Value requires three steps. First, we call Addr(), which returns a Value holding a pointer to the variable. Next, we call Interface() on this Value, which returns an interface{} value containing the pointer. Finally, if we know the type of the variable, we can use a type assertion to retrieve the contents of the interface as an ordinary pointer. We can then update the variable through the pointer:

x := 2

d := reflect.ValueOf(&x).Elem() // d refers to the variable x

px := d.Addr().Interface().(*int) // px := &x

*px = 3 // x = 3

fmt.Println(x) // "3"

Or, we can update the variable referred to by an addressable reflect.Value directly, without using a pointer, by calling the reflect.Value.Set method:


fmt.Println(x) // "4"

The same checks for assignability that are ordinarily performed by the compiler are done at run time by the Set methods. Above, the variable and the value both have type int, but if the variable had been an int64, the program would panic, so it’s crucial to make sure the value is assignable to the type of the variable:

d.Set(reflect.ValueOf(int64(5))) // panic: int64 is not assignable to int

And of course calling Set on a non-addressable reflect.Value panics too:

x := 2

b := reflect.ValueOf(x)

b.Set(reflect.ValueOf(3)) // panic: Set using unaddressable value

There are variants of Set specialized for certain groups of basic types: SetInt, SetUint, SetString, SetFloat, and so on:

d := reflect.ValueOf(&x).Elem()


fmt.Println(x) // "3"

In some ways these methods are more forgiving. SetInt, for example, will succeed so long as the variable’s type is some kind of signed integer, or even a named type whose underlying type is a signed integer, and if the value is too large it will be quietly truncated to fit. But tread carefully: calling SetInt on a reflect.Value that refers to an interface{} variable will panic, even though Set would succeed.

x := 1

rx := reflect.ValueOf(&x).Elem()

rx.SetInt(2) // OK, x = 2

rx.Set(reflect.ValueOf(3)) // OK, x = 3

rx.SetString("hello") // panic: string is not assignable to int

rx.Set(reflect.ValueOf("hello")) // panic: string is not assignable to int

var y interface{}

ry := reflect.ValueOf(&y).Elem()

ry.SetInt(2) // panic: SetInt called on interface Value

ry.Set(reflect.ValueOf(3)) // OK, y = int(3)

ry.SetString("hello") // panic: SetString called on interface Value

ry.Set(reflect.ValueOf("hello")) // OK, y = "hello"

When we applied Display to os.Stdout, we found that reflection can read the values of unexported struct fields that are inaccessible according to the usual rules of the language, like the fd int field of an os.File struct on a Unix-like platform. However, reflection cannot update such values:

stdout := reflect.ValueOf(os.Stdout).Elem() // *os.Stdout, an os.File var

fmt.Println(stdout.Type()) // "os.File"

fd := stdout.FieldByName("fd")

fmt.Println(fd.Int()) // "1"

fd.SetInt(2) // panic: unexported field

An addressable reflect.Value records whether it was obtained by traversing an unexported struct field and, if so, disallows modification. Consequently, CanAddr is not usually the right check to use before setting a variable. The related method CanSet reports whether areflect.Value is addressable and settable:

fmt.Println(fd.CanAddr(), fd.CanSet()) // "true false"

12.6 Example: Decoding S-Expressions

For each Marshal function provided by the standard library’s encoding/... packages, there is a corresponding Unmarshal function that does decoding. For example, as we saw in Section 4.5, given a byte slice containing JSON-encoded data for our Movie type (§12.3), we can decode it like this:

data := []byte{/* ... */}

var movie Movie

err := json.Unmarshal(data, &movie)

The Unmarshal function uses reflection to modify the fields of the existing movie variable, creating new maps, structs, and slices as determined by the type Movie and the content of the incoming data.

Let’s now implement a simple Unmarshal function for S-expressions, analogous to the standard json.Unmarshal function used above, and the inverse of our earlier sexpr.Marshal. We must caution you that a robust and general implementation requires substantially more code than will comfortably fit in this example, which is already long, so we have taken many shortcuts. We support only a limited subset of S-expressions and do not handle errors gracefully. The code is intended to illustrate reflection, not parsing.

The lexer uses the Scanner type from the text/scanner package to break an input stream into a sequence of tokens such as comments, identifiers, string literals, and numeric literals. The scanner’s Scan method advances the scanner and returns the kind of the next token, which has type rune. Most tokens, like '(', consist of a single rune, but the text/scanner package represents the kinds of the multi-character tokens Ident, String, and Int using small negative values of type rune. Following a call to Scan that returns one of these kinds of token, the scanner’s TokenText method returns the text of the token.

Since a typical parser may need to inspect the current token several times, but the Scan method advances the scanner, we wrap the scanner in a helper type called lexer that keeps track of the token most recently returned by Scan.

type lexer struct {

scan scanner.Scanner

token rune // the current token


func (lex *lexer) next() { lex.token = lex.scan.Scan() }

func (lex *lexer) text() string { return lex.scan.TokenText() }

func (lex *lexer) consume(want rune) {

if lex.token != want { // NOTE: Not an example of good error handling.

panic(fmt.Sprintf("got %q, want %q", lex.text(), want))



Now let’s turn to the parser. It consists of two principal functions. The first of these, read, reads the S-expression that starts with the current token and updates the variable referred to by the addressable reflect.Value v.

func read(lex *lexer, v reflect.Value) {

switch lex.token {

case scanner.Ident:

// The only valid identifiers are

// "nil" and struct field names.

if lex.text() == "nil" {




case scanner.String:

s, _ := strconv.Unquote(lex.text()) // NOTE: ignoring errors



case scanner.Int:

i, _ := strconv.Atoi(lex.text()) // NOTE: ignoring errors



case '(':

readList(lex, v) // consume ')'



panic(fmt.Sprintf("unexpected token %q", lex.text()))


Our S-expressions use identifiers for two distinct purposes, struct field names and the nil value for a pointer. The read function only handles the latter case. When it encounters the scanner.Ident "nil", it sets v to the zero value of its type using the reflect.Zero function. For any other identifier, it reports an error. The readList function, which we’ll see in a moment, handles identifiers used as struct field names.

A '(' token indicates the start of a list. The second function, readList, decodes a list into a variable of composite type—a map, struct, slice, or array—depending on what kind of Go variable we’re currently populating. In each case, the loop keeps parsing items until it encounters the matching close parenthesis, ')', as detected by the endList function.

The interesting part is the recursion. The simplest case is an array. Until the closing ')' is seen, we use Index to obtain the variable for each array element and make a recursive call to read to populate it. As in many other error cases, if the input data causes the decoder to index beyond the end of the array, the decoder panics. A similar approach is used for slices, except we must create a new variable for each element, populate it, then append it to the slice.

The loops for structs and maps must parse a (key value) sublist on each iteration. For structs, the key is a symbol identifying the field. Analogous to the case for arrays, we obtain the existing variable for the struct field using FieldByName and make a recursive call to populate it. For maps, the key may be of any type, and analogous to the case for slices, we create a new variable, recursively populate it, and finally insert the new key/value pair into the map.

func readList(lex *lexer, v reflect.Value) {

switch v.Kind() {

case reflect.Array: // (item ...)

for i := 0; !endList(lex); i++ {

read(lex, v.Index(i))


case reflect.Slice: // (item ...)

for !endList(lex) {

item := reflect.New(v.Type().Elem()).Elem()

read(lex, item)

v.Set(reflect.Append(v, item))


case reflect.Struct: // ((name value) ...)

for !endList(lex) {


if lex.token != scanner.Ident {

panic(fmt.Sprintf("got token %q, want field name", lex.text()))


name := lex.text()

read(lex, v.FieldByName(name))



case reflect.Map: // ((key value) ...)


for !endList(lex) {


key := reflect.New(v.Type().Key()).Elem()

read(lex, key)

value := reflect.New(v.Type().Elem()).Elem()

read(lex, value)

v.SetMapIndex(key, value)




panic(fmt.Sprintf("cannot decode list into %v", v.Type()))



func endList(lex *lexer) bool {

switch lex.token {

case scanner.EOF:

panic("end of file")

case ')':

return true


return false


Finally, we wrap up the parser in an exported function Unmarshal, shown below, that hides some of the rough edges of the implementation. Errors encountered during parsing result in a panic, so Unmarshal uses a deferred call to recover from the panic (§5.10) and return an error message instead.

// Unmarshal parses S-expression data and populates the variable

// whose address is in the non-nil pointer out.

func Unmarshal(data []byte, out interface{}) (err error) {

lex := &lexer{scan: scanner.Scanner{Mode: scanner.GoTokens}}

lex.scan.Init(bytes.NewReader(data)) // get the first token

defer func() {

// NOTE: this is not an example of ideal error handling.

if x := recover(); x != nil {

err = fmt.Errorf("error at %s: %v", lex.scan.Position, x)



read(lex, reflect.ValueOf(out).Elem())

return nil


A production-quality implementation should never panic for any input and should report an informative error for every mishap, perhaps with a line number or offset. Nonetheless, we hope this example conveys some idea of what’s happening under the hood of the packages likeencoding/json, and how you can use reflection to populate data structures.

Exercise 12.8: The sexpr.Unmarshal function, like json.Marshal, requires the complete input in a byte slice before it can begin decoding. Define a sexpr.Decoder type that, like json.Decoder, allows a sequence of values to be decoded from an io.Reader. Changesexpr.Unmarshal to use this new type.

Exercise 12.9: Write a token-based API for decoding S-expressions, following the style of xml.Decoder (§7.14). You will need five types of tokens: Symbol, String, Int, StartList, and EndList.

Exercise 12.10: Extend sexpr.Unmarshal to handle the booleans, floating-point numbers, and interfaces encoded by your solution to Exercise 12.3. (Hint: to decode interfaces, you will need a mapping from the name of each supported type to its reflect.Type.)

12.7 Accessing Struct Field Tags

In Section 4.5 we used struct field tags to modify the JSON encoding of Go struct values. The json field tag lets us choose alternative field names and suppress the output of empty fields. In this section, we’ll see how to access field tags using reflection.

In a web server, the first thing most HTTP handler functions do is extract the request parameters into local variables. We’ll define a utility function, params.Unpack, that uses struct field tags to make writing HTTP handlers (§7.7) more convenient.

First, we’ll show how it’s used. The search function below is an HTTP handler. It defines a variable called data of an anonymous struct type whose fields correspond to the HTTP request parameters. The struct’s field tags specify the parameter names, which are often short and cryptic since space is precious in a URL. The Unpack function populates the struct from the request so that the parameters can be accessed conveniently and with an appropriate type.

import ""

// search implements the /search URL endpoint.

func search(resp http.ResponseWriter, req *http.Request) {

var data struct {

Labels []string `http:"l"`

MaxResults int `http:"max"`

Exact bool `http:"x"`


data.MaxResults = 10 // set default

if err := params.Unpack(req, &data); err != nil {

http.Error(resp, err.Error(), http.StatusBadRequest) // 400



// of handler...

fmt.Fprintf(resp, "Search: %+v\n", data)


The Unpack function below does three things. First, it calls req.ParseForm() to parse the request. Thereafter, req.Form contains all the parameters, regardless of whether the HTTP client used the GET or the POST request method.

Next, Unpack builds a mapping from the effective name of each field to the variable for that field. The effective name may differ from the actual name if the field has a tag. The Field method of reflect.Type returns a reflect.StructField that provides information about the type of each field such as its name, type, and optional tag. The Tag field is a reflect.StructTag, which is a string type that provides a Get method to parse and extract the substring for a particular key, such as http:"..." in this case.

// Unpack populates the fields of the struct pointed to by ptr

// from the HTTP request parameters in req.

func Unpack(req *http.Request, ptr interface{}) error {

if err := req.ParseForm(); err != nil {

return err


// Build map of fields keyed by effective name.

fields := make(map[string]reflect.Value)

v := reflect.ValueOf(ptr).Elem() // the struct variable

for i := 0; i < v.NumField(); i++ {

fieldInfo := v.Type().Field(i) // a reflect.StructField

tag := fieldInfo.Tag // a reflect.StructTag

name := tag.Get("http")

if name == "" {

name = strings.ToLower(fieldInfo.Name)


fields[name] = v.Field(i)


// Update struct field for each parameter in the request.

for name, values := range req.Form {

f := fields[name]

if !f.IsValid() {

continue // ignore unrecognized HTTP parameters


for _, value := range values {

if f.Kind() == reflect.Slice {

elem := reflect.New(f.Type().Elem()).Elem()

if err := populate(elem, value); err != nil {

return fmt.Errorf("%s: %v", name, err)


f.Set(reflect.Append(f, elem))

} else {

if err := populate(f, value); err != nil {

return fmt.Errorf("%s: %v", name, err)





return nil


Finally, Unpack iterates over the name/value pairs of the HTTP parameters and updates the corresponding struct fields. Recall that the same parameter name may appear more than once. If this happens, and the field is a slice, then all the values of that parameter are accumulated into the slice. Otherwise, the field is repeatedly overwritten so that only the last value has any effect.

The populate function takes care of setting a single field v (or a single element of a slice field) from a parameter value. For now, it supports only strings, signed integers, and booleans. Supporting other types is left as an exercise.

func populate(v reflect.Value, value string) error {

switch v.Kind() {

case reflect.String:


case reflect.Int:

i, err := strconv.ParseInt(value, 10, 64)

if err != nil {

return err



case reflect.Bool:

b, err := strconv.ParseBool(value)

if err != nil {

return err




return fmt.Errorf("unsupported kind %s", v.Type())


return nil


If we add the server handler to a web server, this might be a typical session:

$ go build

$ ./search &

$ ./fetch 'http://localhost:12345/search'

Search: {Labels:[] MaxResults:10 Exact:false}

$ ./fetch 'http://localhost:12345/search?l=golang&l=programming'

Search: {Labels:[golang programming] MaxResults:10 Exact:false}

$ ./fetch 'http://localhost:12345/search?l=golang&l=programming&max=100'

Search: {Labels:[golang programming] MaxResults:100 Exact:false}

$ ./fetch 'http://localhost:12345/search?x=true&l=golang&l=programming'

Search: {Labels:[golang programming] MaxResults:10 Exact:true}

$ ./fetch 'http://localhost:12345/search?q=hello&x=123'

x: strconv.ParseBool: parsing "123": invalid syntax

$ ./fetch 'http://localhost:12345/search?q=hello&max=lots'

max: strconv.ParseInt: parsing "lots": invalid syntax

Exercise 12.11: Write the corresponding Pack function. Given a struct value, Pack should return a URL incorporating the parameter values from the struct.

Exercise 12.12: Extend the field tag notation to express parameter validity requirements. For example, a string might need to be a valid email address or credit-card number, and an integer might need to be a valid US ZIP code. Modify Unpack to check these requirements.

Exercise 12.13: Modify the S-expression encoder (§12.4) and decoder (§12.6) so that they honor the sexpr:"..." field tag in a similar manner to encoding/json (§4.5).

12.8 Displaying the Methods of a Type

Our final example of reflection uses reflect.Type to print the type of an arbitrary value and enumerate its methods:

// Print prints the method set of the value x.

func Print(x interface{}) {

v := reflect.ValueOf(x)

t := v.Type()

fmt.Printf("type %s\n", t)

for i := 0; i < v.NumMethod(); i++ {

methType := v.Method(i).Type()

fmt.Printf("func (%s) %s%s\n", t, t.Method(i).Name,

strings.TrimPrefix(methType.String(), "func"))



Both reflect.Type and reflect.Value have a method called Method. Each t.Method(i) call returns an instance of reflect.Method, a struct type that describes the name and type of a single method. Each v.Method(i) call returns a reflect.Value representing a method value (§6.4), that is, a method bound to its receiver. Using the reflect.Value.Call method (which we don’t have space to show here), it’s possible to call Values of kind Func like this one, but this program needs only its Type.

Here are the methods belonging to two types, time.Duration and *strings.Replacer:


// Output:

// type time.Duration

// func (time.Duration) Hours() float64

// func (time.Duration) Minutes() float64

// func (time.Duration) Nanoseconds() int64

// func (time.Duration) Seconds() float64

// func (time.Duration) String() string


// Output:

// type *strings.Replacer

// func (*strings.Replacer) Replace(string) string

// func (*strings.Replacer) WriteString(io.Writer, string) (int, error)

12.9 A Word of Caution

There is a lot more to the reflection API than we have space to show, but the preceding examples give an idea of what is possible. Reflection is a powerful and expressive tool, but it should be used with care, for three reasons.

The first reason is that reflection-based code can be fragile. For every mistake that would cause a compiler to report a type error, there is a corresponding way to misuse reflection, but whereas the compiler reports the mistake at build time, a reflection error is reported during execution as a panic, possibly long after the program was written or even long after it has started running.

If the readList function (§12.6), for example, should read a string from the input while populating a variable of type int, the call to reflect.Value.SetString will panic. Most programs that use reflection have similar hazards, and considerable care is required to keep track of the type, addressability, and settability of each reflect.Value.

The best way to avoid this fragility is to ensure that the use of reflection is fully encapsulated within your package and, if possible, avoid reflect.Value in favor of specific types in your package’s API, to restrict inputs to legal values. If this is not possible, perform additional dynamic checks before each risky operation. As an example from the standard library, when fmt.Printf applies a verb to an inappropriate operand, it does not panic mysteriously but prints an informative error message. The program still has a bug, but it is easier to diagnose.

fmt.Printf("%d %s\n", "hello", 42) // "%!d(string=hello) %!s(int=42)"

Reflection also reduces the safety and accuracy of automated refactoring and analysis tools, because they can’t determine or rely on type information.

The second reason to avoid reflection is that since types serve as a form of documentation and the operations of reflection cannot be subject to static type checking, heavily reflective code is often hard to understand. Always carefully document the expected types and other invariants of functions that accept an interface{} or a reflect.Value.

The third reason is that reflection-based functions may be one or two orders of magnitude slower than code specialized for a particular type. In a typical program, the majority of functions are not relevant to the overall performance, so it’s fine to use reflection when it makes the program clearer. Testing is a particularly good fit for reflection since most tests use small data sets. But for functions on the critical path, reflection is best avoided.