Matching Brackets in Cocoa

Once you've got a piece of code to check that a string uses correctly matched brackets, hooking it up to widgets in Interface Builder is pretty simple. Posted by Thomas Sutton on August 10, 2008

My last post was a solution to A Programming Job Interview Challenge #13 - Brackets using Haskell. My Haskell solution basically defined a function that processed the input string in O(n) time and returned True if it was valid and False if it was not. This is good and useful and (I believe) idiomatic Haskell, but almost completely trivial. In this post I’ll describe a solution to the same problem, this time in Objective-C as an NSFormatter sub-class for use in a Cocoa program.

Unlike many object-oriented languages and frameworks, Objective-C and the Cocoa framework do not encourage sub-classing to modify the behaviour of existing classes and components. Instead, Cocoa is designed around patterns like delegate and the like, according to which classes may “out source” (delegate) parts of their behaviour to others. This helps to make the system more flexible (we can change behaviour at runtime simply by delegating to an object of a different class) and reduces the amount of code to be written (less boiler plate) but can be confusing to beginners and has encouraged the travesty that is the pollution of NSObject with stubs for informal protocol after informal protocol.

One way in which Cocoa makes use of the delegate pattern is in the formatting of strings for display in text boxes: rather than create a hierarchy of NSTextField subclasses each of which formats and displays a particular type of object (NSNumberTextField, NSTelephoneNumberTextField, NSCurrencyTextField, NSStringTextField, NSEmailAddressTextField, ad infinitum), Cocoa allows us to give each NSTextField a formatter object that knows how to format it’s objects. In this post, I’m going to describe PCBrackettedStringFormatter: a formatter which will ensure that any field it is added to will only commit strings with correctly nested brackets.

There are a number of NSFormatter methods which you can implement to achieve various effects. The simplest and most essential methods in the API are stringForObjectValue: and getObjectValue:forString:errorDescription:. The former is called when the NSTextField is given a value to be displayed (and edited) and returns the NSString to be displayed and edited by the user. The latter method is the inverse: it is called when the text box needs to convert an NSString back into an object that can be handed back to the application logic after editing. Using these two methods, we can implement a simple formatter which forces the input strings to contain only validly nested brackets.

The rest of the NSFormatter interface is composed of two methods to implement support for validation during editing. The compatibility method isPartialStringValid:newEditingString:errorDescription: is called every time the user presses a key whilst the editing cell has keyboard focus to determine if the newly edited string is valid. The newer and more feature-full isPartialStringValid:proposedSelectedRange:originalString:originalSelectedRange:errorDescription: allows the formatter greater flexibility in evaluating and responding to the editing.

Our first step in creating an NSFormatter subclass to check that brackets are correctly matched is to write the code to do the checking. As Objective-C is a superset of C this is incredibly tedious and requires more code than it should. This is exactly the sort of code that should be put in a category, so I’ll do so. Note that I’ve elided the actual bracket matching as it isn’t particularly interesting and the tedium of processing strings in C-like languages cannot be understated:

@implementation NSString (MatchBrackets)

- (BOOL)bracketsAreMatched {
	int i,j;
	NSArray *stack = [[NSMutableArray alloc] init];
	// ... Some of the most tedious string processing code in existence elided ...
	return YES;

The first version of PCMatchedBacketFormatter will use stringForObjectValue: and getObjectValue:forString:errorDescription: to make sure that the user can only enter strings of validly nested brackets.

// -------- PCMatchBracketFormatter.h --------
@interface PCMatchBracketFormatter : NSFormatter

// -------- PCMatchBracketFormatter.m --------
@implementation PCMatchBracketFormatter

// Assume that the application knows what it's doing and only gives us validly strings
- (NSString *)stringForObjectValue:(id)anObject {
	return anObject;

// Check that the edited string is validly nested
- (BOOL)getObjectValue:(id *)anObject forString:(NSString *)string errorDescription:(NSString **)error {
	if ([string bracketsAreMatched]) {
		(*anObject) = string;
		return YES;
	} else {
		if (error) {
			(*error) = [NSString stringWithFormat:@"\"%@\" contains incorrectly matched brackers", string];
		return NO;

Now we can add a custom object instance in Interface Builder, set it’s class to PCMatchBracketFormatter and point the formatter outlet of, e.g., an NSTextField to it and it’ll only accept strings with correctly nested brackets. This basic pattern can be used to wrap any predicate function as an NSFormatter subclass. To make the problem a little more interesting and the resulting user interface a little more friendly, we could extend our class to support partial editing with isPartialStringValid:proposedSelectedRange:originalString:originalSelectedRange:errorDescription:,but that’ll have to wait until I’m interested in NSFormatter’s again. For now, my curiosity about them has passed.

The code in this post was typed into WordPress rather than XCode, and I’m new to Cocoa and Objective-C, so I’m sure I’ve made a few mistakes. Comments and corrections are welcome…

My next post will focus on multiple targets, private frameworks, and XCode templates using Matt Gemmell’s SS_PrefsController as an example.

This post was published on August 10, 2008 and last modified on June 30, 2015. It is tagged with: cocoa, objective c.