Collection functions

A common use of functional-style programming is applying transformative functions to collections. For example, I might have a List of items, and I want to transform each item a certain way. There are a number of such functions that are commonly found, in one form or another, in languages that allow functional programming. For example, Seq in Scala provides a map() function, while a method of the same name can be found in Java’s Stream class.

Keeping these functions/methods straight can be difficult when starting out, so I thought I’d list out some of the common ones, along with a quick description of their purpose. I’ll use Scala’s implementation primarily, but will try to point out where Java differs. Hopefully the result will be useful for users of other languages as well.


Purpose: Takes a list of lists/sequences, and puts each element in each list/sequence into a single list
Result: A single list consisting of all elements
scala> val letters = List( List(“a”,”e”,”i”,”o”,”u”), List(“b”,”d”,”f”,”h”,”k”,”l”,”t”), List(“c”,”m”,”n”,”r”,”s”,”v”,”w”,”x”,”z”), List(“g”,”j”,”p”,”q”,”y”) )
letters: List[List[String]] = List(List(a, e, i, o, u), List(b, d, f, h, k, l, t), List(c, m, n, r, s, v, w, x, z), List(g, j, p, q, y))
scala> letters.flatten
res19: List[String] = List(a, e, i, o, u, b, d, f, h, k, l, t, c, m, n, r, s, v, w, x, z, g, j, p, q, y)
scala> letters.flatten.sorted
res20: List[String] = List(a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z)


Purpose: Applies a function that transforms each element in a list.
Result: Returns in a list (or stream) consisting of the transformed elements. The resulting elements can be of a different type than the original elements.
scala> val nums = List(1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
scala> val newNums = => n * 2)
newNums: List[Int] = List(2, 4, 6, 8, 10)
scala> val newStrs = => s”number $n”)
newStrs: List[String] = List(number 1, number 2, number 3, number 4, number 5)

Scala note: Often when working with Futures, you’ll see map() applied to a Future. In this case, the map() method–when provided with a mapping function for the value returned by the Future, returns a new Future that runs once the first Future completes.


Purpose: Takes a sequence/list (A) of smaller sequences/lists (B), applies the provided function to each of those smaller sequences (B), and places the result of each into a single list to be returned. A combination of map and flatten.
Result: Returns a single list (or stream) containing all of the results of applying the provided function to (B).
scala> val numGroups = List( List(1,2,3), List(11,22,33) )
numGroups: List[List[Int]] = List(List(1, 2, 3), List(11, 22, 33))
scala> numGroups.flatMap( n => n.filter(_ % 2 == 0) )
res8: List[Int] = List(2, 22)


Purpose: Starts with a single T value (call it v), then takes a List of T and compares each T element to v, creating a new value of v on each iteration. The order of iteration is non-deterministic. Note: This is very similar to the reduce() method in Java streams).
Result: A single T value (which would be the final value of v as described above)
scala> val nums = List(1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9)
nums: List[Int] = List(1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)
scala> nums.fold(0) ((a,b) => if (a % 2 == 0) a else b)
res25: Int = 0


Purpose: Like fold(), always iterating from the left to the right.
Result: A single T value
scala> val nums = List(1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9)
nums: List[Int] = List(1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)
scala> nums.foldLeft(-1) ((a,b) => if (a % 2 == 0) a else b)
res27: Int = 2


Purpose: Like fold(), always iterating from the right to the left.
Result: A single T value
scala> val nums = List(1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9)
nums: List[Int] = List(1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)
scala> nums.foldRight(-1) ((a,b) => if (b % 2 == 0) b else a)
res28: Int = 8