Context capturing C function pointers in Swift

2020 - 03 - 05

Posted by vmanot

Take the following code:

func foo() {
    let bar = NSObject()

    let f: (@convention(c) () -> ()) = {

This will not compile. You will instead be presented with the following error:

error: a C function pointer cannot be formed from a closure that captures context

While you are unlikely to ever encounter this error in typical iOS development, it may arise as the result of, say, an attempt to interface with a low-level C library/framework. In my case, I was trying to construct a parameter for a low-level POSIX function (pthread_create), which only accepted a C function pointer.

There is a (dirty) workaround:

import ObjectiveC
import Swift

func cFunction(_ block: (@escaping @convention(block) () -> ()))
    -> (@convention(c) () -> ()) {
    return unsafeBitCast(
        to: (@convention(c) () -> ()).self

This effectively allows you to write:

func foo() {
    let bar = NSObject()

    let f: (@convention(c) () -> ()) = cFunction {

Which is, in fact, valid Swift code.

So… what does cFunction do? It:

  • Takes an Objective-C block pointer (specified using the attribute @convention(block)).
  • Uses imp_implementationWithBlock to construct a C function pointer from aforementioned block.
  • Uses unsafeBitCast to cast said function pointer to the appropriate Swift representation (another attributed function type, this time with @convention(c))

While this works, there are a few points to note:

  • It relies on the Objective-C runtime, using a function that is typical reserved for converting C function pointers with arguments usually in the format of id, SEL, ....
  • In the example code, bar will be retained indefinitely. That is because C function pointers are not deallocated like Objective-C block pointers once they go out of scope. You must manually deallocate bar once you are done using it. This may be done by way of a flag, or based on some information derived from maybe an argument passed to the callback.
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