What are lambdas in Java 8?

In this blog post I will briefly introduce lambdas which will be included as a new language feature in Java 8. I recently wrote a short introduction to functional programming support coming in Java 8. In this post I want to focus on lambda expressions, what they actually are and why they are awesome.

The motivation behind lambda expression is to provide super nice and simple syntax for passing functionality as arguments to another method, such as what to to when someone clicks a button. Pre JDK8 we used anonymous inner classes to do that, which typically implemented a functional interfaces (more details below). The problem we faced with that approach is that the syntax was verbose and unclear. It was really hard to write and read. Lambda expressions let you express instances of single-method classes more compactly [1]. We can think of lambda expressions as a way to define anonymous methods.

We can think of lambda expressions as a way to define anonymous methods.

Take lambdas for a spin

Let’s start simple. We have a List of numbers and we want to print all of the numbers using the new super awesome forEach-metod which accepts a consumer as argument. Without lambdas we can achieve this by implementing a Consumer:

List<Integer> numbers = Arrays.asList(1,2,3,4,5,6);

numbers.forEach(new Consumer<Integer>() {
  public void accept(Integer value) {

Wow that anonymous class looks really ugly and verbose. I actually prefer the regular enhanced-for loop over this ugly thing!

Lambda to the rescue

Thankfully lambdas comes to the rescue and allows us to just define the consumer function we want to be executed for each method:

List<Integer> numbers = Arrays.asList(1,2,3,4,5,6);
numbers.forEach((Integer value) -> System.out.println(value));

This is way better!! But There still is some noise in my eyes. Why do I have to tell the compiler the type of value? Can value possibly be anything other than Integer?

The answer is: NO it must be an Integer And it turns out that the Java 8 compiler can help us out by understanding the type for us, we don’t have to, hurray! This concept is known as type inference. Lets have a look:

List<Integer> numbers = Arrays.asList(1,2,3,4,5,6);
numbers.forEach(value -> System.out.println(value));

Wow, this starts looking like something readable. We even got rid of the parenthesis for the value parameter.

It’s important to notice that the forEach method still accept a Consumer as input and that it is the compiler that takes the provided lambda expression and converts it into a valid consumer.

Method Reference

Even though we ended up with a simple and easy to read lambda expression there is still something bothering me. We have created a function which takes the input argument and just calls a new function with the same argument as input.

Can’t we just use the println-function instead? The answer is method reference and here is an example:

List<Integer> numbers = Arrays.asList(1,2,3,4,5,6);

We see that we use the special ‘::’-notation which allows us to borrow methods elsewhere. The result in this example is that the forEach method will call the println-method from System.out for each element in the list.

(Side note: It is also possible to refer to the constructor method with new: User::new).

Multiple blocks

Can we execute multiple lines of code in a lambda expression? Yes of course, just add some curly-brackets:

List<Integer> numbers = Arrays.asList(1,2,3,4,5,6);
numbers.forEach(value -> {
  String out = "Hi there value is: " + value;

Lexical Scoping & effectively final

Lambda expression closes over the scope of its definition, lexical scoping. From within a lambda expression we can only access local variables that are final or effectively final in the enclosing scope. Effectively final means that Java 8 relaxed the requirement to use the final keyword, but the variable can still not change if we want to access it inside a lambda expression. If the compile detects that the variable is mutated, inside or outside of the lambda-expression, it will complain.

List<Integer> numbers = Arrays.asList(1,2,3,4,5,6);
int someVal = 1;
numbers.forEach(value -> System.out.println(value+someVal));
someVal = 2;

The compile will complain in the above example because someVal is not effectively final.

More examples

As a last paragraph I will include a few legal lambda examples:

(int x, int y) -> { return x + y; }

(x, y) -> x + y

x -> x + x

() -> x

value -> { System.out.println(value); }

Functional interfaces

We can use lambdas with methods which takes a functional interface as argument. This section briefly introduce what a functional interface is.
The only requirement for a functinal interface is that it have one abstract unimplemented methods. It can have 0 or more default methods. In the example below I have showed a snippet from Predicate interface part of JDK8. The “FunctionalInterface” annotation is optional, but when present it will make sure that the interface have exactly one unimplemented method.

public interface Predicate<T> {
  boolean test(T t);
  default Predicate<T> and(Predicate<? super T> other) {
    return (t) -> test(t) && other.test(t);

The predicate is used to check whether an input argument satisfies our requirements. It has one abstract method “test” which should be implemented to verify the requirement. This functional interface also comes with default methods and, or, and negate. The first two are used to contact multiple predicates and the latter is used to invert a predicate. This allows us to reuse and build on top of existing predicates.

Other common functional interfaces found in the jdk8 java.util.functional package includes:

  1. Counsumer<T> – takes an input and performs an operation on it. Will cause side effects!
  2. Supplier<T> – a kind of factory. Will return a new instance or a existing instance.
  3. Predicate<T> – Checks if argument satisfies our requirements
  4. Function<T, R> – Used to transform an argument from type T to type R.
  5. BinaryOperator<T> – two T’s as argument, return one T as output


Lambdas are awesome and the corner stone in the introduction of functional programming in Java 8. It’s a clever way to introduce functional programming in Java, making it super simple to write them. Letting lambdas be defined via functional interfaces (already heavily used, e.g. eventListener) allows existing code to be forward compatible with lambdas. Clever!

You might think that lambdas is just a pretty syntax for creating anonymous inner classes under the hood. Then lambda capture just becomes constructor invocation. This is (thankfully) not the case. It would lead to performance issues (one class per lambda expression). Instead the language team uses the fifth bytecode method invocation mode introduces in Java 7, called invokedynamic. I want to do a special post on lambdas under the hood in a later blog post.