Practically Groovy: Reaching for each

Taking a "least surprise" approach to iteration

In this Practically Groovy installment, Scott Davis provides a dizzying array of ways to iterate through ... arrays. And lists. And files. And URLs. And on and on and on. The most impressive part is that Groovy provides a consistent mechanism for walking through all of those collections and more.


Scott Davis, Founder,

Scott DavisScott Davis is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and software developer. He is the founder of, a Groovy and Grails training company. His books include Groovy Recipes: Greasing the Wheels of Java, GIS for Web Developers: Adding Where to Your Application, The Google Maps API, and JBoss At Work. He writes two ongoing article series for IBM developerWorks: Mastering Grails and Practically Groovy.

14 April 2009

Also available in Chinese Japanese

Iteration is fundamental to programming. You're constantly presented with things — a List, a File, a JDBC ResultSet — that you need to walk through item by item. The Java language nearly always gives you a way to step through whatever you need to, but the frustrating reality is that it doesn't offer a standard way to do so. Groovy's approach to iteration is one of the eminently practical ways in which Groovy programming parts ways with Java programming. Through a series of code examples (all available for download), you'll learn in this article how Groovy's versatile each() method lets you leave the Java language's iteration quirks behind.

Java iteration strategies

Suppose you have a java.util.List of programming languages. Listing 1 demonstrates the programmatic way to say "I know each of these" in the Java language:

Listing 1. Java list iteration
import java.util.*;

public class ListTest{
  public static void main(String[] args){
    List<String> list = new ArrayList<String>();
    for(Iterator<String> i = list.iterator(); i.hasNext();){
      String language =;
      System.out.println("I know " + language);

Thanks to the java.lang.Iterable interface that most collections classes share, you can iterate through a java.util.Set or java.util.Queue in an identical way.

About this series

Groovy is a modern programming language that runs on the Java platform. It offers seamless integration with existing Java code while introducing dramatic new features like closures and metaprogramming. Put simply, Groovy is what the Java language would look like had it been written in the 21st century.

The key to incorporating any new tool into your development toolkit is knowing when to use it and when to leave it in the box. Groovy can be extremely powerful, but only when applied properly to appropriate scenarios. To that end, the Practically Groovy series explores the practical uses of Groovy, helping you learn when and how to apply them successfully.

Now suppose that the languages are stored in a java.util.Map. Trying to get an Iterator on a Map fails at compile time — Maps don't implement the Iterable interface. Luckily, you can call map.keySet() to return a Set, and then you are back in business. The minor difference slowed you down a bit, but it didn't stop you. You just need to remember that Lists, Sets, and Queues implement Iterable, but Maps don't — even though they are all in the same java.util package.

Now assume that the languages live in a String array. An array is a data structure, not a class. You can't call .iterator() on a String array, so you are forced to use a slightly different iteration strategy. Again, you are hindered but not completely obstructed, as you can see in Listing 2:

Listing 2. Java array iteration
public class ArrayTest{
  public static void main(String[] args){
    String[] list = {"Java", "Groovy", "JavaScript"};
    for(int i = 0; i < list.length; i++){
      String language = list[i];
      System.out.println("I know " + language);            

But wait — what about the for-each syntax that Java 5 introduced (see Resources)? It works for any class that implements Iterable, as well as arrays, as shown in Listing 3:

Listing 3. The Java language's for-each iteration
import java.util.*;

public class MixedTest{
  public static void main(String[] args){
    List<String> list = new ArrayList<String>();
    for(String language: list){
      System.out.println("I know " + language);      

    String[] list2 = {"Java", "Groovy", "JavaScript"};
    for(String language: list2){
      System.out.println("I know " + language);      

So now you can iterate through arrays and collections (except for Maps) in the same way. But what if the languages are stored in a How about a JDBC ResultSet? An XML document? A java.util.StringTokenizer? In each case, you're forced to use a slightly different iteration strategy. This approach wasn't intentional — the different APIs were developed at different times by different developers — but the fact is that you must know half a dozen Java iteration strategies and, more important, the special cases in which to use them.

Eric S. Raymond writes about "The Rule of Least Surprise" in his book The Art of Unix Programming (see Resources). He says, "To design usable interfaces, it's best when possible not to design an entire new interface model. Novelty is a barrier to entry; it puts a learning burden on the user, so minimize it." Groovy's attitude toward iteration follows Raymond's advice. When it comes to walking through nearly any structure in Groovy, all you need to remember is each().

List iteration in Groovy

To begin, I'll refactor the List example in Listing 3 to Groovy. Rather than tossing the List over the fence to a for loop (which, by the way, doesn't feel very object-oriented, does it?), you simply call the each() method directly on the list and pass in a closure.

Create a file named listTest.groovy and add the code in Listing 4:

Listing 4. Groovy list iteration
def list = ["Java", "Groovy", "JavaScript"]
  println language

The first line in Listing 4 is Groovy shortcut syntax for constructing a java.util.ArrayList. You can add println list.class to the script to verify this. Next, you simply call each() on the list and print out the language variable in the body of the closure. You named the language variable at the beginning of the closure with the language-> statement. If you don't supply a variable name, Groovy supplies a default one named it. Type groovy listTest at the command prompt to run listTest.groovy.

Listing 5 shows two progressively shorter versions of the code in Listing 4:

Listing 5. Iteration using Groovy's it variable
// shorter, using the default it variable
def list = ["Java", "Groovy", "JavaScript"]
list.each{ println it }

// shorter still, using an anonymous list
["Java", "Groovy", "JavaScript"].each{ println it }

Groovy allows you to use the each() method on arrays and Lists interchangeably. To change the ArrayList to a String array, add as String[] to the end of the line, as shown in Listing 6:

Listing 6. Groovy array iteration
def list = ["Java", "Groovy", "JavaScript"] as String[]
list.each{println it}

The pervasiveness of the each() method in Groovy, coupled with the shortcut getter syntax (getClass() and class are identical calls), allows you to write code that is both concise and expressive at the same time. For example, say that you want to display all of the public methods of a given class using reflection. Listing 7 shows an example:

Listing 7. Groovy reflection
def s = "Hello World"
println s
println s.class
s.class.methods.each{println it}

$ groovy reflectionTest.groovy 
Hello World
class java.lang.String
public int java.lang.String.hashCode()
public volatile int java.lang.String.compareTo(java.lang.Object)
public int java.lang.String.compareTo(java.lang.String)
public boolean java.lang.String.equals(java.lang.Object)

The last line of the script calls the getClass() method. A java.lang.Class offers a getMethods() method that returns an array. By chaining all of this together and then calling each() on the resulting array of Methods, you accomplish quite a bit in a single line of code.

But the omnipresent each() method isn't limited to just Lists and arrays, as the Java for-each structure is. In the Java language, the story ends here. In Groovy, you're just getting warmed up.

Map iteration

As you saw earlier, in the Java language you can't iterate directly over a Map. In Groovy, it's not a problem, as Listing 8 shows:

Listing 8. Groovy map iteration
def map = ["Java":"server", "Groovy":"server", "JavaScript":"web"]
map.each{ println it }

To get your hands on the parts of the name/value pair, you can either use the implicit getKey() and getValue() methods, or you can explicitly name the variables at the start of the closure, as shown in Listing 9:

Listing 9. Getting the key and value from maps
def map = ["Java":"server", "Groovy":"server", "JavaScript":"web"]
  println it.key
  println it.value 

  println k
  println v

As you can see, iterating over a Map is just as natural as iterating over any other collection.

Before I move on to the next iteration example, you should know about one other bit of syntactic sugar regarding Maps in Groovy. Rather than calling map.get("Java") as you would in the Java language, you can shorten the call to map.Java, as shown in Listing 10:

Listing 10. Getting map values
def map = ["Java":"server", "Groovy":"server", "JavaScript":"web"]

//identical results
println map.get("Java")
println map.Java

Although this Groovy shortcut syntax for Maps is undeniably cool, it is also the source of a common gotcha when you use reflection on Maps. A call to list.class yields java.util.ArrayList, whereas calling map.class returns null. This happens because the shortcut to getting a map element overrides the usual getter call. No element in the Map has a key of class, so the call correctly returns null, as in the example in Listing 11:

Listing 11. Groovy maps and null
def list = ["Java", "Groovy", "JavaScript"]
println list.class
// java.util.ArrayList

def map = ["Java":"server", "Groovy":"server", "JavaScript":"web"]
println map.class
// null

map.class = "I am a map element"
println map.class
// I am a map element

println map.getClass()
// class java.util.LinkedHashMap

This is a rare case of Groovy violating the Rule of Least Surprise, but because getting elements out of a map is far more common than using reflection, it is an exception that I can live with.

String iteration

Now that you are getting used to the each() method, it shows up in all kinds of interesting places. Suppose that you'd like to iterate over a String, letter by letter. The each() method is ready and waiting for you, as shown in Listing 12:

Listing 12. String iteration
def name = "Jane Smith"
  println letter

This opens up all sorts of possibilities, such as replacing all spaces with underscores, as shown in Listing 13:

Listing 13. Replacing spaces with underscores
def name = "Jane Smith"
println "replace spaces"
  if(it == " "){
    print "_"
    print it

// output

Of course in the case of replacing a single letter, Groovy offers a more concise replace method. You could consolidate all of the code in Listing 13 to a single line: "Jane Smith".replace(" ", "_"). But for more-involved String manipulation, the each() method is the perfect solution.

Range iteration

Groovy offers a native Range type that practically begs to be iterated over. Anything separated by a double-dot (like 1..10) is a Range. Listing 14 shows an example:

Listing 14. Range iteration
def range = 5..10
  println it


Ranges are not limited to simple Integers. Consider the code in Listing 15, which iterates over a Range of Dates:

Listing 15. Date iteration
def today = new Date()
def nextWeek = today + 7
  println it

Thu Mar 12 04:49:35 MDT 2009
Fri Mar 13 04:49:35 MDT 2009
Sat Mar 14 04:49:35 MDT 2009
Sun Mar 15 04:49:35 MDT 2009
Mon Mar 16 04:49:35 MDT 2009
Tue Mar 17 04:49:35 MDT 2009
Wed Mar 18 04:49:35 MDT 2009
Thu Mar 19 04:49:35 MDT 2009

As you can see, the each() method shows up in precisely the places you would expect it to. The Java language lacks a native Range type, but it does offer a similar concept in the form of enums. And not surprisingly, each() is ready and waiting for you there too.

Enumeration iteration

A Java enum is an arbitrary set of values that are stored in a specific order. Listing 16 shows how naturally the each() method fits in with enums, just as it does with the Range operator:

Listing 16. enum iteration
enum DAY{

  println it

  println it

There are certain cases in Groovy where each() isn't expressive enough as a method name. In the next several examples, you'll see the each() method decorated in a way that's specific to the context it's used in. The Groovy eachRow() method is a perfect example of this.

SQL iteration

When dealing with relational database tables, it's common to say, "I need to do something specific to each row in the table." Contrast this with the previous examples. You're more likely to say, "I need to do something specific to each language in the list." In this spirit, a groovy.sql.Sql object offers an eachRow() method, as shown in Listing 17:

Listing 17. ResultSet iteration
import groovy.sql.*

def sql = Sql.newInstance(

println("grab a specific field")
sql.eachRow("select name from languages"){ row ->

println("grab all fields")
sql.eachRow("select * from languages"){ row ->
    println("Name: ${}")
    println("Version: ${row.version}")
    println("URL: ${row.url}\n")

The first line of this script instantiates a new Sql object by setting the JDBC connection string, username, password, and JDBC driver class. From there, you can call the eachRow() method, passing in the SQL select statement as a method argument. Inside the closure, you can reference the column names (name, version, url) as if there were actual getName(), getVersion(), and getUrl() methods.

This is significantly cleaner than the Java equivalent of having to spin up separate DriverManagers, Connections, Statements, and JDBCResultSets, and then having to clean them all up in a sea of nested try/catch/finally blocks.

In the case of the Sql object, you could argue that either each() or eachRow() would be a reasonable method name. But in the next few examples, I think that you'll agree that the name each() isn't nearly expressive enough.

File iteration

I wouldn't dream of iterating through a line-by-line in raw Java code. By the time I finished with all of the nested BufferedReaders and FileReaders, not to mention all of the exception handling at the tail end of the process, I'd have forgotten what I started out to do.

Listing 18 shows the whole process in the Java language:

Listing 18. Java file iteration

public class WalkFile {
   public static void main(String[] args) {
      BufferedReader br = null;
      try {
         br = new BufferedReader(new FileReader("languages.txt"));
         String line = null;
         while((line = br.readLine()) != null) {
            System.out.println("I know " + line);
      catch(FileNotFoundException e) {
      catch(IOException e) {
      finally {
         if(br != null) {
            try {
            catch(IOException e) {

Listing 19 shows the equivalent process in Groovy:

Listing 19. Groovy file iteration
def f = new File("languages.txt")
  println "I know ${language}"

This is where the conciseness of Groovy really shines. I hope you can see now why I call Groovy "A DSL for Java Programmers."

Bear in mind that I'm dealing with the same class in both Groovy and the Java language. If the file doesn't exist, the Groovy code will throw the same FileNotFoundException that the Java code does. The difference is that in Groovy there are no checked exceptions. It is my prerogative — not a language requirement — to wrap the eachLine() structure in the try/catch/finally blocks. In a simple command-line script, I favor the brevity of the code in Listing 19. If I'm performing the same iteration while running in an application server, I'm not nearly as cavalier about letting the exceptions go uncaught. I would wrap the eachLine() block in the same try/catch block as the Java version.

The File class offers several variations on the each() method. One of them is splitEachLine(String separator, Closure closure). This means that you can not only iterate through the file line-by-line, but also split it into tokens at the same time. Listing 20 shows an example:

Listing 20. Splitting each line of a file
// languages.txt
// notice the space between the language and the version
Java 1.5
Groovy 1.6
JavaScript 1.x 

// splitTest.groovy
def f = new File("languages.txt")
f.splitEachLine(" "){words->
  words.each{ println it }

// output

If you are dealing with binary files, Groovy also offers an eachByte() method.

Of course, a File in the Java language isn't always a file — sometimes it's a directory. Groovy offers several each() variations for dealing with subdirectories as well.

Directory iteration

Using Groovy as a shell-script (or batch-script) replacement is easy, thanks to how easily you can reach out and touch the file system. To get a directory listing of the current directory, see Listing 21:

Listing 21. Directory iteration
def dir = new File(".")
  println file

The eachFile() method returns both files and subdirectories. Using the isFile() and isDirectory() methods available from the Java language, you can begin doing more-sophisticated things. Listing 22 shows an example:

Listing 22. Separating files and directories
def dir = new File(".")
    println "FILE: ${file}"    
  }else if(file.isDirectory()){
    println "DIR:  ${file}"
    println "Uh, I'm not sure what it is..."

Because both Java methods return simple boolean values, you can tighten up this code with a Java ternary operator. Listing 23 shows an example:

Listing 23. Ternary operator
def dir = new File(".")
  println file.isDirectory() ? "DIR:  ${file}" : "FILE: ${file}"

If you are only interested in directories, you can use eachDir() instead of eachFile(). There are also eachDirMatch() and eachDirRecurse() methods.

As you can see, a simple each() method for File wouldn't be nearly expressive enough. The semantics of the typical each() method are preserved on Files, but the method names are more descriptive to provide additional hints about the advanced functionality.

URL iteration

Once you understand how to iterate through a File, you can use the same principle to iterate through the response to an HTTP request. Groovy provides a convenient (and familiar) eachLine() method on

For example, Listing 24 walks through the HTML of the home page, line-by-line:

Listing 24. URL iteration
def url = new URL("")
  println line

Of course, if this is all you want to do, Groovy provides a one-liner solution, thanks to the toURL() method it adds to all Strings: "".toURL().eachLine{ println it }.

But what if you want to do something more useful with the HTTP response? Specifically, what if the request you make is to a RESTful Web service, and the response contains XML that you'd like to parse? The each() method will help you out in that case as well.

XML iteration

You've seen how to use the eachLine() method on files and URLs. XML presents a slightly different problem — you are probably less interested in walking through an XML document line-by-line than walking through it element-by-element.

For example, say that your list of languages is stored in a file named languages.xml, shown in Listing 25:

Listing 25. The languages.xml file

Groovy provides an each() method that you can use, but with a slight twist. If you parse the XML with a native Groovy class called XmlSlurper, you can each() your way through the elements. See Listing 26, for example:

Listing 26. XML iteration
def langs = new XmlSlurper().parse("languages.xml")
  println it


The langs.language.each statement pulls out all of the elements under <langs> named <language>. If you had <format> and <server> elements in the mix as well, they wouldn't appear in the output of the each() method.

And if that isn't impressive enough, now pretend that this XML is available via a RESTful Web service instead of a file in the file system. Replace the path to the file with a URL, and the rest of the code remains unchanged, as shown in Listing 27:

Listing 27. XML iteration on a Web services call
def langs = new XmlSlurper().parse("")
  println it

That's a pretty concise, nifty use of the each() method, wouldn't you say?


The best part of this whole each() exercise is that it cuts a huge swath across Groovy with very little effort. There isn't much novelty to iteration in Groovy once you know about the each() method. And as Raymond would say, that is exactly the point. Once you know how to iterate through a List, you instantly know how to iterate through an array, a Map, a String, a Range, an enum, an SQL ResultSet, a File, a directory, a URL, and even the elements of an XML document.

The last example in this article briefly touched on XML parsing with the XmlSlurper. Next time, I'll circle back around and show you how easy XML parsing is with Groovy. You'll see both the XmlParser and XmlSlurper in action, and get a better idea of why Groovy offers two similar yet different classes for XML parsing in the first place. Until then, I hope that you find plenty of practical uses for Groovy.


Source code for this articlej-pg04149.zip17KB



  • Practically Groovy (Andrew Glover and Scott Davis, developerWorks): Read all the installments in this series.
  • Groovy: Learn more about Groovy at the project Web site.
  • Keep up with the latest Groovy news and article links.
  • Applying the Rule of Least Surprise: This chapter in The Art of Unix Programming (Eric Raymond, Addison-Wesley, 2003) explains the tao of doing the least surprising thing.
  • "Enhance looping in Java 5.0 with for/in" (Brett McLaughlin, developerWorks, November 2004): The for/in (also known as for-each) loop was introduced in Java 5.0 as a convenience feature.
  • Mastering Grails: Scott Davis's companion series focuses on this Groovy-based platform for Web development.
  • Groovy Recipes (Scott Davis, Pragmatic Programmers, 2008): Learn more about Groovy and Grails in Scott Davis' latest book.
  • Groovy mailing list: Browse, search, or subscribe to the Groovy mailing list.
  • Technology bookstore: Browse for books on these and other technical topics.
  • developerWorks Java technology zone: Find hundreds of articles about every aspect of Java programming.

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