You have probably learn about the imperils of reference/retain cycle.

A reference cycle occurs when object A has a strong reference to object B, and vice versa.

This happens not only between class instances, but also between class instance and closure.

Are we superfluously capturing self as weak/unowned?

We often see codes littered with [weak self] or [unowned self] in the capture list of closures.

But are they necessary? Do we ALWAYS have to use unowned/weak inside closure?

These is one question that we will attempt to answer (at the end).

The exact problem to avoid

A reference cycle will occur if and only if:

  1. Class instance has a strong reference to closure
  2. Closure has a strong reference to class instance

If either (1) or (2) has a weak reference instead, then you do NOT have the problem.

Let’s look closer at 2 scenarios.

1. Class instance with strong reference to closure

This is the typical scenario where the class instance has a strong reference to the closure directly, or indirectly.

What is mean by indirect? The instance could be holding the reference indirectly, via a third-party object.

Let’s look at an example:

// Now, myStrongClass has strong reference to the closure
class MyStrongClass {
    deinit { print("deinit MyStrongClass") }
    var theClosure: (()->Void)?
    func runClosure() {
        theClosure = {
            dispatch_after(dispatch_time(DISPATCH_TIME_NOW, Int64(3 * Double(NSEC_PER_SEC))), dispatch_get_main_queue()) {
                print("Running the closure and this is self: \(self)")

var myStrongClass: MyStrongClass? = MyStrongClass()
myStrongClass = nil

In the code above, myStrongClass will not deinit even when it is set to nil.

This is because the closure is (by default), capturing self/myStrongClass strongly.

The typical solution is to capture self with unowned or weak.

theClosure = { [weak self] in

This is the scenario where it is necessary to use weak/unowned, if not you will have memory leak problem.

2. Closure has a strong reference to class instance

In this scenario, you might think the closure can be declared with weak (while still capture self strongly):

weak var theClosure: (()->Void)?

But that is not possible.

weak can only be applied to class or class-bound protocol.

To illustrate, we’ll use a closure in a local scope (therefore not strongly referenced by self).

class MyHolder {
    var value = "initial"
    deinit { print("deinit MyHolder") }
    func runClosure() {
        let strongClosure: (()->Void) = {
            dispatch_after(dispatch_time(DISPATCH_TIME_NOW, Int64(3 * Double(NSEC_PER_SEC))), dispatch_get_main_queue()) {
                print("Value of MyHolder: \(self.value)")

var holder: MyHolder? = MyHolder()
holder?.value = "changed"
holder?.runClosure()       // Prints changed then deinit
holder = nil

// Result: holder will deinit once the closure has completed (and printed the value)
// closure deinit, therefore instance deinit too

The closure is never referenced in the object instance. It is used only in the local scope of runClosure.

strongClosure captures self strongly. That’s why it will print the value first, then self will be released.

The point to emphasize here is:

If self does NOT have a strong reference to the closure, it is okay to have the closure capture self strongly.

The Case of Singleton

Singleton is a very common pattern, so let’s discuss further.

Many developer “weak self” when they are not sure about retain cycle, like this:

func runClosure() {
    Singleton.sharedInstance.runClosure { [weak self] in

Should you or should you not capture self as weak?

Jumping the gun, the conclusion is – it depends.

@noescape closure - no need weak it

In Swift 3, closure is by default non-escaping.

For example, closure below is non-escaping, which means it will run before the function returns.

class Singleton {
    static let sharedInstance = Singleton()    
    func runClosure(closure: (()->Void)) {

The benefit of non-escaping closure is that you don’t need to capture self as weak; you may capture self strongly.

Quoting Chris Latner:

… pushing the language to prefer noescape closures. noescape closures have also always been the preferred default, since they eliminate a class of retain cycle issues.

Because the closure is non-escaping, it is not retained, therefore there will not cause retain cycle.

@escaping closure - better weak it

If the closure is @escaping, like this:

func runClosure(closure: @escaping (()->Void)) { ... }

Then you it is recommended to “weak self”, unless you are sure it will not retain the closure.

Why is there an uncertainty?

With an escaping closure, it depends on how the singleton retain and release the closure. It might hold on to it perpetually, or it could release after a timeout.

For example, PromiseKit uses escaping closure, however, they promised (pun intended) in their FAQ, that it is safe not to “weak self”, because they will eventually release.

If you are not sure, it is safer to “weak self”.




Back to Home