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Computing Thoughts
Generics: Unbounded wildcard puzzle
by Bruce Eckel
November 7, 2005
I set out to explore how the compiler treats a plain List vs. a List<?>, and in the process found something mysterious.


A raw List can hold any type, whereas a List<?> holds an unknown, but specific type. That is, List is a heterogeneous container, while List<?> is a homogeneous container. However, I had observed that the compiler tends to accept either without warning, so I wrote the following example to explore this:

import java.util.*;

public class UnboundedWildcards1 {
  static List list1;
  static List<?> list2;
  static List<? extends Object> list3;
  static void assign1(List list) { 
    list1 = list;
    list2 = list;
    // list3 = list; // Warning: unchecked conversion
    // Found: List, Required: List<? extends Object>
  static void assign2(List<?> list) {
    list1 = list;
    list2 = list;
    list3 = list;
  static void assign3(List<? extends Object> list) {
    list1 = list;
    list2 = list;
    list3 = list;
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    assign1(new ArrayList());
    assign2(new ArrayList());
    // assign3(new ArrayList()); // Warning:
    // Unchecked conversion. Found: ArrayList
    // Required: List<? extends Object>
    assign1(new ArrayList<String>());
    assign2(new ArrayList<String>());
    assign3(new ArrayList<String>());
    // Both forms are acceptable as List<?>:
    List<?> wildList = new ArrayList();
    wildList = new ArrayList<String>();

So even though List and List<?> are technically different types, the compiler treats them interchangeably.

What I was not expecting was that it treats List<?> differently than List<? extends Object>. Perhaps someone knows the explanation.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel ( provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2005 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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