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Objective-C Language Low-level Runtime Environment


In order to use the Objective-C runtime, you need to import it.

#import <objc/objc.h>

Attach object to another existing object (association)

It's possible to attach an object to an existing object as if there was a new property. This is called association and allows one to extend existing objects. It can be used to provide storage when adding a property via a class extension or otherwise add additional information to an existing object.

The associated object is automatically released by the runtime once the target object is deallocated.

#import <objc/runtime.h>

// "Key" for association. Its value is never used and doesn't
// matter. The only purpose of this global static variable is to
// provide a guaranteed unique value at runtime: no two distinct 
// global variables can share the same address.
static char key;

id target = ...;
id payload = ...;
objc_setAssociateObject(target, &key, payload, OBJC_ASSOCIATION_RETAIN);
// Other useful values are OBJC_ASSOCIATION_COPY

id queryPayload = objc_getAssociatedObject(target, &key);

Augmenting methods using Method Swizzling

The Objective-C runtime allows you to change the implementation of a method at runtime. This is called method swizzling and is often used to exchange the implementations of two methods. For example, if the methods foo and bar are exchanged, sending the message foo will now execute the implementation of bar and vice versa.

This technique can be used to augment or "patch" existing methods which you cannot edit directly, such as methods of system-provided classes.

In the following example, the -[NSUserDefaults synchronize] method is augmented to print the execution time of the original implementation.

IMPORTANT: Many people try to do swizzling using method_exchangeImplementations. However, this approach is dangerous if you need to call the method you're replacing, because you'll be calling it using a different selector than it is expecting to receive. As a result, your code can break in strange and unexpected ways—particularly if multiple parties swizzle an object in this way. Instead, you should always do swizzling using setImplementation in conjunction with a C function, allowing you to call the method with the original selector.

#import "NSUserDefaults+Timing.h"
#import <objc/runtime.h> // Needed for method swizzling

static IMP old_synchronize = NULL;

static void new_synchronize(id self, SEL _cmd);

@implementation NSUserDefaults(Timing)

+ (void)load
    Method originalMethod = class_getInstanceMethod([self class], @selector(synchronize:));
    IMP swizzleImp = (IMP)new_synchronize;
    old_synchronize = method_setImplementation(originalMethod, swizzleImp);

static void new_synchronize(id self, SEL _cmd);
    NSDate *started;
    BOOL returnValue;

    started = [NSDate date];

    // Call the original implementation, passing the same parameters
    // that this function was called with, including the selector.
    returnValue = old_synchronize(self, _cmd);

    NSLog(@"Writing user defaults took %f seconds.", [[NSDate date] timeIntervalSinceDate:started]);

    return returnValue;


If you need to swizzle a method that takes parameters, you just add them as additional parameters to the function. For example:

static IMP old_viewWillAppear_animated = NULL;
static void new_viewWillAppear_animated(id self, SEL _cmd, BOOL animated);


Method originalMethod = class_getClassMethod([UIViewController class], @selector(viewWillAppear:));
IMP swizzleImp = (IMP)new_viewWillAppear_animated;
old_viewWillAppear_animated = method_setImplementation(originalMethod, swizzleImp);


static void new_viewWillAppear_animated(id self, SEL _cmd, BOOL animated)

    old_viewWillAppear_animated(self, _cmd, animated);


Calling methods directly

If you need to call an Objective-C method from C code, you have two ways: using objc_msgSend, or obtaining the IMP (method implementation function pointer) and calling that.

#import <objc/objc.h>

@implementation Example

- (double)negate:(double)value {
    return -value;

- (double)invert:(double)value {
    return 1 / value;


// Calls the selector on the object. Expects the method to have one double argument and return a double.
double performSelectorWithMsgSend(id object, SEL selector, double value) {
    // We declare pointer to function and cast `objc_msgSend` to expected signature.
    // WARNING: This step is important! Otherwise you may get unexpected results!
    double (*msgSend)(id, SEL, double) = (typeof(msgSend)) &objc_msgSend;

    // The implicit arguments of self and _cmd need to be passed in addition to any explicit arguments.
    return msgSend(object, selector, value);

// Does the same as the above function, but by obtaining the method's IMP.
double performSelectorWithIMP(id object, SEL selector, double value) {
    // Get the method's implementation.
    IMP imp = class_getMethodImplementation([self class], selector);

    // Cast it so the types are known and ARC can work correctly.
    double (*callableImp)(id, SEL, double) = (typeof(callableImp)) imp;

    // Again, you need the explicit arguments.
    return callableImp(object, selector, value);

int main() {
    Example *e = [Example new];

    // Invoke negation, result is -4
    double x = performSelectorWithMsgSend(e, @selector(negate:), 4);

    // Invoke inversion, result is 0.25
    double y = performSelectorWithIMP(e, @selector(invert:), 4);

objc_msgSend works by obtaining the IMP for the method and calling that. The IMPs for the last several methods called are cached, so if you're sending an Objective-C message in a very tight loop you can get acceptable performance. In some cases, manually caching the IMP can give slightly better performance, although this is a last resort optimization.

Got any Objective-C Language Question?