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What's the big deal?

By Clay Thompson, MathWorks

What is deal?
The deal function is an adapter that allows cell arrays and structure arrays to be cross assigned to each other. It gets its name from the metaphor of dealing a round of cards. deal takes each input argument and deals it out to the corresponding output argument, in much the same way that you would deal cards out to the players of a card game.

For example, suppose C is a cell array and S is a structure array with a .name field, then the statements

[C{:}] = deal(S.name)
and
[S.name] = deal(C{:})

allow the elements of the structure field to be assigned to the cells of C, and vice versa.

The deal function is commonly used to

  • Assign cell array contents to a structure field
  • Assign structure field contents to a cell array
  • Initialize structure fields
  • Extract varargin input arguments into simple variables
  • Transfer field contents from one structure to another

Why deal?
The deal function was created to work around a limitation in the MATLAB® language that was introduced when the comma-separated list syntax was conceived. It should be possible in the MATLAB language to type

S.name = C{:}

You would expect the above expression to assign the values in the cell array to the structure. However, since this expression is equivalent to

S(1).name,S(2).name,...,S(end).name = C{1},C{2},...,C{end}

by the rules of the comma separated list, MATLAB issues the following error:

??? Illegal right hand side in assignment. Too many elements.

The workaround for this is to encapsulate the comma-separated lists inside [ ] or ( ). Using deal, the above statement can be written

[S.name] = deal(C{:});

This retains the simplicity and readability of the original statement but avoids the error.

How does deal work?
The simplest way to code the deal function is by typing

function [varargout] = deal(varargin)  varargout = varargin;

The deal function that ships with MATLAB includes the ability to scalar expand a single rhs, and therefore requires more code. The deal.m function file can be found in the $MATLAB\toolbox\matlab\datatypes, where $MATLAB is the MATLAB root directory. You can also find further information on this function in the MATLAB Help Desk by choosing 'Documentation Roadmap', 'Online Manuals', 'MATLAB Function Reference Volume I : Language'.

Interesting uses of the deal function
Input argument parsing
deal is unexpectedly useful for extracting varargin inputs into separate arrays. Take the following simple function, for instance:

function h = mountain(varargin)

%MOUNTAIN Display data as a mountain.

%   MOUNTAIN(Z) displays the heights Z as a mountain.

%   MOUNTAIN(X,Y,Z) displays the points (x,y,z) as a mountain.

if nargin==1

 z = varargin{1};

 x = 1:size(z,2);

 y = 1:size(z,1);

elseif nargin==3

 [x,y,z] = deal(varargin{1:3});

end

h = surf(x,y,z)

deal is used to extract the three input arguments into the simple x, y, and z variables in a single line in order to improve readability.

Initializing structure fields
Suppose we have a structure with the fields (.name, .type, .value). We can initialize the fields to constant values via the deal function by typing in

[A(1:4).name] = deal(''); % Initialize all names to empty

[A.type] = deal('simple'); % Initialize all types to 'simple'

[A.value] = deal(0); % Initialize all values to 0

Assigning multiple structure fields
The deal function is very useful when trying to assign multiple structure fields without a FOR loop. The addtype function below uses deal in this way to prepend a type string to the values in the .name field of the structure S. So, for example, if

s = struct('name',{'Elephant','Cardinal'});

then

s = addtype(s,{'mammal','bird'})

produces a structure array where s(1).name is 'mammal: Elephant' and s(2).name is 'bird: Cardinal'.

function r = addtype(s,t)

%ADDTYPE Add type code to structure name field

%   R = ADDTYPE(S,T) prepends the strings in the cell array T

%   to the S.name fields. S must contain a .name field.

if length(t)==1

  t = t(ones(size(s))); % Scalar expand t to the size of s

end

   if ~isequal(size(s),size(t))

 error('S and T must the same size.');

end

   name = strcat(t(:)',{': '},{s.name});

   %R is the same as S except that the name field has type info

        r = s;

[r.name] = deal(name{:});

Note that deal is used only in the last line.

Published 1998

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