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Naming in Swift Part 2: Name, Title, Identifier & ID

Let’s start this series with a meta discussion about how to name properties that themselves are used to name, describe or otherwise identify things. On Apple platforms, words used for these purposes are name, title, identifier and more recently id.

About name

Lots of things have names, especially things that are displayed in lists and other collections. It is incredibly common for developers to give such types a string property called name, which gets displayed in their user interface. This seems sensible at first, but it is actually a wrong usage of the word if you accept that words in APIs take on more precise meanings than they do in ordinary English.

When writing Swift APIs, calling a property name carries the implication that its value will be unique within some namespace.

Here are some examples:

  • UIFont.fontName
  • NSManagedObjectModel.entitiesByName

When you see a type that has a name property, you will typically also see a way to look up values of that type via its name. (Incidentally the convention is to name the argument label [type]Named: rather than [type]WithName:.)

This requirement that properties called name have unique values is what makes them unsuitable for storing user-facing text. Users can't guarantee uniqueness when entering a value unless the interface also performs validation and rejects non-unique values. But this would be a poorer experience than if the user could simply enter any value they want. (File systems come to mind as one of the few scenarios where this does happen.) To get around this you typically model types as having both a user-facing text property and an internal identifier property. These properties should be called title and identifier respectively.

About title

Title is used for user-facing text that distinguishes an item from others.

Here are some examples:

  • UIMenuItem.title
  • UIViewController.title
  • NSUserActivity.title

Sometimes title might seem a overly formal or plain silly, especially when you are inclined to say name in ordinary English. But for non-unique, user-facing text, title is correct. Even if the corresponding field has a prompt that says something like "give your new BLANK a name", title would still be the correct word to use for the property!

When you see a property called title you often also see a property called localizedDescription next to it. Both are used for describing (as opposed to identifing). The difference between the two is in their usage — think short headings versus long sentences.

About identifier

Properties that contain unique identifiers are called, well, identifier.

Here are some examples:

  • CNContact.identifier
  • EKEvent.eventIdentifier
  • URLSessionConfiguration.identifier

Both name and identifier imply uniqueness; values can be used as keys for lookup. The difference is that properties called name are typically human readable (if only for development and debugging purposes), whereas properties called identifier are typically opaque and generated randomly.

About id

Swift 5.1 introduced the Identifiable protocol to the standard library. Here you can see how the Swift programming language allows APIs to become more concise, or as some would say, Swifty.

APIs should be designed with the reader in mind. Abbreviations and initialisations should usually be avoided. ID is a fairly common initialisation and you can argue that shortening identifier to ID is sensible. Doing so is much less problematic in Swift than in, say, Objective-C because the var id: ID property is statically associated with the Identifiable protocol, which provides additional semantic context.

There are some APIs written in Objective-C that do use id instead of identifier, for example NSManagedObject.objectID and CKRecord.recordID. Notice that the types of these properties are not NSString but the more semantic NSManagedObjectID and CKRecordID classes respectively.


If you scour the frameworks that belong to the iOS and macOS SDKs you will see that these definitions mostly hold up. That said, there are always exceptions. Properties called localizedName have semantics closer to title than name. In the new MusicKit framework, the Playlist type has a property called name, but it seems like it should have been called title. But please don't let a few inconsistences discourage you from designing your own APIs rigorously.