Zerø Wind Jamie Wong

Name your Arguments!

“Programs should be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.” - Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs

I’ve programmed enough now to start caring about the form as well as the function of my code. I can’t even look at inconsistent style or naming conventions without twitching a little and wanting to fix it.

After reading and writing code full-time, I’ve come to appreciate the quote that starts this article. I’ll explain why I support that sentiment so strongly with an example. Let’s look at a very common function in JavaScript.

element.addEventListener('click', function() {
  console.log('Just got clicked!');
}, true);

So let’s break down this code into components.

element - So we’ve got some element - alright cool. If you know a little about JavaScript and HTML, you’ll guess that’s an HTML element - so far so good.

addEventListener - …and we want to listen for some event on this element. Still following, good stuff.

'click' - “click” is a word I understand as a computer user, and based on the name, I’m guessing that this means the code is listening for clicks.

function() { ... } - If you know JavaScript, you’ll recognize that as a callback. It’s an extremely common pattern that’s well recognized and is fairly consistent across different APIs. You pass a function as a callback when you want it to be called later on. Still good.

true - …and here’s where the communication breaks down. What’s true? Maybe it changes what this is in the context of the callback? Maybe it makes the callback only run once? In fact, it turns out that it fires the callback during the capture phase of the event bubbling - obvious, right?

The point is that there’s absolutely no way of knowing what that true means.
Boolean flags are absolutely awful for readability. As it turns out, it’s fairly important that addEventListener be extremely efficient, but let’s pretend for a second that it didn’t have to be - how can we make this more readable?

Option 1: Helpful variable names

var useCapture = true;
element.addEventListener('click', function() {
  console.log('Just got clicked!');
}, useCapture);

By using a variable, we’ve at least indicated what the flag pertains to. This is more readable, but having a one-time use variable like that is crufty. Let’s assume we can change the API itself to facilitate more readable code. What can we do then?

Option 2: Namespaced constants

element.addEventListener('click', function() {
  console.log('Just got clicked!');
}, element.addEventListener.USE_CAPTURE);

This approach is better because it means that flag will be the same everywhere addEventListener is used, but it means duplicating the element.addEventListener.

Option 3: Hide the boolean arguments

If you ever have a function signature in a public API that takes a single boolean argument, you can hide it by just having two methods - one where that argument is true and another where the argument is false.

element.addCaptureEventListener('click', function() {
  console.log('Just got clicked!');
});

In the implementation, you would still have that boolean argument internally, (you weren’t thinking of copy-pasting, right?) but at least the API user doesn’t have to worry about it. This solution clearly doesn’t scale for functions with a lot of boolean options, unless you have no problem with exponential growth in API size.

Option 4: “Named” arguments

element.addEventListener('click', function() {
  console.log('Just got clicked!');
}, {inCapturePhase: true});

Ah, there we go. Now I now what the true means! Now, there’s still the matter of understanding what the “capture phase” is, but at least that’s looking up concepts, not some arbitrary syntax imposed on you. Understanding event bubbling is useful - memorizing what the boolean third argument means is not.

Named Arguments

I love named arguments. Being able to tell exactly what all the arguments mean at the call site without having to look up the function signature every time is a sure way to make me happy as a developer.

JavaScript

“Named” was in quotes in Option 4 because JavaScript doesn’t have real named arguments. Writing functions that take them in JavaScript is pretty kludgy, but it makes using the APIs much nicer. Take for instance, jQuery’s $.ajax method.

$.ajax({
  url: "test.html",
  timeout: 1000,
  success: function(data) {
    console.log(data);
  },
  error: function(jqXHR, textStatus) {
    console.log(jxXHR);
  }
});

And compare that to another API with the same functionality but without using these named arguments:

$.ajax("test.html", 1000, function(data) {
  console.log(data);
}, function(jqXHR, textStatus) {
  console.log(jqXHR);
});

And watch the communication break down again. What’s the 1000? Is the first callback the success callback or the error one? These are all questions you should never have to ask while reading code. In particular, it’s an immense waste of everyone’s time to have to remember what order arguments are supposed to be in.

Implementing APIs like this is unreasonable in some languages, and it’s frankly somewhat of a pain in JavaScript. If you want to take options like this, you have to do silly things like this:

function fancyPrint(message, options) {
  options = options || {};

  var color = options.color;
  var bold = options.bold;
  var underline = options.underline;

  // ... implementation ...
}

fancyPrint('Hello', {color: 'red', bold: true});
fancyPrint('World', {underline: true, bold: false, color: 'blue'})

Still, if you’re writing a library, please do this. I assure you the developers will appreciate it.

CoffeeScript

CoffeeScript provides an extremely nice syntax for this style exactly because it’s such a pain in raw JavaScript. A translation of the above would look like this:

fancyPrint = (message, {color, bold, underline}) ->
  # ... implementation ...

print 'Hello', {color: 'red', bold: true}
print 'World', {underline: true, bold: false, color:'blue'}

Unfortunately, you lose the ability to have default arguments in CoffeeScript when using named arguments like this. Sadly, this doesn’t work:

print = (message, {color='black', bold=false, underline=false}) ->
# Error: Parse error on line 2: Unexpected '='

Python

The argument system is Python is beautiful. All arguments are optionally named arguments, and you can define defaults just fine!

def fancyPrint(message, color='black', bold=True, underline=True):
  # ... implementation ...

fancyPrint('Hello', color='red', bold=True)
fancyPrint('World', underline=true, bold=false)
fancyPrint(color='black', message='!')

# You can even do this (please don't)
fancyPrint('Eugh', 'yellow', True, True)

An additional nicety of Python’s argument system is that it will complain if you
pass it arguments it doesn’t understand. (JavaScript just ignores them if you do this)

>>> fancyPrint('Hello', monkeys='cool')
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: fancyPrint() got an unexpected keyword argument 'monkeys'

Objective C

Objective C takes a different approach here - the parameter names are part of the function signature itself. For example:

// A function invoked like this:
BOOL result = [myData writeToFile:@"/tmp/log.txt" atomically:NO];

// Will have signature like this
-(BOOL)writeToFile:(NSString *)path atomically:(BOOL)useAuxiliaryFile;

From Cocoa Dev Central’s Learn Objective-C,

These are not just named arguments. The method name is actually writeToFile:atomically: in the runtime system.

Hacking It

In addition to the object literal solution I showed in the JavaScript and CoffeeScript sections above, there’s another solution for C-like languages such as JavaScript, and it looks like this:

function fancyPrint(message, color, bold) {
  // ... implementation ...
}

var color, bold;
fancyPrint('Hello', color='red', bold=true);

Looks exactly like python - great, right? Well, not exactly. This is just abusing the fact that assignments return the value assigned in C-like languages.

While this does make the code more readable, it also makes it more fragile, and confusingly so. For instance, let’s say we change the function signature:

function fancyPrint(message, color, underline, bold) {
  // ... implementation ...
}

var color, bold;
fancyPrint('Hello', color='red', bold=true);

Now you have the result of bold=true actually being assigned to the underline argument. So I’m not a fan of this solution for one reason:

Bad assumptions are far worse than no assumptions

Having to go look something up to see what that stupid boolean parameter does is annoying, but it’s better than the code indicating it does something different than what it actually does.

This is actually a problem with options 1 & 2 above as well, but this is slightly worse because of the additional confusion created for people who might think that the assignment like this does act like Python’s named arguments.

You get the same problem from commenting like this:

fancyPrint('Hello', /*color*/ 'red', /*bold*/ true);

For stable APIs, like addEventListener, these techniques are probably fine, but for your own projects’ internal workings, it’s probably a good idea to avoid this style.

Takeaways

  1. Naming your arguments makes function calls more readable.
  2. Avoid boolean arguments like the plague.
  3. Bad assumptions are far worse than no assumptions.

If you want to hear more rambling about the minutia of good API design, you should follow me on twitter @jlfwong.

If you liked reading this, you should follow me on twitter, take a look at other blog posts by me, or maybe even come work with me at Figma!


Zerø Wind Jamie Wong
Previously The Fifteen Puzzle - The Algorithm October 16, 2011
Up next Immersion and Schadenfreude December 30, 2011