Return false with prudence

From “Javascript: the good parts”:

It is rarely possible for standards comittees to remove imperfections from a language because doing so would cause the breakdage of all of the bad programs that depend on those bad parts. They are usually powerless to do anything except heap more features on top of the existing pile of imperfections.

Douglas Crockford’s terse yet lucid javascript primer makes some excellent points on writing in a language with more than its fair of share of shortcomings. The advice is manyfold: constituting functionality or design decisions to avoid (the “bad” and “awful” parts) as well as patterns and practices making use of the strongest parts of the language. Essentially, one is guided to programming within a subset of the language, avoiding the poor quality and outright dangerous components. This chimes in well with the notation of “programming into a language” rather than within in it - stressed by the seminal “Code Complete” by Steve McConnell.

Don’t limit your programming thinking only to the concepts that are supported automatically by your language. The best programmers think of what they want to do, and then they assess how to accomplish their objectives with the programming tools at their disposal.

Both these concepts are relevant to programmers of PHP - a language carrying just as much baggage as javascript. In my experience, developers who have only known PHP are prone to employing of a variety of bad practices and anti-patterns. Such things are fostered by several influences, including the forgiving nature of the language, the veritable wealth of bad advice within the comments on the PHP manual, and a general lack of understanding of the art of object-oriented programming. Indeed, I think it’s essential that PHP developers learn to program (and hence think) in other languages: python and java in particular. Reading the work of Martin Fowler is a good place to start but that’s a topic for another time.


One irritating programming idiom – especially common to PHP programmers – is to use a return value of FALSE to indicate that something has gone wrong, or that no valid return value could be found. Unless the only other possible return value is TRUE, this is almost always wrong.

Of course, many programmers pick up this nasty habit from the PHP standard library itself, which employs this practice frequently. Further, it is similar to the C and UNIX convention of returning non-zero values as error codes (and sometimes vice-versa). The language writers of PHP have the excuse that this was the only mechanism available back in the dark days of PHP before version 5, before the introduction of exceptions - programmers coding today do not have that excuse. Indeed, employing this technique betrays a lack of understanding of what it means to program into a language rather than within it.

Instead, please consider doing one of the following:

Throw an exception

When an error has occurred, a thrown exception is a clean and intent-revealing means of handing control over to a component of your program that can deal with the error. This saves cluttering up the normal execution path with checks for error codes and generally leads to concise and readable code. This leads to shorter, cleaner methods and allows the use of fluent interfaces - safe in the knowledge that a valid object will always be returned.

So use:

try {
    // Place an order
    $orderNumber = $this->generateNewOrderNumber();
} catch (OrderCreationException $e) {
    // Rollback transaction, return friendly error message

instead of

$orderNumber = $this->generateNewOrderNumber();
if (!$orderNumber) return false;
$deliveryAddressSavedOk = $this->saveDeliveryAddress();
if (!$deliveryAddressSavedOk) return false;
$billingAddressSavedOk = $this->saveDeliveryAddress();
if (!$billingAddressSavedOk) return false;

Using exceptions to indicate errors obeys the Command-query separation principle, where (broadly speaking) only “getter” methods should return a value (using fluent interfaces is a mild but acceptable violation of this separation).

Return null, Null object or an empty collection

Many objects will employ “finder” or factory methods responsible for looking up and then constructing an object:

$book = Book::findByIsbn($isbn);

In this case, when no book is found, FALSE is not the appropriate return value - either return NULL (to indicate the absence of a valid book), or employ the Null Object pattern and return an null book object. It just feels so wrong returning multiple types from a function. Alarm bells should ring as soon as you see the pipe:

* @param string $isbn
* @return Book|false

A neat idiom for finder methods is to always return a iterable collection of objects, which is simply empty when no object is found:

class Book
    public static function findByIsbn($isbn)
        $books =  new BookCollection; // An iterable collection object
        // Loop through database result set and add books to BookCollection
        return $books;

Client code can then simply iterate over the returned value - it doesn’t have to check for the presence of an item. JQuery employs this pattern extensively with its $ CSS selector and it works wonderfully. The only downside for this is mental discomfort involved in selecting an element where there can only ever be one: such as an element with a unique id ($('#my_element')).

Ultimately, there’s only really one place where returning false is appropriate: that’s in a method that only returns boolean values.


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Tagged with: php
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