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Lars-Erik Bruce
Lars-Erik Bruce

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Embracing Early Returns: Code Clarity and Efficiency

As developers, we often find ourselves at the crossroads of coding decisions, like whether to embrace early returns or stick to old-fashioned indentations.

The Early Return Advantage

Early returns, a technique involving the liberal use of the return statement, allow us to exit a function as soon as a specific condition is met, without waiting until the end of the function block. Here's why I'm a fervent advocate for early returns:

Clarity and Readability

Readability is paramount when writing code, and early returns excel in this regard. They dramatically reduce nesting and indentation levels, resulting in code that's easier to follow. Gone are the days of deep indentation mazes that leave your head spinning. With early returns, each condition or case is addressed immediately, making your intentions crystal clear to anyone reading your code.

Error Handling Made Simple

Error handling becomes a walk in the park with early returns. When an error condition arises, there's no need to wade through layers of nested blocks; you can simply return early with an informative error message or value (or just throw an exception). This approach keeps your code lean and free from the clutter of error handling logic scattered throughout the function.

The Pitfalls of Excessive Indentation

While some may argue in favor of maintaining a single exit point with indentations, I find this approach dated and often cumbersome. Here's why:

Indentation Overload

Indentation, especially in larger functions or deeply nested code, can quickly spiral out of control. The deeper you nest, the harder it becomes to keep track of your code's flow. It's like navigating a labyrinth, with every additional level of indentation adding to the complexity.

Cleanup Complexity

In scenarios that require resource cleanup or finalization tasks before exiting a function, the indentation approach can be far from elegant. You're forced to keep track of these tasks until the end of the function, leading to bloated code and increased cognitive load.

Pitfalls of early returns

There are a few pitfalls with early returns as well. When there are multiple return points within a function, it may become challenging to track the flow of execution. That means, overuse of early returns can lead to code that is harder to follow.

They may also not be suitable for all situations, especially when there are cleanup tasks or resource management that need to be done before exiting the function. In such cases, a single exit point with proper cleanup code might be more appropriate. (If only functions could have a finally clause!)

Conclusion: Embrace Early Returns

In my opinion, the choice between early returns and indentation should be a nobrainer: embrace early returns. Not only do they make your code cleaner and more readable, but they also simplify error handling and special cases. With early returns, your code becomes a joy to work with, and your future self (and fellow developers) will thank you for the clarity and efficiency you bring to your projects.

While some coding style guides may recommend indentation, don't be afraid to challenge the status quo. Early returns are a powerful tool in your coding arsenal, and by adopting them, you'll write code that's not only functional but also a pleasure to read and maintain.

So, the next time you sit down to write code, consider the elegance and efficiency of early returns. You'll find that they're not just a coding technique but a philosophy that elevates your code to new heights.

I used ChatGPT to help me formulate parts of this post. All opinions are sincerely mine, and based on my experience as a professional software developer.

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