Flag Argument

23 June 2011

A flag argument is a kind of function argument that tells the function to carry out a different operation depending on its value. Let's imagine we want to make booking for a concert. There are two ways to do this: regular and premium . To use a flag argument here we'd end up with a method declaration along these lines:

    class Concert...
      public Booking book (Customer aCustomer, boolean isPremium) {...}

My general reaction to flag arguments is to avoid them. Rather than use a flag argument, I prefer to define separate methods.

    class Concert...
      public Booking regularBook(Customer aCustomer) {...}
      public Booking premiumBook(Customer aCustomer) {...}

My reasoning here is that the separate methods communicate more clearly what my intention is when I make the call. Instead of having to remember the meaning of the flag variable when I see book(martin, false) I can easily read regularBook(martin).

Tangled Implementation

My general dislike of flag arguments does have some subtleties and consequences, the first of which is how to deal with a tangled implementation.

In the simplest case, the reaction to the flag is effectively to call different methods.

    public Booking book (Customer aCustomer, boolean isPremium) {
       // logic for premium book
       // logic for regular booking

but sometimes the logic is more tangled

    public Booking book (Customer aCustomer, boolean isPremium) {
      else {

In this situation it can be messy to try to extract the regular and premium book methods into separate methods without significant duplication between the two. In this case one option is to retain the method with the flag argument, but keep it hidden.

    class Order...
      public Booking regularBook(Customer aCustomer) {
        return hiddenBookImpl(aCustomer, false);
      public Booking premiumBook(Customer aCustomer) {
        return hiddenBookImpl(aCustomer, true);
      private Booking hiddenBookImpl(Customer aCustomer,  boolean isPremium) {...}

The point here is that only the regular and premium book methods should call hiddenBookImpl. I like to telegraph this by using an ugly name - which also has the bonus that, if you have to, you can easily add a regex probe to ensure nobody else is calling it.

Deriving the flag

How about if the decision on whether to use a premium booking process depends upon the status of the customer. Let's assume an elite customer gets premium booking while a regular customer gets the regular treatment. In this case, of course, we shouldn't have a boolean flag - but is the customer object itself acting as a flag?

I would look at this as about capturing the intention of the caller. If how to book depends only on the status of the customer, then the caller has no business caring about the difference between premium and regular booking - and thus it's perfectly reasonable for the booking routine to derive it's true method based on the customer status. You only want different methods when the caller needs to specify which one she wants.

Boolean Setting Method

Connected to this is the issue of how to name boolean setting methods. Here I agree with Kent's advice - I would rather see

    void setOn();
    void setOff();

than see

    void setSwitch(boolean on);

But again to agree with Kent, this does depend on how the method is used. If you pulling data from a boolean source, such as a UI control or data source, I'd rather have setSwitch(aValue) than

    if (aValue)

This is an example that an API should be written to make it easier for the caller, so if we know where the caller is coming from we should design the API with that information in mind. This also argues that we may sometimes provide both styles if we get callers in both ways.

That same logic applies to book. If there is a check-box on the screen and we are just passing its value to book then a flag argument has some justification. In this example I wouldn't say it's a simple choice - most of the time I'd argue that the flag argument for book is much harder to understand than a simple boolean setter, and is thus worth the explicit methods.