Sunday 23 July 2017

PHP: A function that returns two different things

I'm gonna plagiarise one of me own answers to a Stack Overflow question here, as I think it's good generic advice.

The question was "PHP 7: Multiple function return types". The subject line sums it up really. The person here wants to return a value or false from a function. I see this a lot in PHP code. Indeed... PHP itself does it a lot.

My answer was as follows:


From a design perspective, having a function that potentially returns different types of result indicates a potential design flaw:

  • If you're returning your result, or otherwise false if something didn't go to plan; you should probably be throwing an exception instead. If the function processing didn't go according to plan; that's an exceptional situation: leverage the fact. I know PHP itself has a habit of returning false if things didn't work, but that's just indicative of poor design - for the same reason - in PHP.
  • If your function returns potentially different things, then it's quite possible it's doing more than one thing, which is bad design in your function. Functions should do one thing. If your function has an if/else with the true/false block handling different chunks of processing (as opposed to just handling exit situations), then this probably indicates you ought to have two functions, not one. Leave it to the calling code to decide which is the one to use.
  • If your function returns two different object types which then can be used in a similar fashion in the calling code (ie: there's no if this: do that; else do this other thing in the calling code), this could indicate you ought to be returning an interface, not a concrete implementation.
There will possibly be legit situations where returning different types is actually the best thing to do. If so: all good. But that's where the benefit of using a loosely typed language comes in: just don't specify the return type of the function. But… that said… the situation probably isn't legit, so work through the preceding design considerations first to determine if you really do have one of these real edge cases where returning different types is warranted.

I'll add two more considerations here.

There's another option which is kinda legit. In PHP 7.1 one can declare the return type to be nullable.

Consider a function which potentially returns a boolean:

function f($x) {
    if ($x) {
        return true;

We can't declare that with a return type of bool as if our logic strays done that falsey branch, we get a fatal error:

function f($x) : bool {
    if ($x) {
        return true;

f(1); // OK

f(0); // PHP Fatal error:  Uncaught TypeError: Return value of f() must be of the type boolean, none returned

But in 7.1, one can declare the return type as nullable:

function g($x) : ?bool {
    if ($x) {
        echo "returning true";
        return true;

    echo "returning null";
    return null;

g(1); // returning true
g(0); // returning null

Now sometimes this is legit. One might be looking for something from some other resource (eg: a DB record) which quite legitimately might not exist. And there might not be a legit "null implementation" of the given class one is wanting to return: for example returning the object with some/all of its properties not set or something. In this case a null is OK. But remember in this case one is forcing more logic back on the calling code: checking for the null. So not necessarily a good approach. I'd consider whether this situation is better handled with an exception.

The last consideration is that one can still specify multiple return types in a type-hint annotation, eg:

 * @param bool $b
 * @return A|B
function f($b){
    if ($b) {
        return new A();
    }else {
        return new B();

This doesn't actually enforce anything, so it's mostly a lie, just like all comments are, but at least one's IDE might be able to make sense of it, and give code assistance and autocomplete suggestions when writing one's code:

See how it offers both the method from an A and a B there.

Still: I really dislike these annotations as they're really just comments, and especially in this case they're lying: f can actually return anything it likes.

Right... must dash. I am supposed to be down @ my ex's place hanging out with my son in 10min. I'll press "send" and proof-read this later ;-)