Elegant Code Patterns—Drop the Else When Code is Repeated

I’m working on launching a new project that has been eating up a lot of my time. Partially because any new project has a habit of eating up a lot of time, but also because I’m really focusing on using this project as a solid base for a few others, meaning I want my code to be elegant, my ideas well-executed, and my implementation in a way that means I won’t want to scrap it and start over in the future as I do far too often. Part of that employing elegant code patterns. One of my most often used patterns involves dropping the else statement when I have code repeated in different logic clauses.

The premise

One of the countless ways of using the if…else construct is to do one thing if a certain variable is one value, or do something else if it is not. A lot of times this results in duplicating code. Duplicate code is inelegant, and introduces a greater opportunity for error when, for instance, one line is changed, but its clone is not.

The solution: structure your code to reduce duplicate code.

A case study

A project is using a CMS that provides a tag to retrieve the path to a featured image for a page. If no such image exists, it returns the path for an empty filler image. There’s no way within the CMS to change what that filler image is, but this project calls for using something else as a filler.

The goal: display the proper featured image or correct placeholder using an img tag.

The process: get the image path, and check if it is the default filler image. If it is, change the path to the new filler. Display the correct image.

The inherited code looked something like this (PHP):

$image_path = get_image_path($page);
if ($image_path == "/path/to/default_filler.png") {
   echo "<img src="/path/to/desired/filler.png" alt=" " />";
} else {
   echo "<img src="$image_path" alt=" " />";

In this case, the logical clauses are doing the exact same thing: printing out an image tag. The only difference is the path being printed. What if you later decide to add in an alt value, or reuse this code on an HTML page instead of XHTML? You might forget to change both lines. There’s a more elegant way.

The refined code

Refining the code, we can completely drop the else statement. Instead of printing the tag in each clause, we simply change the value of $image_path to be equal to the new filler image path if it is set to the wrong one. Then, we print the image tag using the value of $image_path.

$image_path = get_image_path($page);
if ($image_path == "/path/to/default_filler.png") {
    $image_path = "/path/to/desired/filler.png";
echo "<img src="$image_path" alt=" " />";

Depending on your school of thought on using braces with logical constructs, you can even reduce this code to three lines. But, regardless of brace use, the refined code is a lot more elegant and maintainable than the old code.

Going further, in this case our code pattern was only being used once, but if you were also repeating this pattern, you would turn it into a function to be called each time rather than copying the code.

Any time you find yourself repeating code, especially inside of logical constructs, see if you can simplify and refine your code. It makes it easier to read, easier to update, and is often much more efficient.