Avoid complex conditionals using the ternary operator

?: is a ternary operator introduced to write elegant if-else clause.

It is a concise way of writing simple conditionals. However, those should be easily understandable by any human. It should not be used to write deeply nested complex conditionals that hamper the readability.


When to use?

When you have very simple if-else that could be covered in one line and returns value.


Example:

Display text as “Weekend” if it’s a Sunday otherwise “Working day”

Another one:

Determine the restaurant to visit depending upon cash in your wallet.

When NOT to use?

As said earlier, they are used to simplify the conditional so that they add value and make code simple and elegant.

However, that does not mean you should blindly rewrite ALL if-else clause with the ternary operator. Please avoid them when expression becomes complex and difficult to understand.


Bad Example

The implementation of the fizz buzz generator.



const output = number % 3 === 0 && number % 5 === 0 ? "FizzBuzz"
 : number % 3 === 0 ? "Fizz" 
 : number % 5  === 0 ? "Buzz" 
 : number;

In my career, I have seen people writing deeply nested clauses using the ternary operator. I kept the above example to convey my thoughts.

The above snippet adds unnecessary mental mapping to remember and process each conditional and symbols ?: ?: ?: more like a machine.

Please don’t be a human code compressor.

Better alternative

Conventional if-else over ternary when a condition becomes complex.

Day by day, high-level languages are introducing more features so that developers could write more human-readable expressive code. We should keep this point in our mind and avoid a few things like writing deeply nested complex ternary conditionals. Instead, go for conventional control flow statements like if-else or if-return-early.

Thoughts mentioned in this post are based on my personal experience. It is just a guideline. IMO, we should be compassionate about our co-worker while writing the code and should avoid clever-complex clauses using ternary operators and rather should focus on elegance.

Dattatraya Kale

Aspiring agile software craftsman, clean code, polyglot, in love with different programming paradigm. I am on a never-ending journey towards mastery of software.

One thought to “Avoid complex conditionals using the ternary operator”

  1. I’m torn between if and the ternary operator. I agree and disagree at the same time. if is more readable than the ternary operator. But expressions are better than statements. The benefit of the ternary operator is that it’s an expression.

    The real problem is language design. It fails us. Despite Lisp from 1957, most languages still favor statements over expressions, a legacy of imperative languages like BASIC.

    At least, some imperative languages have finally started to address this problem to some extent now. For example, the next version of Java is going to feature switch-expressions.

    What if somebody could write code like this:

    return
    if (number % 3 == 0 && number % 5 == 0) “FizzBuzz”
    else if (number % 3 == 0) “Fizz”
    else if (number % 5 == 0) “Buzz”
    else toString(number);

    Just today I tweeted about this language issue:
    https://twitter.com/christianhujer/status/1151729825855475713
    https://twitter.com/christianhujer/status/1151725215988224000

Leave a Reply