guard & defer

Written by Nate Cook & Mattt (revised)

“We should do (as wise programmers aware of our limitations) our utmost best to … make the correspondence between the program (spread out in text space) and the process (spread out in time) as trivial as possible.”

Edsger W. Dijkstra, “Go To Considered Harmful”

It’s a shame that his essay is most remembered for popularizing the “____ Consider Harmful” meme among programmers and their ill-considered online diatribes. Because (as usual) Dijkstra was making an excellent point: the structure of code should reflect its behavior.

Swift 2.0 introduced two new control statements that aimed to simplify and streamline the programs we write: guard and defer. While the former by its nature makes our code more linear, the latter does the opposite by delaying execution of its contents.

How should we approach these new control statements? How can guard and defer help us clarify the correspondence between the program and the process?

Let’s defer defer and first take on guard.


guard

guard is a conditional statement requires an expression to evaluate to true for execution to continue. If the expression is false, the mandatory else clause is executed instead.

func sayHello(numberOfTimes: Int) {
    guard numberOfTimes > 0 else {
        return
    }

    for _ in 1...numberOfTimes {
        print("Hello!")
    }
}

The else clause in a guard statement must exit the current scope by using return to leave a function, continue or break to get out of a loop, or a function that returns Never like fatalError(_:file:line:).

guard statements are most useful when combined with optional bindings. Any new optional bindings created in a guard statement’s condition are available for the rest of the function or block.

Compare how optional binding works with a guard-let statement to an if-let statement:

var name: String?

if let name = name {
    // name is nonoptional inside (name is String)
}
// name is optional outside (name is String?)


guard let name = name else {
    return
}

// name is nonoptional from now on (name is String)

If the multiple optional bindings syntax introduced in Swift 1.2 heralded a renovation of the pyramid of doom, guard statements tear it down altogether.

for imageName in imageNamesList {
    guard let image = UIImage(named: imageName)
        else { continue }

    // do something with image
}

Guarding Against Excessive Indentation and Errors

Let’s take a before-and-after look at how guard can improve our code and help prevent errors.

As an example, we’ll implement a readBedtimeStory() function:

enum StoryError: Error {
    case missing
    case illegible
    case tooScary
}

func readBedtimeStory() throws {
    if let url = Bundle.main.url(forResource: "book",
                               withExtension: "txt")
    {
        if let data = try? Data(contentsOf: url),
            let story = String(data: data, encoding: .utf8)
        {
            if story.contains("👹") {
                throw StoryError.tooScary
            } else {
                print("Once upon a time... \(story)")
            }
        } else {
            throw StoryError.illegible
        }
    } else {
        throw StoryError.missing
    }
}

To read a bedtime story, we need to be able to find the book, the storybook must be decipherable, and the story can’t be too scary (no monsters at the end of this book, please and thank you!).

But note how far apart the throw statements are from the checks themselves. To find out what happens when you can’t find book.txt, you need to read all the way to the bottom of the method.

Like a good book, code should tell a story: with an easy-to-follow plot, and clear a beginning, middle, and end. (Just try not to write too much code in the “post-modern” genre).

Strategic use of guard statements allow us to organize our code to read more linearly.

func readBedtimeStory() throws {
    guard let url = Bundle.main.url(forResource: "book",
                                  withExtension: "txt")
    else {
        throw StoryError.missing
    }

    guard let data = try? Data(contentsOf: url),
        let story = String(data: data, encoding: .utf8)
    else {
        throw StoryError.illegible
    }

    if story.contains("👹") {
        throw StoryError.tooScary
    }

    print("Once upon a time... \(story)")
}

Much better! Each error case is handled as soon as it’s checked, so we can follow the flow of execution straight down the left-hand side.

Don’t Not Guard Against Double Negatives

One habit to guard against as you embrace this new control flow mechanism is overuse — particularly when the evaluated condition is already negated.

For example, if you want to return early if a string is empty, don’t write:

// Huh?
guard !string.isEmpty else {
    return
}

Keep it simple. Go with the (control) flow. Avoid the double negative.

// Aha!
if string.isEmpty {
    return
}

defer

Between guard and the new throw statement for error handling, Swift encourages a style of early return (an NSHipster favorite) rather than nested if statements. Returning early poses a distinct challenge, however, when resources that have been initialized (and may still be in use) must be cleaned up before returning.

The defer keyword provides a safe and easy way to handle this challenge by declaring a block that will be executed only when execution leaves the current scope.

Consider the following function that wraps a system call to gethostname(2) to return the current hostname of the system:

import Darwin

func currentHostName() -> String {
    let capacity = Int(NI_MAXHOST)
    let buffer = UnsafeMutablePointer<Int8>.allocate(capacity: capacity)

    guard gethostname(buffer, capacity) == 0 else {
        buffer.deallocate()
        return "localhost"
    }

    let hostname = String(cString: buffer)
    buffer.deallocate()

    return hostname
}

Here, we allocate an UnsafeMutablePointer<Int8> early on but we need to remember to deallocate it both in the failure condition and once we’re finished with the buffer.

Error prone? Yes. Frustratingly repetitive? Check.

By using a defer statement, we can remove the potential for programmer error and simplify our code:

func currentHostName() -> String {
    let capacity = Int(NI_MAXHOST)
    let buffer = UnsafeMutablePointer<Int8>.allocate(capacity: capacity)
    defer { buffer.deallocate() }

    guard gethostname(buffer, capacity) == 0 else {
        return "localhost"
    }

    return String(cString: buffer)
}

Even though defer comes immediately after the call to allocate(capacity), its execution is delayed until the end of the current scope. Thanks to defer, buffer will be properly deallocated regardless of where the function returns.

Consider using defer whenever an API requires calls to be balanced, such as allocate(capacity:) / deallocate(), wait() / signal(), or open() / close(). This way, you not only eliminate a potential source of programmer error, but make Dijkstra proud. “Goed gedaan!” he’d say, in his native Dutch.

Deferring Frequently

If you use multiple defer statements in the same scope, they’re executed in reverse order of appearance — like a stack. This reverse order is a vital detail, ensuring everything that was in scope when a deferred block was created will still be in scope when the block is executed.

For example, running the following code prints the output below:

func procrastinate() {
    defer { print("wash the dishes") }
    defer { print("take out the recycling") }
    defer { print("clean the refrigerator") }

    print("play videogames")
}

play videogames
clean the refrigerator
take out the recycling
wash the dishes

What happens if you nest defer statements, like this?

defer { defer { print("clean the gutter") } }

Your first thought might be that it pushes the statement to the very bottom of the stack. But that’s not what happens. Think it through, and then test your hypothesis in a Playground.

Deferring Judgement

If a variable is referenced in the body of a defer statement, its final value is evaluated. That is to say: defer blocks don’t capture the current value of a variable.

If you run this next code sample, you’ll get the output that follows:

func flipFlop() {
    var position = "It's pronounced /ɡɪf/"
    defer { print(position) }

    position = "It's pronounced /dʒɪf/"
    defer { print(position) }
}

It's pronounced /dʒɪf/
It's pronounced /dʒɪf/

Deferring Demurely

Another thing to keep in mind is that defer blocks can’t break out of their scope. So if you try to call a method that can throw, the error can’t be passed to the surrounding context.

func burnAfterReading(file url: URL) throws {
    defer { try FileManager.default.removeItem(at: url) }
    // 🛑 Errors not handled

    let string = try String(contentsOf: url)
}

Instead, you can either ignore the error by using try? or simply move the statement out of the defer block and at the end of the function to execute conventionally.

(Any Other) Defer Considered Harmful

As handy as the defer statement is, be aware of how its capabilities can lead to confusing, untraceable code. It may be tempting to use defer in cases where a function needs to return a value that should also be modified, as in this typical implementation of the postfix ++ operator:

postfix func ++(inout x: Int) -> Int {
    let current = x
    x += 1
    return current
}

In this case, defer offers a clever alternative. Why create a temporary variable when we can just defer the increment?

postfix func ++(inout x: Int) -> Int {
    defer { x += 1 }
    return x
}

Clever indeed, yet this inversion of the function’s flow harms readability. Using defer to explicitly alter a program’s flow, rather than to clean up allocated resources, will lead to a twisted and tangled execution process.


“As wise programmers aware of our limitations,” we must weigh the benefits of each language feature against its costs.

A new statement like guard leads to a more linear, more readable program; apply it as widely as possible.

Likewise, defer solves a significant challenge but forces us to keep track of its declaration as it scrolls out of sight; reserve it for its minimum intended purpose to prevent confusion and obscurity.

NSMutableHipster

Questions? Corrections? Issues and pull requests are always welcome — NSHipster is made better by readers like you.

This article uses Swift version 4.2 and was last reviewed on August 1, 2018. Find status information for all articles on the status page.

October 5th, 2015

First Publication

August 1st, 2018

Updated for Swift 4.2

Follow NSHipster
Next Article

With 2015 behind us and the new year begun, it’s time again for an NSHipster tradition: reader submissions! As in year’s past, this installment is chock full of tips and tricks that can help ease your days working with Xcode, Swift, and Objective-C.