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C'est la Z

Give me a break (and a continue)

What can I do to discourage my students from using the "break" statement?

That was more or less the gist of the comment and it elicited some good responses. This time the conversation was on Facebook but I've seen this one and participated in it many times before. I never liked the question when presented as a "how can I stop them" one. I equally dislike when the offered advice is basically "never use break no matter what" or something similar. When writing code the best advice is rarely to never or always do something. The question should really be "when is it appropriate for my students to use a break statement and how can I steer them towards using it correctly." The answer, of course is "it depends."

For those unfamiliar with the statements, break jumps to the end and exits the loop or switch statement that encloses it. The continue statement jumps up to the next iteration of its enclosing loop. I'll show some examples below.

It's true that you never need to use break but in my opinion, if used correctly it can create clearer code. Let's look at a related situation. Suppose you write a function to find and return some item from a data set (in pseudocode):

You could tighten it up a bit but there are two things that I don't like about the above solution. First, it goes through the entire data set even if the item you're searching for is near the beginning. You could fix that by putting in a more complex loop boolean:

for (i=0; i < numitems && !found ; i++) ...

Second. you've got the conditional after the loop. I find the following much clearer:

  

To me this is perfectly clear. Look for an item, if and when we find it, we're done so let's get out of here. If not, the loop finishes and we return the not found stuff at the end. It's clean, easy to understand, and potentially a little faster.

You have a similar situation with break. Without it you might have code like this:

  

And with:

  

Not significantly different.

People who don't like the break statement usually adhere to a very strict interpretation of structured programming - one entry point, one exit point but I'd argue that break (and continue) are not like arbitrary jumps. They're well defined and don't introduce spaghetti code. They either specifically exit a bounding language construct or jump to the next iteration. Actually, now that I think about it, exceptions can be used in a way that mucks with clear code in a much more dangerous way than break and continue can.

Here's an example with continue:

    

as opposed to:

    

Which is better? It's purely subjective. Nothing wrong with either.

I'll share a final example. This one lifted from an older post on "best practices." If you're writing an event handler, you could put the exit event in the loop boolean but I find including it as a case using a break to be cleaner:


At the end of the day, break and continue, like most langauge constructs can be used for either good or evil. There have been times when they've led me to cleaner code so I've used them. At other times, using them would have been forced.

If we agree that break and continue can be appropriate, the other question is when to introduce them. One comment from the most recent Facebook thread on this (name withheld since that's a semi-private forum) was that it shouldn't be right off the bat but rather after they're comfortable with loops, conditionals and booleans so that they can use the new constructs when they make sense and not willy-nilly. I tend to agree with this.

Personally, I think it's important to show our kids constructs like break and continue and it's also important for us to talk about good code and best practices but the important thing is that we don't have our kids blindly follow any practice but empower them to make good decisions based on their situations.

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