The Curse of GOTO

When I started to learn programming professionally in 1991 at the Schülerrechenzentrum Dresden I was always told: „Do not use GOTO statements! It is never needed due to other possibilities which are available. GOTOs do disturb the program flow, the understanding of the program becomes more difficult and the program is not well structured anymore.“ I started to program some years before that on a C64 and there was practically no other way than using GOTOs and therefore, it sounded strange to me at first.

At the Schülerrechenzentrum Dresden I learned to program Turbo-Pascal and I was taught to use never ever GOTOs, but to think about a good program flow and to implement decisions and jumps with IF statements and calls of functions and procedures. Over the years I always followed this advice, but from time to time I started thinking about the usage again, but I never found a situation where a GOTO statement would be a better choice than other possibilities of implementation.

Following some facts and taught why not to use GOTOs.

Complexity

GOTOs increase source code’s complexity or seem to increase it. If there is a label in source one never knows exactly what GOTOs and how much will jump there in which circumstances and where are they located. If there is a GOTO around, the search for the corresponding label starts. The flow is not obvious any more and a label is not always distinct.

In the name of complexity GOTOs should be replaced by IF statements and function calls. These are easy to understand and with the right indentation and naming it’s quite obvious what the program does and what the intentions are.

Maintainable Code and Human Understanding

Try to understand code which is written with GOTOs. You always have to find out, where the fitting label is and under which circumstances the GOTO is invoked and what the current status of all variables are. It becomes more difficult in languages where a GOTO is allowed to jump out of the current function into another one or where the GOTO is allowed to jump into loops from outside. It’s very difficult to see and understand what the initial values are after the jump and how the program will proceed. A GOSUB and a RETURN is the same mess.

„Any fool can write code that a computer can understand. Good programmers write code that humans can understand. „
– Martin Fowler –

For maintainable code, source code is needed without such difficulties. A clean source code exposes all its conditions and its program flow. A GOTO messes this up and should therefore never used.

Refactoring

In Martin Fowler book „Refactoring – Improving the Design of Existing Code“ a lot of techniques and patterns are described for improving and developing good code. Refactoring, improving the code, can only be done, if the program flow is obvious and the behavior can be foreseen for any change. If a GOTO is within the area of the refactored code, the change or move of the corresponding label can dramatically change the programs behavior and it’s not that obvious in the first place.

In the name of maintainable code, refactoring should be possible. GOTOs lead to source code which is not easily refactorable and it should therefore be avoided under any circumstance.

For further information about clean code, have a look to the book Clean Code by Robert C. Martin.

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