Jake Goulding

Name your variables by the roles they play

Have you ever seen a variable with a terrible name? This is of course a trick question; everyone has. I’d like to look at a particular variable-naming annoyance: naming the variable based on the class name.

In a statically-typed language without type inference, like Java, you have likely seen something like this:

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FooBarZed fooBarZed = new FooBarZed(true);

In a dynamically typed language, like Ruby, it would look more like this:

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foo_bar_zed = FooBarZed.new(true)

This style of code may make sense to you. Maybe your class names are self-describing, and so duplicating the class name as the variable name is just “reusing a good thing”.

The problem with naming variables in this style is that the class name, at best, describes what is special about an object or how the object works. When you are using the object, you want to know why you are using it - you want to know the role of the object:

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# this variable name says nothing new to the reader of the code
url_fetcher = UrlFetcher.new('http://example.com/')
# this variable name explains why we want to do something
conversion_rate_fetcher = UrlFetcher.new('http://example.com/')

As a pragmatic argument, think how often you rename a class to better describe it. Now think how often you’ve changed a class name AND all the variables to match the new class.

The role that an object plays changes at vastly different rate than the name of the class. It’s unlikely that the role will change dramatically, as that new role would probably be better represented by a brand new object. Similarly, code that uses that object is unlikely to want an object that fills a different role without a rewrite of how the calling code works.