### Jeremy Fairbank

Software Engineer and Consultant. Hawaii. Author of Programming Elm and Conference Speaker.

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# Solving the Boolean Identity Crisis: Part 1

### Contents

Originally published at https://programming-elm.com on May 20, 2019.

Back in September 2017, I presented the talk “Solving the Boolean Identity Crisis” at ElmConf. The talk highlights the downsides of using booleans in Elm code and offers ways to write clearer, more maintainable code. This post and the next couple of posts will share what I explored in that presentation. You can preview what’s to come by watching my talk on YouTube.

In this post, you will see how boolean function arguments obscure the intent of code. Then, you will learn how to replace boolean arguments with Elm’s custom types to write more understandable code.

## The Problem

Look at this function call to understand the problem with boolean arguments.

We pass in a string argument "OGG" and a boolean argument True to a bookFlight function. If you encountered this in an Elm codebase, you might wonder what the boolean argument does.

Boolean arguments hide the intent of code. We don’t know the significance of the True value here without looking up the definition of bookFlight. The boolean argument makes this code harder to understand, especially as a newcomer learning the codebase.

Looking up the definition, we find this. (I use ... to signify irrelevant code.)

The boolean argument is called isPremium, so it means the booking customer has a premium status. We use an if-else expression to branch on isPremium. If isPremium is False, we’re not certain what status this customer has. We have to assume that the customer has a “regular” status because the code makes that implicit. We’ve lost the explicit intent of this code by using a boolean argument.

This code will present future problems if we need more than one customer status. For example, let’s say we need to introduce a new economy status. We could introduce another boolean argument called isRegular.

After checking if isPremium is True, we check if isRegular True. Otherwise, the implicit customer status is economy.

Now, function calls will look like this.

That’s even more confusing. We could easily mix up the order of the boolean arguments too and accidentally book a customer with the wrong status. Also, we could easily pass in two True arguments. A customer can’t have both premium and regular status. We have to let the first boolean argument isPremium take precedence in the if-else expression to deal with this invalid argument permutation.

## Show Intent

We can clean up the bookFlight function by replacing the boolean arguments with an Elm custom type. Instead of hiding statuses behind boolean values, let’s make them explicit. We can easily encode each type of status like so.

We add a CustomerStatus custom type with three values, or constructors. Each value perfectly encodes each status, Premium, Regular, and Economy.

We can update the bookFlight function like so.

The bookFlight function makes it clear how to handle each customer status without implicit if-else branching. Additionally, the compiler ensures we handle each status. In the previous version of bookFlight with two boolean arguments, nothing would prevent us from accidentally forgetting to handle the else if isRegular branch. The compiler would accept this code.

If we forgot the Regular branch in the version with the CustomerStatus type, the code would not compile.

This code:

Would result in this compiler error:

Custom types provide compiler safety along with explicit code. Now calls to bookFlight declare the intent of code because we pass in the CustomerStatus directly.

If we ran into the above function, we would more easily understand what’s happening. We’re booking a flight for a premium customer. We’ve made the code clearer and more maintainable.

## What You Learned

In this post, you learned how boolean arguments can make code confusing and unmaintainable by hiding the intent of code. You saw how replacing boolean arguments with custom type values created better, safer code. Try this technique out on your own Elm project. Find a function that accepts a boolean argument and see if you can make a custom type that more explicitly encodes the meaning of that boolean argument when it’s True and False.

To learn more about how to build Elm applications effectively, grab a copy of my book Programming Elm from The Pragmatic Programmers.