When I have a function that might, or might not receive a certain parameter, is it better to overload the function, or to add optional args?

If each one has it's ups and downs - when would I use each?


2 Answers 2


If the language supports them properly (e.g. type-safety, if applicable), I would prefer optional arguments for the following reasons:

  • They convey your intent better so noone suspects that your function overload will do something different (which it probably shouldn't anyway).
  • Less code to maintain, even if the function overload only delegates to the more comprehensive one. If you want to rename the function later, you have at least 3 places to do it (two definitions + one call).
  • The compiler (if any) might generate smaller binaries.
  • Optional arguments scale better, at least in some languages. What if you want to have 3 optional arguments with the ability to mix and match? For full flexibility, you'd need 6 overloads to do that.
  • If it's an object method, multiple overloads will greatly hinder the implementation of overrides in subclasses.
  • Wouldn't you need 8? Three optional arguments a, b and c has these possibilities: nothing, a, b, c, ab, ac, bc, abc. It's 2^n for different types, not n!
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 14:57

Assuming a constructor kind of situation: I often choose a fluent builder pattern to prevent situations with many options.

Eg.Ordering.natural().onResultOf(function).reverse().compound(Ordering.natural().onResultOf(function2)) is an example of calling a fluent builder interface implemented in Guava.

Of course you now need a separate object to hold the state of your builder, but you reduce overall complexity by separating behavior of constructing from behavior of the constructed.

  • 1
    This doesn't answer the question.
    – Andy
    Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 20:02

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