Take the following examples:

public static String returnOnce() {
    String resultString = null;
    if (someCondition) {
        resultString = "condition is true";
    } else {
        resultString = "condition is false";
    return resultString;

public static String returnMulti() {
    if (someCondition) {
        return "condition is true";
    return "condition is false";

Is one approach objectively better than the other, or is it just a matter of preference? The first requires a temporary variable, but has just a single place where the method returns. Does the decision change if the method is more complex with multiple factors that could change the result?


1 Answer 1


In the days of old...

In Pascal and Algol one could really only do the first style. This was known as structured programming.

A function in pascal and the style of programing was:

Function abs(arg:real;) : real;
  real retval;
  if retval > 0 then
    reval = arg;
    retval = arg * -1;
  functionName := returnVal;

The function returned one parameter that was assigned to it at the end. This pseudo-variable was influenced likely from Fortran which has a similar notation (but can have multiple returns). Fortran's multiple entry (one could use the ENTRY statement to have a call jump into the middle of a function) and multiple exit points was one of the reasons that Go To Statement Considered Harmful was written and structured programming came as a reaction from).

In Algol (another influential early language), the return value of a procedure was the last expression evaluated by the procedure. If you wanted to return something, you needed to carry it all the way to the end and then evaluate it.

This particular style/constraint of programming was often used in academia and influenced a generation of programmers and was a move to more elegant languages away from the 'goto' style code before with Fortran and assembly.

In the modern world...

The second style, if it acts as a guard statement is almost always preferable.

public static boolean returnMulti(Object arg) {
    if (!validArg) {
        return false;
    more stuff;
    return true;

Note the 'more stuff' that indicates processing which could be reasonably sizable. By kicking out the invalid case early, one should be able to read more stuff more easily.

On the other hand, the only one return means that when you are walking backwards through code, there is only one spot that you need to look at.

  foo = funcB();

Ok, so foo is the return value of funcB()...

  if(bar) return something;
  if(qux) return somethingElse;
  if(bletch) return anotherThing;
  if(blarg) return yetAnotherThing;
  return defaultThingy;

At this point, you have 5 different spots where you can return from. You don't know which one and what conditions caused the return value for funcB, it could have been any of then. This isn't to say the above code is good code, but it isn't uncommon to see.

Using a return variable one would have code that one could find the one return statement in the function and say "it was 5 at this point" and walk backwards through the code to see the flow.

Furthermore, when you have a language with explicit resource management (malloc and free rather than garbage collection), you will find that it is easiest to do a single cleanup of the resources allocated in the function at the end rather than calling them multiple times and missing one.

As to the temproary variable... one will find in many languages that when dissasembling the code for:

func foo()
  retval = something;
  return retval;

func bar()
  return something;

The two compile to exactly the same instructions (with a temporary variable - the compiler has to put the memory somewhere).

See also

  • "... / When geeks were bold / And Patterns not invented / Their code did wait / And keep its state / And give it up at exit" May 18, 2013 at 11:31
  • +1 Very well written answer. It would be interesting to put together a document as the ultimate guide to writing a function. I think something like that would be a long read, but highly very informative. Including the history of functions in other languages.
    – Reactgular
    May 18, 2013 at 17:53

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