Argument validation using functions

March 17, 2013

There's a pattern (or perhaps an anti-pattern) that I keep inventing in my programs. I start out with a bunch of commands (or macros or template text renderers or the like) that can take arguments (registered somehow), and I have all of the functions do their own argument count validation. But this is repetitive, so I start having the central dispatching code do some checks on the argument count. But there are always special cases (one command might take exactly N arguments, another takes M to N, another takes at least N but maybe more, and so on), so pretty soon I start trying to encode all of this in increasing baroque special meanings for various sorts of argument counts ('if it's negative, it means...').

In thinking about this recently (as part of some DWiki changes I'm thinking about) I've realized another approach, hopefully a better one. Instead of trying yet another crazy encoding scheme, I can use functions to validate the argument count. Instead of registering the argument count, register a function that validates the argument count. These functions (or callable objects) will of course be created by argument count validation factories, so I will write code like:

register("fred", fredfunc, noMoreThan(3))
register("brad", bradfunc, betweenCnt(2, 4))
register("barney", barnfunc, anyOf(0, 1, 3, 5))

The great attraction of this approach to me is that it completely decentralizes the encoding scheme for argument validation (and thus the complexity of argument validation entirely). The central dispatch function simply calls the validation function and doesn't care any further; all of the huge variety of possible arguments necessary is delegated to the code that creates any particular validation function. I can have any sort of validation ranging from very generic to completely custom, whatever makes the most sense, and none of the complexity of that shows up outside of code that actually uses it.

This is also completely expandable. New forms of argument validation just need new functions, they don't need any changes in the central dispatch system to understand and handle yet another special case. This is an attractive property for me since I never know just what sort of arguments I'm going to need until I actually write a particular command (or whatever) handler.

Obviously, this can be extended to also validate various properties of the arguments (for example, you might know that the first argument of a particular command has to be a file). When you reach this sort of extended argument validation I start to think that you want something like an ArgValidator class which you instantiate and then start adding restrictions to (otherwise you have a rapidly exploding number of combinations of various options; basically you want some way of easily composing separate restrictions together instead of having to hard code them).

Written on 17 March 2013.
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Last modified: Sun Mar 17 01:05:48 2013
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