In praise of the switch statement

A tool that I find myself reaching for quite a bit is the switch statement. It's a great way to tackle complex logic in a straightforward way. In complicated situations, it helps me really focus in on what is actually changing.

I hardly see anyone else ever mention it, or give examples of it in blog posts. So here we go.

When to use a switch statement?

I think of it as useful anytime I would have an if statement followed by more than one alternative.

// this is fine to leave as an if statement
if (foo) {
} else {
}

// this should probably be a switch statement
if (foo) {
} else if (bar) {
} else {
}

switch syntax

It roughly goes like this:

switch (conditionState) {
  case conditionOne:
  // do stuff
  case conditionTwo:
  // do stuff
  default:
  // if all else fails, do stuff
}

Most often the conditionState is a boolean - true being easier to think about. So then each case needs to evaluate to true in order to be triggered.

switch (true) {
  case 1 + 1 === 2:
  // this will happen
  case 1 + 1 === 3:
  // this won't happen
}

default case

It's a good idea to define default behavior in the event none of your cases match. This happens when we 'fall through' the switch statement - default will end up firing.

switch (true) {
  case 1 + 1 === 3:
  // this won't happen
  case 1 + 1 === 4:
  // this won't happen
  default:
  // this will happen
}

Controlling flow

An important thing to understand is how to control the flow of the switch statement through the cases. By default - all cases will be evaluated in the entire statement.

switch (true) {
  case 1 + 1 === 2:
  // this will happen
  case 2 + 2 === 4:
  // this will *also* happen
  default:
  // this will happen *too*
}

If you don't want this to happen, you can insert a break in cases that you want the statement to stop being evaluated.

switch (true) {
  case 1 + 1 === 2:
    // this will happen, but then we break the statement
    break
  case 2 + 2 === 4:
  // this won't happen
  default:
  // this won't happen
}

If you are in a function and you are returning values, that will also break the statement.

switch (true) {
  case 1 + 1 === 2:
    // this will happen, but then we break the statement
    return someValue
    break // <- not really needed since we're returning, but eslint may complain
  case 2 + 2 === 4:
  // this won't happen
  default:
  // this won't happen
  // a 'break' is not needed here
}

What goes in a switch statement?

In my opinion, what should change in each case should be the absolute minimum possible. This will result in the clearest possible code. Things like variable assignment are great. I avoid complex operations, and side effects, if at all possible. So, not this:

// not this
switch (true) {
  case someCondition:
    const foo = bar + 1
    someInvokedFunction(foo)
    break
  case someOtherCondition:
    const foo = bar + 2
    someInvokedFunction(foo)
    break
  default:
    const foo = bar + 3
    someInvokedFunction(foo)
}

But this:

// do this instead
let foo
switch (true) {
  case someCondition:
    foo = bar + 1
    break
  case someOtherCondition:
    foo = bar + 2
    break
  default:
    foo = bar + 3
}
someInvokedFunction(foo)

Multiple cases with the same result

One way to neaten up logic is to put cases with the same outcome together. So, not this:

// not this
let foo
switch (true) {
  case someCondition:
    foo = bar + 1
    break
  case someOtherCondition:
    foo = bar + 1
    break
  default:
    foo = bar + 2
}
someInvokedFunction(foo)

But rather:

// do this
let foo
switch (true) {
  case someCondition:
  case someOtherCondition:
    foo = bar + 1
    break
  default:
    foo = bar + 2
}
someInvokedFunction(foo)

Benefits of the swtich statement

What does this all get you?

I hope this tutorial gives you another tool in your toolbox to help you deal with complicated logic. Give the switch statement a try!