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Posted 14 Jun 2022

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Code Style & Readability - Grouping Things Together

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14 Jun 2022CPOL14 min read
How we group class members together makes a huge difference in the readability of our code.
This is another article about code readability. This time focusing more on how we should group members together, and also showing some cases of just bad rules that some places and people seem to enforce for no actual benefit.

Background

In the article Code Style & Readability I talked about code style focusing mostly on how to indent things.

This time, I will talk about a different area of code style, focusing mostly on how to group members together, but also discussing some other items, like naming rules.

Example

Let's start with the following code. Let's not talk about how useful this class is, if MinValue and MaxValue should be set in the constructor and be readonly or the like. Let's just focus on the grouping of things:

C#
public sealed class MinMaxContainer
{
  public MinMaxContainer()
  {
    _value = 50;
    _maxValue = 100;
  }

  private int _minValue;
  public int MinValue
  {
    get => _minValue;
    set
    {
      if (value > _value)
        throw new ArgumentException("MinValue cannot be greater than Value.");

      _minValue = value;
    }
  }

  private int _maxValue;
  public int MaxValue
  {
    get => _maxValue;
    set
    {
      if (value < _value)
        throw new ArgumentException("MaxValue cannot be less than Value.");

      _maxValue = value;
    }
  }

  private int _value;
  public int Value
  {
    get => _value;
    set
    {
      if (value < _minValue || value > _maxValue)
        throw new ArgumentException("Value must be between MinValue and MaxValue, inclusive.");

      _value = value;
    }
  }
}

As you can see, there are just 3 properties, named MinValue, MaxValue and Value. The three properties use backing fields, named respectively _minValue, _maxValue and _value, and those fields are declared just before the properties that manipulate them.

I consider this to be the most logical grouping for this class. Yet, if I use some style validation tools, I might be forced to change this class to look like this:

C#
public sealed class MinMaxContainer
{
  private int _minValue;
  private int _maxValue;
  private int _value;

  public MinMaxContainer()
  {
    _value = 50;
    _maxValue = 100;
  }

  public int MinValue
  {
    get => _minValue;
    set
    {
      if (value > _value)
        throw new ArgumentException("MinValue cannot be greater than Value.");

      _minValue = value;
    }
  }

  public int MaxValue
  {
    get => _maxValue;
    set
    {
      if (value < _value)
        throw new ArgumentException("MaxValue cannot be less than Value.");

      _maxValue = value;
    }
  }

  public int Value
  {
    get => _value;
    set
    {
      if (value < _minValue || value > _maxValue)
        throw new ArgumentException("Value must be between MinValue and MaxValue, inclusive.");

      _value = value;
    }
  }
}

It is not that bad. I just had to put all the fields together at the top of the class declaration. The argument is that all fields should be grouped together, and they come first. Then the constructor (and destructor), then properties and, if we had, methods. I will leave events out of the discussion at this moment.

This kind of grouping also works perfectly for this simple class. People who use this grouping usually say that it is better to have all the fields on top, so we can easily know all the information the class holds without having to scan all the class. It is a solid argument at this moment.

Some different properties

So, what about adding another property. Let's say, for this class, I also want to have a Caption. The idea is that on the screen we will have a slider that will move between MinValue and MaxValue, and that slider will be presented with a text telling what it is for. Again, let's not focus how useful this class is... the new property, if added to the first block of code, could be:

C#
public string Caption { get; set; }

Considering the first block of code had fields and properties grouped together, using an auto-property makes perfect sense when we don't need to do any processing on the get and set. Yet, to improve readability even more, I assume auto-properties must come before other properties... in particular, if there are many auto-properties, that makes reading the class easier, in my opinion.

What about the alternative?

About the second piece of code, I wonder if:

  • I can use an auto-property
  • The auto-property should be grouped with the fields or properties

To explain, the idea is to have fields first, then the constructor/destructor, then properties. If I use an auto-property, that means I am declaring a property that can be used without validations, like a field, as well as creating an "invisible backing field".

So, if I keep this property grouped with the other properties, the argument that we can easily know all the information the class holds by just reading the top of the class is thrown out of the window.

Then, my thinking is that for those auto-properties it is best to put them together with the fields, as they behave mostly as fields and also represent the data the type actually holds.

But, then, a style validation tool will probably complain that a property cannot come before the constructor.

So, one option is to move the property to be grouped together with the other properties. If I keep it as an auto-property, it works. The tool doesn't complain, but we lost the ability to know all the data the the class holds by just looking at the the fields. So, should we try to fix that by:

  1. Adding an actual field to the class, grouped with the other fields:
    C#
    private string _caption;
  2. Making the property use the field instead of being an auto-property:
    C#
    public string Caption
    {
      get => _caption;
      set => _caption = value;
    }

That is more code to do the same. Yet, that's not the real problem, as I was never discussing amount of code written. The new problem is that now we will probably get a "suggestion" that the code could be refactored to use an auto-property. But the name suggestion is not right, as the code will not pass any validation to be able to be submitted/committed for production.

So, the answer is to go back to using an auto-property, together with the other properties. And the argument about having all the information together at the top of the class is just a broken argument (which people will probably keep using). Auto-properties will void that argument when used, but need to be used if the wrong style is enforced.

So, similar to what I presented in the previous article, my point is not about using auto-properties or not. Grouping fields with the properties that manipulate them or grouping all fields together are two valid styles. The most important thing is to be consistent with the argument on why to use them.

When fields are grouped together with the properties that manipulate them, we lose the ability to just scan the top of the class and see all the information it contains. On the other hand, if we decide to kill the property or copy it to a different file, we have a single place to look at, as both the field and the property are written near each other. So, if no special processing is needed for a property, we can go for an auto-property. It will just make perfect sense to do that.

When all fields are grouped together, before other members, it is not just about "fields need to be grouped with fields". It is about the idea that we have everything the objects of the class hold in a single place (so we can even tell how much memory those objects will consume). In fact, fields can all be grouped together at the top (most common for C#) or at the bottom (most common for C++). Yet, the important trait is: We know everything the objects will hold is going to be declared together. But then, we cannot use auto-properties grouped as properties, or we lose that trait. So, if this is the logic used, we should decide if we are going to group those auto-properties with the fields, or if we always need to declare a field for a property, and then implement the get and set of that property to use that field, even if no additional processing is needed.

But, guess what, the rule most places use (and enforce) is to:

  1. Group all fields together so we know all information the class contains by just looking at the fields
  2. Use auto-properties when possible
  3. Properties (be full properties or auto-properties) cannot be near the fields. They need to be grouped as properties.

And I really think the third item is just a huge mistake and defeats the purpose of the first item.

So, before just enforcing rules, I think we need to see how well they deal with corner cases. If they don't work for those corner cases, they should be just suggestions. Real ones, not suggestions that will forbid the code from being checked-in.

Is There More?

Of course there is. I purposely took events out on the previous discussion, but we should talk about them too.

We also have static members. What is the right rule on how to group static members?

What about the use of _ (the underscore) before field names? In fact, is it just for fields?

So, let's explore these topics:

Events

Since I programmed in Delphi, my understanding was that events were always declared last.

C# originally followed that logic. Although events can have the add and remove methods implemented, most of them are single-liners using the default compiler implementation. It was like that since C# appeared.

Properties, on the other hand, needed to have their get and set implemented in the first versions of C#. Now, properties and events look really alike. We can have auto-implemented properties as well as auto-implemented events, or we can implement the get and set of properties, and the add and remove of events, which will probably mean we will also have a backing field for each one of those pairs.

So, if properties and events are so similar it makes sense to group them together, right?

Well... that's an argument I keep hearing more and more lately. But let's look back at Delphi. There, the events are properties of a special type. Yet they are grouped differently.

To me, the grouping of properties and events was never about how similar or different their declarations are, but the purpose they fulfill.

Properties are the things we manipulate and are interested in reading. Events, on the other hand, cannot be read outside of the class declaring them (at least in C#), they are there to notify us about something that happened or is about to happen. I still think that, in most cases, properties should be grouped with other properties and events should be grouped with other events and that they should not be mixed together.

Yet, I will make exceptions when things deserve exceptions. For example, if I decide to add a ValueChanged event in that class I used as example, and I am talking about an event to notify about the change of the Value property alone, not to notify about all property changes, I will feel that grouping ValueChanged with its property Value will make perfect sense, at least when using the first kind of grouping, where I can group fields and properties together if they are related. In this case, grouping _value, Value and ValueChanged together will make sense.

Anyway, just to let it clear, I will keep an event like PropertyChanged grouped with other events at the end of the class definition, as such an event is not related to a single property.

Static Members

About the example code, did you notice that I initialized the Value property with 50 and the MaxValue with 100 (by setting the field values directly)? What if I decided to actually make those defaults configurable?

I could add static members to the class, like DefaultMinValue, DefaultValue, DefaultMaxValue and DefaultCaption. Of course this would also come with the backing fields where needed. The real point is, where should I put those Default members?

I know about two main lines of thought here:

  1. All static members first, then all instance members
  2. It's always fields, then constructor/destructor, then properties (maybe with events), then methods and, if events aren't together with properties, then events. The static members come first inside each of their respective groups.

And I honestly think that constraining code in such a way all the time is just wrong and counter-productive. In many situations, I might create a static method to help with the validation of an instance property setter, for example. If such method is related to a single property, I will put such a method together with the property, ignoring both styles.

For other cases, I usually prefer all static members first, then all instance members. But, independently of my general preference, talking about the sample class, I am very inclined to say that grouping things like:

  • DefaultMinValue with MinValue
  • DefaultValue with Value
  • and DefaultMaxValue with MaxValue

... makes the most sense. If I decide to put DefaultValue and Value before or after all other properties, it's not as important.

In this case, what matters is that everything related to Value (that is, its backing field, its event, and its default value) is grouped together. The same applies for all other properties.

Most validation tools, though, will just assume that such a style is broken and will try to enforce a style where you cannot have all the related things together, because they want "kind of things" to be grouped together, rather than the purpose of those things. That is, they would either group static with static, or properties with properties, and would not allow static fields, static properties, fields and properties about the same thing together, before another group following the same pattern.

The Use of Underscore

It was 2008 when I had this discussion with some colleagues at work. As I used Delphi for a long time, I usually put "f" in front of all fields.

At that time the fields for the sample class would be named fMinValue, fMaxValue and fValue. Actually, in Delphi it would be an upper-case F but, as in C# fields started in lower case, I ended-up using "f".

Some colleagues would either not use any prefix or would use p_ from private. So, the code was somewhat a mess as we had fields prefixed with p_, fields prefixed f and fields with no prefix at all.

After discussing about having a single standard, some developers felt strongly that we shouldn't use f, while others, including me, felt that p_ was not a good idea. In the end, we all agreed to use just _ for fields and private members.

In fact, it turned out that we should just use _ for private and internal members (but not internal protected, as those are visible by external assemblies) and, as fields are supposed to be always private, that worked great.

One of the things that was really nice about having such a _ prefix is that we would never access a field thinking it was a local variable. As you probably know, two consecutive access to a field might suffer from threading issues if the value is modified by another thread. A local variable doesn't have that issue.

Notice that here I am talking about accidental uses of a field thinking it was a local. People who don't use any kind of prefixes for fields say that we should always use this. when accessing fields. Yet, my point here is that when people don't use this. they are probably assuming they are accessing a local variable, and maybe they will accidently access a field (especially on large methods).

That doesn't happen when fields always have _ as their prefix. And we only write one extra character (the underscore) instead of having to write the five characters from this. to access the field, also reducing the chances of needing multi-line statements when fixed line-lengths are enforced.

It's interesting that I found many different projects over the world also used the underscore, be it for private members or just for fields.

Also, years later I found that Python developers also use _ to say that a member is private and not supposed to be used out of their class.

But, some more years later, I see that many people writing code in C# are getting rid of any prefix for fields and writing more verbose code that is also more prone to accidental usages.

In any case, not using any prefix for fields is OK when we enforce the use of this. to access them. Notice that this rule is somewhat the opposite of what I was saying for the previous items. For groupings, I think that strongly enforcing a pattern is bad. For this case, I consider that not enforcing the use of this. to access a field, when fields don't have a prefix, is just bad.

For example, from the sample class I provided, if we rename the field _value to value we need to be sure we are correctly differentiating the field from the local, as the property Value will need to assign value (the local) to value (the field).

Conclusion

My conclusion is that whatever style a company choses to use, it should be really helping the readability of the code instead of being just "rules to be followed".

Strangely, some people seem to think that the more rules are enforced the better the code would be, when many of those rules are actually hindering the development of the project, as well as making it less readable, which is exactly the opposite of what the rules were supposed to be doing.

So, if you are able to enforce or avoid those rules, think about the corner cases and how much the overall product might suffer if those cases are badly handled.

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


Written By
Software Developer (Senior) Microsoft
United States United States
I started to program computers when I was 11 years old, as a hobbyist, programming in AMOS Basic and Blitz Basic for Amiga.
At 12 I had my first try with assembler, but it was too difficult at the time. Then, in the same year, I learned C and, after learning C, I was finally able to learn assembler (for Motorola 680x0).
Not sure, but probably between 12 and 13, I started to learn C++. I always programmed "in an object oriented way", but using function pointers instead of virtual methods.

At 15 I started to learn Pascal at school and to use Delphi. At 16 I started my first internship (using Delphi). At 18 I started to work professionally using C++ and since then I've developed my programming skills as a professional developer in C++ and C#, generally creating libraries that help other developers do their work easier, faster and with less errors.

Want more info or simply want to contact me?
Take a look at: http://paulozemek.azurewebsites.net/
Or e-mail me at: paulozemek@outlook.com

Codeproject MVP 2012, 2015 & 2016
Microsoft MVP 2013-2014 (in October 2014 I started working at Microsoft, so I can't be a Microsoft MVP anymore).

Comments and Discussions

 
SuggestionAnother dilemma of static members Pin
wmjordan30-Jun-22 2:45
professionalwmjordan30-Jun-22 2:45 
GeneralRe: Another dilemma of static members Pin
Paulo Zemek30-Jun-22 8:29
Paulo Zemek30-Jun-22 8:29 
GeneralAn interesting topic Pin
wmjordan20-Jun-22 15:09
professionalwmjordan20-Jun-22 15:09 
GeneralRe: An interesting topic Pin
Paulo Zemek20-Jun-22 15:33
Paulo Zemek20-Jun-22 15:33 
I don't know how you show it, but maybe put a word saying "backing field of..." or if you actually know the name of the backing field, show it. Even if the field was never written in the code, it exists.

Edit: Is this extension available for users or is it just for you/your company? Can I use it?

GeneralRe: An interesting topic Pin
wmjordan25-Jun-22 16:16
professionalwmjordan25-Jun-22 16:16 
GeneralRe: An interesting topic Pin
wmjordan30-Jun-22 2:25
professionalwmjordan30-Jun-22 2:25 
QuestionOrganizing within groups? Pin
Sander Rossel14-Jun-22 23:53
professionalSander Rossel14-Jun-22 23:53 
AnswerRe: Organizing within groups? Pin
Paulo Zemek15-Jun-22 7:12
Paulo Zemek15-Jun-22 7:12 
GeneralRe: Organizing within groups? Pin
Ralf Peter Lucke16-Jun-22 2:12
Ralf Peter Lucke16-Jun-22 2:12 

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