Clojure Don’ts: Single-branch if

A short Clojure don’t for today. This one is my style preference.

You have a single expression which should run if a condition is true, otherwise return nil.

Most Clojure programmers would probably write this:

(when (condition? ...)
  (then-expression ...))

But you could also write this:

(if (condition? ...)
  (then-expression ...)

Or even this, because the “else” branch of if defaults to nil:

(if (condition? ...)
  (then-expression ...))

There’s an argument to be made for any one of these.

The second variant, if ... nil, makes it very explicit that you want to return nil. The nil might be semantically meaningful in this context instead of just a “default” value.

Some people like the third variant, if with no “else” branch, because they think when is only for side-effects, leaving the single-branch if for “pure” code.

But for me it comes down, as usual, to readability.

The vast majority of the time, if contains both “then” and “else” expressions.

Sometimes a long “then” branch leaves the “else” branch dangling below it. I’m expecting this, so when I read an if my eyes automatically scan down to find the “else” branch.

If I see an if but don’t find an “else” branch, I get momentarily confused. Maybe a line is missing or the code is mis-indented.

Likewise, if I see an if explicitly returing nil, it looks like a mistake because I know it could be written as when. This is a universal pattern in Clojure: lots of expressions (cond, get, some) return nil as their default case, so it’s jarring to see a literal nil as a return value.

So my preferred style is the first version. In general terms:

An if should always have both “then” and “else” branches.
Use when for a condition which should return nil in the negative case.

3 Replies to “Clojure Don’ts: Single-branch if”

  1. I like “when” in the case you describe because it has no variations. It only works one way – hence your code is simpler.

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