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Returning more than one variable type from function call

If a function that is supposed to return a given type (e.g. list, tuple, dict) suddenly returns something else (e.g. None) the caller of that function will always need to check the type of the return value before proceeding. This makes for confusing and complex code. If the function is unable to produce the supposed return value it is better to raise an exception that can be caught by the caller instead.

Anti-pattern

In the code below, the function get_secret_code() returns a secret code when the code calling the function provides the correct password. If the password is incorrect, the function returns None. This leads to hard-to-maintain code, because the caller will have to check the type of the return value before proceeding.

def get_secret_code(password):
    if password != "bicycle":
        return None
    else:
        return "42"

secret_code = get_secret_code("unicycle")

if secret_code is None:
    print("Wrong password.")
else:
    print("The secret code is {}".format(secret_code))

Best practice

Raise an exception when an error is encountered or a precondition is unsatisfied

When invalid data is provided to a function, a precondition to a function is not satisfied, or an error occurs during the execution of a function, the function should not return any data. Instead, the function should raise an exception. In the modified version of get_secret_code() shown below, ValueError is raised when an incorrect value is given for the password argument.

def get_secret_code(password):
    if password != "bicycle":
        raise ValueError
    else:
        return "42"

try:
    secret_code = get_secret_code("unicycle")
    print("The secret code is {}".format(secret_code))
except ValueError:
    print("Wrong password.")

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