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The Argument Against gotos
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The general argument against gotos is that code without gotos is higher-quality code. The famous letter that sparked the original controversy was Edsger Dijkstra s Go To Statement Considered Harmful in the March 1968 Communications of the ACM. Dijkstra observed that the quality of code was inversely proportional to the number of gotos the programmer used. In subsequent work, Dijkstra has argued that code that doesn t contain gotos can more easily be proven correct. Code containing gotos is hard to format. Indentation should be used to show logical structure, and gotos have an effect on logical structure. Using indentation to show the logical structure of a goto and its target, however, is difficult or impossible. Use of gotos defeats compiler optimizations. Some optimizations depend on a program s flow of control residing within a few statements. An unconditional goto makes the flow harder to analyze and reduces the ability of the compiler to optimize the code. Thus, even if introducing a goto produces an efficiency at the source-language level, it may well reduce overall efficiency by thwarting compiler optimizations. Proponents of gotos sometimes argue that they make code faster or smaller. But code containing gotos is rarely the fastest or smallest possible. Donald Knuth s marvelous, classic article Structured Programming with go to Statements gives
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17. Unusual Control Structures
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several examples of cases in which using gotos makes for slower and larger code (Knuth 1974). In practice, the use of gotos leads to the violation of the principle that code should flow strictly from top to bottom. Even if gotos aren t confusing when used carefully, once gotos are introduced, they spread through the code like termites through a rotting house. If any gotos are allowed, the bad creep in with the good, so it s better not to allow any of them. Overall, experience in the two decades that followed the publication of Dijkstra s letter showed the folly of producing goto-laden code. In a survey of the literature, Ben Shneiderman concluded that the evidence supports Dijkstra s view that we re better off without the goto (1980), and many modern languages including Java don t even have gotos.
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The Argument for gotos
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The argument for the goto is characterized by an advocacy of its careful use in specific circumstances rather than its indiscriminate use. Most arguments against gotos speak against indiscriminate use. The goto controversy erupted when Fortran was the most popular language. Fortran had no presentable loop structures, and in the absence of good advice on programming loops with gotos, programmers wrote a lot of spaghetti code. Such code was undoubtedly correlated with the production of low-quality programs but has little to do with the careful use of a goto to make up for a gap in a modern language s capabilities. A well-placed goto can eliminate the need for duplicate code. Duplicate code leads to problems if the two sets of code are modified differently. Duplicate code increases the size of source and executable files. The bad effects of the goto are outweighed in such a case by the risks of duplicate code.
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For details on using gotos in code that allocates resources, see Error Processing and gotos in this section. See also the discussion of exception handling in Section 8.4, Exceptions.
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The goto is useful in a routine that allocates resources, performs operations on those resources, and then deallocates the resources. With a goto, you can clean up in one section of code. The goto reduces the likelihood of your forgetting to deallocate the resources in each place you detect an error. In some cases, the goto can result in faster and smaller code. Knuth s 1974 article cited a few cases in which the goto produced a legitimate gain. Good programming doesn t mean eliminating gotos. Methodical decomposition, refinement, and selection of control structures automatically lead to goto-free programs in most cases. Achieving goto-less code is not the aim, but the outcome, and putting the focus on avoiding gotos isn t helpful.
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