Where should I declare my constant?

Quick question: where should I declare my constant? Most developers would say: “top of the file”. And that would be the wrong answer. As for the majority of the questions in software engineering, the right answer is “it depends”. I would try to prove to you, in this post, that, if the const is private and is used only in one place, it’s far better to declare it right above the line, where it ’s used.

Public constants

Declare public constants at the top of the package or module or whatever is your languages defines along with documentation. That’s where most people would hope to find them. That’s where other developers would hope to find them. In most languages, there is an agreement (written or spoken) on how a code within a file should be structured. Most commonly, first, there are constants, then variables, then public structures (or class definition), then public functions and private functions in the end.

Note sometimes people put constants, representing a common group, in a separate file (e.g. “errors.go” file in Golang).

Private constants

If the private constant is used in many files (not just one), then again declare it at the top of the file. Which one? How do I know?) It’s your code. The reasoning is the same as for public constants above.

If the private constant is used within one file, declare it close to where it’s used. Of course, there are all different caveats. For example, in Ruby, there is a private modifier, and you are supposed to put private constants and methods under it.

private
  MY_SECRET_CONST = “secret”
  def method_a
end
  def method_b
end

You can also mark them as private though: private :method_a, :method_b .

Be sure to watch an episode of “On Writing Software” by David Heinemeier Hansson, where he shares his thoughts on the subject.

If you have a specification (the definition of how the thing works), any constant (public or private) that is part of it, should also be at the top of the file.

The advantage of having a private constant close to its usage is no context loss and no need for scrolling to the top of the file. The context loss is probably the main one. When you scrolled to the top and went back, you may not remember all the details that were in your head the moment you were reading the function/method body in the beginning.

The argument that developers will search for a constant at the top of the file is invalid if the constant is declared within this method. In 99% of cases, they will notice it with a lateral vision.

func A() {
const MY_SECRET_CONST = “secret”
methodA(MY_SECRET_CONST)
}

The flowchart above is simplified, of course. But at the very least, it provides some guidance.

Hope this clarifies things! Be sure to comment on this article if you disagree on something.

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