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## Invariants

There are several conditions we expect to be true for a proper Complex object. For example, if the cartesian flag is set then we expect real and imag to contain valid data. Similarly, if polar is set, we expect mag and theta to be valid. Finally, if both flags are set then we expect the other four variables to be consistent; that is, they should be specifying the same point in two different formats.

These kinds of conditions are called invariants, for the obvious reason that they do not vary---they are always supposed to be true. One of the ways to write good quality code that contains few bugs is to figure out what invariants are appropriate for your classes, and write code that makes it impossible to violate them.

One of the primary things that data encapsulation is good for is helping to enforce invariants. The first step is to prevent unrestricted access to the instance variables by making them private. Then the only way to modify the object is through accessor functions and modifiers. If we examine all the accessors and modifiers, and we can show that every one of them maintains the invariants, then we can prove that it is impossible for an invariant to be violated.

Looking at the Complex class, we can list the functions that make assignments to one or more instance variables:

the second constructor
calculateCartesian
calculatePolar
setCartesian
setPolar

In each case, it is straightforward to show that the function maintains each of the invariants I listed. We have to be a little careful, though. Notice that I said "maintain" the invariant. What that means is "If the invariant is true when the function is called, it will still be true when the function is complete."

That definition allows two loopholes. First, there may be some point in the middle of the function when the invariant is not true. That's ok, and in some cases unavoidable. As long as the invariant is restored by the end of the function, all is well.

The other loophole is that we only have to maintain the invariant if it was true at the beginning of the function. Otherwise, all bets are off. If the invariant was violated somewhere else in the program, usually the best we can do is detect the error, output an error message, and exit.

Last Update: 2005-11-21